Am I Focused on the Smudges or the Sunshine?

Last week tucked in between rain and unseasonably cold temperatures we had two very pleasant days of warmth and sunshine in my little nook of the world.

So often on these warm sunny days, I find myself watching my four children playing in the yard from the bay window in our kitchen. As I watch my children playing outside, sun streaking through the windows, feeling it’s warmth and enjoying the extra brightness that sunshine brings inside our home, I feel shalom for a moment. Wholeness, peace and beauty.

On this particular day, I found myself feeling shalom and enjoying beauty one minute and finding faults the next. I took my eyes off the beauty of that sunshine streaming though the bay windows in my kitchen for a moment and I began to see first handprints all over everything; windows, television, fireplace, then computer screen. And next the tiny specks of dust resting on the surfaces of my cherry furniture. My gaze turned from beauty and instantly I saw imperfections and smudges all over the place. Sunshine has quite a way or exposing beauty and smudges.

It is a tough battle for me not to grab my version of a glock 19, the windex bottle, and distract myself from that moment of rest, shalom and beauty by getting caught up in the busyness of shooting down smudges. Doing is the nature of my flesh. Rest has always been counter to who I am. It is the work of the Spirit maturing inside of me to hold still and fight to take my gaze back to the beauty and shalom of that sunshine.

I cannot see beauty when I am bustling about focused on destroying dust and shooting down smudges.

I can only see beauty when I still myself. (Psalm 46:10)

When I lay my arms (that trusty bottle of windex) down and see shalom despite the smudges.

And as I have thought about his moment over the past week I have been convicted that my entire life is lived this way. I am so quick to take my eyes off of bright, warm, all encompassing beauty and focus and fret over tiny imperfections. Once I find one tiny imperfection, I tend to see them all.

I live this way with my kids. My children could have one hundred good days at school and a handful of bad, but that handful of bad tills up every single imperfection I see in them in my heart. When I take my eye off of beauty with my kids, I easily forget whose they are. I see them for how they live, what they do right and where they fall short instead of seeing them as covenant children of the Risen King.

I live this way with my husband. I could come home from being away at a women’s retreat or spending the day subbing at school. Every time I am away he has folded the laundry, taken all four kids swimming or to the amusement park or something else extraordinary, but I find myself taking my gaze off that beauty and finding faults in tiny details of crumbs on the counters and toys strewn across the floor. I fail to see all of the beautiful ways he loved our children while I was away when I focus on the condition of my home.

I live this way with myself. When I turn my gaze from beauty, when I forget to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is so easy for me to see my imperfections and let those imperfections take hold of my gaze. I so easily focus on the smudges in my own life and fail to see the sunshine. I fail when I focus on seeking the approval of others, what I did right or what I did wrong, drinking from the unsatisfying cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13) of performing the role of parenting well or my reputation in the community and the church.

And as I reflect on standing there in front of that bay window in my kitchen I believe I am feeling God’s nudge to fight to focus on the sunshine.  To lay down my arms of wanting to constantly work on buffing away smudges instead of basking in the beauty of my Savior. When I keep my gaze on Him, the smudges are still there but pale in comparison His beauty.

In my nook of the world I want to automatically focus on the sunshine and forget the smudges. When I start to feel my fretting heart beating a little bit more quickly when it comes to housework, parenting, marriage, ministry, I want to be quick to ask myself: Am I focusing on the smudges or the sunshine?

In my nook of the world I am fighting to remind myself to keep my gaze on Jesus. To focus on sunshine and feel shalom, wholeness, beauty and peace. To dwell in the shelter of the Most High God, feel His all encompassing beauty and rest in His presence. (Psalm 91). To be still, lay down the doing parts of my nature and walk in the path God has called me to. A path of freedom and rest. A path with eyes fixed on Him.

when there isn’t much to say

Last night we sat in a booth adjacent to the high-topped bar table in the restaurant where we sat eleven years ago on the night when we were engaged.

Then we were both getting to know each other and there were words, abundant words. Words about my job working with at-risk children in the public schools, words about your job in graphic design, words about our future, our dreams, our future children, our current ministries, our future ministry. Abundant words.

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But last night, eleven years and what feels like a lifetime from a season of dreams, getting to know yous and abundant words– I feared I wouldn’t have much to say to you sitting in the vinyl booth across the table from you on our date.

As I scrambled around the house picking up stray socks and then as I bathed our four children, scrubbed their heads and toweled them off I tried to think of interesting things to tell you.

We had just been out a few nights before so my well of what-to-says seemed dry.

All I could think of was how today as I reached behind the toilet to shut off the water in hopes of keeping the guest bathroom toilet from overflowing, my hair dipped into the toilet water but other than that it was another day of making breakfast, bus stops, volunteering at school then making and cleaning up another meal. All I could think of was the mundane. The wiping of crumbs and the tips of my freshly highlighted hair in toilet water.

And in my fear I worried that you would think I was much less interesting as I had little to say to you from across that booth in that same restaurant where we sat on the night we were engaged over a decade ago.

I thought about how I have little to report, how my mid-section is so much softer (and my rear end section too).

My past reminds me of the times when I have no longer been interesting, I became disposable to people. Replaceable. Leaveable. Forgettable. My demons don’t ever forget this and remind me of the times when there isn’t much to say it’s easier for people to toss me away. In fear, my demons are loud. The foundation of fear is fragile. It’s built on past hurts and tender places. And as I walked around my house in fear yesterday the demons grew and they grew and they grew.

My fear is a breeding ground for my demons to remind me I am not enough.

I fear these dates when there isn’t much to say. When I don’t have inspiring words. When I didn’t do anything to change the world. When the season is mundane. When I’m just a girl in front of you with a softer mid-section and my well of abundant words is dry.

We know marriage is work. We have been through that season.

We know our marriage has been in the convection oven of seminary, ministry, four kids in four years and a senior pastorate. We know it is important to date one another. To not talk about kids or work. To laugh, be light, put down our phones and be present. We have been through that season too–of fighting and wading through time to see one another.

But last night as we sat there in that booth I felt a new unchartered season. A season where I feel uninteresting and mundane. A season where there is not much to say. A season where I am just doing the same thing every day, over and over again. A season of mundane.

But today, as I prepared for a lesson on marriage with my small group– how God designs two people in marriage to be committed to one another, even in the mundane, when there isn’t much to say.

God says, we are loved not because of what we do but because of who we are. And marriage is the same. In marriage you vowed to love me in the mundane because you don’t just see me, a girl in a hard, uninteresting season. You see me, a girl who God is not finished with yet. You see me not because of the things I have to say or what tasks I have conquered that day. You see me and you love me because you committed to do that. In the mundane, until death do us part.

You see me as enough because Christ is more than enough. For you, for me, for us.

I remembered how you sat there with me in the mundane last night. Across from me. The same way you did eleven years ago.

Eleven years ago I would have never told you my fears. But last night I told you I was afraid I didn’t have much to say tonight when you asked me about my day. And you still sat with me. You still loved me in the fears and the mundane and you filled the spaces with conversation when you could and when I couldn’t really do my share I filled my softening mid-section with pasta.

And it was lovely. It was lovely to sit there and not have much to say. To speak fears, to be somewhat silent and lacking words and softening in the mid-section by more mouthfuls of pasta and still be loved.

To be fully known, even on the boring days when there isn’t much to stay and have someone to love you for just being ordinary. This is marriage. This is life. This is choosing to love when it’s nothing but toilet water hair.

When I gazed past you towards the other side of the restaurant I could see that high-topped table. I can remember eleven years ago and picture us there. I can remember having too much wine that night and talking a mile a minute, arms likely flailing, a heart bubbling over with excitement. You laughing at my every word.

And I am thankful for the seasons of dating. The seasons of plenty and want. I am thankful for us then, and thankful for the mundane now. I am thankful you will still chose I do when there isn’t much to say.

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passionate. not terrible. passionate.

She sits there in her room, tiny plastic pieces of treasures, books, pink feather pens surround her, a crooked tiara on her head and streaks of orange marker are drawn on her leg from her kneecap to her hot pink painted toenails.

She is forty pounds and forty some inches tall. She is three and she is the fiercest tiny human I have ever known.

I can’t remember whether we were discussing which pajamas she should wear for the night or who should put them on her. But I remember her being assertive with me. She was fierce when she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, No mommy. I will do it myself. Humpf.

After having three boys in three years when I discovered I was pregnant for the fourth time I was certain it would be another boy. Boys were what I knew. Surely God was not going to challenge me with the newness of raising a daughter. 

Oh but God has a funny way about things and He did in fact turn my world upside-down and gave us that daughter. We have loved more than we thought we could love and I personally have been challenged more than I thought I would be raising something supposedly filled with sugar and spice and everything nice.

We are so grateful. I am so grateful for her. Our little girl, the last of four children in four years and the only girl, she is precious to all of us.

But she is so fierce. Frustratingly fierce. Passionate. Wanting to go about things her own way. Princess dresses, painted-toes, Batman masks and Boba Fett blasters.

She regularly will grab her brothers and scratch them so close to their eyeballs, leaving Harry Potter-like scratch marks on their foreheads.

She pushes smaller children at play dates. Moments worthy of making me want to crawl into the playhouse and hide or maybe cry.

She was the first of my four children to try out a passion-filled shut up to my face while I was correcting her.

And a few weeks ago while we were visiting my grandmother and grandfather in New York my grandmother had asked one of her kind friends if she would watch our four kids for us while my husband and I attended a grown-ups only event. When we returned there was my girl asleep on the floor. She had protested with my grandmother’s friend all night long. My grandmother’s friend reported to me that the boys were great and she couldn’t understand much of what my girl said all night except when she looked her in her eyes and clear as day said to her, “YOU are NOT welcome here.” 

She just straight-up tells selfless, helpful friends of her great-grandmother they are not welcome. sigh.

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My sweet forty pound daughter. The girl with the big bows in her whispy brown hair and bangles all the way up her arm can be quite challenging. And yesterday as she was being assertive with me I felt the words creeping into my head. Terrible Twos. Even though she is not two anymore. Those words terrible and twos were lurking in the back of my head.

I had to remind myself.

Challenging, yes. 

Terrible, no. 

Fierce, tenacious, passionate. Yes.

Terrible, no.

Assertive, opinionated, strong-willed. Yes.

Terrible. No.

In the moments when the anger starts to bubble beneath the surface and my vat of patience is running low I find myself grabbing on the posh words of parenting which often flash in my face on the Facebook Newsfeed. Terrible Twos, threenager. This is how the world sees her.

And honestly. I have written about this before and finding myself needing to write about this again. These posh sayings are not helpful to me as a parent at all. Parenting is difficult enough. And when you are drowning the last thing you need is the world chanting bitter snarky sayings to you from the top deck. Oh you’re drowning, yeah that’s terrible. It will be a year of terrible, terrible drowning. And then the next year of it will be even worse, but good luck with that.

What I need when I feel the hard prongs of raising up children is someone to throw me a life preserver and hop in the water with me.

And when I breathe deeply, I remember God is with me in the difficult waters. Not shouting unhelpful sayings from the boat but right in the difficult waters.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.

Isaiah 43:2

I can chose to breathe deeply, step out of my frustration, my impatience and on Sundays the crazy eyes produced by my aching pride when she is tenacious in front of a crowd in the front row at church.

I can pray for more peace. More patience. More self-control.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled.

John 14:27

I can breathe deeply and see the child standing in front of me, in the middle of the tiny plastic pieces treasures, books, and feather pens; with the crooked tiara and the orange marker drawn on her leg.

I can breathe and I can see her as God sees her. Precious. Uniquely knit together. Wonderfully made. A passionate girl in a crooked tiara trying to sort out this thing called life the same way I am.

And then I can be moved to compassion for her. I can remember that sometimes feeling great passion for things produces great emotion. And while I am a grown up and do not experience great passion about pajamas, my sweet girl has only been picking out and putting on her own clothes for a few months now and she does indeed experience great passion about pajamas.

And in my compassion I can correct her outside of my anger and impatience. I can help teach her proper words and tones for communicating independence because while I can be gracious and identify with big emotions and tenacity I will not tolerate sass or disrespect. Girl may be fierce but girl must be respectful to her momma.

And I can remember she is in the waters too. That God is with her. The rivers of passion and difficulty will not consume her either.

That in these challenging passionate days in the middle of tiny plastic pieces of treasures, books, pink feather pens, crooked tiaras and streaks of orange marker down her legs, the Lord is near and He is working on both of our hearts.

We are on a journey. It feels terrible but we will get through it. And God promises the waves of difficulty will not overcome either of us.

One is Silver and the Other’s Gold

Years ago, I could not wait to turn eighteen, graduate and leave the childhood home I grew up in on Sycamore Creek Drive. I wanted a fresh start and I never wanted to look back. I had many happy memories in that place but my inability to deal with my grief as an adolescent left a lot of those happy memories in the dark shadows of the ever looming grief I kept beneath what I believed to be was a tough-girl exterior.

And for a few years after high school ended I was able to make a fresh start for myself in a new place. I moved my life to Kentucky, attended school, started my first job, met my husband and got married.

However, I still held my grief beneath a tough-girl exterior. I was able to numb myself with positive things during my years in college and the early years of marriage. Things like an over-achieving course load, good grades, and countless activities and all around busyness which was a step up from the numbing drugs I had chosen during my days in high school; troublemaking, chasing boys, skipping school, drinking and a severe addiction to mixed cassette tapes- the fast-forwarding, flipping over to the other side, the rewinding- all to orchestrate the perfect anthem for car dancing from the from seat of my purple Dodge Neon.

Either way I look at how I tried to bury emotion and grief, whether it was the accolades or the vices of addition, I found myself severely attracted to things and tasks and extremely disconnected from people. When I acknowledge where I am tender I can see that I have completely lacked deep emotional intimacy with others.

Relationships are such a tricky, tender place for me and as I follow up on my last post, Changing from the Inside Out this past year I discovered this one sentence in a beautiful book on vulnerability,

“When we don’t acknowledge how and where we are tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.”

Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

When I was a child, I remember singing an old Girl Scout song with my mom while I wore the prestigious brown brownie vest laden with colorful patches, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.”

And over time as my arms outgrew that brownie vest and my mother passed away from breast cancer when I was a freshman in high school it became extremely difficult to listen to happy songs or think about how precious people are because I had lost something so dear and so precious. My heart hardened in my grief and this childhood song along with many others became distant whispers. These are the happy moments I lost in the shadows of that looming grief. And this is the place where relationships became a tender place for me.

I had friends. The Lord has blessed me with so many amazing people in my life. So many more than I deserve. But in burying grief, ignoring it and not wrestling through it I completely lost the ability to be emotionally intimate with anyone.

Years later, as an adult I was introduced to the God of the Bible. The verses from scripture seemed to go from words in an old dusty book on a shelf to God’s words to me, His redemption story of the world and how my life was a tiny thread in all of it.

Even though I had heard stories from the Bible before and sat in mass almost every Saturday night I had never read the Word of God for myself; but once I read them, it was like the piece I had been searching for underneath the empty accolades and addicting vices was finally sitting right in my lap. I had ears to hear God and a heart prepared to receive His perfect peace.

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Mark 4:9

One of the very first verses that brought me so much joy and freedom was from 2 Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, The old has gone, the new is here!

In Christ, I believed I could start over completely. This is what I had wanted for so long. To separate the old from the new. To just be new. To start a new book for myself entirely. I wanted to forget the dark shadowy places, completely. I misinterpreted this to mean I could completely let go of the person who I was before I had those ears to hear.

The young girl listening to Girl Scout songs, the sad motherless girl, the troublemaking-disconnected teenager and the over-achieving sorority girl. I was given a new life and the freedom to start new.

My first few years as a new Christian I experienced a major identity crisis. When starting my new story, I had no idea who I actually was anymore.

And then. After so many years of running away, God called me back to a place not too far from my home on Sycamore Creek Drive. Just sixteen-point-three miles away to be exact.

And after eight years of living sixteen-point-three miles away and thirteen years of reading that verse from 2 Corinthians, I have discovered that God wasn’t leading me to start a new book but simply a new chapter. That my whole life, my entire story is bound together in the same book. I can’t just forget about who I was or dismiss it completely. God was writing a story for me from the beginning and my story is incomplete if I leave out the moments I left in the shadows on Sycamore Creek Drive. The highest peaks and the lowliest shadowy places are all apart of God’s work in my life.

This past year, as I looked my grief in the face and decided I would not be defined by it I was lead to a rediscovery of relationships with the people who I left back in those early chapters. The people and the relationships I have worked at restoring have been like neat little bridges to the stories of my past.

Some of those bridges which I believed to be the strongest have collapsed for reasons in which I can’t explain or understand. But many of them, even with all my running away, even in the dark shadows, by God’s grace those bridges remained sturdy and strong enough to step on, to walk on. Those bridges left in the shadows have had a foundation that was strong enough to walk towards someone else on the other side of it.

It has been terrifying to walk on those bridges. But it’s been a journey back to who I really am.

Some of the bridges have collapsed completely while I was standing right in the middle of them.

Some of them have needed desperate repair.

Some of them were shaky but the person on the other side met me so much more than halfway across and walked alongside me all the way back.

Because it sucks to face the dark places of your life. It is scary to face the ugly parts of yourself. But it is good to have others help you gather up the happy places and uncover them from the shadows.

And as I have been walking on those bridges back to who I used to be I have been thinking about that song. The one about old friends, new friends, the silver and the gold.

New friends are silver. They are precious but more easily tarnished simply because of the newness of the relationship. But the ones who make it through without tarnishing are precious.

Both relationships, old and new are valuable.

But the old relationships. Those relationships are gold. Like gold, the old relationships, the ones where the bridges have surprisingly stayed intact in the shadows, those relationships are gold. They are solid.

The laughs are still the same. You can tell your horrible jokes safely because your sense of humor is known and (mostly) unoffensive.

Those old relationships like gold have been portable, I’ve been able to carry them with me, they have made me who I am.They cannot be counterfeited, they do not perish and those old relationships are much more rare.

I have been surprised that I could come back to where I came from after so many years of running away from it. But in walking those bridges I have found precious, rare treasures.

And as I walk these bridges to my earlier chapters I am discovering that the gospel frees me to be vulnerable and emotionally intimate with others. That God is making me new by peeling back my layers of grief and He doesn’t want me to forget the old chapters but to see them with a new lens.

And I have not completely arrived in the area of emotional intimacy with others. I am still very much scratching the surface.

“It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”

C.S Lewis, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader

But in Christ, God is making me new. He is calling me to uncover the shadows and walk bravely in His love. That the God of the universe knows the early chapters completely and in His redemption of me I am fully known and deeply loved.

The more I discover the people who knew my dark-shadowed times will still laugh with me and rejoice with me and the more I walk in the truth that you can be fully known and deeply loved- these things free me to grow confident in my emotional intimacy with others. A cure is beginning.

Even though I out grew that Brownie Vest, the song is still true. It necessary to make new friends but just as necessary to keep the old. Both are the bridges to all of our chapters in all of our stories. One is silver and the other is gold.

Chore Monster

My oldest son has been asking for chores and allowance for about a year now. My husband and I have given them little responsibilities here and there. We paid him a quarter a toilet if he would wipe the misses and splatter off the lids when he was three and four. And now as part of our daily lives all four of our kids set the table, pick up the yard, clear their dishes and put their own laundry away.

But we’ve never paid them. My husband and I both have a conviction that chipping in around the house is a responsibility when you are a part of a family. Our kids eat, play, use the bathroom and have clothes laundered in our humble home so it never seemed like not paying them was the end of the world.

However, as these boys grow and summer is upon us we have decided to take the plunge and pay for extra work around the house.

As a teacher in my pre-mom days I have toiled over charts, thought about creating my own with a pocket chart or a laminated one with velcro stickies but I just never landed on something that was just right to track the numerous chores of our three boys and the little lady who will be joining them on the chore train before I can blink. I needed to find something that would grow with us as we grow.

And then I remembered hearing of this marvelous website and app from my son’s first grade teacher.

Friends, I have found the most wonderful tool.  Chore Monster has exceeded my expectations today as I’ve added numerous children, almost thirty different chores and nine different rewards, only two of which are actually monetary.

Here is how it works. 

Sign up for free at: www.choremonster.com 

I would add all children first. Then when you go to add chores and rewards you can click on “copy chore/reward” for each additional child.

Adding Chores:

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When I added chores I selected some from the list but also created a bunch of my own. Chores I expect them to do every day like brushing teeth, making beds, getting dressed, praying at meal time, all of those are worth 5 points each. Other chores like dusting, clearing dishes, sweeping, playing a board game with a sibling, wiping counters and sinks are worth 10 points and I have a few chores worth 25 points: Wiping down toilets, folding towels, reading for 20 minutes, working on four pages of Handwriting Without Tears Workbooks, and writing and illustrating a summer story.

I then selected the box “make this chore with no schedule or due date”. Then chores can always be reoccurring and I don’t have to manage when they are due. As my kids grow this may change but for now we are just getting our feet wet.

Finally, when adding chores I searched google images, this is a built in on the page, to compliment the chores so when my kids view them in the app or on the desktop they all have a visual to match the text. This helps early readers and I think makes it look like more fun!

Adding Rewards:

This was the fun part for me. My kids don’t need a ton of money, a little will go a long way and also be enough to teach them about what things cost as well as enough for them to consider tithing to children’s church from their own wallets.

There are only two monetary rewards on our list. With this site, this can also change as my kids grow.

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For rewards I chose, pick what’s for dinner (50 pts), dates with mom or dad (75 pts), pick the family movie night movie (75 pts), stay up 45 minutes past bedtime (100 pts), five dollars in cash or for the iTunes store (250 pts), Reds Game with just Dad or go with one parent and stay at Kings Island until fireworks (300 pts).

The last two are really desirable for my kids but almost free for us because we have season passes to Kings Island and my husband has a clergy pass for the ballgames.

I’m hoping with the different kinds of rewards my kids will find healthy-just-right-for-them positive reinforcement.

I am trying out the point scale this week to see if I may need to up the ante. My oldest child’s chore monster has been active for all of two hours and he has already earned 55 points with his younger brother only ten points behind him with 45 points.

Completing Chores: 

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As my kids complete chores they can select which chores they completed in an app on the iPads or on my phone as well as on our desktop computer. Each child has their own log in with their name, picture and simple password.

After they log in their chores I have to approve them before they get points. You can change this in the settings when adding chores so chores are automatically approved, it’s completely up to you and your management style.

The site has lots of other fun features like:

-As I approve points, the site gives tickets kids can cash in to watch silly short movies, upgrade monsters and use to spin the wheel at the carnival. We’ve lost at the carnival every time so far and this made my four year old cry.

-You can add bonus points. This was amazing because after my four year old cried I basically gave him his points right back. But also as summer rolls on and can sometimes cause siblings to get on one another’s nerves when I mentioned the bonus point feature to my older kids I said I will only be shelling out bonus points for kindness to others or encouraging words to others from now on.

So here goes my first structured summer with chores. I’m sure the learning curve will be huge and I will probably have a hoarder of points cashing in for 250 dollars at the end of the summer or all my kids cashing in for the mommy and daddy dates at the same time. Please pray for grace along the journey.

And please go check this out now. As you are learning this site along with me this summer don’t forget to comeback and share your thoughts and comments.

Thank you Chore Monster. Go team Parents.

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