JoySorrow and HOPE, bright hope

Christmas celebrations can’t be over in just one day.

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Over each meal, we light the advent candlesIMG_20171224_175501039.jpg, last night with my extended family who have been arriving for New Years. While we enjoy hugs, reuniting, and good meals, there are two noticeable absences: my rambunctious, brother-in-law Ozzie died suddenly in May and my older brother and his wife have split.

We acknowledge Ozzie with stories. “He’d totally make fun of you, Troy, for wearing a hat and jacket inside, ‘Ready for an expedition, Nanook?'” I wish we could imitate his laugh. We look at videos from his grandkids, from the moments he would have loved: Davis’ big wipeout while tubing off a jump and Lincoln’s first bday pics.

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Our brave friend Lara Hauser, who is a young widow and wonderful mom of four, calls life’s ongoing mix of joy and grief “JoySorrow.” So we tell JoySorrow stories and laugh and cry: at Ozzie’s favorite strategy for staying warm nicknamed “three violent jerks,”  at what Christmas has felt like without him for Tam.

We brainstorm a strategy together for introducing 6-year-old Brantley from Florida to snow in the frigid week ahead, “Snow is fun. Cold means fun.” Then cousin Mark calls in from Minnesota, “Toughen him up. Tell him there are no whiners in the North.” If only that was true! We are ready to embrace “BBob”–as the teenaged cousins call him–and his dad in the week ahead with warm love amidst subzero wind chillsand subzero life chills.

This month as I led a congregation through Advent, we realized that God’s big plan to save the world begins with a knocked-up teen and her finance’s considering divorce. With Jesus, born in animal shed, who became a refugee. With foreigners and shepherds who pay attention and look up to see what God is doing through stars and angelic announcements. God works through all these out-of-the-way people in out-of-the-way places to “bring good news of great joy that shall be for all people.” The gospel story certainly relates to life today in our topsy-turvy times.  Cary Nieuwhof writes,

“What if your  imperfect Christmas is actually a front row seat to God’s grace?….The surprise of Christmas is this: it speaks to us in our weakness even more than it speaks to us in our strength.”

This is how our family life looks right now. This is how our ongoing celebration of Christmas seeps into its grief and reality with hope and love.

As a gift, I give you the words our family has said together since the kids were small as we light our advent candles:

Light the 1st Candle—Purple:

Jesus is our HOPE. Bright HOPE. Stars in the darkness.

Light the 2nd Candle—Blue:

Jesus is our HOPE for PEACE, Kind PEACE. Bridges over broken places.

Light the 3rd Candle—Pink:

Jesus is our JOY. Great JOY. Good news that changes lives.

Light the 4th Candle—Purple:

Jesus is our LOVE. LOVE for everybody. LOVE. There is nothing greater.

Light the CHRIST CANDLE:

Jesus shines in the darkness, Making it LIGHT. Showing us the way to new life, the greatest gift of all.

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Kids + Life = Surprise!

Anything shock you lately? Surprise your socks off? Blue hair might fall in that category….

Before we were even dating, my husband Ken asked me to throw him a surprise 30th birthday party. “Um, if you’re expecting the party, how do I surprise … oh, never mind. Sounds like a fun challenge.” It turned out to be a great gathering of friends. He’s asked me to throw him a surprise party every 5th year since: a tacky tourist party, a micro-brew hangout, a 70’s bash, a family scavenger hunt, and a church-wide mission project. Each an extrovert’s delight.

Not all kid surprises equal good parental surprises though. Like the baby blowouts that necessitated “Mr. Clean” Ken’s changing Carlina’s clothes three times in a row in his first hour of singlehandedly caring for her. An unshakeable father-daughter bond formed that messy summer. While Ken was relieved and delighted to start teaching again in fall, he wouldn’t trade those early months together for anything. Such love surprised him. Bad beginning, good ending, paying dividends for the last eighteen years and counting.  All of which paved the way for our recently-applauded, “chill response” to Carlina’s post-Christmas, blue hair. Surprise!

It doesn’t always work that way. In our house with two students flexing their independence and two parents dealing with new jobs, right now there are not enough “chill responses” to go around. Exhaustion. Impatience. Anger. Fear. Stress. Change. Overwork. These factors eat fun for lunch–or dinner–no matter what age your kids are.

Even the good intentions of a surprise–a mother’s day dinner out–predictably went awry with our two and six-year-old, devolving into an overpriced whine-fest. (p.s. Don’t ever recap such an event by saying, “No biggie; I’ve finally lowered my expectations enough, so I thought it was a good Mother’s day anyway.” Do not speak such exhausted mama-truth to your earnest husband. Don’t even think it loudly.)  I frequently say the wrong thing at the right time.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re on your way to somewhere else.” Kids+ Life = “Surprise!” What about receiving the late night phone call every parent of a teen driver dreads? Finding a wadded-up, lousy report card? Discovering your kid is being bullied by classmates … or doing the bullying? Rushing to the ER, triggering a chain of medical treatments? Facing student depression and/or struggling with disorders?

Anytime a kid starts a pronouncement, “I’ve got something to tell you, Mom. Don’t get mad, but _____,” what comes next will in all likelihood be life-changing: “I lost my _____.” Or, “I missed the _____, but hit a _____.” Or,”I’m _____.”Or, I tried my best, but _____.” Or, meet my new _____.” Surprise!

As a family minister, my conversations often begin when your difficult family conversations end. Though it seems students never put down their devices, our kids are watching us sideways and listening closely to how we respond to “Surprise!”

And I’m not talking about blue hair here, which obviously grows out. I’m thinking about the biggies. In fact, such disasters and follow-up conversations are so predictable with teens that a wise parent brainstorms or role-plays in advance how to respond–sidestepping anger and reaching up for God’s love, mercy, and  grace. With discipline as needed. But not until the next day.

Our words matter. Most of us are not good at thinking on our feet and responding quickly with kindness or love. Then we replay these hard conversations over and over in the middle of the night. I know I need practice being calm & gracious, how about you?

Truth be told, these conversations with students never really end. They just begin a new series of discussions. A student recently tweeted, “The problem lies not in what we say, but in what we do not say.” Can we plan ahead for what we might say–and what we promise ourselves and those we love we will not say?

At Families@Five, a worship service for young families at Second Church Indy, we prayed a simple prayer together to confess our sins every week, followed by our assurance of pardon, “Turn and look someone in the eye and say to them, ‘Jesus loves you no matter what.'”

How can we say that in the face of “Surprise?” How can we respond with God’s-no-matter-what-love, “Nothing you can do can make us love you more and nothing you can do can make us love you less. Your life might get harder, but we’ll love you through it.”

Revelation 21:3-6 gives us a clear, beautiful picture of Jesus as our starting–and ending–point in conflict and in tough situations.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

If Jesus is with us, if we are his people, and if God himself is with us as our God, then Jesus has got this surprise covered. If Jesus can handle even this surprise from beginning to end,  if Jesus will wipe away every tear and all this pain,if Jesus will make all things new, then we will be ok. More than ok. This situation and we will become new.

“Sure,” you might say, “But what about right now, when life sucks?” What about the time before heaven, this in-between-time, when we have to live the reality of stupid choices, when there’s danger or fall-out, when our kids face tough consequences and life-altering decisions, when we pour out tears and regret?

Or when we’re not ready to move through it yet, but mired in denial, anger, conflict, or stubbornness, and kids are stoney in rebellion or headstrong persistence, a long way from repentance?

Jesus’ promise isn’t for just someday. Jesus is making all things new right now.

Jesus doesn’t give up when it gets hard, or when we mess up, or when we stink at forgiving, or when we say the worst possible things at the worst possible time. Jesus doesn’t wait on us to parent well or to get our stuff together to begin working in the situation, and Jesus doesn’t wait for our kids to realize the error of their ways. Jesus’ work in us and in our kids is not over when we fail. Hear Philippians 1:6, “[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Even in the now, we can ask for the Spirit to help us love with Jesus’ love, in small ways immediately. We can take one step toward giving mercy with Jesus’ mercy and forgiving with Jesus’ forgiveness. We can be ready for the new, even when it is painful in the now and in the days to come. Jesus has already redeemed us and already redeemed even this situation. It is already accomplished, not by us, but by God. It begins and ends with Jesus: “These words are trustworthy and true. And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

We can respond to our kids with what we all long to hear,”We love you. We’re in this together. And God is in this. God is for you.” Surprise!

 

For excellent ideas on praying for your family, see Cindi McMenamin’s article http://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/7-ways-to-pray-when-your-child-goes-astray.html (accessed 1/27/17).

Moving: Junk and Joy

It’s packing day tomorrow. Moving day Friday. Thanks be to God all but our clothes are stacked  in a wall of boxes from last summer’s move.  Oh, we’ll slam headfirst into that wall of stuff and junk when we unpack next week.  But tomorrow, no sweat.

Marie Kondo’s test whether to keep any item is to ask yourself, “Does it spark joy?” IF SO, we must be the most joyful people ANYWHERE!

My well-to-do grandma had a shoe-box tucked away on her closet shelf, scrawled with the label, “string to short to use.” Now there’s a carry-over of a fearful, depression-era mindset. No joy in that shoe-box. Can’t save everything.

What about our good friend Blair McKee’s classic 2 step moving method? 1) Light match. 2) Toss into pile. Weeeelll, as good as it sounds to me today, no joy in that either. Can’t  dump everything.

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As Ken’s the boy-scoutish “be prepared” saver and I’m the Scarlet O’Hara “fiddle-dee-dee” thrower, how will we face this big event together? I guarantee it won’t help that he’s on the red-eye flight home from Portland tonight, slammed from a crazy work week at the PC(USA)’s General Assembly. So perhaps we’d best face it delicately? Please join me in praying for our marriage.

As you throw out an item, Kondo says you thank the junk for serving you well. Who knew I’ve been doing it wrong? I’ve been incredibly thankful, and didn’t even realize it. (I’m not sure what Kondo says to do if you recycle or sell the stuff, but at this point I’d do a flipflop of happiness.  Some stuff I can’t even get people to take for free.)

What would happen if we applied this method to the Church, asking about each practice and event, “Does it spark joy? And then thanking the ones we toss out for serving us well. Certainly better than the match method, tempting though it seems.

I do think the “spark joy” option might actually work better in the Church than in our borrowed mansion’s king-size, walk-in closet. Especially since we’re right-sizing  back to a ranch with a twin-size closet.

Hmmm, on second thought, where is that matchbook?

FamilyLaunch will be back when we’re settled in Palatine, IL, joyfully!

Mosquitos, surfboards, and imaginary grandkids—how our fights move with us from house to house

Our first marital fight lasted five minutes and was about the television. Does the watcher turn it off when another enters a room, to focus on them—or does the intruder keep quiet to respect the watcher? We unwittingly moved this fight straight into our new apartment from our childhood living rooms.

John Gottman says marital disagreements remain the same throughout a marriage. If a couple came into his love lab as newlyweds and again at year ten, they’d be talking over the same conflicts. So if we are married to our spouses and our issues, we’d better make peace with them both. See if you recognize your issues in ours, amplified, perhaps, by our impending change—move number eight.

Our last fight took place during three whirlwind days and was about which house to purchase in IL. Our kind realtor Eric witnessed how it played out and who won. I’m not sure when he caught on to the battle being waged (maybe sooner than we did!), but he was patient and unafraid to add light-hearted moments in the midst of our competing visions. Three days straight with strangers looking at 22 houses within 13.6 square miles can’t be easy.palatine We three share this in common: we all love Jesus, we parent high-schoolers, we have a history of Young Life zaniness, and we like to tease my brother Troy, so we enjoy an instant bond. We talk about faith, work and family. Eric tells us what his mentor used to say, “God doesn’t waste his gifts. And sometimes you’ve gotta get out of God’s way.”

Since Palatine is a subdivision suburb, at least four of those houses are one model and three are another, in various states of repair. Our wish list: two-car garage (yes, ranked first for guess who) with three beds, two baths, and a family room or finished basement.  As we walk into the first house, Ken heads straight for  garage and basement, noting storage for skis and surfboard. I’m wandering the kitchen and living room looking for bright, white paint and lots of light. Eric is bouncing between us, sizing us up, part counselor and part salesman.

67,000 people have successfully moved to Palatine before us, so we know it can be done. Even so, after morning one, we are in despair and in need of caffeine.  Is our price point too low? We regroup in a local coffee shop to rework our plan. Next three houses, bingo—hope rekindled! I find what I am looking for—a sunny, small home with a screened, sun porch to boot.  Next house, Ken does a happy dance over a cathedral-ceiling. When we tour an 80’s colonial, I surprise us all, snapping at Ken, “Nope, don’t like it—too big. Or buy it and hire a house cleaner and lawn service—or clean it yourself. Time for practical choices.”  And clearly, time for lunch. Next,  Ken finds his heart’s delight—perhaps double the size of my earlier dream house— vividly painted, large rooms, with a big garage, yard, family room—and did I mention, space?  Eric looks at me, “Well, you apparently like this one, because you’re not complaining that it’s too big.”

“No, but Ken does, so I think I can, too. And I’m finally catching on that he doesn’t like ordinary, cookie-cutter homes.” Ah hah!  We begin to realize our unspoken, competing visions, as they pop out in the open:

I am picturing us 5 years from now as empty-nesters in a cozy, easily-managed home with little yard that is affordable. I work at a church primed for growth and Ken golfs obsessively (which, yes, I will be learning), so we don’t waste any spare time on upkeep. And we’ve miraculously eliminated all Ken’s junk… I mean, we’ve whittled the pile down to his most valuable stuff. (Oh yes, that’s a fight we’ve moved from house to house. Eight times. And will keep moving until our BIG move to heaven!)

Ken, as a retirement consultant, is picturing us 15 years from now in a larger home, with our children and families visiting. Our four, future grandkids with their dimples and lanky frames need a sprawling backyard and a basement to play in (and bonus—that means plenty of room to store his 3+ sets of golf clubs and surfboard.)

Back in the car, Eric tries to find common ground and figure out how to help us, “I can see you both like screened porches.”

”Yes, we do. Screened porches rule!  God created the world good, with screened porches. Screened porches just might be the key to our happy, mosquito-free future.”

Last stop at 7pm: a way-overpriced, remodeled ranch on the north end of town, with some access issues. We walk into the open-format house and Ken instantly loves it, grinning from ear to ear at the 70’s-relic, double-sided fireplace and step-down living room. Eric and I are confused, “What is this room supposed to be? And why, oh why did they put in a football-field of speckled-gray marble flooring?”

The kitchen is beautiful, the rooms light, but the outdoor fireplace makes me think of Hansel and Gretel.  Ken gets punchy and babbles about mansard roofs and crawl spaces as we tour the huge, creamsicle-orange basement, “Carly’s favorite paint color!” I’m shaking my head. By now Eric’s clearly done with us, but says patiently and hopefully, “Maybe you’ll need to sleep on this one and see if you agree tomorrow.” I pronounce confidently, “No. This is not my house.  Let’s go. I will win this battle.” (Ooh, did I actually say that aloud?)

Keep in mind; I lose every debate we have as Ken out talks me every time. I lost at rock paper scissors for the first seven yearrock-paper-scissorss of our marriage; I clutched and always threw scissors. We even chose our wedding china that way! On the day I finally realized it, Ken laughed and teased, “Yep, it’s been working great for me. Epic winning streak!
Wondered when you’d catch on. For a smart girl you’re kinda dumb sometimes.” But Ken has learned in 23 years and a sudden move to Philly, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Next day we tour and retour. Show my fav and Ken’s to Kari and my brother Troy, the former appraiser turned counselor. The top contenders couldn’t be more different, matching our competing visions for our futures. Much to Eric’s amusement, Troy asks therapisty questions like, “How do you feel in this space?”

“Depressed— it’s too dark.””Exposed—too much traffic.”“Well, I’m worried about the massive, lawn-and-garden care required.”I’m worried about the postage-stamp, soggy yard at the other place.”So Ken lets go of his fav, the spacious, dark house with the big yard on a busy corner and I let go of my fav, the cozy house with the sun porch.

Long story long. We make a low-ball offer on the over-priced, cathedral-ceiling house the next day, and then I get cold feet. (Did I mention the German rathskeller in the basement complete with bar from 1960. Retro-cool for about two weeks of ownership, then just an odd monstrosity. ) When they won’t even counter, we take another spin through three houses before catching our plane. Fewer laughs this time around. No perfect solutions ever in life. We are well past the point where winning or losing is an option if we want to go forward. We sign and leave a blank offer sheet for Eric to hang onto for us. We ask one another, “If we had to buy a house today, which one would it be?”

Fast forward two weeks. The clock is ticking off 30 days ‘till closing on the “not-my -house,” remodeled ranch with the orange basement. What?  How does that happen? Hansel and Gretel aside, when we dash through again en route to the airport, it grows on me. Ken imagines aloud future family gatherings and Young Life clubs meeting in the living room. He’s compelling. He pictures furniture placement and yep, we still disagree, “No, dude, the burgundy couch definitely goes up here, not the brown one.”  Eric laughs, “Did you just call him ‘dude?’” While Ken checks out the garage one more time, I sit in the living room and pray, “God, might we live here? Can we minister to our family and others in this weird, but lovable space? Will you please make that happen within our budget?” Yes. It seems possible to all of us.

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Gay and Bruce Bailey

Eric asks what I think of the house and I tell him, “My mentor Gayolin Bailey used to tell me, ‘We have to eat all of our words before we die.’ All the ‘nevers’ have to go away, to become ‘maybes’ or even ‘yeses.”   I may be willing to eat my words to live in this crazy house.”

Wiseman Eric just nods and smiles, “It’s a good house. The sellers are still asking way too much. But it is empty… when you make your offer is when we’ll learn a lot about how this will go, how desperate the sellers are.”

Yep. When we lay down our need to win or lose, when we drop the weapons, when we make our offers of loving compromise to each other in marriage, that is when we also learn. When we are willing to eat our words.  When we stop playing rock paper scissors and listen to each other. When our “nevers” become “maybes.” I guess then our competing futures don’t have to compete after all. We get out of God’s way to teach the other and ourselves something new.

We’ll see if Troy and Kari and Eric and Susie will do us the honor of being our first guests.  “Bring your teens and s’mores and make your way up here for a BBQ. Oh and bring your mosquito repellent. Maybe leave a trail of breadcrumbs to mark your way.  We’ll test out that outdoor fireplace and orange basement—and our common vision of God’s good plan for our family’s future.”