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).

Stuck? Throw an “Inch Pebble” Party

Doesn’t fb really stand for “family bragging?” Posts like: “Look at the clever Halloween costumes we made” (with help from a professional makeup artist and the costumer from Lion King?) 14639899_10153984291182918_8499421417956026212_n “My quarterback son just cured cancer during halftime of his Homecoming football game,” or “We— I mean–my daughter won the science fair blue ribbon.”

Am I the only one overwhelmed by parenting my kids, let alone comparing myself to other, overachiever families? (Just because I can’t get my act together to post fb pictures doesn’t mean we’re not having jaw-dropping, creative, family fun–it means you don’t have a good enough imagination.)

We all set basic goals for our kids’ growth (i.e .learning how to use a fork and knife). We help them practice skills and hone talents (not including how to armpit fart–boys teach that to each other.) We help them make mid-course corrections in order to become responsible citizens of the world. (“When you earn a D on your report card, no one but you think that means ‘I have a crappy history teacher.’ The rest of the world thinks, ‘He didn’t do the work.'”) And as families, we get stuck sometimes.

For ministry training this week, I’ve been reading an excellent book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. aclkNot a church-y book, a business book. It covers how to build hope and create forward momentum, even how to make big changes through asking people to take incremental, easily do-able steps. Applicable to get your teen to clean a room, to pay off your enormous college debt, or change that most stubborn behavior.

Good points of the book are: 1) motivate rather than impose change by following the bright spots, 2) build on what’s going well, 3) make it easy to change right now by setting a clear path.

Aiming for your child to be successful in milestones (straight As on the report card or making the A team) is too overwhelming. Heath says to break it down even further. He writes,

piled-smooth-gray-pebbles-3836837Aim for family “inch pebbles.”

Especially for our kids, we might take the time to shrink the problem to what is doable NOW, one inch at a time. OR we can grow our kids by motivating and helping them really want to move the next pebble (celebrations,  vision casting, bribes all help build new pebble-moving habits). Create a path out of “stuck” by providing positive, actionable clarity. Heath says it works better every time than loud, parental “no’s” or even our best, can-do speeches.

It’s as if we flipped the switch on our kids–we suddenly move the pebble forward the next inch in the next five minutes. Worth throwing a party? Yes.

Takin’ Risks & Prayin’ Moonshine

On our road trip to our daughter’s southern college,20160819_124530 we talked for miles about change and fear— (and what exactly is Moonshine anyway? Didja know it’s also “foolish talk or ideas?” The McCoy version of talkin’ smack? Didja know they’re called the Smoky Mountains because fog in the hills looks smoky,20160819_195739 not because Smokey the Bear lives there? Revelation. We clueless Yankees crossed into southern territory, dumbfounded by places where every word is drawled, like the town proudly proclaimed on its water tower as “Florence, KY Ya’ll.”  And then Rockytop, TN. We trolled my siblings, singing “Rockytop” over and over. Sorry. Not Sorry. But I digress.)

For fun, we brainstormed silly conversation openers, pick-up lines, and ways to make new friends for each of us who’ve moved this summer. Which new activities to try. Yes, and which maybe not to try. (I’m both a mom and a minister, after all.) Remember this is the girl who went paraglidingscreenshot-2016-09-14-15-16-49 in Argentina this summer.  Jumped off a mountain with a parachute for Pete’s sake.) Anyhoo, during freshman orientation, Carlina tweeted:

Aug 27 that moment between taking a risk and seeing if it pays off or blows up in your face. that. 1 RETWEET 2 LIKES

Yes, that. A leap of faith. Restlessness. Passion. Optimism. On the verge. In a liminal space. Hope-filled. Moving forward. In transition. All those phrases suggest you are taking a risk and opening up your life into a new season of change. Call it whatever you wish, for many of us change is spelled:

F-E-A-R.

For some of us, that moment sss-tttt-rrrrrr-eeee-tch-eeees and sss-tttt-rrrrrr-eeee-tch-eeees out some more. I know it. I’ve read books about it. I’ve coached others through that season, asking them questions, “What one hopeful step can you take today? How can you use this in-between-time for growth? What great, big, God-sized dreams are you praying for?”

Mmm hmmm. “One hopeful step.” Sounds great to say TO SOMEONE ELSE! Even though I’ve lived it before. Six cross-country moves. Three career changes. Eight job changes.  A few years ago we accidentally turned into that family that moves a lot.  I now have several “interim” job titles on my resume to explain. But not anymore, right? We’re done. Settled. Let’s hope. Except that we follow “One who is notoriously unpredictable,” as Tim Hansel said.

Last time I made a big change from the Midwest to that region-that-must-not-be-named, it stretched into a year of underemployment. Many prayers later, I discovered that God and I do NOT have a special arrangement just because I’m a minister and supposedly follow Him full-time. (I dunno exactly how I wandered into that conclusion before? Hence the “supposedly.” #heresyalert). No job handed to me with my DMin diploma, either. (Uh Fuller, what WAS that $18,000 and five years good for? “Still waiting….” [Cue the Energizer Bunny.]  “Still waiting….”)

So no God deals for an insta-job. Turns out finding my fit takes time. And stinks. Even this time around, two years and three moves later, two years wiser. I know God is faithful; He’s done it before and can do it again, in my life specifically. Moving here to Chicagoland is but one part of what God’s gonna do next, and we have a front row seat to watch for it. (I hear your voice, Sally Kruse.) And I hear all you Narbs people shouting and jumping up and down, “Yeah, we heard it from YOUR mouth at Thanksgiving last year! ‘God is faithful; He provided us a job and a house and an open door.’ Do you listen to yourself, Pastor Tassie?” Yep, I’m not just talkin’ moonshine.

I’m trying to wait expectantly, with creativity, hope, and imagination—and all those big words I listed above. Many of you have inspired me with your hunger, passion, patience, and longing for God as you wait for a child or job or a cure or a yes. Thank you for your examples, far, far better than my own words. There’s still room for my great big, God-sized dream. And I also have learned the flip-side: if I want to make God laugh, just tell Him my plans.

How will I wait? I’m doing more praying, that’s for sure. Risking. Taking fruitful actions. Prayer doodling. Leadership brush-up. SWOT analyses. SMART goals. I’m using this time in-between to advance my skills. Reactivate my network. Make connections. Consult with a few churches. And did I mention prayin’ moonshine? Right now I’m praying for an exciting role at the Chapel, overseeing family ministry at eight churches. Or whatever our big God has planned. Please join my prayer posse. And let me know how I can join yours.

Raining on the Sunny Side

In a stormy situation, my daughter recently asked me to pray for her for the best, most desired outcome, rather than simply for God’s will to be done. She reasoned, “God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do, so we might as well pray on the sunny side.”

When I listen, I learn from Carly. We are different–in all but determination–as her brain moves at lightning speed.  While I chased around this curly-headed toddler, she’d shout gleefully, “Mama, I’m messing with you!”

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Mural in Narberth, PA

Then my own sweet mama would try to reassure me,

“You only have to stay a half-step ahead.”

As if I could. Ever.

Now that Carly is studying south of the equator, her view of the world is turned upside-down. In a foreign land, her wisdom and heart are both moving and growing at the speed of light. Mostly without me. Leading our kids, while humbling us, also whacks us upside the head with lessons about leading others.

Richard Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, in Know your Story and Lead with it, write: “Organizational leaders need to maintain an attitude of ‘relentless optimism,’ the theological view that God is always at work in our stories to bring about God’s kingdom. We need to tell the stories that acknowledge and express problems, but our stories must also reflect God’s ‘persistent, compassionate presence,’ if we are to lead effectively.”

That’s hard to do.  Especially when others suffer and all we can do is listen as they moan. We can’t even begin to fix it. With optimism, loved ones may accuse us of being too cheery. But life becomes even worse if we join in their pity party. What to do?  What about the can-do message Abileen gives the child she cares for in The Help:

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Or try this version,

” You are brave.

You are loved.

We are in this together.”

A wise king who faced incredible enemies, suffered betrayal, and failed more than once at leading while he climbed heights of success, wrote, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.  Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” Psalm 37:4-7, NIV 

Back to praying on the sunny side. I think God actually gifts us with many of the desires we have in our hearts as we trust and delight in him. And even when we don’t.

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Photos of the Vatican Wind Rose directional markers in St. Peter’s Square. Top of page is Northwest marker depicting the cold, powerful wind that blows storms into our lives. This Southeast marker shows the warm, gentle winds we prefer.

It’s okay to pray for what we desire most.

We’re being honest.

God can handle that,

including our anger at not getting

what we want.

 

 

 

Sometimes when we suffer misadventures or setbacks,

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The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

a Grinchy view of God creeps into our hearts in the middle of the night, ready to steal our joy with empty sacks and a wicked smile. Grinchy God is not biblical. God is not trying to steal all the joy down in Whoville from the big and the small. 

What does the psalmist promise? As I am still, as I trust, as I do not fret, and as I wait, God will act. God will do. God will bring dawn. 

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And God can and does make our

“small hearts grow three sizes that day” through the process.

My newest friend Victor from Egypt once asked a student, “Which is faster the speed of sound or the speed of light?” She answered him, “The speed of God.”

God has a light-up the world plan for His good creation that is moving ahead at the speed of God, even when we can’t see a glimmer yet. So what do we have to lose by praying–and leading–on the sunny side?

 

“May God give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” Psalm 20:4

 

Impacting Generations Yet-to-Come

My faithful, Scottish, great-grandparents prayed daily for the unborn generations of our family–and for their spouses. Powerful prayers, now impacting the fourth and fifth generations of our family in profound ways. In a Pentecost sermon at Narberth Pres, I share this challenge and how it is playing out for us.  Click Link for “Out of This World Encounters” on 5/15/16.11891100_10206281780916465_5790979975412851679_n

Much of our immediate family is pictured below. (not pictured: Ken, Kari and Brendan.) While four of us are in full-time ministry with Young Life, the PC(USA), or counseling, all serve in unique ways according to God’s good gifts: writing books, mentoring students and small business owners, photographing orphans in Haiti and YL Capernum dances, building houses in Mexico or El Salvador, raising our families, working with women caught in trafficking, teaching dance, producing videos, serving on boards of churches, camps, missions, and youth organizations. Davis, the first great-grand, has the ministry of cuteness–and all share the spiritual gift of entertainment. I love watching  each flourish and grow!McLennan Family Retouched FINAL

Teen hack: the power of ice cream and 4 simple words to say to students

I learned this leader/parent hack from Kara Powell of Fuller Youth Institute in a seminar at the Orange conference this month. I put it into immediate good use with Confirmation students. One smart, smart boy was having trouble finishing his faith statement—he was all about God as his father, but Jesus seemed to be an issue.

I learned from his parents he had nTX8aeETBquestions, especially about how faith and science fit together, and he was willing to meet with me.

When we met after school over ice cream, I asked him about his beliefs about Jesus. He looked incredibly uncomfortable, wishing to have his braces tightened instead of this impending interrogation.

I covered the orthodox biblical basics about Jesus as the Son of God, fully human and fully God: Jesus was present at Creation and he then came to earth as a baby, lived a sinless life for us, died for us on the cross, and rose again for us. “Sound familiar?”

Even though this student couldn’t articulate all that himself without prompting, (especially between bites of a grasshopper sundae), he surprised me and said, “Yeah I believe all that. It’s what I have been taught all my life. No problem.”yckg7pB7i“Okay, so rather than guess, why don’t you tell me what your questions are?”

“Well I want to know about creation. How did it happen? I know someone who believes, ‘Pop! People appeared right out of thin air. Created. Bam. Not me. How did Creation happen?”

As life-long believer and 15-year family minister, as Rev. Dr. Green, M.Div., D.Min, I do have plenty of answers ready to pull out of my back pocket. But instead, I “powelled” it and started with “I don’t know, but we can maybe figure it out together.”

He visibly relaxed. I followed up, “Anyone who tells you they know how Creation actually happened for sure is lying.” He actually laughed, “Yeah.” Now I had him. In conversation.

“You know the Bible isn’t a science or history text book, right? So it doesn’t try to tell us exactly how it happened but that God created us and created us good, in His image. We can look up the verses in a minute. Did you know there are two creation stories in the Bible? How do you think it happened?”

He talked for a minute about the Big Bang, “I’m not exactly sure how it worked either. But that makes me feel better that I don’t have to know exactly or believe only one thing exactly to have faith in God and Jesus and be confirmed. And to keep going to Church.”

I thought to myself, “Ahhh. So that’s what’s at stake.”

I agreed aloud with him, “Yep, I don’t know either. I’m not a scientist. But I do know it does take faith to believe in God’s creating us AND it takes faith to believe in a scientist’s hypothesis, because none of us knows for sure. Faith and science can go together, can help us figure it out. And science definitely helps us appreciate the wonders of creation as they are always making new discoveries about life and new forms of life.”

“Like in the ocean! I know.! I always watch Animal Planet. And the History channel.”

“History? Oh, you wrote in your faith statement you want to be an archeologist, right? LiKkXoGXTDid you know they are discovering new finds about the stories in the Bible like the Exodus? It turns out maybe they were looking in the wrong place and the wrong time period and that’s why they didn’t find much evidence before now.”

“Cool. I’d like to know more about that. I have lots of questions about the Bible, too. But that’s okay, right?”

“Yep. You have a smart brain and are sort of a philosopher I think, so you might really get this. I think of faith this way: we bring all we know of ourselves to all we know of God at this time. And those are both gonna be changing as we grow.”

“Yep. I like that.

“What do you think? Does that help you? Are you ready to confess your faith in Jesus publicly and join the church?

“Yep. And I might help with VBS too.”

Ahh. The power of ice cream and 4 simple words, “I don’t know but…” Why do those words work? Kara says they give permission to ask questions and to doubt, which kids will do anyway. They chase away silence.

How?

“I don’t know, but…”