One Year Later

alien flowerA year ago today, in our last few hours in Costa Rica, I wrote this post:

How was your summer?

Oh, how to answer that question…? In many ways this summer has been like others:

  • We’ve shopped, cooked, and cleaned
  • We’ve done laundry
  • We’ve paid bills
  • We’ve played with the dog
  • We’ve read, relaxed, and rested
  • We’ve taken day trips and road trips
  • We’ve been to the beach and the mountains
  • We’ve had good days and bad days, boring days and exciting days
  • We’ve laughed together and gotten on each other’s last nerve
  • We have lived out our particular personalities – needs and wants, insecurities and strengths – as well as our particular pattern of family dynamics.

The difference? We’ve done all these things while living in a foreign country, facing the challenges of an unfamiliar language and culture.

toucanTsh Oxenreider writes: “[Travel] strengthens our family bond. Together, we smell smells and see sights collectively that no one else will at that exact moment… When we travel, no matter how near or far, we share moments that shape our family culture. Each exploration, to the next town over or the next flight out of the country, is one more chisel notch in our family’s sculpture.”

Almost three years ago our family participated in an MVPC mission trip to the Dominican Republic. That trip changed us, and we believe it set the precedent for this trip. We saw God at work in the world, in our family, in our lives.

We came to Costa Rica for two months of Dave’s pastoral sabbatical. It has been amazing, long and short, hot and wet, frustrating, lonely, beautiful, intense, interesting, educational, challenging, restful… And we almost can’t believe this adventure is coming to an end. We fly home this evening.CR beach

Culture shock hit us harder than we expected, but we’ve been here long enough to adjust, to learn, to grow, to become comfortable. Embarking on this “God Treasure Hunt” we knew we’d find God in the beauty of His creation, and we have. We knew we would go places and meet people and see God at work – in people caring for creation, in ministries caring for God’s children. We expected to see God at work “in the world” but forgot to expect that God would also desire to work in us. Travel has given us an opportunity as a family to limit distractions and share experiences and conversations about important matters: how we live and how we want to live as people faithful to God and making a difference in the world in His name.

Pura Vida (“pure life”) is CR’s unofficial motto. It’s similar to Aloha – “welcome,” and “until we meet again,” and “all is well and all will be well.” Last night we read in Jesus Calling:

I came to give life – life in all its fullness. John 10:10

“Life is my gift to you – enjoy it! I want every day to be a delight as you live in My Presence and discover My blessings. Choose to enjoy life, and let the world see Me through your Joy!”

slothWe expect to face more culture shock as we return home and see our lives with fresh eyes. It would be all too easy to simply worm ourselves back into the familiar, but we also know that this trip has changed us even though we don’t fully recognize how. We look forward to unwrapping the gifts God has tucked away in our minds and hearts along the journey.

By the way, here’s a short list of what we didn’t do this summer: we didn’t ride horses on the beach or to waterfalls; we didn’t go sport fishing; we didn’t learn to surf; we did not get fabulously tan; we didn’t spend hours (or days or weeks) swinging in beach-side hammocks. And though our Spanish skills have improved, we’ve acquired a nice vocabulary of animal names not likely to come up in everyday conversation (unless you’re anxious to discuss monkeys, snakes, or birds!). We had to leave a few things for the next adventure, right?

*****

So how was this summer? In so many ways, just the same. In one essential way, completely different: we didn’t travel, and my heart aches for missing it. However, the garage is really coming along…

passion flower

Uncluttering Our Lives: Simplicity

Oh, the irony of the day set aside to consider simplicity being more complicated than any typical day! Between church, sports, and school commitments, this family set off running in multiple directions. Some of us said goodbye more than twelve hours ago and haven’t been face-to-face since. And before bedtime one kid suddenly started puking. Nope, nothing simple about this day.

Let’s face it: simplicity is simply a struggle for most of us. Culture pushes us to be more, do more, buy more, more, MORE! We measure our worth – consciously or not – by the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the gadgets we carry, the black space (as opposed to blank space) on our calendars.

I am not a simple gal, though I long to be. I dreamily page through each issue of Real Simple magazine, knowing it is not now nor ever will be my life’s reality.

I am dramatic and disorganized, complicated and continually overwhelmed. I fight hard, and maybe not hard enough, against the entropy determined to rule our home. As much as I dislike being a stuff manager, I spend a fair share of every day shuffling our belongings (backpacks, shoes, laundry, dishes…) from here to there and another fair share ignoring belongings that ought to be shuffled. No matter the organizational systems set in place (yes, we have key bowls and shoe baskets, not to mention laundry baskets and towel hooks), it still feels like a sisyphean battle.

After remodeling bids came in way too high, dear friends have recently taken advantage of the economic upturn to sell their house. Any move prompts a purge, and they purged prior to putting their home on the market and again more thoroughly once it sold. Watching the process has initiated something in me, and I have begun to ask myself (and Guy, who might be a tad overwhelmed at this turn of ‘tude): “If we were moving, would we move this?”

We opened the garage for just one hour this weekend and came up with an obscene number of things we could donate or sell, some stuff in good usable condition but so well put away (read: ignored) that we hadn’t seen it in years. We’ve listed only a fraction on a local ‘garage sale’ listserve, and took a trunk-full to the Rescue Mission drop-box. We have so much more to do!

A laundry basket filled with items to sell/donate

A laundry basket overflowing with items to sell/donate

Why do I hang on to stuff I don’t use when it could be precisely the thing someone else needs? Why do I hang on to earthly treasures I have ceased to treasure when they might form a wobbly barricade separating me from Jesus?

Jesus wants to be my treasure. He wants my heart, but it’s pinned beneath towers of cascading clutter.

Guy and I married when we were 23 years old. We lived in small spaces and moved every few years, and so we left my archivally-preserved wedding dress in a corner of my grandmother’s closet. Some years ago during a Chinese Checkers marathon, I asked her if I could at long last have it back. She sat up straighter, made a funny face, and confessed: “It’s gone.”

My wedding dress had been stolen when she moved from an upstairs to a downstairs unit in the same building.

While I felt strong disdain for whomever would steal boxes from a 96-year-old woman as she belatedly moved to a downstairs apartment in a building she had occupied for 30-some years, I also experienced heartbreak for my lost wedding dress.

And yet…
* I had no plans to wear it;
* I have no daughters for whom I should save it;
* And, most importantly, its loss has in no way affected the quality of our marriage.

That loss has affected my view of stuff, however. If I can release my wedding dress into the great wide world (of dirty rotten grandma’s-box stealing thieves… oops, sorry), then I can certainly let go of items far less sentimental.

As a family, we have done a few things to counter the cultural tide, to anchor our hearts solidly in Jesus’ kingdom:

1) Among our posted family values: “Boredom = Opportunity” and “Play!”
We try hard not to over-schedule our kids. One sport at a time, and mostly rec leagues, and no more than three weekly activities each season (sport, church, music) has been our MO. We also don’t allow screen time during the school week, so the kids have plenty of time to get bored, to be creative, and to simply be kids who play. One Mother’s Day when Teen was still in elementary school he made me a home-made card that read, “Thank you for not over-scheduling us so that we get stressed out!” Melt a mama’s heart!

2) Another family value: “Need vs. Want.”
We don’t buy just because we want. We weigh desires against needs. We can easily convince ourselves that we need more, but honestly we need far less than we think we do. Staying out of stores is also a big deterrent against shopping for entertainment.

Creating margin on the calendar and on our counter tops will be an ongoing process, but it’s one to which I’m committed. Here are a few of my recent and regular steps:

1) Set a timer for 20 minutes, choose one cluttered space, and attack. When possible, set aside a longer block of time.

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

2) Continually winnow. I’m not one for taking everything out of a space and only putting back the essentials. That approach feels too drastic, too large, too time-consuming. And so I try to look fresh at each space as I come to it: what do I see today that I can let go of? Same goes for the calendar: do we need that activity? and likewise: what good activities are missing because we seem to be overscheduled?

It's tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

It’s tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

3) The Art of Simple has become one of my favorite blogs. The posts tend to be short and to the point of simplifying so many areas of life.

4) A book I expect to come back to again and again: Throw Out 50 Things. Gail Blanke walks you through each room/area of your living space and your brain and examines why we hold on to our stuff and our unhelpful thinking patterns.

And a Bible study for you, as together we treasure our relationship with Jesus.

Connect
Reflect on an example from your life when you lost (in some way) a precious possession. What was it and what happened?

Study
Read aloud Matthew 6:19-21.
Give three examples of someone storing up treasures on earth. What do you think Jesus meant by storing up treasures in heaven?
What problems result from storing up treasures on earth (v. 19)?
What are the benefits of storing up treasures in heaven (vv. 20-21)?

Live
In what ways can earthly treasures get in the way of storing up heavenly treasures? Explain.
How does storing up treasures in heaven help you simplify on earth? (cf. Mt. 6:33)
Where would you put yourself on a spectrum from hermit to hoarder? Explain.
Describe a time in your life when you lived simply. What were some of the advantages?
Name one or two obstacles to simplicity that you might be able to remove from your life, and how you might begin to address them this week.
Which Faith Training Exercises have you tried recently? Share joys and struggles.
Which exercises might God call you to this week, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Holy Spirit will use a discipline of simplicity to draw you nearer to God.

Gather

Some years ago I worked as a church receptionist. Lydia held a volunteer position that brought her to the office frequently. Unfortunately, Lydia was a true Grumpy Pants. Nothing pleased her and she was quick to let everyone know.

I cringed inwardly when I saw her coming. She took all my patience and then some.

Lydia also sat near me in worship. If you attend church regularly, you know that people tend to sit in the same seats week after week. I sat on the aisle, and she sat on the opposite side of the same aisle a few rows back. In a small-ish church, that made it impossible to avoid her.

I can’t remember why now (except that I will happily credit the Spirit’s motivation), but I made a conscious decision to offer Lydia a hug every time I saw her in worship (impractical in the office as I interacted with people through a sliding glass window).

I’m sure she was surprised the first time I extended my arms to embrace her, but she didn’t resist me. Better yet, she didn’t slug me. Over time, she started to smile. More time, and she not only smiled but spoke kind words.

The hugs changed us both. I overcame the resistance of my heart to hug her and saw God smiling on my decision in Lydia’s own smile. She must’ve really needed a few good hugs! Oh, sure, she still grumped now and then but she also chit-chatted. One might have even called us friends. When Lydia eventually moved away to be closer to her grown children, instead of being glad to see her go as I once might have, I felt her loss.

God made a decision to deal with our much worse than Grumpy Pants condition when He offered the outstretched arms of His Son on the cross, embracing us in love and grace. We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t even know we needed it, but oh how we needed it. How we need Him.

Jesus Christ is our peace. On the cross He made peace between us and God and between us and others. Relationships that seemed hopeless have become possible, better yet, peaceful. Because of Jesus, our Peace, life can be peace-filled.

[Just for kicks, watch this video of a seemingly impossible but completely sweet relationship.]

The potential for conflict lurks any time people gather. Some shy away and prefer to do what they can to grow in faith on their own. While I’m all for solitude, it’s truly in relationship with one another that we learn to more fully love God and receive His love.

Tsh Oxenreider writes, “Being in community is about doing fun stuff together, sure, but in my opinion, the real roll-up-your-sleeves-and-share life happens with each other in the mundane. In the everydayness of life. When it’s hard, and you’ve got to collectively power through the rough stuff. Or even when it’s plain old boring.”

For those who follow Christ, the possibility of peace gives us hope. It causes us to extend our arms toward others in reflection of Christ’s arms extended toward us. It’s not easy – like Christ, we may at times pay a high price – but it is good.

Connect
Reflect on a relationship in which you have experienced hostility. What can you learn from that experience?

Study
Read Ephesians 2:11-22.
Describe the “former” relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Are there any parallels to this dynamic today?
Describe what Jesus did to change that relationship.
How is God’s “new humanity” (the Church) intended to be different from the world (v. 15)?
Culturally, Western Christians have tended to emphasize personal salvation. Where in this passage do you see individual and/or corporate identity in Christ?

Live
How does individualism in our culture create barriers to unity among God’s people?
How would someone who is not a Christian be able to tell that Christ is the cornerstone of your life?
Which of your relationships is most in need of Christ’s peace at this time? What will you do differently this week to invite Christ to bring peace into that relationship?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the peace of Christ will rule in your hearts, in your worshiping community, and in the world.

Let it Go!

Sometimes a theme pops up, seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly everywhere, and begins buzzing around my brain like a catchy song. The last few days the theme has been, “Let it Go!”

No, not the song from Frozen, although it certainly is catchy… (Oh, to sing like Idina Menzel! Hum along with me? Aw, heck, let’s belt it out, off-key as we may be! BTW, if you haven’t yet, you must see this amazing multi-language version).

And yet, maybe one of the reasons the song became so popular is that Elsa is really on to something. Let go of what others think. Let go of that “perfect” image you’ve created. Let the chaos out. Unleash all your glorious potential. Become your truest, wildest, most beautiful self.

Yesterday I saw this quote on one of my favorite blogs, The Art of Simple: “The greatest step towards a life of simplicity is to learn to let go.” ―Steve Maraboli

I’ve been thinking about simplicity since we left for two months in Costa Rica this summer. The whole trip was complex – and simple. Just the four of us, exploring and living in a foreign country. Although everything was new and different, things were also simpler – no jobs, school, homework, extracurriculars, friends, distractions. We let go of life at home to embrace something completely different for a time, and we came home again hoping to figure out what we could let go of here in order to maintain some of the simplicity we gained there. Learning to let go is complicated, but living simply is freeing.

Wow, there’s a paragraph for you! Did you follow? It’s hard. It’s complicated. It’s simple. It’s a process. It’s worth it!

Then up pops this article – 15 Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy. Give up. Let it go. We can’t always be right or in control; blaming, critical and complaining; reminding ourselves of our real (mostly perceived) limits and defeats; focused on labels, impressions, fears, excuses, and the past; change-resistant; and still be happy. It’s quite a list, and in some ways it’s common sense, and it’s helpful. C’mon! Let all that gunk go already!

Case in point: Renee Zellweger. What did she do with her quirky, funny, beautiful face? I can’t buy the “healthy, happy lifestyle” blah-blah when her face has fundamentally altered. What must have gone through her mind, what overwhelming insecurities drove her to the plastic surgeons? And how sad must she be that her million-dollar calling-card face has become unrecognizable?

This morning I listened to a speaker challenge a group of preschool mommies to look in the mirror first thing in the morning – hair disheveled, teeth unbrushed, make up-less, and declare themselves “Beautiful!” Because, really?, who would dare tell God that He does bad work? We are His creation and He creates works of beauty. I got teary. So hard. So…impossible? No, possible, just difficult. And, poor Renee, I’m sad for her. If only she could have “Let it Go!” of the pressure to change what perhaps had been deemed less than Hollywood perfect…

How about with our kids? When Teen was only a toddler I heard a mom stressing over whether her child would get into the “right” preschool because, of course, the right preschool leads to the right elementary, middle, and high schools, and ultimately the golden snitch: the right college. When I suggested that maybe she could let go a little, that God would take care of her daughter’s life path, she bit my head off and accused me of having faith as a pastor’s wife’s prerogative. Um, no. Pretty sure God offers faith, and peace, and joy, to all who rely on Him.

School hasn’t been an easy road for either of my kids, but we’re all better off when I let go of the stress and remember that God loves them more than I do. They may not fit the mold, and that’s just as it should be. As Teen makes his way through high school, we have encountered increasing pressure to consider “What’s next?” Read: college. But that’s not the only option, folks. I have a sweet friend whose son, newly high school-minted, leaves next week for seven months abroad serving with a group that rescues child slaves. Amazing. I am so in awe of this kid’s bravery, and I can’t wait to see what God will do with his willingness to serve in this way. It’s not the cultural norm in our area, to forego the path straight from high school to college, but the cultural norm is not God. As this article says, let it go. The truly important questions:

Does your child have a compassionate soul?
Does your child have a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity?
Is your child resourceful and independent?
Is your child happy with who she is?
Can your child creatively problem-solve?
Is your child passionate about anything?
Can your child sit with himself and enjoy his own company?

I would add: Does your child know that he or she is known and loved by Jesus?

There is more than one way to lead a successful life. Parents, let it go on behalf of your children! Yes, encourage them to be the best versions of themselves, but One Way is not the Only or Best Way. Guide them to the One who will direct their paths, then let go and get out of the way (and yes, I am talking to myself here…).

Finally, this article. A professional and mom of four, the author had to set limits, to let go of some things, in order to live fully. I’m not there, but I’m proud of her for taking this step, inspired by her decision. She writes: “My task doesn’t determine my value. But I had to let go of something to grasp this freedom.” And her guiding mantra – “Do what only you can do” – is so wise. No one else can love and care for my family like I can. No one else can write my thoughts and prayers. To say “Yes!” to one thing is to say “No” to another. I must let go of those things others can do in order to truly live the life God has created for me.

Let it go!