Back to School, IRL version

IMG_5059This week, a piece I wrote on Christian Parenting about going back to school. This year, my baby is going back for her last year of college. Let that sink in. (Meanwhile, I’ll be over here ugly crying on my keyboard and short circuiting it. But whatever.) Enjoy — no matter where you fall on the spectrum of sending anyone (including yourself) back to school.

I’m not here at the take-out end of sending kids back to school to give you great tips for kale salads that look like ostriches playing kickball. I’m not going to tell you how to color-code your school supplies with brads and die cuts and washi tape. This is not something I am an expert in.

I’m here with five tips for life in all its beautiful feelings when you say goodbye to those kids, whether it be to kindergarten or college. Whether those kids are going on a bus, driving themselves to high school, or headed right back into your living room to go to school—remember these things.

Click here for the rest of the article.

 

Failing Successfully

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It’s Throw Back . . . Um . . . Monday. Whatever. What that means is that I’m going to be running some articles on the blog that I’ve written for other publications.

Because vacation.

And life.

So here is an oldie (in internet terms, anyway)–Parenting for successful failure.

What the what?

New York Times Parenting blogger Jessica Lahey points to research that most of our kids’ inability to deal with failure, and therefore succeed, stems from our generation’s unwillingness to step away from our kids.

Helicopter parent. Raising my hand right here. Guilty. I did once practically bribe other kids to come to my daughter’s birthday party.

How do we give children the skills they need to fail successfully, (Yes, that’s a thing.)

I loved working on this piece for A Fine Parent, and I hope it’s helpful to you today.

You can also click here.

Scars That Teach Me Who I Am

Plenty of people have slapped labels on me in my life, and I allowed many of them to stick. The quiet one. The little one. The fearful one. I believed these labels. I thought they defined who I was, and who I would always be.

Until ten years ago, when I got these scars.

In the moments I doubt who I am, I look at those scars. . . 

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This week,  I’m over at the MOPS blog talking about identity. Do we have to always be who people say we are?Do we have to stay the same and keep the same labels we once had? I can tell you from real life–that’s a definite NO. Our identity isn’t some rock solid thing that isn’t malleable, and labels fall off. They don’t wear well. We can let them slide away if we choose. Come join me at MOPS to read more.

There’s Enough Mess and Moxie for Us All

You may not believe this, but there has been enough mess in my life to require help getting out from time to time. Some of it may even have been self-inflicted. (See photo above, with exercise hair and a forgotten headband around my neck. Plus the two-armed selfies my kids like to give me grief about. Don’t judge.)

There is also enough moxie in my life to say the morass is worth the time we spend in it, and the ability to eject ourselves from it is not so far from us as we think.  (There is a lot of moxie in that beautiful cuff from a friend. “Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.” Yes.)

Does that sound like a book title? Well it is.

Tomorrow is the release of a book I’ve had the great fun of being on the launch team for. Jen Hatmaker’s next book, Of Mess and Moxie, releases August 8th! Here is the review I’ve already written, if you want to know what I thought. (Even if you don’t, it’s here, because my blog, so, my review.)

I met Jen Hatmaker in 7, resonated with her soul in Interrupted, fell in love in For the Love, and now, in Of Mess and Moxie, I know where she’s been and of what she speaks. Life is surely so much of both if we’re really pursuing the Kingdom. I know her intense heartache at having your children be the moment’s mess. (Nothing hurts like that. Nothing.)

I’ve been through the transformation of finding out you don’t actually know all the things. That, too, hurts, but it’s so good. (And oh, the grocery store section. Does she shop with me?) I know how humor like Jen’s is sometimes the only option when the mess is so deep you don’t know if you’re swimming up or down.

Beyond it all, the moxie she talks about—that strength God gives women to power through and make beauty from mess— what happens when that is unleashed, and we do as she says— “Flatten your feet—nothing in your life is too dead for resurrection”? That’s a freedom I pray this book brings to its readers.

Being on Jen’s launch teams for the last two years has been a game changer. It’s not just the woman and her work. It’s the team God assembled through her. We women have joined with one another. We have been for one another. We have laughed, cried, fought for, cheered on, financially supported, and gutted it out with total strangers on the internet, until we have become church. Real church.

Believe me, I know church. I have just completed a 15-page paper on the theology of the church for my doctorate classes, so I. Know. Church. (Yes, i still have feelings about the entire process.)

Because church is defined as called out ones for Jesus, people who hang together in community and show the world that, by their ability to hang together no matter what, they are His. We have done that. We are freaking amazing, really.

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We don’t always agree. Before you ask, I don’t always agree with Jen, either. I don’t have to to admire her heart, talent, and ability to connect with people who need to hear the words that they possess the moxie to handle the mess of their lives. I don’t have to always agree with someone to promote words that bring healing. I don’t have to agree with everything to call someone my sister and stand with her side by side in the battle for justice and mercy and Jesus’ kingdom.

Heck, sometimes I don’t agree with myself from one day to the next.

That’s why this group, and this book, make church. We are so different, but we rally around one thing–God can make a beautiful life and world out of people who decide that differences can help us move forward rather than keep us divided.

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So is this post more about our amazing group or about the book?

It’s both. We could not have assembled this community without the words of Jen Hatmaker telling us that it’s OK the have big feelings, big hearts, big hurts, big disagreements, yet still be a big force for Jesus. Together.

I wish I could give you all my favorite quotes from the book, and maybe I will in coming weeks. But I think this is my favorite, perhaps because I have lived it.

God has not given us a spirit of fear, nor has he saddled us with a spirit of defeat. We live because Jesus lives, because he is real and present and moving and working and he will not have us conquered. This is not hoodoo; it is a powerful reality. Flatten your feet, because nothing in your life is too bad for resurrection. It can be worse than you think and more crushing than you imagined. And even then, we live.

You can find Of Mess and Moxie here. Have a week filled with both!

Blending In

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Sometimes, I feel like my white garden. I’ve spent most of my life “blending in.” You know what I mean. Standing at the service desk at the department store, you wait while the clerk smiles and serves six people around you. Or you’re sitting in a job interview, and the interviewer, despite your impressive resume, says, “You just don’t come across with the leadership qualities we’re looking for.” A nice way of saying, “No one’s going to follow someone who blends in with the woodwork like you do.”

Or maybe your friends plan a quick get-together, but they simply forgot that no one told you. You feel like a TV screen—that dull grey glass everyone looks through but never at.

All the cum laudes written all over my curriculum vitae mean little to a world straining their eyes and ears for the sound bite star, the charismatic, toothpaste commercial candidate who grabs their attention.

I’m not sound bite material.

I like to choose words too carefully and slowly to garner that kind of following. Written indelibly on my first-grade report cards are my teacher’s shocked and thrilled words—“Jill actually spoke in class to day!” (Wouldn’t she be surprised to find me a professional speaker today? You just never know!)

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I’m too short to stand above any crowd. When I tried our for the junior high cheerleading squad, they said I had the skills but not the volume. I’m usually too shy to break into that circle of women who seem so friendly.

I’ve gotten much better. Once you reach a certain age, I think boldness kicks in easier. Also, you start to recognize what is more important than your own insecurity. But that was not the case ten or twenty years ago.

Monochrome

So what does this anonymity have to do with my white garden? It’s just a little spot I’ve carved out right next to the house, tucked between the deck and the sunporch. In its often blazingly hot confines grow dozens of flowers and foliage plants linked by one common thread–they must be white. Silver, cream, green, and blue leaves and grasses all mingle with pure white blossoms. Noncolor has its day here, in blooms both giant and strong and diminutive and delicate.

But directly across the path from this monochrome lies a real attention getter—the butterfly bed. Here, flowers whose firepower could launch a NASA rocket dance and boast and draw the attention of people and butterflies alike. Serene and thoughtful they are not. One could easily miss the charms of that boring stretch of white when ‘cosmic orange’ cosmos demand the eye. But one would miss so much.

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One would miss the bowing tresses of bridal veil spirea—my nod to sentimentality. I grew up twining such branches around my head, dreaming of brides, princesses, and fairies.

A person would miss the soft felt spread of artemesia ‘silver brocade,’ a carpet invoking thoughts of bare feet and snuggly blankets.

How would you miss the twinkle of silver thyme, a variegated pixie that stole my heart the first time I saw in it a garden center, with nary a flower necessary for its starry show. Or the innocent voluptuousness of white lilies showing off, nodding at the equally aristocratic white delphiniums across the way.

Don’t Miss It

Only those who take the time to stop and look closely will appreciate this one-color spectrum of beauty. You won’t see it if you walk quickly by, looking for what catches the eye easily. But for those who slow down, investigate, and take time to know each plant’s gifts, the white garden yields a rainbow.

Such rainbows lie hidden among the people you interact with every day. They may not seem like spotlight material. They may prefer to serve in the background, never seeking awards or recognition. You may have even felt (or said) they were insignificant in the total picture, not harmful but not vital either. You may have passed them by as coworkers, friends, or volunteers. Next time, stop and look. Investigate. Probe the gifts you don’t readily see. You’ll be surprised.

And, if you too are a white flower in a sea of color, don’t yearn to be orange. Though you may seem overlooked, the garden would miss something vital without you.

One Man’s Weeds . . .

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The irony of my struggle with the shady semi-circle bordering our front driveway does not escape me. When we moved into this house, the “garden” consisted of two peony bushes in the backyard, a few pathetic irises that seemed apologetic for their existence, and a semi-circle of wild daylilies in the front bordering said driveway.

It Creeps . .  

Valiantly, I spent many summers trying to rid the area of creeping bellflowers. When we moved in, I thought the purple bell-shaped wildflowers were lovely. Soon, I understood just why that “creeping” part was in the name.

With amazing resourcefulness, they attempted to overtake the entire front yard–and largely succeeded. Pulling one accomplished nothing but, I suspect, encouraging quiet snickering and a renewed zeal for life. The root systems infiltrate the soil faster than a fiber optic connection. Not liking chemicals, and liking very much the native violets that would also perish, I refused to spray.

I have never seen a more capable plant.

Meanwhile, in that semi-circle I try to establish ground covers. Lamium, bugle, sweet woodruff—all happily adapt to the shady crescent of dirt. A couple plants in particular seem bent on sending adventurous runners outward at an astonishing rate.

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As I weed out the unwanted, I laugh at the irony of it. Both plants would fill in this space joyfully, yet I strive to eliminate one and establish the other. What annoys and frustrates me in one plant delights me in the other. One plant I want to do exactly what I hate the other one for doing.

If we gardeners were truthful, we’d recognize this happens more often than not. One gardener’s weed is another’s native wildflower.

Many of God’s gifts also act that way in our soul gardens. Used as intended, His presents can give pleasure and beauty. Uncontrolled, they can override the good things we try to establish.

God intended sexuality, for example, as a lovely flower in a person’s garden, to excite pleasure and create families and to perfume the entire garden of a permanent relationship.

Outside those boundaries, however, it quickly becomes an invasive weed, crowding out important aspects of your relationships, strangling your emotional health, and cropping up unexpectedly long afterward, forcing you to deal with hurts you thought you’d already eliminated.

God’s Gifts Cover Our Ground

The same applies to our God-given personalities. Our greatest strengths, it seems, can become our greatest weaknesses with frightening speed. Every thing God gives for His glory and our good can be easily twisted to its negative potential.

So when they were younger, I told my firstborn daughter—God gave you a gifted intelligence. You can use it to learn about Him and help others understand His love, or you can become prideful and cynical. God gave you sensitivity to lavish compassion and encouragement on others, or it can be used to make you defensive and paranoid instead.

I knew both of these truths first hand.

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I told my second daughter, God made you tall and loud (!!)—a natural leader. You can display a good example for others to follow, or you can become a domineering slave to popularity.

One day, she told me about the little girl in her second grade class whom the others teased and shunned, a child who couldn’t keep up with normal tasks like reading and adding. She looked down as she told me about the other kids, her best friends, refusing to use the drinking fountain after ‘Melissa’ had touched it. Then she looked up. “But I don’t think Jesus would do that, Mommy. I think He’d be her friend. And I’m going to be, too. Maybe, the other kids will be nice if I am.”

She could have easily planted weeds in her garden (and in Melissa’s) by using her leadership to secure popularity. But instead, she used it to teach others how to treat one of “the least of these.”

As they grew, I continued to watch both girls as those realities played out. Some days they chose to let those strengths work for good—some days for evil. We all do. Their mother didn’t do much better. But the truth is, we choose what we allow to overrun the garden.

God’s great gifts can make a stunning masterpiece of us, or they can run rampant, taking over our soul garden with our idolatry and misuse of them. The same plant can be a weed or a wildflower. It all depends on how we use it.

The Accidental Gardener

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Sometimes, serendipity is the best garden designer.

Our ever-changing, ever-expanding perennial bed fronting the previous owner’s chicken coop had a precise plan once upon a time. In my imagination, I had a color scheme of pinks, blues, and purples, some mellow pastels, some bold fashion statements.

I wanted pink plants with cerise blooms that would scream Hawaiian luau, not baby blankets and little girl cheeks. Running through them would be pools of pale yellow—coreopsis, daylilies, and others. For harmony’s sake, the yellow could definitely not shriek like the pinks.

The pinks next to, say, the bright gaillardia (which had to be transplanted away), looked like the outfits my young daughters once came down the stairs in some mornings. (Their inability to understand that red checked pants and purple floral shirts do not complement one another definitely changed over time.)

It Has To Go

One plant that I decided must go was the bold rudbeckia goldsturm in the corner. Gold is in the name for a reason. No subtle yellow tones there. At least, I thought it had to go, until I looked again.

Behind and to the side of the plant, a red barberry bush extends its prickly arms. (Designed to keep the kids away from the lead-paint laden shed windows, the barberry did its job with thorny vigor). In front of it, an aster ‘purple dome’ begins its long-running show. The three together made a combination so breathtaking all thoughts of banishing the offending golden flowers disappeared. Perhaps, so late in the season anyway, the plant could be allowed to stay.

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Stay it did. What I first thought an unlikely combination, destined to quarrel with one another endlessly, became one of the late-summer focal points of the bed.

Plants Are Like People

It reminds me a bit of my two oldest girls. (No, they’re not prickly in general, although at times. . . .) Just eighteen months apart, they were a combination I certainly didn’t intend.

As the two girls grew, my husband and I quickly realized that we were the proud progenitors of night and day, yin and yang, hybrid tea and wild rose. However would we survive the sibling conflicts of two such different girls? Then, they did something surprising. They became best friends, inseparable, rarely erupting into argument, let alone all-out war.

The oldest—sensitive, awkward with people, perfectionistic—depended on her younger sister to draw her into social interactions. She needed Emily’s easy come, easy go life attitude to balance her more dramatic viewpoint that life consists of tragedy and ecstasy with no middle ground. Her somewhat insensitive, bulldozer of a younger sister, on the other hand, needed Becca’s keen perception and deep feelings to check her “I’ve got things to do so get out of my way” ways.

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And People Can Be a Mess

Do you recall the story of Paul and John Mark in the Bible? There’s another unlikely pairing for you. Paul, the “roll right over ‘em” firebrand of an evangelist got frustrated with young John Mark’s apparently more sensitive, tentative nature. When a homesick John Mark left Paul in the middle of an arduous mission trip, the older man vehemently refused to consider him for future service. Their differences seemed too great, their incompatibility too evident.

Yet, years later, hear Paul’s words to Timothy regarding that young man. “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me” (2 Timothy 4:11). Is he talking about the same person? Apparently, as both men matured in godliness, Paul realized that the younger man’s differences might be complementary rather than repelling. The once good-for-nothing boy had become an indispensable man.

In another letter, Paul explains why.

“The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up only one body. So it is with the body of Christ. Suppose the whole body were an eye—then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? But God made our bodies with many parts, and He has put each part just where He wants it” (1 Corinthians 12:12,17-18).

In his wisdom, God made each of us different, giving us different gifts. Those gifts He meant to complement one another, making a beautiful picture out of what may appear to be wildly disparate individual puzzle pieces.

Perhaps there are people in your life you would prefer to dig up and transplant far away from you. They just don’t seem to fit with the picture you’ve planned. Maybe they’re folks at your church or workplace. Maybe even parents or a spouse. Can you step back and see the whole frame, as God sees it? Can you perceive the checks and balances the two of you might use to help one another, if you could only stop clashing long enough to look?

You’re not together by mere chance. God has an ultimate design He’d like you to be a part of. But if one puzzle piece declines to interlock with another, that “big picture” loses something.

Some of my best garden combinations came unexpectedly. So, too, might some of your best people combinations, if you allow them to grow with you, enhancing one another with your contrasts.