Beautiful mess

Her sweet, warm, sleep-reddened cheeks were hidden behind a tangled mess of blond hair. The same twice-conditioned hair I had combed for 15 minutes last night, hoping to ward off the dreaded tangles of sleep. The morning began with that mess.

And he stumbled out his room, rubbing sleepy eyes, leaving behind a twisted pile of pee-soaked bedclothes on the floor. The same bedclothes I had just washed yesterday and replaced on his bed last night. Sigh…another mess.

The spill of coffee grounds, the puddle of milk, the jumble of who’s dropping off where and when is who picking up whom. The mess of the day continues.

As I drove to work, recalling her tangle of golden hair and my sleepy-eyed fella, I thought, It’s a beautiful mess. All of it is…living is just a series of beautiful messes.

I thought of the Israelites, heading to their promised land, coming upon the Jordan River. The mess of chaos as they traveled through the path God made in the river. The beauty of the stack of stones left behind, an alter of remembrance and praise.

The death of Lazarus, a drastic loss to his sisters. A mess of emotions and finances. But then, Jesus showed up…and Lazarus did too, leaving behind a beautiful mess of burial cloths.

The mess of a heathen giant threatening to eat the bones of the cowardly opposing forces. The beauty of his silence.

The mess of persecution heaped upon new believers by the over-zealous Saul. The beauty of his repentance.

The mess of a boat of panicked fishermen in a storm. The beauty of peaceful waves.

The mess of the ark. The beauty of the rainbow.

The mess of crucifixion. The beauty of resurrection.IMG_5339

The written account of the Bible may have ended thousands of years ago, but we continue to live the out the grace of God through our beautifully messy lives. If the Bible were being written now, my sloppy days wouldn’t make the canon to be included.

But I would love to think that my faith in the beauty through the mess would rank up there with the heroes of the faith that have gone before.

Lord in your mercy… img_6877

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You’re doing it right when…

When I was 16, I served as a camp counselor at a Christian camp in the mountains of Virginia. I was so excited about the opportunity to do something so cool with my summer vacation! Until, mom and dad dropped me off at camp and left. Then, reality set in and anxiety cranked up. I became a bit of a nervous wreck…and stayed that way for 9 weeks.

Throughout that time, I listened to stories from the missionaries who were staying at camp that summer, stories of God’s faithfulness and protection on the mission fields. Africa, Australia, South America…bazillions of miles away from home. Butterflies fluttered in my tummy whenever the missionaries talked about their ‘call’ because I worried God was going to call me farther away than I already was…and that 90 minute distance from my mama was far enough!

During college, I remember telling my mom that I just couldn’t wait to get married and have kids because I just felt like I had so much love in my heart that just wanted to be used. Mom promised me that if God put that there, He was going to use it…at the right time. And the worry that maybe He was going to send me and my full heart to a galaxy far, far away resurfaced.

Well, I did get married, and I did have kids, and I have shared my love with them, and God has just filled my heart with more love to give away. So I started working with my church to find more ways to share more love.

Enter Jason Stanley. He came to our church four years ago as the associate pastor. We had our first talks on the playground and in the nursery. Unbeknownst to me, these two locations were pretty much setting the stage for my ministry work with Jason.

Over the next four years, he allowed me to experiment with different activities with the kids at church, delegated jobs for me to do in children’s ministry, and supported me in writing/creating curriculum for children’s worship. I took piles of old curriculum and compiled them into reusable, two year rotations of Sunday School lessons so our church could save some money. We collaborated on ideas to minister to young families, including Parents’ Night Out events and Family Mission Nights. We solidified annual church events for kids…Advent activities, Easter Egg Hunt, Vacation Bible School. We introduced new traditions…Blessing of the Backpacks when school starts, Family Thank You Meal in November, Project Sundays each month to share God’s love with various needy populations. My heart has overflown with love and outreach and ministry and love…finally. I have found my ‘calling’ in children’s ministry.

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Sad to say, Jason has recently moved. He gave me four months notice, during which I agonized about his departure. We had worked so well together to create this well-oiled machine of children’s ministry…I didn’t want to see it fall apart. But slowly during those months of knowing he was leaving but still working with him, I realized, I was no longer afraid of ministry. I didn’t want my friend to leave, but my 20 year fear that God was going to call me to be a missionary away from my family was resolved. God wanted me to be a ‘missionary’ right where I was…in my church…because through children and family ministry, I was spreading His name and His love to so many.

You’re doing ministry right when you lead people to a deeper relationship with God. It doesn’t have to be in Africa, though some people can’t wait for their opportunity to go there. It doesn’t have to be as a full-time pastor, though God certainly needs those willing souls. When you can open the eyes of fellow believers to see God at work …and then empower them to be a part of that work...you’re doing it right. That’s what Jesus did. He lead his disciples to know God, to comprehend His love and grace, and then to go tell others about it so they could live in it as well.

My last interaction with Jason at church was during the exciting chaos of VBS. I nostalgically considered how appropriate it was that our final activity together wasn’t having good-bye coffee or best wishes dinner, but rather it was up to our elbows in ministry. Loving God and loving others via graham crackers and foam shapes.

I hate walking into the church office and seeing Jason’s office empty, but my heart is still full of love to share. My list of mission projects is endless. And God’s work still goes on.

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Well done, good and faithful servant Jason. You’re doing it right.

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‘Is it gone?’

My peaceful night’s sleep last night was interrupted by a screaming six year old at my bedside. I grabbed my little daughter and pulled her into bed with me, hugging her while she sobbed. I could barely understand her terrified words. Something about it being big, really big, with long legs, in her room, on the gray chair…it was so big….so scary.

When I turned on the lamp on the nightstand, I saw fear all over her face. Huge blue eyes overflowing with even huger tears. Cheeks red with exhaustion and terror. Precious little mouth trembling as she tried to explain. The words were so frightening…recounting what had happened made it seem so real again.

She had awakened and apparently noticed movement across her room in a small chair. As she looked, she saw the long legs, the round body, the creeping threat of a spider as big as a coffee mug. She gestured to a mug on my nightstand. ‘Well, it wasn’t quite that big,’ she gasped, ‘but it was close’…and the sobbing began again. And the hugging continued.

Ten minutes later, Daddy returned from the fight. ‘Is it gone?’ her trembly, tiny voice inquired.  Brave Daddy stated that he had vanquished (captured and flushed) the foe (a grandaddy-long legs). Her bedroom was safe to sleep in. She clung to me and begged not to have to sleep in there, but I assured her that I would come too.

As I snuggled with her in her safe, cozy bed, listening to her broken sobs turn to whole, peaceful snoozing, I thought of what she had asked her daddy…‘Is it gone?’ Her ultimate concern. The fear needed to be gone. It had come upon her unexpectedly…catching her at her weakest moment…in her most peaceful place. The fear had shattered her security.

I considered the bravest of the brave in the Bible…the ones we are supposed to look to as examples of faithful living…and how they had their own nighttime battles.

Childless Abram, worried about the future of his family and nation, was reassured by the word of God saying  Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  God used the darkness to answer Abram’s question.

Young Samuel met God for the first time in the night.Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” God spoke to Samuel in the darkness, revealing the plan He had for the young boy’s life.

Jacob wrestled with his worries at night and found God in the midst of the struggle.  When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Night should relax us, but instead, our minds unwind and rewind our worries. Shadows creep and crawl around us, hiding truth and exaggerating reality.

Consider this: Jesus was born at night. Angels shattered the blackness of the night sky with the bright splendor of His glory and praise. Shepherds joyously sought His birthplace in spite of the darkness. The star lit a path in the night sky for the wise men to follow for months. God controls the night…he works through the darkness.

God knows the struggles, the fears, the tears, the spiders that creep upon us, shattering our peace. We crave light and answers. He is in the dark , and He has answers. And to answer our ultimate question, ‘Is it gone?’… yes. The fear is gone.

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Chains

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When I was a kid, I really enjoyed making paper chains at Christmas time. Maybe it was the challenge of how long it could grow when competing with school  friends. Maybe it was the monotony of rolling, stapling, rolling, stapling…a menial task with maximum benefit in the midst of holiday rush. Maybe it was the simplicity of the decoration…paper and staples could fill a lot of gaps on the tree when ornaments were scarce. Whatever the reason, I liked making paper chains.

As my Christmases have become more umm…involved over the years, I haven’t had the pleasure of sitting down with a pile of colored paper, scissors, and staples in a while. Until tonight. These post-Thanksgiving days have been uncharacteristically relaxed. The weather has been balmy and perfect for children to run their vacation energy off outside. Their ages make it easier to release them to an independent activity while I relax on the couch a bit. It has been eerily calm.

While my son was biking with friends this afternoon, I was working on cutting some paper for a church project tomorrow (first Sunday of Advent!). I had a pile of decorative FullSizeRender(1)paper spread out in front of me and some scissors, some loosey-goosey little paper scraps and a roll of tape. I asked my nearly-six year old daughter if she’d ever made a paper chain. She said she didn’t think so. As she is methodically minded like her mom, I figured she would enjoy this project. So I grabbed the stapler (I know that makes it more rewarding, more quickly) and showed her.

StarFullSizeRender(3)t with a circle of paper, stapled together. Slide a strip of paper through the circle and staple it to itself. She grasped the simple concept within a few loops and began to connect them herself, just asking that I do the stapling. ‘This is fun!’ she observed after about 8 loops. I knew she was hooked.

As I recalled the last time I made a paper chain, probably elementary school, I considered how much my life has changed. How the plans I had then didn’t exactly happen the way I expected. I had visions of a chain of life events, a certain color scheme, a certain length, but that wasn’t the order God had for my life.

Each little loop of the chain of life has a special meaning, a connection to the rest of the sequence. A preschool friend who has grown up with me, my first job FullSizeRender(5)where I overcame my shyness, my few athletic successes, the job I didn’t get, the guy who shattered my heart, the day I saw my future mate, the church who allows me space for my visions, the book that opened my eyes, the evenings of mommy failure…each momentous connection to others adds a loop to my chain.

Long before paper chains were invented, Seneca said ‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.’ (That wasn’t just a late ’90s Semisonic lyric…) More recently, though not much, the psalmist David recorded, ‘You have taken account of my wanderings. Put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?’ Our days and weeks are full of new experiences, some we want to cherish, others have brought us tears. They begin, they end; new ones begin and become old and end. But God keeps an account of it all…he has a list of our life events, our chain of events. And through those events, he crafts colorful connections to other people, those who need us…and those we need.

We don’t know how long our chains will be, but we can appreciate the simple beauty of the fact that they exist. Each twist or turn, new or old, makes another link that forever joins us with those around us.

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Hello, old passion; meet new passion…

Shortly after I graduated from college with my degree in education, I landed a long-term substitute job at a rural middle school. My first thought was, ‘$70 a day! Sweet!’ My second thought was, ‘Eighth graders…at the end of the year…dear God, please don’t let them eat me!’

And that was when I found my passion. I loved middle schoolers. They are aloof, awkward, misguided, over-sensitive beings. They are temporarily trapped between childhood and adulthood, and they swing between the two stages like a drunken trapeze artist. Moody, irrational, argumentative, intriguing humans craving direction but rebelling against any suggestion. they want to make wise choices but the dumb ones are so much more entertaining. ‘What is life all about?’ meets ‘Hey, y’all watch this…’ I love ’em.

I taught middle school English for a total of nine years in two separate school divisions. My students have grown up to be teenage moms, environmentalists, lawyers, nurses, Masters students, pot heads, teachers, beauticians, nuclear scientists, and even an NFL player. I loved (almost) all of them. (There were a couple that I’m certain were only placed on this earth to teach me character traits that I didn’t possess at that time…)

After my second child was born, I have only worked part-time as a reading specialist…until now. On Friday, I accepted a position to return to one of my former middle schools as an English teacher. Mommy is returning to full-time teacher status.

And I’m scared. How will both of my passions fit into my one heart?

I wanted to have four or six children until I realized how much of my heart one child took. Then I knew I couldn’t have more than two. So how is my heart going to hold 72? I don’t know.

Do I still have it in me to care so deeply for all my charges? Will I still care whose parents are divorcing, who forgets their meds, who needs extra non-verbal reminders, who needs more time on tasks, who needs extra reassurance, who needs lunch money, who needs a winter coat…AND who needs me to send in a check for yearbook or lunch, who needs poster board for a project, who needs more pencils or glue sticks, who has a field trip and wants me to attend, who has a test and needs that napkin of encouraging words in his lunch box…

I love both so much. I want to do it right for them all. But right now, I’m afraid that I’ll hurt the ones who matter most.

Oh my heart, oh my soul, oh my mind…God be with me.

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Book Talk: Once Upon a Time, the End (asleep in 60 seconds)

This one was hilarious. A great read aloud with so many options for upper elementary.

The premise is that a dad can’t get his child to go to sleep, so he continues to tell stories, with some details eliminated, until his offspring gives in to sleep. Tales such as Chicken Little, Princess Pea, and The Little Red Hen are told. Others such as The Two Little Pigs; Small Girl, Red Hood; and Goldilocks and the Bears are summarized with exhausted parental insight. “There were some bears; It doesn’t really matter how many. There was a bunch. Let’s get to the point…” and “Small girl, red hood, big wolf, in the woods…”

We laughed hysterically when we read it aloud in second grade, but I see great potential for this one in upper elementary and middle school. Oh, the lessons on summarizing!! Main idea and details!! Plot lines were never so entertaining to teach. Introduction to characters, setting, and conflict…BAM! Resolution and conclusion.

Writing extensions would be just as fun as reading these fractured fairy tales. The students could have a blast shortening a tale of their own…working collectively to decide which details to keep or slash. Turning these tales or student rewrites into Reader’s Theater could combine writing and fluency to benefit everyone.

Go check this one out. You’ll be glad you did. You’ll probably add it to your repertoire of fairy tales for next year.

Once Upon a Time, The End by Geoffrey Kloske and Barry Blitt

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Book Talk: That Is Not a Good Idea!

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.42.09 PMWell, it’s Mo Willems, so you know it’s going to be entertaining. What I love about this one is its versatility for upper grades as well.

With a layout that hearkens back to silent films, picture page and then text page, the book begs for predictions. After the wolf and the goose meet, little chicks warn ‘That is not a good idea!’ With each invitation from the wolf, the chicks warn the goose away from certain doom by repeating their manta, adding a few more ‘reallys’ each time. Readers will cringe with suspense at each turned page until the fateful (surprise!) ending.

I can’t wait to use this book for so many instructional purposes. Predictions are a given…but then there are inferences to be made, conclusions to be drawn, fluency to be practiced (this could so easily be turned into a Reader’s Theater), foreshadowing to be identified…oh my gosh!!! And the writing extensions are just as exciting…a sequel, a prequel, a letter of advice, a letter of regret, a recipe, a play…will it stop?!!?

And the character lessons…making wise decisions, peer pressure, stranger danger. AND, the spiritual lessons about temptation too…

This book is just a treasure in so many literary AND instructional ways! Go check it out from the library or just buy it. You’re gonna love it!

Update: Mueller-ed

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In a post on March 28 entitled Mueller-ed, I wrote about our church including a mission project each year when we host an Easter egg hunt. This year we were going to be stuffing ‘Socks of Love’ with personal hygiene items to be distributed at our local soup kitchen. I wrote about the need we had for socks…and its sudden fulfillment, similar to the prayers that were answered in missionary George Mueller’s life. (Read about George Mueller here!!) At the end of the entry about getting Mueller-ed, I said I’d give an update on the sock stuffing at the egg hunt.

 We had about 60 children in attendance that Saturday, plus their parents/grandparents, probably giving us a total near 100 participants.  We stuffed 75 socks with travel size shampoos/conditioners/deodorants/toothpastes/soaps and a toothbrush. (We opted out of small bottles of mouthwash, as we discovered that the alcohol-based ones were misused for drinking purposes last time we made such distributions. ) The kids enjoyed stuffing the socks and racing to put their completed bundle in the big plastic bin we had set aside for collection.

On Easter Sunday, in Sunday school, we tied yarn on the socks and included cards of encouragement for the recipients. We repacked the Socks of Love in the collection bin and pushed them to the church office for pickup by the soup kitchen crew. All 75 Socks of Love were distributed to needy families the week after Easter Sunday, as that was spring break and more patrons were present at the food kitchen.

Though we will never know who received these gifts, we know that they were blessed. Whether the health care items helped keep families clean, prepare an individual for a job interview, or aid an adolescent in feeling more hygienically comfortable around peers, we know that the Spirit of God was with them.

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Matthew 25:34-40

34‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Embracing the bittersweet

Fridays are ‘mommy days’. The other days are Omie and Ena days, the grandmas’ days. Fridays are the days that mommy picks D up from preschool because I don’t work on Fridays…this year.

IMG_1443Most Friday afternoons involve play dough creations, art sessions, baby doll mothering, bubble blowing, or marathon book readings. But this afternoon, we were both tired. Between allergies and some unexpected emotional upheavals this week, Friday was going to be a ‘napternoon’.

We cuddled in bed and I read two hilarious books (reviews forthcoming) and we almost decided not to nap. But I yawned, and she rubbed her eyes and we knew. She cuddled into her pink cat quilt, and I rolled into the other bed in her room, and we closed our eyes.IMG_4421

I opened my eyes a few minutes later to see if she was truly asleep, and she was. Two middle fingers in her mouth, little line of drool starting to form, breathing softly and rhythmically. The pristine blue spring sky and the soft green leaves celebrated new life outside her window. But inside, something was ending. ‘Mommy days’ on Fridays were almost over.

In four weeks, she’ll graduate from preschool, and  (hopefully) I’ll be employed with a full time job for next year. I try not to get weepy about things like this with my kids. I spent most of my youth weeping about my own transitions. But this one gets to me. The bittersweetness of it. And i let myself wallow.

Times are a-changing. She is no longer a baby. She loves school. She’s a little knowledge sponge. She’s so ready for the next thing. I’m so ready for my next thing. I’m restless and ready and admittedly, I’ve just been biding my time this year. IMG_3016

But can’t we come back to this? The endingness of it hurts. The finality. Friday afternoons will be spent in school. For her, eagerly gluing her last pieces of colorful craft in place to bring home to show me. For me, grasping at the reigns of control over my impatient adolescent students. No more play dough and dolls before a refreshing nap. No more laughter until hiccuping at amusing nap time stories. (*sigh*) Maybe she could just come to work with me…

I have no regrets. I spent as much time with her as I could during these years. I would not change any of it.

Now we move into a new phase, with new excitement, new ideas, new exploration…for both of us.

IMG_4187And when we come home from our long days of learning and instructing, we will still have each other. We’ll still have our afternoon routines, just later in the afternoon…and maybe alternating days of play dough and dolls and tea parties and games. We’ll still read books before bed. And we’ll always snuggle. Because truthfully, everyday is a mommy day…and everyday she is mine.      IMG_4299

Project Sundays

On the first Sunday of each month, our preschoolers through second graders at church combine Sunday school classes  to work on a mission project. I jokingly call it ‘Sweatshop Sunday’ because we usually form an assembly line to get a lot accomplished in a little time. The kids love that Sunday for various reasons…the creativity, the ACTIVE-ity, the charity, the variety. The notion was an off-shoot of our VBS program last summer, wherein we didn’t do as many cutesy crafts to take home, but we focused more on whole group crafts to benefit greater causes (local pediatric ward, animal shelter, soup kitchen). We wanted to carry the message of mission on past the week-long blast of VBS, so we started Project Sunday the first week of each month. After we share a lesson from the Bible that goes with our project, we explain who we are going to help and how. We say a prayer for the people receiving our gifts, and then, we get to work!

August— Goody bags of THANKS for the teachers in our church

(Each lunch bag contained a Tea bag, H2o (water) bottle, Apple, Napkin, Kiss (chocolate), and Scripture verses to keep in their purse/desk…the contents spell out THANKS. We gave these out on the Sunday before school started, which was also our Blessing of the Backpacks Sunday.)

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September–Decorations for our church’s intergenerational prom

(The kids cut out and decorated stars that were put on the tables for the dinner/dance to which all church members were invited. It was fun to see the tables decorated with the kids own work…and it was fun to see our Sunday-serious church members cuttin’ a rug right beside the kiddos! What a bonding time!)

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October–School supply collection for the teachers at the local alternative-education school 

(Knowing that many of the students in this school do not have the money or motivation to provide their own school supplies, we partner with the teachers to keep them stocked with basics. Our church members bought the items, and our Sunday school children separated them into two piles…one for the beginning of the year, and one to restock the teachers mid-year. They also added cards of encouragement for the teachers.)

November–Fall posters for the homebound members of the church

(Using a mess-free painting idea from Pinterest (top picture), we made fall tree posters with the Bible verse ‘The grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of God stands forever.’ Isaiah 40:8)

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December–Advent wreaths and daily Bible readings for each child

(We had millions lots of toilet paper rolls left over from VBS crafts, so we used them, along with styrofoam plates, to make Advent wreaths. Prior to this Sunday, I cut out the 5 holes around the styrofoam plates into which the candles would be inserted throughout the  month. I stapled another plate under the top one for support. The first Sunday of December, we added green leaves and made the first candle. The kids took them home that day, with a list of Advent scripture readings. The following Sundays, we made the candles and sent them home for the children to add to their wreaths. )

(picture from Pinterest, but very similar to ours)

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January–we took a break : )

February–Bags of Love for our local battered women’s shelter

(When thinking of people that needed a showing of love in February, I thought of the women who had no one to show them love. We decorated white lunch bags and added soap, washcloth, candy, gum, and a colorful card with Bible verses about God being a refuge.)

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In March, we were eager for some signs of spring so we made our own! Using a Pinterest idea, we painted flowers for our sick or homebound friends who needed some cheer. This was a great painting activity because the kids used plastic forks and didn’t get their hands messy…well, too much. (Of course, MY daughter was the one wearing the WHITE dress that day…*Sigh*) A fun way to bring a smile to someone’s dreary day!!

 

 

 

 

I love Project Sunday, and I love that the kids love it too. We’ve been doing it for half a year, and I’m learning what works and what doesn’t. I’ll tweak some things for next year, and perhaps ditch some projects all together and find new ones. But we will continue with it because it’s teaching the kids that our relationship with God reaches beyond Sunday and beyond the church.

Share your ideas of ways your church has helped others! I’d love to hear them!