This Is Thirty-Five: Four Questions To Discern The Voice of God

Photo by  Allen Taylor  on  Unsplash

Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

Preface: December 2nd was the first day of Advent in the She Reads Truth Advent series. Last night’s scripture reading was from Micah 7:7:

“I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation. He will hear me.”

Read on to find out why that scripture on that day was significant…

Yesterday, I gave birth to my blog baby. Nine months ago, I launched This is Thirty Four into the world. Like birthing an actual child, I’ve coddled this website and the dream of a writing career from the day it was conceived. Also similar to an actual child, I made lots of assumptions about what “it” would be like: what I would write about, how many “followers” I would gain, what opportunities I would be presented with.

What I didn’t think of was how the process of writing and sharing my life would change me. Nine months ago I couldn’t have foreseen the way that God would use what started as my desire to achieve and be known to HUMBLE ME and help me understand what it means to FIND MY IDENTITY AND MY REST IN HIM.

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Proverbs 16:9

Nine months ago, I thought I’d use This is Thirty Four to tell the story of my own victory over challenges I’ve faced in life. Yet, during this gestational period, I realized that it isn’t my victory or my story at all. MY LIFE IS A TESTIMONY TO GOD’S POWER, GRACE AND MERCY.

How did I recover from an eating disorder in my early 20s?

BY THE GRACE OF GOD.

How do I live with and fight anxiety attacks as they threaten to steal my joy?

BY FILLING MY HEART AND MIND WITH HIS TRUTH.

How can I cure the ails of perfectionism and stop placing so much emphasis on material things? By remembering that I AM ONLY MADE PERFECT BY HIS BLOOD and EVERYTHING I HAVE IS FROM HIM.

Any story I share is one HE has written.

“He must increase, and I must decrease.” John 3:30

I turn 35 on Friday. What has been one of the most challenging years of my life is finally coming to a close. The past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned this year. Here are two:

I can make plans for the future, but the Lord directs my steps each day.

More of Him. Less of me. In all things.

Can I be honest? I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me 35 years to figure these things out. I wonder if I could have learned these lessons earlier and in another way; but I don’t think so.

We see the blessings God has given us in the good times, but we EXPERIENCE GOD and GROW TOGETHER WITH HIM in our difficulties. The easy seasons of life call us to praise what God has done. The hard seasons show us who God is and how much we need HIM to guide us every step of the way.

I assumed that when the tough stuff ended--when I made it to the other side of my year of “wandering in the wilderness”--I’d emerge with clear direction and renewed focus, both for my writing and my life. I spent months praying for clarity, and God seemed silent.

Sometimes the wilderness can end, but the waiting continues.

The closer I came to 35, the more frustrated I became over God’s silence. Not only would the URL I (poorly) chose no longer make sense (if it ever did), but I could not reconcile the feeling that I was supposed to keep writing with the lack of direction for what to write about.

Until yesterday…

I was cooking breakfast when the phrase came to me:

STYLE YOUR LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT.

Immediately, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and excitement. I paused and reflected on where the words came from. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than eggs at the time.

STYLE YOUR LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT BY KNOWING JESUS, LOVING WELL AND BEING INTENTIONAL.

It even fit with my core values, the things I’m passionate about and what I’ve already been sharing.

And then it hit me: Those words were from HIM. At what felt like the 11th hour, God showed up. On the day of my blog’s “birth,” He answered my prayer for clarity, not just for this website but for my 35th year of life.

KNOW JESUS. LOVE WELL. BE INTENTIONAL.

So how do I know that those words were from God?

To a certain extent, I don’t. We can never TRULY know, this side of Heaven, whether we have heard the voice of God. If we could audibly hear His voice or know with 100% confidence that He was telling us to do something, we wouldn’t need faith. I once heard a pastor say, “On the outside chance I heard God, I’m gonna do what He told me.”

Same here, Pastor.

When I think I hear the voice of God, I do ask myself a few questions. If the answers to these questions are yes, then I (usually) take it as a green light to move in the direction I feel Him leading me.

1.)  Did I pray about it?

2.)  Is what I think I’m hearing God tell me to do in line with Biblical truth?

3.)  Do I feel a sense of peace about what I’m hearing?

4.)  Have other people or life circumstances aligned and affirmed what I’m hearing?

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of questions; and of course, if the decision was about something bigger than the direction to take the content of a website, I would talk with more people, continue to read scripture and PRAY, PRAY, PRAY.

But for now, for this decision, I can confidently say that God spoke, and I am listening.

One more thing before I go…

I mentioned this post on social media last week. At the time, I only had a few lines of it written. Last night, I sat down to write and couldn’t come up with a single word. So it seems, we’ve come full circle.

Any story I share really is one that HE HAS WRITTEN.

“I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me.” Micah 7:7

The Cost of Connection

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Her name is Ferida. She lives in the Spanish style house at the end of my street with her husband Charlie. They are are both in their 80’s, and Charlie’s health is declining; thus, they don’t participate in our weekly neighborhood curbside gatherings. (Those are a real thing. I live in present-day Mayberry.) Until last week, my relationship with Ferida consisted of the pleasantries exchanged while getting the mail or the happenstance of walking in or out of our houses at the same time.

Last Tuesday night, there were emergency vehicles at Ferida and Charlie’s house. The other neighbors and I discussed the trucks at our Wednesday curbside gathering. None of us knew what happened; and we all agreed that someone should walk over and see if everything was ok. I waited for someone else to volunteer. It was close to dinner time and my spaghetti pie wasn’t going to make itself. More than that, I wondered whether knocking on Ferida’s door would open my eyes to a new person to care for—someone I couldn’t unsee due to our close proximity. Did I have room in my schedule—or my heart—for that?

As a strong two on the enneagram, I’m a helper and a connecter by nature. I pride myself on being able to form deep relationships with people—sometimes to my detriment. I take on too much. I say “yes” because I feel like I SHOULD. I offer to help when I don’t really have the time; and I feel people’s pain deeply. Oh, how deeply I feel things.

I’m getting better about managing my “twoness” as I get older. I’m learning to prioritize the essential over the urgent and giving my family, friends and their burdens over to God, rather than trying to shoulder them on my own. Still, developing a relationship with my elderly neighbors seemed like a step backward in my tidy schedule management as well as a potential tax on my emotions.

Long story short, another neighbor volunteered to check on Ferida and Charlie, and I (in true Two form) walked over to check on them with her. That visit opened the door for a series of visits with Ferida this past week.

As it turns out, Ferida needs very little from me, other than someone to sit shoulder to shoulder with her and help her sort through information and her emotions related to her husband’s impending death. As it also turns out, the heart that I didn’t think was big enough to hold one more person’s pain expanded just a little to let Ferida in. After Sunday night’s visit, Ferida looked at me through tearful eyes and said: “Thank you for helping me process this information. I think I just needed someone to listen.”

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I won’t lie, I woke up yesterday feeling depleted. Not just from supporting Ferida, but from a week—maybe even a couple weeks—full of connecting with people. People I legitimately love. People I would give the shirt off my back if they needed it and who I willingly give my time to. Unfortunately, I think I’ve become so good at connecting with other people that I’ve forgotten how to connect with myself.

In their book, The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath say that connecting with others requires two things: responsiveness (e.g.- validation and caring) and openness (e.g.- vulnerability). I’d add time and availability to that list; and I’d venture to say that the same principles that apply to connecting with others apply to connecting with ourselves (e.g.- self-care). We can’t nurse our own emotionally depleted souls back to health unless we do the following:

  1. Acknowledge the problem.

  2. Understand the cause of the problem.

  3. Make time to fix the problem.

Here’s what this looks like in practice:

1.) Acknowledging the problem: I’m exhausted. I feel like I never have any time to do the things I love because I’m always doing things for other people. (This is pretty much the siren song of Enneagram twos, by the way. Please don’t take pity on me. I’ve done this to myself.)

2.) Understanding the cause of the problem: I’ve told myself that the world—or at least the people in my world—NEED me. That their lives will fall apart if I am not there to HELP them. While I genuinely LOVE helping other people, the problem arises when I start to derive my self-worth from the helping. Lately, I’ve not only derived my worth from the helping, but I’ve become resentful of the very thing that’s “supposed” to bring me satisfaction.

3.) Making time to fix the problem: Notice that I didn’t go straight to “fixing the problem.” For people like me, who value connection, our calendars can be so booked with volunteering and meetings and coffee dates and helping, helping, helping that we often need to clear our schedule before we even have TIME to helping ourselves. For me, making time to fix the problem means making time for myself. Clearing my calendar for a week to do things that I enjoy—for no other reason than the fact that I enjoy them.

Fixing the problem also means connecting with THE ONE who gives me life and remembering who I am in Christ. I am loved, and I am worthy. Not because of what I do or who I help but because I am HIS CHILD. As Brian Frost, the pastor of the church I attended in grad school, once said:

“Jesus, not my productivity, is my justification.”

The older I get, the more I realize that when I take my eyes off of Him—whether that’s by focusing too much on others or on myself—everything falls apart. This doesn’t mean I won’t keep checking in on Ferida or that I’ll stop trying to connect with people I love. It simply means that on weeks like this one, when I feel my body and soul growing weary from all the doing, I need to pause and redirect my focus. The biggest help I’ll ever be to othesr is in pointing them to Christ.

ALL EYES ON HIM.

Living By Faith and Being a Good Sibling: An Interview With My Brother

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Every once in a while, we are fortunate enough to have someone in our lives who always seems to know the right thing to say, who challenges us to be a better person, and who loves us unconditionally, despite having seen us through our awkward middle school days and angst-ridden teenage years. For me, that person is my brother, Fred Hadra.

Nearly four years my junior, I would not characterize our relationship growing up as “close.” We fought over everything and had very little use for each other during our days at home together. As adults, however, we talk weekly, text often; and, just this month, have called each other for advice on multiple occasions. (Somewhere, our mother’s heart is exploding.)

The way my brother and his wife, Teesha, live their lives is a constant inspiration to me. Two years ago, the two of them left their comfortable existence as DINKs (“double income, no kids”) in Atlanta, GA for a smaller, more humble existence in Pasadena, CA. (Think 500 square foot apartment, no car and meager salaries.) Their reason for making this change? They wanted to live a more intentional life that kept them open and available to what God might have for them.

Today, Teesha is finishing up the manuscript for her first book and Fred is two months into starting a non-profit—the Pasadena Community Supper Club—that provides meals and faith-based community service to the poor and marginalized in Pasadena. Below, my brother shares a bit more about their lives, their new endeavors and how their faith plays into every aspect of what they do.

Jenn Prentice (JP): Oh, hello brother dear. Thanks for joining me in this space. Can you tell everyone a little bit about you and Teesha?

Fred Hadra (FH): We are the artists currently known as Teesha and Fred. We have been married for about 2.5 years, during which time we upended our quite comfortable lives in Atlanta, GA, and moved across the country to southern California in order for Teesha to attend school full-time at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she is pursuing her Masters of Divinity degree in preparation for pastoral work, and possible/likely ordination. I (Fred) cheekily refer to my wife as a recovering attorney, pastor-in-training, soon-to-be-published author, ordinary radical, and somewhat reluctant occupier of the limelight.

I have been enjoying semi-retirement for about two years, since moving to Cali. It allows me much more time to practice what I like to call Artisanal House Husbandry  I “work” from home selling podcast advertising to help pay the bills, and spend the remainder of my time sorting out life’s daily detritus, including some cleaning but with a heavy emphasis on and interest in cooking. We recently started a small nonprofit called Pasadena Community Supper Club, through which we prepare and serve community dinners at a nearby low-income housing facility.

JP: You just served your third dinner through the Pasadena Community Supper Club. Tell me more about the organization—how it started and where you are hoping to see it go in the future.

FH: Pasadena Community Supper Club is an outgrowth of friendships formed through the breaking of bread.

Myself, Teesha and our friends Corey, and Brooks (the founders) - together with respective spouses and other friends - met through a weekly church-sponsored community group. It became clear rather quickly that the dinner portion of our time together was an entrée (pun intended) for deep conversations about our shared faith and the call to love one another, particularly the poor and marginalized around the city.

However, a tension arose: how to reconcile the material poverty we saw on the streets with the meals we ate together each week at our community group? While never extravagant, the food we prepared and served to each other required time and disposable income. All our talk finally turned into action, and we started volunteering together through Union Station Homeless Services’ Adopt-a-Meal program. The goal? Serve the same quality of food we enjoyed each week to the shelter's guests.

The conversations, the Adopt-a-Meals - and, yes, the weekly dinners - continued, and gradually the outline of a more ambitious plan emerged. The group, with the support of friends and family, local churches, and other organizations, would put the pieces in place to serve more people, more often.

The Pasadena Community Supper Club officially launched on July 22, 2018, with a dinner and faith-based community service for the residents of Centennial Place, a supportive residence for formerly homeless citizens of Pasadena. The Club’s dinners will continue on the fourth Sunday of each month at Centennial Place, made possible by the generosity of volunteers and donors.

As financial support grows and new opportunities arise, Pasadena Community Supper Club will expand its dinner events to serve more people in the Pasadena and greater Los Angeles area.

JP: In the past three years, you've gone from being DINKS with two cars in a large townhouse in Atlanta, GA to now living off of two partial salaries, with no car in a 500 square foot apartment in Pasadena. How does your faith play into the things you are doing—or not doing—and the way you are spending your money? 

FH: Faith in God’s design for our lives and desire that we serve those around us is the primary motivating factor in our decision making, which included our decision to get married, to move to California, and to do things such as (but we hope not limited to) starting a nonprofit that serves the poor and write books that breaks the chains that bind us and divide us. 

Money is, at root, a faith issue. It’s about trusting God to provide for our needs, even when we also feel led to, say, spend thousands of dollars of our own money to get a new project off the ground. It’s about the courage to not pursue any and every professional opportunity, because while doing so may be lucrative, it may also preclude you from being able to serve the more immediate needs of others to which God wants you to attend. It also means sacrificing your desires - say, to go on a really cool trip, or to buy this or that perfectly legitimate thing - because it’s not the right time. Materially speaking, the greatest sacrifice we had made in the last ~2 years is in not having a car. Essentially that was and continues to be a financial decision, as car payments, insurance, gas, upkeep, etc. are all expensive. It would have torn through our savings at a much faster rate. I’ve partly justified the no-car decision as one of lifestyle. Where we live is walkable, and in many day to day scenarios, driving to run an errand would take as much or more time than walking, and you would have to pay $10 in parking. Presently, it’s looking as though it might be necessary that we get a car in order to facilitate some of the work we’re doing for the nonprofit, but even if we do make that change, our intent will be to look at a car truly as a tool, or as a means, something we use intentionally and not something we use mindlessly or frivolously to engender poor time or financial decisions.

JP: What are your recommendations to people who are looking to downsize? What about people who are making a cross country move? What would you recommend to them? 

FH: My recommendation is not to think about it too much. Just do it, as they say. You will always find reasons NOT to make decisions that force you to feel uncomfortable, but in reality, they will actually liberate you from ways of thinking and being that are holding you back, without even knowing it. As I wrote earlier, selling all your stuff, quitting your job, and moving across the country into a tiny house (or the equivalent) is not the right decision for everyone. And if you’re married, and if you have kids, you have to think about the full range of what that will mean for the futures of the people for whose lives you bear some mutual responsibility. The answer is not always “Do it!” That being said, it’s always worth asking “Why not?” Be brutally honest about what’s holding you back, as well as what’s pushing you into something. Those motivations, the pushes and pulls, may in fact be selfish, or merely silly, but at least you and your spouse or other life stakeholders will know. They probably have their own selfish or silly reasons for wanting or not wanting to do something as well.

JP: Last question. At the end of your life, what do you hope people say about you? What type of legacy are you hoping to leave? 

FH: I want to be remembered as someone willing to sacrifice and do hard things for the sake of others. Life is hard. But we, as followers of Christ, especially privileged ones who have the privilege to think about their lives in terms of significance and legacy, are called to do hard things. Not out of a sense of guilt, though sometimes a little guilt is not a bad thing. So, get a move on. 

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Last week, Fred and I were talking about what helps the two of us maintain a close relationship. As I mentioned above, we weren’t that close growing up, so developing a strong relationship in adulthood is something we’ve worked hard at doing. While there’s no magic bullet for improving a sibling relationship, we both agreed that 95% of having a good relationship is just about showing up: Talking regularly. Texting back. Making plans to spend time together—and actually doing it.

To be honest, my brother and I don’t actually have that much in common; but what we do share is a deep love for one another and a belief that at the end of the day, family is one of the only things you’ve got. Once we started being intentional about our relationship, finding common ground became easier.

I realize that some sibling relationships are beyond repair; but for those of you who don’t have much of a reason why you’re not close with your brother or sister, I’d encourage you to give them a call today and start putting in the time and effort to grow closer. I promise you won’t regret it!

Childhood Cancer Awareness Month: Billy Warner's Story

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I met Sarah Warner earlier this year at the RISE conference. Ten minutes into our first conversation, we realized were both from California (the conference was held in Los Angeles, but people came from all over the world); and Sarah asked if I could give her a ride home.

Despite the fact that I was raised to NEVER give a ride to strangers, I didn’t hesitate to say yes to Sarah’s request. (You can read a bit about our ride together and what Sarah taught me here.)  

In August 2017, Sarah and her husband, Mike, lost their 12-year old son Billy to cancer. Sarah’s story is one of hard, unfathomable things. Things that no mother should ever have to endure. But her story is also one of strength, resilience and dignity in the face of extreme pain. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Over 15,000 children in the US are diagnosed with cancer every day. Nearly 1,800 children in the US will lose that fight each year. For as far as we’ve come with cancer treatment, we still have a long way to go.

Today, Sarah is sharing her story and her son Billy’s cancer journey. The outcome is not pretty, but Sarah and her family are making something beautiful of their lives despite the destruction that cancer has left them. This interview is very real, raw and personal; and it’s such an important read. Hearing statistics about childhood cancer is one thing. Reading someone’s personal encounter with the disease is quite another. I’m humbled that Sarah shared her story and her son Billy’s life with me and with all of you.

PS- If reading Billy’s story is triggering to you in any way, you might want to skip down to the last few questions when Sarah addresses how to love, help and talk to someone dealing with cancer and the death of a child. She also shares the best way to support Childhood Cancer research.

Jenn Prentice (JP): Hey Sarah, thank you so much for being here and sharing your story. Will you tell everyone a little about yourself.

Sarah Warner (SW): My Name is Sarah Warner, I live in Sonoma County, which is also known as “Wine Country” in Northern California. I’m mama to 2 boys, and I’ve been with my best friend for just shy of 20 years. We joke that his sister brought me home to him in high school. I’m a wedding planner who’s owned my own business since 2013. I also do part-time bookkeeping. This works really well for me because the hours never conflict. I get to take my kids to school and then go to work. Then I’m off in time to pick them up, and I start working on my business at night... Or at least that’s the plan.

JP: You and I had the opportunity to get to know one another at the RISE conference. We actually shared a ride home, and you so graciously shared your story with me. Can you share a bit of your story with the people reading this blog? 

SW: Our family is big into Boy Scouts. In May 2016, we had just come home from a hike with Scouts, and I watched my son Billy (who was 11 at the time) undress so we could look for ticks. I noticed how angular he had become, and I asked him to step on the scale. He had gone down in weight to 74 lbs. He was 94 lbs in December.

 We made an appointment with his doctor, who worked up some blood work and did a chest X-ray. Everything came back clean. We went back a week later and he had lost another 5lbs. More blood work and scans were ordered; and those came back clean too. So, we started a waiting game of getting into see specialists and other doctors. It was taking months, and during that time, Billy’s joints and abdomen started hurting. He didn't feel like eating. He was tired but managed to rally to go to school and scouts. 

At the urging of my boss’s wife, on a Monday morning, I drove him to the ER at UCSF children's hospital. Within 6 hours, they were fairly sure it was cancer, they just weren’t sure what type. He was immediately admitted him into the hospital. They did a pet scan and found a tumor on his spine. They did a biopsy on it and confirmed that it was cancer--stage 4 neuroblastoma.

This is a cancer normally found in babies. Only 4% of diagnosis are in kids over the age of 10. Billy was 11. That Friday we started his first round of chemo; and thus began a very long, horrendous medical journey for Billy and for our family.

He did four rounds of chemo and had a reaction to every one of them. After four different chemos, they determined it wasn’t killing the cancer off fast enough. Som they started three rounds of antibodies. They told me those would be hard. They didn’t tell me that the first day, I would question everything about being a parent. I thought I signed Billy up to be tortured. While they try to find the right combination of painkillers and the correct infusion rate, Billy was having intense nerve pain; and just when I thought that was over, the swelling started. Again, Billy had reactions to EVERYTHING, but after three rounds, it looked like he only have one small point of cancer left.

JP: So, this was in November of 2016? And at this point, it was looking hopeful.

SW: Yes, in November 2016, he had major abdominal surgery taking out most of the tumor, his left adrenal gland and several lymph nodes. I didn’t know this would be the turning point. There was more cancer than had shown up on the MIBG scan, some of his cancer would only show on a PET scan. The surgery left Billy unable to eat more than just a couple bites, which was devastating because he was an adventurous foodie. This time we didn’t leave the hospital for a month, and then we only left for his brother’s birthday and Christmas. The around the clock care was just too much for us to do at home.

The next step was to do a stem cell transplant to kill off the remaining bit of cancer. With a stem cell transplant, the first step is a very rigorous chemo that kills your immune system—both good and bad--completely. The slightest cold could have killed him.

JP: So what did that mean?

SW: It meant a stay in the hospital for over a month. It meant not seeing his brother for six weeks. Unfortunately, the scans after transplant showed the cancer growing back; and we were forced to turn to palliative care and radiation to shrink and ease the pain of the cancer near his occipital, hip and back.

But this is what I need people to know: During Billy’s journey, every time he was discharged, we made the most of the time we had out of the hospital.  We took trips to Southern California to visit family and have fun at Legoland and Universal Studios. We went to New York for a Make a Wish trip. We made Hawaii happen. He flew in helicopters and biplanes. He skydived indoors twice.  He swam with dolphins, snorkeled with turtles, went to magic shows. He ate crazy things, rode in limos, camped in a safari, learned about science. He played games with cousins and played in the sand.

Billy LIVED! Billy pushed us to LIVE.

A few people didn’t understand why I “made” Billy go do all these things. They were actually mad at me for doing all the things we did. But I wasn’t dragging Billy to have all these adventures. When one was done he’d look at me and ask “Where are we going next?” He wanted to go to as many national parks as possible, and my community rallied to make these moments happen for us. IT. WAS. HARD.  It was a lot of planning to travel with a sick child. It was terrifying to think I might need to take him to an ER I didn’t know; but I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

JP: Unfortunately, Billy passed away in August of 2017. You just marked the one year anniversary of Billy's death. I know you guys do a lot to keep his memory alive. Can you talk about that and what you did this August?

SW: Billy Died 10 days before his 13th birthday. Mike and I decided that in his honor we would have an adventure in that time frame every year. This year we went to New Zealand and had a Billy sized adventure.  We went on a luge. My husband jumped off a cliff and swung with our monkey that travels with us as our Billy mascot.  Shea (our youngest son) rode in a Shark scuba that jumps 18’ out of the water. We ate all kinds of fun things and tried doing new things. We learned about the local animals and even went to a Scout meeting.

JP: Can you talk about this past year. What has gone through your mind and your heart? 

It’s been a really hard season. Starting in June with his friends graduating from middle school, and then, in the midst of his birthday and Angel-versary, those kids started high school. I’m so glad I get to see them doing that, but it also kinda rips my heart to shreds. 

Too much has gone through my mind: How unfair it all is. How unlucky we were to get dealt this card but also how grateful we are for our amazing community.Things that you wouldn’t guess have been triggers. Shea broke his collarbone, and just going to the ER is like asking for a panic attack. I won’t go to San Francisco for networking events or really anything, because that drive just reminds me of going to the hospital and induces anxiety.

And then there are our friends who are still living with cancer. I know when they have scans, and I feel like I’m holding my breath for results. I’m overjoyed when those results come back negative, but I’m also sad that we never got that journey. 

People tell us we need to go to therapy, but nothing can fix this. They don’t have magic tools to make this easier. Don’t try to fix us. Just be with us as friends. Listen. There’s this circle I shared to try to get people to understand what we are going through.

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I don’t have it in me to console anyone but Mike or Shea--and even that is a stretch some days. 

JP: What are some things that people said to you while you were dealing with Billy's illness that were or were not helpful? What are some things that people did that were or were not helpful? 

SW: I found early on that I would tell my community what I didn’t need to hear. (Don’t tell me about your oils/diet.) We had a Facebook group, and I asked them to post jokes, cute animal stuff, or babies photos--all things that made Billy smile. It became a group people loved to go to smile, or so I’m told. Sometimes all I needed was someone to cuss with, someone to send an emoji so I knew I was heard.

JP: What about after Billy passed away? What are some things that people said or did that were or were not helpful?   

SW: My friends who just sat in bed and watched TV with me were the best. Dinners that weren’t casseroles or bag salads were treats. Don’t get me wrong, I love casseroles. I just can’t eat that for a month. Friends who took/take my youngest son to school were amazing, because mornings are the hardest for me. Friends who understand that I want to be invited to do things but who also understand that I might cancel or cut out early because I don’t have the spoons (look up spoon theory) that day are also appreciated. 

JP: How can people who are hoping to help with childhood cancer research get involved? What are some of the best organizations to donate to? 

SW: There are so many ways to help:

Host a lemonade stand, benefiting Alex’s Lemonade Stand. 

Buy gifts from organizations that give back like Love Your Melon. 

Give blood. It is so needed. Nationally, there is a shortage; and kids like Billy really do need it. 

Give money for your birthday. I personally love Family House San Francisco. it was our home away from home. We lived there for 18 months. I hate to think what it would have been like to try to get care so far from home. 

My biggest platform: Give to your local research hospital. For us this means I want research money to go to UCSF pediatric cancer research. 

Contrary to popular belief, St. Jude doesn’t take every child. They use protocols researched elsewhere. Don’t make families feel dumb for not going there. I had a well-meaning friend of the family try to tell me I should move Billy’s care there, so we didn’t have to spend so much time fundraising. My friends were the ones fundraising. Being states away from our family would have been exponentially harder; and there were no open trials for Billy’s cancer. 

Finally, more than just research, you can give money to camps like Camp Okizu where oncology kids, siblings and families can go and have the emergency care they might need and be around others who understand the lingo and emotions is huge. Especially for the siblings. They get the short end of so much. Their parents are often gone for so much. Their sick sibling gets all these cool gifts and trips, meanwhile their world has been turned upside down. I’m glad Shea gets to go to this camp. 

JP: Sarah, I can’t thank you enough for being willing to share your life with me and everyone reading. I have one last question: At the end of your life, what legacy do you hope you leave behind? What do you think would make Billy the most proud? 

SW: At the end of my life I want people to say I was a good friend and I want my son to know he was loved. I want him to know how to live in the moment and to be kind because you don’t know the journey someone else caries in their hearts. I want my Scouts to remember my love for my boys, and my dedication to having an adventure. 

 

Simplify September: Calendar and Details

Photo by  Steinar Engeland  on  Unsplash

In less than 24 hours, it will be September 1st. Because I am a planner--and I think many of you are too--I'm posting the details of the Simplify September project TODAY! That way, you can hit the ground running tomorrow morning! 

The whole point of Simplify September is to make our lives less complicated. Things tend to get busier and busier during the last few months of the year. Simplify September is a way to slow down, scale back, clean up and figure out what's really important to you. That way, when the holiday season hits (believe it or not, it's just around the corner), you'll know who, what and how to prioritize in order to spend as much time as possible with the people who mean the most to you. 

There are five elements to the Simplify September project: 

1.) The 30-day Simplify September calendar (posted below)

2.) The Simplify September Meal Plans. Week One here. Week Two here

3.) The Simplify September capsule wardrobe

4.) The Simplify September reading plan (more info below)

5.) The Simplify September workbook (more info below)

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO ALL THESE THINGS.

You can do some of them. You can do most of them. You can do none of them and simply follow along and see what other people are doing. Pretty much everything in the Simplify September project can actually be done during any month of the year. 

 The Simplify September 30-day calendar is at the bottom of this post. 

Each week on the calendar, we take on a different area of life. In week one, we clear the physical clutter. In week two, we calm the mental chaos. In week three, we simplify our schedules; and in week four, we work on our relationships. Some of the items on the calendar repeat themselves. That's because they are REALLY THAT IMPORTANT. If you find one suggestion extra helpful, try incorporating it into your daily, weekly or monthly routine. 

On Sundays, we meal prep and reflect.

Every Sunday, I will post a new meal plan--with recipes. The meal plans will be updated weekly. Week one is here. Week two is here

I will also take time to reflect on the previous and upcoming week; and I encourage you to do the same. I've created a workbook for each week that includes questions to help you with those reflections. 

If you want the Simplify September workbook and weekly encouragement from me in your inbox, sign up for the Simplify September email list below. 

You can find information about the Simplify September capsule wardrobe here. This includes links to most of the items I'm wearing next month. 

And finally, the Simplify September reading plan is so simple that it doesn't need it's own post: Simply read one chapter from the book of Proverbs every day for the next 30 days. There are 31 chapters in Proverbs, so you'll have to read two chapters one day this month. That's it.

One more thing before you go...

In addition to my Tuesday Truth (Tuesday mornings at 7 a.m. PST on Instagram Live), I'll be doing some bonus Instagram Lives throughout the month. I'd love to have some of you join me on those Instagram Lives to talk about the Simplify September project and what you're learning through it. Send me an email and we can try to set up a time for a LIVE CHAT!  I'll also be using the #simplifyseptember hashtag when I post something related to the project on Instagram. Feel free to tag your Simplify September posts with the same hashtag! 

Everything about Simplify September is supposed to make you feel more calm, more organized and more present for the people and things that matter. If something in this project makes you feel stressed out or frazzled or anxious or not good enough, DON'T DO IT! 

I'm so excited to calm the chaos in our minds, relationships, time and possessions with you! Let's Simplify September together! 

Simplify September Calendar

This calendar was designed by my friend  Amy at Amy's Art Table . 

This calendar was designed by my friend Amy at Amy's Art Table

Five Tips For A (Mostly) Stress Free Family Vacation

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Growing up, my family vacationed with my grandparents in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for one week every summer. My memories of these trips include endless days of running between the beach and hotel pool, playing shuffleboard with my grandfather, eating crab legs dipped in so much garlic butter I'm surprised my arteries are still in tact...and side glances exchanged between my parents. These glances--or the occasional eye roll--happened when my grandfather, who was not one to mince words, said something off-putting to my father or when my grandma tried to tell my mom how to do something or when the dinner conversation turned to a taboo subject. 

As an adolescent, I pictured my future family vacationing with MY parents one day...minus the side glances, eye rolling and awkward conversations. As an adult, I'm pleased to say that my vision has (mostly) come true. My husband, children and I vacation with my parents, brother and sister-in-law for a week every summer. And while my dad is not sharp tongued with my husband and my mom is not critical of my parenting, these trips are not without their potential relational pitfalls.

Yet after three years of vacationing together, my family is beginning to master the art of togetherness. Our vacation on Lake Michigan just came to a close. Last night, we sat down for a little post-vacation debrief (see tip #5) and came up with a few reasons why this year was our best family vacation to date. Here are our five tips for a MOSTLY stress-free family vacation: 

Tip #1: Set expectations for your family vacation before you leave

My parents, brother and I lead very different lives. My brother and sister-in-law live a child-free, car-free life in Los Angeles. My parents are empty nesters in Central Wisconsin; and my husband and I are 10 years of marriage and two young kids in to life in a tiny beach town on the California coast. Much like our lives, our ideas about what "vacation" means are different. 

Before we went on our most recent trip, we talked about what each of us wanted our vacation to look like. If you have the luxury of living in the same town as your extended family, this is probably best done in person. For us, this conversation took place through phone and email. 

Here are some questions to ask in order to set vacation expectations appropriately: 

  1. What would make this a great vacation for you? 
  2. What are some things you really want to do/visit/see/experience on this vacation? 
  3. Is there anything you DON'T want to do on this vacation? 
  4. How much do you want to out and do things and how much do you want to rest and relax (on a beach, at a campsite, etc)? 
  5. Do you want to do everything together or will there be time for people to go do things by themselves or with just one or two others? 

Tip #2: Resolve to let it go 

If you're entertaining the idea of vacationing with extended family, your relationship with them is probably decent. But regardless of how well your family gets along, there are always some topics you shouldn't discuss with them; and at some point during your vacation, there may be something said to incite those aforementioned side glances or eye rolls or--even worse--a disagreement. 

Resolve NOW to let it go THEN. 

Change the subject. Ignore the comment. Take a deep breath. Nothing good can come from starting a heated debate or argument with a person you're going to have to spend time with for the next few days. Life is too short to be in conflict with people you love. Repeat after me: I'd rather be in relationship with my family than be right. 

Tip #3: Make a schedule for each day of vacation

In certain vacation scenarios (cruises, guided tours, backpacking, etc) your daily schedule is pre-determined. In many cases, however, you and your family have an endless number of things you could do each day...and just as many opinions about which thing to choose. Talking through the possibilities and creating a schedule in advance gets everyone on the same page--and eliminates (most) conflict. 

Here are a few questions to ask when putting together daily vacation schedules: 

  1. What places/restaurants/activities are in close proximity to each other and make sense to do in the same day? 
  2. Are we allowing a reasonable amount of time for and between each activity? 
  3. Who will be going to and participating in each activity? 
  4. Do we need to make reservations or purchase tickets in advance? 

Pro tip: My family and I found it best to review and firm up the daily schedule for the next day at dinner each night. This puts everyone on the same page for the upcoming day and, again, eliminates (most) potential conflict. 

Tip #4: Make sure everyone has an equal say 

Remember that list of things to do/go/see/visit that you and your family made prior to the vacation? Go back to that list when you make your daily schedule and make sure everyone is checking things off their vacation bucket list. That way, no one gets to the end of the week and feels like they only did things that everyone else wanted to do. 

Tip #5: Do a post-family vacation check-in

If these vacations are going to become an annual tradition, it's good to sit down shortly after the trip has ended and discuss what went well and what you'd like to do differently next year. Because my family is scattered around the US, we don't usually get together in person again until the holidays, so post-vacation debriefing happens on the last day of vacation or via phone or email. 

Pro tip: Make sure someone writes down the takeaways. I have two small children and virtually no memory these days, so it's highly likely that by this time next year, I won't remember what everyone loved--or hated--about our trip. 

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Even as I write this, I know that some of you will read this post with incredible sadness. Perhaps one or both of your parents are no longer living or your relationship with them is beyond repair due to circumstances out of your control. My heart aches for you. 

I also realize that some of you are reading this and thinking: "I could NEVER go on vacation with my family. I can barely stand to be in the same room with them for five minutes." I get it. Family relationships can be hard and complicated. Maybe you just need to make it through dinner before you start planning a week of togetherness. 

If you ARE fortunate enough to have a solid relationship with your extended family, but you've never gone on a vacation all together, there's no time like the present to get one on the books. And if you do take regular family vacations, leave YOUR TIPS in the comments section below! 

 

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Intentional Motherhood: Ten Encouraging Truths For Raising Kids

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Last month on This is Thirty Four, we talked about relationships. Specifically, we talked about relationships with our significant other, our relationship with God, and we even touched on relationships with people from different cultural backgrounds. For the next two months, we’re talking about time (how to spend it, how to manage it, and how to avoid wasting it) and possessions (how to be a good steward of the money and things we have).

Before we fully step into the new topic, I think there’s one more relationship worth discussing: Our relationship(s) with our children. Before I became a parent, I had no idea that any single relationship could simultaneously be filled with so much joy…and so much frustration…and pride and self-doubt…and love and fear.

 Out of all my relationships, the relationships I have with my boys are the ones I struggle with the most. My boys are not particularly difficult—though I might tell you otherwise if you ask me at bedtime; but the expectations I’ve placed on myself-- or allowed others to place on me--as a mother ARE. (That’s a topic for an entirely different blog post.)

I’ve only been a mom for five and a half years, which hardly makes me a parenting expert. I am, however, an avid reader and lifelong learner—especially when it comes to raising my boys. So today, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 pieces of parenting “advice” I’ve ever read or received.

I put advice in quotes because this isn’t the typical “Breast is best” advice on child rearing. What follows are nuggets of truth from friends, family and others much wiser than me that I’ve called to mind over the past five years when I needed encouragement. Whether you’ve got one child or ten children (heaven help you if you fit into the latter category), are a stay-at-home-mom, work full time or somewhere in between, I think words will speak to your heart as well…

  1. “Children go through life in stages. The good news is that if you hate a stage your children are in (infant sleep, toddler tantrums, teenage angst, etc), it won’t last forever. The bad news is that if you love a stage they are in, it won’t last forever. Hold on through the rough stages and cherish the good ones.” - Cherie Hadra, my mom and mother of two
  2.  “I have come to picture the heart of each child as a treasure chest…Each child whose treasure chest is full will have abundant resources on which to draw in the midst of life’s demands. As a woman now pushing fifty, I realize that those foundational years in the life of a child—those same years when I sometimes thought I was accomplishing nothing—have a lasting effect on almost every aspect of the rest of that child’s life.” -Sally Clarkson, The Mission of Motherhood
  3. “It's easy to be liked by strangers. It's very hard to be loved and connected to the people in your home when you're always bringing them your most exhausted self and resenting the fact that the scraps you're giving them aren't cutting it.”  -Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect
  4. “You cannot give children (emotionally) what you do not have yourself…no matter how much emphasis you place on it.” – Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  5. “A mother sets the tone for the whole household.” – Emily Pahler, Friend and fellow boy mom 
  6. “Motherhood is God’s provision of nurture to the world and provision of sacrifice to the family.” – Brian Frost, Pastor at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC
  7. “…(one question) I use to pull myself back from the brink of debilitating mom guilt, ‘Would I ever want my children to feel this way? Would I ever want them to pursue the desire of their heart, the profession that lights their soul on fire…but then constantly second guess every choice they made because it didn’t look like everyone else’s social media feed? The very idea makes my heart want to stop. I would never want them to struggle with their worth as I have. I would never want them to question themselves to the point of anxiety. I would never want them to think their entire parenting career could be summarily dismissed over Cheerios on a random school morning. So I made a decision. I WILL DO MY BEST, AND I WILL TRUST THAT MY BEST IS EXACTLY WHAT GOD INTENDED FOR THESE BABIES.” -Rachel Hollis, Girl Wash Your Face
  8. “Focus on QUALITY time over quantity.”- Every wise and wonderful mother I’ve ever talked to
  9. “Your kids come into your life, not you into theirs…in other words, don’t change everything to accommodate your kids.” – Sarah Heath, middle school bestie and mom of two 
  10. “The truth is, somewhere in my heart is a hidden hope that maybe if I do everything right, and share the right Bible verses and pray my knees off, they will be amazing, Jesus-loving kids. There has to be a formula somewhere, but there’s not! And this is so very humbling. As parents, we absolutely need ot pursue Christ-likeness on our own. We should definitely share Bible verses with our kids, and our greatest weapon is certainly prayer. But we are not doing these things to save our children. Only God can do that.” -Lisa Chan, You and Me Forever


What about you? What's the best piece of parenting/motherhood/life advice that just happens to relate to raising children you've ever received? Share it below and thanks for reading! 

From Ignorance to Understanding: A Conversation About Race With Cadian Lawrence Hooker

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I’ve been waiting to post this interview for two months. It’s not that I didn’t want to post it. I waited because I wanted to sit with the interview, digest it and give it the time and attention it deserved. I realize now that no amount of time spent writing could do this post justice…and it’s not MY words I want you to remember anyway.

I first met Cadian Lawrence Hooker (Cades, as I call her) during our freshman year of college. Our boyfriends at the time were roommates. While our relationships with them didn’t last longer than a semester, Cadian and I became lifelong friends. We lived together our sophomore year of college. She was a bridesmaid in my wedding, and I flew across the country to attend hers.

But it wasn’t until the past few years—maybe even the past few months—that I feel like I’m starting to understand a bit more of who Cadian is…where she comes from…what she values…and what it means to be her—a black woman raising a young black boy in a world that all too often values whiteness.

To be honest, I feel unworthy of posting this interview. I am a white girl who grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Richmond, Virginia. I went to college and worked for years afterward in Raleigh, North Carolina. I lived in Sacramento, California for a brief period of time. These cities were extremely culturally diverse; and many of my classmates, friends and colleagues were black. Yet, it never occurred to me to ask them about THEIR life experience; and until some of the atrocities of the past few years, I honestly never gave much thought to the fact that the lives as a black man or women were that different than mine.

My ignorance makes me both embarrassed and deeply grateful for people like Cadian who came alongside me, answered my (often ignorant) questions and helped me expand my worldview.

This interview with Cadian is different than the ones I’ve done before. Other than the formality of an introduction, I jump right in to the tough questions. These are questions I wasn’t always comfortable asking, and I’m sure Cadian wasn’t always comfortable answering. Unlike my other interviews, which seemed to have a sense of closure after the last question was answered, this interview feels like it’s just the beginning.

And, in fact, it is just the beginning. Cadian and I are teaming up for something fun—and challenging. But you’ll have to read til the end of the interview to find out what it is. I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again, I’m so thankful for Cadian, her friendship and her willingness to talk about the hard things. 

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Jenn Prentice (JP): Tell me about yourself.

Cadian Lawrence Hooker (CLH):

I had what I feel is a very diverse upbringing. My folks both hail from the Caribbean. 

I was born in a California and lived in Germany until I was six. I was an “Air Force Brat”. My father was stationed at several bases, so we moved often…luckily not as much as some of my fellow military kid friends. Today, I’m a wife to Isaac and a mother to my almost two year old son, Isaiah. I’m very lucky for the blessings I’ve received.

JP: How old were you when you first became aware of racism and/or encountered racism? What were the circumstances surrounding that?

CLH: Hmmm…I was aware of racism from childhood, but I don’t recall personally experiencing it until college. My brother and many of my friends had experiences with it at a younger age because, sadly, it’s not uncommon. My first encounter with racism was when I noticed a women clutching her purse and stepping away from me on a sidewalk. Mind you, I was just walking past her.

Another encounter occurred during a soccer tournament in college. One of the girls on the opposing team said some incredibly vulgar and hateful things to me, which were disgusting and embarrassing for her. I actually didn’t hear what she said, but my teammate got so angry that she cursed the girl out… All because of something that happened on the field. Crazy, right?

JP: You have an older brother. Do you think his experience with racism is different than yours? Why?

 CLH: I’m sure my brother’s experience is similar, but different. In the black community, experiencing racism is very prevalent.  I say his experience is similar in that he and I are both black, but we have definitely had different personal experiences. As a black male he got targeted for the car he drove, clothes he wore, or even just being in a place others didn’t think he belonged.

I grew up in the 90s. Things were fun and laid back. I sometimes wonder living on Air Force bases might have been more like living in a bubble? Maybe? Others may disagree. My brother is 5.5 years old than me so I know for a fact that he experienced different things than me. People just hate—on him, on black people--for no reason and don’t expect us to excel or succeed simply because of the color of our skin. It’s a shame.
 

JP: What impact did the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others have on you? When these horrible things happen, how can we as white people, Asian people, people of different races reach out and show love and support to our black friends?

CLH: They have each had a huge impact on me. It’s sad because this has been going on for years but with technology and social media these events are finally coming to light. People need to communicate and get involved. Speak with your friends. Ask questions and don’t sit idly by expecting the world to change with their silence. No one is asking you to disregard your race but when you know

something is wrong speak up. Say something. It is beyond frustrating when people know right from wrong and stay quiet.  Young black men and women are losing their lives for nothing. I don’t think the media helps either. 

JP: I feel like there is a resurgence of racism and racial tension in the last few years in America. Do you feel that way or do you think these issues have always been there, but we, as a culture (or at least some people in our culture) are just more aware of them? 

CLH: Some may call it a resurgence, but it has always been there. This goes back to what I just said about technology and social media making us more aware of the racial issues and racially motivated hate crimes. With our current political state, I do think people are starting to feel more comfortable committing some of these racist acts. Unfortunately, the issues have always been there. Some people may be more aware of racism now, and really, that just means that we as people and parents who are more aware of these atrocities need to lead by example. We have to teach our children right from wrong and to speak up when something isn’t right.

JP: How are you going to explain racism to Isaiah? What do you hope his life growing up as a black man in America will be like?

CLH: I will explain it to him when he is old enough to understand. How I will to say it specifically I don’t know yet. A black man in America is a target. Period. I’m heartbroken over all of it. 

Now that I have brought a son into his world I’m extra paranoid. As a mother we always want what’s best for our children. I know when he gets older I’m going to have to speak with him about how to act in public and what to do if he gets pulled over by a police officer. I’m already worrying for about him growing up black, and he is a toddler. That’s not normal. Parents should not have to bury their children--especially when they are being murdered for no reason. 

JP: What are things that white people say—perhaps unconsciously—that can be hurtful or offensive to black ppl?

CLH: Let’s just list a few. Keep in mind, there are several that people say and not just whites people. These are just a few examples I’ve heard:

“Why don’t you sound black?”

“You don’t sound ghetto.”  (As if a race has a sound. How does one do that?)

“Do you wash your hair?”

“Can I feel your hair?” (Why is there a phenomenon with feeling black people’s hair? We are not pets. If the situation were reversed, other people would be upset.) 

“Do you wear sunblock and can you get sunburned?”

“You’re beautiful. What are you mixed with?” (Why can’t someone just be beautiful without asking what their ethnicity is?)

JP: What does being a black woman mean to you?

CLH: How much time do you have for this one? Haha. It means so much to me. It means love, courage, wisdom and strength. It means I have to stand strong with my head held high no matter what is thrown at me and be a Queen in a world that sees me as less. 

My culture and heritage run through me. I’m not saying others are not just as proud of their culture and heritage, but I just love being black and love where I come from and what it means to be me. 

JP: Ok. Last question. For now. Because we are continuing this conversation. We have to continue it. It's too important to stop talking about it. I'm asking everyone I interview this question: At the end of your life, what type of legacy do you hope to leave?

CLH: I want people to know that I was steadfast in my faith. That I loved my family, helping others and that I didn’t take no for an answer. 

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Re-reading this interview made my eyes well up with tears. As a friend, a mother, and a woman, so many of Cadian’s answers broke my heart; and in many ways, I feel powerless to do anything about what she said.

Recently, I listened to Jen Hatmaker’s podcast interview with Austin Channing Brown. In the podcast, Austin talks about how “one cup of coffee with our black friend” is simply not enough to change the way we (as white people) think or change the way the world works.

Racism didn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be fixed in one conversation or one interview. Austin points out that each of us has a responsibility to dig a bit deeper…to continue the conversation and figure out where we can contribute to greater change around issues of race and racism.

This blog is my corner of the world, and if I’m being honest, it’s one way I hope to change the world…or at least the hearts and minds of some of the people who read it. In August, Cadian and I will be reading and discussing Austin Channing Brown’s new book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.

AND (drumroll please) WE WILL BE DISCUSSING THE BOOK ON MY NEW PODCAST. I can't give many details about the podcast yet, only that it will launch in August and center around a different book each month. If you want to join the fun, order a copy of Austin's book and start reading! 

The One Relationship Worth Fighting For

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I'm forcing myself to write this post. Nothing in me feels inspired, and I haven't felt inspired for days...maybe a week. Something's wrong. I can feel it. Yes, there are a few major things happening in my life right now. My husband's grandma--the matriarch of his family--just passed away and next weekend's funeral is looming. There are also some health issues in my extended family that have my anxiety working overtime; but I know how to manage anxiety. What I'm feeling is more than that.

My current emotional state harkens back to how I felt last year: A sense of aimlessness. A deep seated discontent with where I'm at in life. On my best day this week, I went through the motions and checked everything off my to-do list. On my worst, I wasted too much time on social media or other things that don't matter, argued with my husband, yelled at my kids and felt like a failure...the worst wife, mother, friend, teacher. EVER.

Before you start sending me notes about how I should give myself grace or how I AM a good wife, mother, friend, teacher, etc., know this: I'M NOT LOOKING FOR YOUR PITY. I know what's wrong. I know that I have NO ONE to blame but myself, and I know how to stop feeling this way.  

Sending out a warning signal

I spent part of last Friday touring Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. At one point, the tour manager mentioned that most modern lighthouses weren't used to guide ships into port. They were used to warn mariners of hazards like rocks and reefs. 

The feelings I've experienced this past week are my lighthouse. They are my warning that if I continue going in the same direction, something bad will happen. What are they warning me against, exactly? These feelings are telling me that I've neglected the most important relationship in my life--the only relationship that really matters and the one relationship I need to fight for the most: My relationship with God. 

Slow fade

I'm never quite sure how it happens, but I think it has to do with being busy and putting too much emphasis on things that don't matter and working hard to achieve something (that probably doesn't matter either) or trying to impress the wrong people. All of a sudden, I look up and a few days have gone by without spending time in prayer or reading my Bible or listening to a sermon. Or, if I have done those things, they've been done out of habit, not a desire to truly connect with the ONE who gives me life. 

The deterioration of my relationship with God is often a slow fade. And I'm always the one who does the fading. 

There is a reason that Jesus called himself the vine and referred to us as the branches. In that same breath, He said: "apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5). In a very literal sense, if a branch is disconnected from the vine, it withers. It doesn't bear fruit. It's useless.  

At times when I'm feeling disconnected, unproductive and useless, it's almost always because I'm not being intentional in my relationship with God. My internal lighthouse is flashing. It's up to me to decide whether to heed its warning and change course. 

Fighting back

So, how do I change course? Sadly, I've cut myself off from the vine enough times in my relationship with God to know how to "fix" the problem. At a very basic level, to mend a broken relationship with God, I do what I'd do to fix an earthly relationship: I PRIORITIZE our time together. 

But this time I don't just want to "fix" things. This time, I want to fight. I firmly believe that I am engaged in a battle for my heart and my mind. Satan would love nothing more than for me to get distracted and discouraged and give up on my relationship with God--or, perhaps even worse, to be ok with a mediocre spiritual life.

I am not a quitter and I hate feeling average, so why should my relationship with God be any different. 

Earlier today, in an effort to begin that reconnection with God, I listened to a sermon by Priscilla Shirer titled "How to Win the Battle." In it, she lays out three ways to fight a spiritual battle. I won't give away all three of her points because the sermon is worth listening to; but I will share one of them. 

The first way to win a spiritual battle is to hit your knees and thank God for the victory. 

I don't know how long it will take to start "feeling better" about myself and where I'm at in life; but I do know that God is bigger than my feelings. Today, I'm hitting my knees and thanking the one who triumphed over death, for the LIFE He is going to breathe into my soul. 

No matter where you're at in your relationship with God, don't get discouraged. If I've learned anything over the past thirty four years, it's that a solid relationship with God makes all other relationships fall into place. It truly is the one relationship worth fighting for. 

XX, 

Jenn

My Go-To Resources For Mending My Walk With God 

1.) Sermons from J.D Greaer at The Summit Church and Brian Frost at Providence Baptist Church- I put them on while I'm folding laundry or driving to work or cooking dinner and am always encouraged. 

2.) New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp- This short but impactful daily devotional is perfect for busy mornings when I've got to get out the door but want to center my heart and mind before the day starts. 

3.) Any video by Priscilla Shirer. Her talks on God's patience, the armor of God, and not fearing are particularly good. 

4.) The Audio Bible App- Sometimes there's a scripture I want to memorize or meditate on. So, I'll find it in the app and put it on repeat in the car as I drive. 

5.) The Read Scripture App- If you're looking to read through the entire Bible, this is a great way to do it. The app gives you three chapters and a Psalm to read per day and provides videos that set the stage for the historical context of the chapters you're about to read and how those chapters fit into the larger story that God is telling through the Bible. 

Intentional Relationships: 30 Ideas for Quality Time Together This Month

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It's the first day of June! That means, it's time for a new theme for the next thirty days on This Is Thirty Four. Last month, I mentioned four areas of our lives that often throw us into chaos and keep us from living as intentionally as we'd like to. One of those areas of life was RELATIONSHIPS. This month on the blog, we'll be talking about different types of relationships and how to make them more meaningful. First up? Marriage and long term relationships...

Do you know what I love most about this photo? (Other than my glorious pre-pregnancy hair and bangs!!!) I love how happy we are in this photo. I remember taking it, and we were legitimately laughing and thrilled to be spending time with one another. 

Newly married.

No kids.

Having fun at corn maze with friends on the weekend. 

We were in the glory days of our relationship, when it was easy to spend time--QUALITY TIME--together.

When people ask how I have time to work on my blog, I always say: “I don’t HAVE time. I MAKE time.” That’s true. I get up an hour earlier. I stay up later, and I rarely watch TV. (Except The Bachelorette…because I’m not a masochist.) My evenings are devoted to lesson prep for teaching or working on This is Thirty Four related projects; and to be honest, time with my husband (whose name is Russ, if you're new here) often gets put on the back burner.

One of the things I value most about my relationship with my Russ is our communication. We do periodic marriage check-ins, where we talk about what's going well in our relationship and what needs to be improved.  Last night, we “checked in” while I did a Jillian Michaels 30-Day Shred (because “making time” also means multi-tasking). We decided to be more intentional about spending quality time—even just 15 minutes—together every day. I suggested creating a calendar of activities to do together for the month of June.

To my delight, Russ immediately jumped on board with the idea and got out a piece of paper to write down 30 ideas for quality time together in June.

Since I was all hepped up on endorphins from Jillian Michaels , I started to get REALLY excited. I said (squealed?): “Why don’t we create a 30-day quality time calendar that I can put up on my blog and share with everyone?”

Again, Russ agreed!

So, here it is: Our thirty-day quality time calendar. Thirty days worth of suggestions for things you and your significant other can do to connect in fun ways in June. These aren’t just my girly notions of how I’d like to connect with my husband. Many of these ideas are from a man. My man. (Do you really think I’d suggest DRAWING something together? Have you seen my Pinterest fail posts?)

That’s actually what I love most about the calendar, though. The activities are a co-creation of what BOTH of us think would be fun to do together.

In order to TRULY connect with someone, you need to meet them where they are at just as much, if not more, than they meet you. 

Now, I can already hear your objections:

“But we don’t have time to do something every night.”

Remember, you don’t HAVE time, you MAKE time.

“Some of these things take preparation and planning or require a babysitter.”

Yes, they do. Investing in any relationship takes time and planning and sometimes money too.  That’s why it’s called an investment.

“Some of these ideas are just plain stupid and I don’t want to do them.”

Totally fine. You don’t have to like all of the activities on this calendar. You don’t have to DO all of the activities on the calendar. The point of the 30-day quality time calendar is to get you to BE INTENTIONAL in your relationship with your significant other.

Don’t like one of the ideas? Write your own idea over it.

Can’t do all 30 activities? Choose the ones you like most and do those...on whatever day you want!

This calendar shouldn’t stress you out or add one more thing to your to-do list. The 30-day quality time calendar should encourage you to consistently connect with your significant other in ways that are important to you and to them. That’s all. It’s really that simple.

Russ and I will be doing the activities each day, and I’ll be updating you all on our “progress” via social media.

Whether you’re newly married, in the middle of married life or about to enter your golden years together, I hope you’ll find some inspiration from these 30 days.  If you’re not married yet, this calendar (minus the “having sex” part) will totally work for you too!

I’d love for you to share the things you do to stay connected to your significant other in the comments below! AND, I'd love suggestions on how to use Canva or other graphic design websites. Cause I was up til 1:00 AM trying to make a pretty calendar graphic and came up with this...#graphicdesignstrugglebus.

(Sidenote: If you have the Pinterest bar installed on your web browser, you should be able to save the calendar image to Pinterest...I really am going to try to make it prettier this weekend. I'm also hoping to get a cute, printable postcard up too!)

Let’s make the second half of 2018 the best six months our relationships have ever seen!

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The Power of Story: Together We RISE

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It's history, you can't rewrite it. You're not meant to be trapped inside it.
Every tear brought you here, every sorrow gathered. It’s history, and every mile mattered.

Nicole Nordeman, Every Mile Mattered

I turned the key to the ignition, looked over at my travel mate and smiled. “Tell me about yourself,” I said. Anne (whose name I changed for anonymity) smiled back. “Well,” she said.  “In August of last year, I lost my 11-year-old son to cancer.”

Having talked with Anne a number of times at the conference we attended this past weekend, I can assure you this was not what I expected to come out of her mouth. Our conversations were so lovely and lighthearted that when she asked if I could give her a ride home from the conference (we were headed to similar destinations), I said “yes” without thinking twice. At one point before beginning our journey, the thought did cross my mind that Anne could, perhaps, be a serial killer who preyed on women at personal growth conferences; but it never once occurred to me that her story would be that of losing a child.

As we drove, Anne told me the details of the past two years of her life--hard, unfathomable things that should never come out of a mother’s mouth, much less be part of her reality. At one point, she stopped and said: “This is the most I’ve talked all weekend. I hope I’m not sharing too much.”

I grabbed her hand and told her to keep talking, and she did.

One hour, countless tears and a death grip on each other’s arms later, Anne finished talking. Not knowing what to say, I simply thanked her for choosing to share her story with me. Before she got out of the car, I asked: “What can someone like me—someone who has no experience with half of the heartache and loss you have been through, but who desperately wants to be there for you—do to help?”

She didn’t hesitate when she said: “Just listen.”

I had another hour in the car before reaching my house. During the drive, I contemplated exactly why I crossed paths with Anne. Why was I the one she chose to share her story with? I don’t know the answers to those questions; but days later, her parting words are still ringing in my ears. JUST. LISTEN.

While Anne was talking, I wracked my brain for ways to help her, when the thing she needed most was for me to remove myself from the equation almost entirely and JUST LISTEN.

This morning at the grocery store, I ran into a friend I’d lost touch with over the past year. I took one look at her and knew that something was wrong. As her story of a recent trauma started to spill out over the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s, I stopped her, told her to finish her shopping and come to my house for coffee. The next hour was, yet again, full of tears and holding on to one another for unspoken comfort. And when I didn’t know what to say, I heard Anne’s voice: JUST LISTEN.

So often, we run from the hard things in life. We avoid pain at all costs.

The job is too tough? We quit. The relationship is too difficult? We shut down emotionally. The conversation is too hard? We just don’t have it. But what happens when we can’t run or avoid pain? What happens when we have to sit with it, look it in the face and live it? Sometimes BEING BRAVE means making beauty for ashes even when we don’t want to or don’t know how.  

I will not share the details of Anne’s son’s death or my friend’s trauma here.  They are not my stories to share. I feel confident that those women will share their stories when they are ready; and they will be beautiful.

If I took anything away from the RISE conference, it was that women are so resilient. Each of us has a story to tell, and that story, no matter how big or small we might think it is, can leave a lasting impact on the lives of so many others. But if we don’t make ourselves available and allow ourselves to be ok with the hard conversations, we wont be able to receive the blessings that come from sharing our stories.

So let yourself be broken and sit with those who are. Invite them in. Seek them out. And when you don’t know what to say or do, JUST LISTEN. You never know when someone else’s story might help you write the first chapter in yours.

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Availability + Authenticity: The Community Equation

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My husband and I are currently deciding where to send our oldest son for Kindergarten this year. I had no idea what a complex decision choosing a school would be. So many things are factoring into our decision, but do you know what factor is becoming increasingly important to us as we search? (Hint: It’s NOT education.)

COMMUNITY.

We’ve looked at public schools, private schools, charter schools and everything in between; and the schools that bubble up to the top are the ones where our son can be part of a diverse community of good, kind kids--and my husband and I can become FRIENDS with those kid’s parents.

The Community Equation

The word community gets tossed around fairly frequently these days; and I think the definition of the word differs a bit from person to person, depending on age and stage of life. 

As a young adult, I found community in school clubs, church singles ministries and at my job. As a mom of two young boys, I find community in other moms of tiny humans and in my older friends, who are either more experienced moms or just more experienced at life. They all provide me with camaraderie, advice and help when I need it. Nearly five years ago, my husband and I moved onto a little cul-de-sac in our coastal California town, and the people on this street—young, old, married, divorced, kids, no kids—are like family to us. And now, venturing into the realm of blogging and social media, I’m finding a new community in people I’ve never met face-to-face but am learning to care about deeply.  

I’ve moved five times and lived in four different states in my life. While I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, I do think those experiences made me pretty good at making friends and building community. Connecting with people, nurturing relationships, and connecting people with OTHERS when they need it, feels life-giving to me.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve learned how to be a “community builder”—which sounds super cheesy and is mostly just a fancy term for being a good friend--by being a pretty crappy one. My early 20’s were a string of broken commitments and choosing significant others over my girlfriends. And phone calls? I wouldn’t return those for weeks. As a result, I have very few close friends from my young adult life; and I have no one to blame but myself.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve made a concerted effort to change my ways. I’m still not the BEST at responding to text messages or voicemails (WHO LIKES LISTENING TO VOICEMAILS??), but I’ve learned a lot from my past shortcomings and I think I’ve landed on a decent formula for building friendships and ultimately, community:

Availability + Authenticity = Community

Availability: Time is the best gift you can give.

You cannot be a good friend if you have no time to spend with the people you’re trying to be friends with; and you cannot build community with a group of people if you are not able to be a good friend to them.

Having time is much easier said than done in a culture that values busyness. In fact, I’m not really a fan of the term “having time.” We all have the same amount of time in a day and very few of us "have" a lot of those hours to spend with other people. What I’m learning is that you don’t HAVE TIME for other people, you MAKE TIME.

Making time means building margin into your schedule. It means saying “no” to things that don’t matter and saying yes to things—to people--that do. It sometimes means putting aside your desire for “me time” or putting away that to-do list in order to have coffee with or take a phone call from that friend you want to connect with.

Most importantly, being available means letting your “yes be yes.” As previously mentioned, I used to be the QUEEN of broken commitments. My husband is the exact opposite. If he tells you he is going to do something, then come hell or high water, he is doing it.

Early on in our marriage, he caught me trying to break commitments to some of my friends; and he called me out on it. I believe his exact words were “Let your ‘yes be yes,’ Jenn.” This is also a Biblical truth, so ya know, I couldn’t really argue with him.

Nearly 10 years later, I still remember that conversation. I legitimately try to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it--regardless of how much I might not feel like it (I am a homebody at heart) and no matter how many other things I might have to do. (Disclaimer: This is where being a mom to tiny humans makes availability a bit tricky. Breaking a commitment due to sick kids or even questionably snotty ones is always OK. No one wants your kid’s boogers to become their kid’s boogers.)

Authenticity: If you can’t be real, you can’t be friends.

Don’t confuse sharing basic information about yourself with authenticity. People can know a lot about you without really KNOWING you.

Being authentic means being real, genuine and unafraid to share yourself and your opinions regardless of how different they might be from someone else’s. I spent years stifling my point of view and trying to be who other people wanted me to be. If my friends didn’t like something, I didn’t like it either. I just wanted them to like ME.

People can tell when you’re not being YOU. The older I get, the more comfortable I become in my own skin and the more willing I am to share my thoughts and opinions on things. And ya know what? The friendships I have now are some of the best I’ve ever had.

Additionally, the older I’ve gotten, the better I’ve become at discerning the type of people I cannot be my authentic self around. Honestly? I try to limit my time around those people or choose to hang with them in group settings in order to minimize one-on-one interaction.

Don’t misunderstand me, though: Just because someone has a different lifestyle or point of view on a certain issue than you DOES NOT MEAN you can’t be your authentic self around them.

The best friendships are the ones in which you can be honest with each other and talk through issues when you don’t see eye to eye. The best communities are the ones composed of different people from different walks of life, striving to live, learn and love alongside each other. That’s how we grow as individuals, how we grow together and how we change the world.

The Kindergarten Dilemma

I still don't know where my son is going to Kindergarten, and there's no real way to tell if the community of people at the school we decide on will be everything we want, until we get there. What I do know is how I'm striving to build community with the people I'm surrounded with RIGHT NOW. Teaching my son to do the same once he launches into his own community of friends is one of the most important lessons I think I can teach him. 

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Pursuing God, People and Passions: An Interview with Melanie Knowlton

I’ve been asking the question “Why” a lot this week. Why did I start This Is Thirty Four? Why would anyone read this blog over the millions of other things they could read online or elsewhere?      I’m not sure I know the answer to the second question…yet. But I do know the answer to the first question. Why did I start This Is Thirty Four? I started this blog because—as I’ve said before—I know so many women who are doing amazing things; and I want to provide a space to share THEIR stories in the hopes of encouraging and inspiring other women who might be in a similar place in life.      Today’s interview with my dear friend, Melanie Knowlton, is the first interview I’m sharing on This Is Thirty Four. I thought I wanted to interview Mel because her story fit in with this month’s theme: New Beginnings. Earlier this month, Mel went back to work for the first time in eight years to pursue a career in one of her personal passions—FOOD.      As it turns out, my interview with Mel isn’t really about new beginnings or food at all. This interview is about Mel sharing her heart for people and her relentless pursuit of the heart of God. One of the things I love most about Mel is her honesty, especially about motherhood and the struggles she’s had being a stay-at-home mom. If you know Mel, this interview will make you love her even more. If you don’t know her, you’ll want to invite her out to coffee (she’d prefer to grab dessert) after you read what she has to say.

I’ve been asking the question “Why” a lot this week. Why did I start This Is Thirty Four? Why would anyone read this blog over the millions of other things they could read online or elsewhere?

I’m not sure I know the answer to the second question…yet. But I do know the answer to the first question. Why did I start This Is Thirty Four? I started this blog because—as I’ve said before—I know so many women who are doing amazing things; and I want to provide a space to share THEIR stories in the hopes of encouraging and inspiring other women who might be in a similar place in life.

Today’s interview with my dear friend, Melanie Knowlton, is the first interview I’m sharing on This Is Thirty Four. I thought I wanted to interview Mel because her story fit in with this month’s theme: New Beginnings. Earlier this month, Mel went back to work for the first time in eight years to pursue a career in one of her personal passions—FOOD.

As it turns out, my interview with Mel isn’t really about new beginnings or food at all. This interview is about Mel sharing her heart for people and her relentless pursuit of the heart of God. One of the things I love most about Mel is her honesty, especially about motherhood and the struggles she’s had being a stay-at-home mom. If you know Mel, this interview will make you love her even more. If you don’t know her, you’ll want to invite her out to coffee (she’d prefer to grab dessert) after you read what she has to say.

Jenn Prentice (JP): Tell everyone a bit about yourself.

Melanie Knowlton (MK): I'm a 33 year old mom of two wacky, wonderful, exasperating, sweet, funny kids (Jack, 8 and Emma, 3) who have changed my entire perspective on life, God's love, and who I am. I married my best friend -  a big, lovable guy who turned out to be THE best dad in the world. Wives say that, but I actually MEAN IT. He somehow manages to work full-time AND gives his all to our family, which is a huge inspiration to me.  We've had our fair share of challenges, but my husband has always had my back; and I've done my best to have his. This year we celebrated 10 years of marriage!  While I'm incredibly proud of us, I'm also humbled by the amount of grace God gave to us in the past decade!  

JP: What was YOUR childhood like?

MK: Growing up as an only child, I had lots of time to think, dream, and wonder on my own.  When I remember my childhood, mostly all of the good times come to mind (which is encouraging to think that my kids may NOT remember my many failures as their mother)! 

When I was 11, my parents decided to divorce.  As heartbreaking as it was at the time, it was also the catalyst to me seeking God, finding Him, and watching Him mend the brokenness.  As fast as things were crumbling around me, the Lord was re-building my life, blessing me with adopted brothers and sisters that I had longed for and didn't know I wanted. I learned a couple crucial things about God and myself during that time: 1) He made us rely on one another 2) He made me to need Him & others more than most people do.

I'm extroverted through and through, so being an only child was very lonely. As it turns out, being a stay-at-home-mom can also be quite isolating...

JP: I want to know more about that stay-at-home-mom isolation; but first, tell me what you’re passionate about.

MK: It took me about the first 30 years of life to hone-in on what's really important to me. With no hesitation I can say that I'm most passionate about the following:

  1. 1) GOD 
  2. 2) PEOPLE
  3. 3) FOOD (In that order)! 

I am most consumed by a desire to know God, be known by God, and share his love with the world.  That, in combination with my very extroverted personality, fuels my love and passion for people. I studied psychology and have always been interested in developing relationships with those around me, but after college, I just HAD to go back to culinary school to pursue a different passion: FOOD. I mean, I was the kid making dirt soup in my back yard and my favorite thing to do STILL is to bring people together around a table full of delicious butter (er, uh...I mean fantastic food).  

JP: I can attest to your fantastic food, and your love of butter. It’s the perfect culinary marriage, really, and I’m so happy I get to benefit from it. Ok. Now tell me more about stay-at-home-mom isolation. Was that what compelled you to go back to work?

MK: I’m not great being on my own, and I really NEED to be around people to feel good. As it turns out, kids don't exactly offer the most engaging interactions or conversations. As a stay-at-home mom, I was constantly feeling isolated and unhappy...but too committed and ashamed to admit that I needed to go back to work. I started having bouts of what I call "the blues" (not quite a depression, but feeling overwhelmed and discontent).  I think "the blues" can be a result of an unmet need or a passion you aren’t pursuing - two things severely lacking for me while at home with the kids. I was and am SO THANKFUL that I was able to stay home with my children for as long as I did, but eventually I couldn't deny the big PUSH I was feeling to work again.

JP: So where are you working now and how did you know this was the right job for you?

MK: I started searching for jobs online, and I even took a part-time retail job just to get my feet wet (and confidence up) again after being out of the workforce for eight years.  I ended up taking a job as a food broker for a company called KFB Foods. The position blends my ability to create relationships with people with my passion for the culinary industry. In spite of the fact that I hadn't worked outside of the house for eight years, I felt completely qualified for the position after reading the job description. The best part of the job is the hours, though. I get to drop off AND pick my children up from school.

JP: How was your first week on the job?

MK: Well, learning new things can be a bit daunting, and there’s a lot to learn at this job. However, I still feel that overwhelming sense of peace that lets me know I'm in the right place. 

JP: And how are your kids adjusting?

MK: They are still greeting me with smiling faces when I pick them up from school. I’ve realized that this is going to be a GOOD thing for them. I really feel that going back to work will help provide the space I've needed to reflect on all of the wonderful things I love about my kids (and myself) so that I can come back to them with the energy to play and the emotional availability for their needs.

JP: Tell me more about your kids, Jack and Emma, and their needs.

MK: Life at home with my kids was far more challenging than I think it is for most. I have a son with some very challenging behaviors. I'm talking VERY challenging…like smeared poop on the walls during his time-outs as a toddler; having to take everything hard out of his room as a preschooler for fear that he would hurt himself while destroying everything in sight; having to pay our babysitter more because he was too tough to handle; hitting, biting, losing friends because of the hitting and biting...that kind of challenging.

I realized pretty early on that things weren't supposed to be quite THAT hard.  I blamed myself. I blamed him. I blamed myself for blaming him. I lost faith for a while. I wondered where God was in all of it. I didn't understand how God could allow my son to have so much anger in his heart at such a young age. I was lost, confused, completely isolated in spite of having people l could trust all around me, and eventually I became consumed by fear. I was afraid of who my son might become. I was afraid of who I already was, and I was afraid that somehow God had turned his back on us. 

JP: How did you combat that fear?

MK: Over the course of many months following this "crisis of faith," I realized that God had (of course!) not abandoned me.  I was looking through a dark lens, clouded by fear and tragedy. I began taking life moment-by-moment, sometimes unable to do ANYTHING other than fix my eyes on Jesus - my Savior, my Redeemer.  I reached out to friends and to the church.  I had been asking God every day to please show me that I still belong to Him, that He was with me. And He began ANSWERING MY PRAYERS.  The more I pressed in to Him, the more HE conquered the fear. Years have gone by and more peace has been restored day by day. 

JP: So, how’s Jack doing today?

MK: Life with Jack is still not EASY, by any stretch of the word.  But, God is faithful and I see positive change in him.  He doesn't throw tantrums like he used to. He shows love to his sister--when he isn’t taunting her the way most brothers do. He can be so sweet and kind, and he seems to be WANTING to do the right thing.

JP: What lessons have you learned through parenting Jack these past eight years?

MK: I'm reminded that there is NOTHING my son could ever do that would make me stop loving him, fighting for him, forgiving him.  And how much greater is God's love than mine?! God will never leave me or forsake me.  God will never stop loving Jack, fighting for Jack, and forgiving Jack. WHAT A BLESSING it is to serve a God like our God! 

Today, I consider myself blessed for the ways in which raising a challenging son has deepened my faith in an always faithful God. It's not always easy and I am prone to forget...but I have a child who reminds me on the daily of my desperate need for The Lord! And I can't help but think that God has something extra special in store for us if we keep believing. 

 

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What To Do When You've Been Doing It All Wrong

Last week, I celebrated my 34th birthday.  The night before the “big” day, after an argument with my husband about how "I never have time for ME anymore," I was washing dishes, packing lunches and reflecting on the past year of my life. The transcript in my head went something like this:

"I'm so tired of being the one who does (most of) the cooking and cleaning." 

And 

"If something happened to me, this household would fall apart." 

And then 

"What am I even doing with my life? I thought I'd be doing something truly meaningful at 34. Not THIS." 

But the truth is, if you'd asked me 10 years ago where I thought I'd be and what I thought I'd be doing at 34, I probably would have described a life that looks exactly like the one I have today: married to an incredible man, two beautiful kids, great friends, nice house, working part time at a job I love. 

In the midst of the dishwashing and the ungratefulness, I realized that my 24-year-old self--who longed for nothing more than a husband and a family and the stability that rarely characterizes the early 20s--would have been appalled at the thoughts going through my (almost) 34-year-old mind.

The transcript in my head began to shift to something like this:

“I’m doing this all wrong. When did I become so focused on myself and my needs over everyone else’s—especially my husband’s?”

And

“How can I—a woman who many would say ‘has it all’—feel so dissatisfied with the abundance of things God has blessed me with?”

And finally

“Something has to change. No. Not something. Someone. Me. I have to change.”

___________________

Thirty-three was one of my most challenging years of life. In addition to the physical, relational, political and cultural happenings that rocked my world in 2017, I stepped back from a major work responsibility because I felt God calling me to invest more time into my boys and my husband. Now, the majority of my days are spent doing things that no one can see and that I sometimes don’t even enjoy. (I’m looking at you, butt wiping and laundry folding.) The daily rigors of motherhood are far from glamorous.

To quote the great Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail:”  “…I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small…”

During year 33, my small life got even smaller; and somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing the value in the smallness.

___________________

Which brings me to today and my discontentment and year 34.

So, I ask the questions once again:

“When did I become so focused on my own needs over everyone else’s?”

And

“How did I become so discontent, despite so many blessings?”

As I think about the answers to these questions, I realize there’s one more question I should be asking:

“What standard am I measuring my life against?”

____________________

I recently read a quote from J.R.R Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. It went something like this: “Evil is a shape shifter. After you repel it, it’s just going to change shape and grow again and come at you in a different way.”

As I look back on 2017 and year 33, I see a common thread of “evil” in my life in the shape of (ironically) technology. Not the devices themselves but the content they put at my fingertips and the discontent they often put in my heart. Social media, news and blogs connect the world in incredible ways, but they also place an ever increasing pressure on us--especially women-- to BE and DO and PERFORM and HAVE a picture perfect life, family and career. 

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not deleting my social media apps and throwing away my iPhone. What I am advocating for—something I did very poorly in 2017—is being intentional in the way I (we) use and consume technology. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not yet sure what that looks like.) I do know that cutting myself off from technology won’t solve the problem. My problem—our problem—is deeper than social media and playing the comparison game. The real reason I’m discontent with my life is my own sinful nature and separation from God.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I see the beauty of Christmas coming in December. It’s a reminder that no matter how much we might have messed things up the past twelve months, the God of the universe still loves us deeply.

God sees us as we are—sinful and unable to bridge the chasm that exists between us and Him. Despite our sinfulness, despite the fact that He knew we would never be truly grateful for all He’s given us, He still chose to send His Son to rescue us.

__________________

So what do you do when you realize you’ve been doing it all wrong?

You fall on your knees and ask God to forgive you for where you went wrong. Maybe, like me,  it was in the area of contentment or maybe evil takes a different shape in your life.

You thank Him for the gift of Jesus' birth and death and resurrection.

You make changes. Intentional changes. Consistent changes. Small changes that lead to big ones over time.

As I close out 2017 and look forward to a new year, I’m taking time to reflect on what Jesus did when He came to earth at Christmastime and what that means for how I should be living my life in 2018. Less of me. More of Him.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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To My Beautiful Boys, In a Messed Up World

Dear Holden and Brooks,

As I write this letter, I am lying in bed sick—physically sick with pneumonia and emotionally sick in my heart and mind. It’s difficult to process what has gone on in the world these past few months…natural disasters, mass shootings, rampant racism, stories of sexual assault from the highest levels of power…and a president who lacks the integrity and leadership skills that it takes to navigate the scary world we live in. In my own personal circle, just this week, a friend was raped in a parking garage and another friend lost a child to miscarriage.

Outside my germ-filled room, I can hear you laughing and playing with your dad; and I take comfort in knowing that you have no idea just how bad things are right now. Just how terrible the world we live in really is. At this young age, it is your dad’s and my duty to protect you from these things, and I think we are doing a good job of that.

But there will come a day when we cannot protect you…from the world and the disasters that happen around the globe…or, on a smaller scale, from the challenges you will face in your own life: difficult relationships, peer pressure, unspeakable things on the internet or any number of other evils that will crop up between now and your adolescence and young adulthood.

So, on this day, when I have some time to reflect, I’m writing you this letter. You might read it one day. You might not. But my prayer is that you see these words enacted in my daily interactions with you and that you grow each day in your understanding of what I’m about to say. Your time living under my roof is limited, but I promise to spend as much of that time as I can teaching you these three lessons and, hopefully, so many more:

First, I promise to teach you to value women and see beauty in their heart and their minds, not just their bodies. Women are more than just a “swipe right” on a Friday night. We are more than an image on a computer screen. We are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Woman are beautiful, but we are not defined by beauty.

To that end, I’m praying for both of you and for your future wives. That you will shun the rampant “hook up” culture that currently exists. That you will protect your hearts, minds and eyes from the sexually charged images the media is constantly throwing at you. And that you will see and interact with your female friends, your girlfriends and your future wives for who they are: daughters of the King.

Second, I promise to teach you that life is not always fair. Senseless acts of violence happen for no reason. Natural disasters wreak havoc on cities and communities and lives without warning. People are not always fair and not always kind.

While I will do my best to surround you with individuals that love and respect you that will not always be under my control. Once you enter school and the “real world” you will face bullies. You will meet mean spirited peers and colleagues who are only looking out for themselves. You will be talked down to, criticized and wronged.

But know this:  We serve a God of justice. It is not your responsibility to retaliate when people are unkind or even cruel. I know you will want to—and sometimes you might actually do it. That’s ok. It’s human nature. Ultimately, though, humility wins--maybe not in this life, but definitely in the one to come. Humility trusts that a just God is in control in the midst of injustice. Humility overcame the world. (1 Peter 2:23)

Finally, I promise to teach you WHOSE you are and where you are going. You belong to your father and I for a short time on this earth, but you will always belong to the God of the universe. A God who formed you to be uniquely YOU (Ps 139:13-14). A God who loves you unconditionally (Eph 3:15-19; Titus 3:4-5; 1 John 4:16). A God who is THERE and who is REAL—even if we can’t see Him.

That same God has prepared a place for YOU in Heaven (John 14:1-4). A place that can’t be removed because of what you might do here on this earth or what someone else might do to you. A place where there are no deaths, natural disasters, shootings, racists, sexual predators. A place where the person in charge is the image of perfection.

Oh, boys. Over the course of your life, we will share highs and lows. We will learn lessons and we will make mistakes. We will experience the struggle that is being human, but we will also experience life. And when it looks like the world around you is crumbling…and it may very literally crumble one day…I pray you turn your eyes, your hearts, your minds and your faith upward.

You are free to mourn the brokenness of this world—and there is much to mourn—but then you must remind yourself of who God is, what He has done and what He will do. And you must also remind yourself that even in the brokenness there is still good in the world and there are still good people. You must always have hope.

To coin a phrase your dad and grandparents often say: I love you both more than tongue can tell—or, in this case, any letter can express.

Forever,

Your mom

 

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