How I’ll make it through winter

When we lived in Florida, “winter” (the quotation marks are very important there) ended on January 2nd. “Winter” was basically synonymous with the holiday season, and once Christmas and New Years passed, we moved headlong into spring.

Not so now, living here near what feels like the very top of the world. It’s almost the end of January, and I have a long ways to go before I can enjoy the the fresh greens and pastels of Easter or my the sprouting tulips in the front yard. The ground is still frozen around me, snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, and I feel lucky if the sun ever pokes her head through the clouds.

This year, I embraced the fact that the “winter blues” may, in fact, be a real thing for me. I’d go so far as to call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I’m not really sure. I’ve also had a newborn this year, so HELLO, hormones. All of this is an excellent recipe for a bit of melancholy.

One of 2016’s greatest lessons to me was that I navigate hard seasons much better when I have things to look forward to. I also learned that I need to acknowledge what I’m looking forward to, in the same way that writing a gratitude list helps me recognize what I’m thankful for.

So, I’m trying to preempt whatever sadness might come wandering through the front door. With no further ado, here’s what I’m looking forward to throughout the rest of this winter.

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Visits from friends. Two of my very best friends, Courtney and Melissa, are both coming to visit us in February. I continue to be amazed and so very grateful that our friends and family are willing to trek all the way to Michigan to keep us company and engage in our life here.

Hearing Sarah Bessey speak in person! Part of the reason Melissa is coming to visit is because Sarah Bessey is coming to speak at our church! (It was just the excuse we needed to get Melissa up here.) I consider Sarah to be a pastor in my life, someone who talks about Jesus in a way that speaks right to my heart and whose writing has transformed my relationship with God in very meaningful ways. I can’t wait. I’ll probably cry.

Ruthie’s smiles and coos. Newborns are such sleepy little things, and this isn’t the most exciting phase. One of my favorite things about motherhood are those very first intentional smiles and coos, each a sign that our baby is finding her place and voice and joy within our family.

More snow. All our snow melted away over the past week or two. I’ve been grateful for a few warm days, but I don’t like the cold if there’s not at least a little snow to make it pretty! The world feels so gray and bland right now; some snow will brighten things up.

Hanging up our spring wreath. It’s the little things, you know?

A beer or glass of wine at the end of the day. #notpregnantanymore

Reading more of The Jesus Way. I set this book down for a very long time and am finally picking it back up again. I have basically underlined the entire book. It’s enlightening and convicting and helping me look at Scripture differently.

Getting my first issues of Real Simple in the mail. This is my favorite magazine, and my sister bought me a subscription for Christmas! Magazines feel like a small indulgence, a small pleasure, and while picking them up in the grocery store is fine, I enjoy them even more when they arrive in the mail.

Drinking more hot chocolate. It’s become Evan’s job to whip us up some hot chocolate on cold nights. It’s a lovely ritual.

Getting back to our small group. We took a few weeks off for the holidays, and then Ruthie was born, so we’ve missed both of January’s meetings. I am missing these Tuesday evening gatherings, and I’m excited to jump back in for February.

I’d love to know: what are you looking forward to this season?

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” –John Steinbeck

Advent, Week 3: Joy

Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11, NKJV)

Back towards the beginning of November, I tweeted that I had started listening to Christmas music. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” I wrote. I said I wanted joy at all costs, even if it meant breaking my strict No Christmas Music Before Thanksgiving rule. But in the weeks since, I’ve mostly been listening to Joni Mitchell’s “River” on repeat (and every good cover of it I can find), with “Winter Song” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” sprinkled in for good measure. I made a “Contemplative Christmas” playlist, but that may just be an alliterative name for a playlist full of the saddest Christmas songs out there.

I know that Advent isn’t all about joy; it’s about the wait, the anticipation of the joy that will arrive with that baby’s first cries on Christmas Eve. I know that we are called to carry both our joy and our sadness, to feel them both fully, to not expect one to replace to other but to slog along, one bucket in each hand. Still, I really wish my melancholy would go away.

Back in January, I chose “joy” as my word of the year. If you know me much at all, you probably know that I chose “free” as my word of the year in both 2014 and 2015, and it quite literally changed my life. The ongoing conversation I had with Jesus about His promised freedom was the truest “renewing of my mind” (Romans 12:2) I’ve ever experienced. It’s how for the first time, God began to loosen the chains of striving, accomplishment, and perfectionism that had enslaved me all my life.

Near the end of 2015, I began asking: If I’m free from perfectionism, what do I want to be free for? The answer was clear: joy. I wanted and needed more joy. And I expected that “joy” would have the same profound effect on my life that “free” did. I was looking for tangible, profound, more than all I could ask or imagine change.

So, how did 2016 go? I haven’t done much of anything with my word (besides scribble “choose joy” on the tiny chalkboard by my front door). Lessons about joy haven’t shown up unexpectedly in my reading, writing, or podcast-listening. The word hasn’t leapt off the pages of Scripture. I feel like my word let me down a bit, or like I let myself down by not doing enough to make joy a reality.

During Advent, the temptation to manufacture joy is stronger than ever. If I bake just one more batch of our favorite chocolate chip cookies or hang one more cute printable on my wall, if I come up with another silly thing for our elf to do or serve up another batch of hot cocoa, then our Christmas season will feel joyful. Or maybe I just need to switch playlists and turn the Christmas music up a tiny bit louder.

But as I think about it, I know it deep in my soul: I’ve missed the point.

Joy isn’t something I can create by sheer force of will. Joy is not something I can chase. Joy is a fruit (Galatians 5:22). It is only something I can be filled up with, as I am filled up with the Holy Spirit. It’s something I can only receive. All year long, I acted (and prayed) like I just needed a better attitude, and then I would feel joy. While my attitude certainly needed adjusting some days, I think this is where the difference between happiness and joy can be found. Happiness has more to do with my attitude, and joy has more to do with my soul. Joy isn’t a response to my circumstances; it’s a gift I receive from Jesus in the midst of my circumstances, whatever they may be.

When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they didn’t say, “Go be joyful now!” Jesus’ very presence created and brought forth the joy; the shepherds could only receive it.

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Admittedly, I’m still trying to hash out what this actually means in the context of my real life. So, I pray.

Dear Jesus, help us not wait for the light to break through before we receive the gifts you offer us. I want my anticipation of your coming—your salvation, your redemption, your making all sad things untrue—to lend me real and tangible joy, even in the midst of the darkness. Help this be true of my life. Fill me with your spirit and transform my heart; in the process, may my whole life become a reason to rejoice.

Advent, Week 2: Peace

Last week, I wrote my Monday Benediction and a blog post all about hope, so as to match the theme for the first week of Advent. My plan was to do the same thing today, for peace, and so on through the rest of the season. But yesterday came and went and I found I had little to say about peace, and no clarity came this morning.

All day long, my boys seemed determined to get on each other’s nerves. They spent most of the day pushing and shoving one another, snatching toys from each other’s hands, crying each time the other got in his way. And doing it all at the loudest possible volume. I walked around the house thinking (because “praying” is probably too strong a word), “Isn’t this week supposed to be peaceful?!”

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This concept of peace also feels heavy this year, given all that’s happening in the world: Syria and refugees, Trump and tweets, Standing Rock and ISIS. We all have very different ideas about what peace entails and what will bring it about. Some of us believe letters, phone calls, and blog posts are the path forward. Some choose legislation while others choose sit-ins and picket lines, and still others believe in the power of boots on the ground. And I think each of us believes peace exists solely in the past, or in the status quo, or in the future.

Peace, like the rest of Advent, feels like a lesson in contradictions right now. On the one hand, I believe it’s something we need to work for, strive for, build, create, cultivate, even fight for. On the other hand, I believe peace is being handed to us, a fruit being offered, something we can only receive as a gift. It’s both an internal and external reality.

The other day I went through the Starbucks drive-through after dropping Ian off at preschool, and scrawled across my red cup were these words: “Love and joy, crafted by hand and by heart.” I snapped a photo, because it reminded me of one of my favorite Brené Brown quotes: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands.” It was just a Starbucks cup, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

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As I’ve mulled over this post, I wanted to land in one spot or another: hand or heart? Which is it? Do we work for peace, or do we receive it as a gift from Jesus?

Of course, the answer is both. Just as both God’s spirit and Jesus’ physical presence are required for our redemption, both our hands and our hearts are essential for peacemaking. Advent is an irrational season of contradictions: darkness and light, impoverished little babies and kings, angels and shepherds, virgin unwed mothers, now but not yet. It is possible that while the entire world is walking away from peace, Peace is still coming. And peace is forged—simultaneously—through the transformation of our hearts and the work of our hands.

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. —Galatians 5:22-26 (The Message)

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Dear Jesus, may we sense peace in our hearts and may be we create peace in the world. In this season and in every season moving forward, may we work out the implications of peace in every detail of our lives. And in your mercy, please bring peace to our hurting, broken, war-torn world.

What Stars Hollow taught me this time around

In the spring of my freshman year, a big group of girls crammed into my tiny dorm room to watch the finale of Gilmore girls. We each had a spoon, and we passed around a tube of Tollhouse cookie dough to share. We moaned and groaned about the terrible seventh season, and we smiled and laughed and gushed about this show we had loved so much.

I distinctly remember, too, the first episode of Gilmore girls I ever watched: it’s the one when Lorelai and Emily steal bathrobes from a hotel. (Season 2, Episode 16, Google tells me.) I was hooked from the get-go.

In an attempt to prepare for the revival, I started rewatching the show a few months ago. I suppose I forgot how much parenting small children eats into binge-watching time, because I only made it to the beginning of Season 4. Even so, I’ve realized how much about this show I didn’t appreciate during my first go-around. I did not appreciate the relationship dynamics between Lorelai and her parents (Emily is a Gilmore girl too, you know!) or how deeply flawed Lorelai and Rory are (and really terrible decision-makers). I didn’t realize how much the four seasons affect what’s happening in the show. (Has anyone on the Internet done a meta-analysis of what kind of plot points take place during which seasons?). I didn’t appreciate the subtle humor of Sookie or Mrs. Kim, and I didn’t feel the intense pity for Paris I feel now.

I guess what I mean to say is just this: for me, the show is better upon second watching.

Last week, I drove up to Traverse City so my cousin Meaghan and I could watch the new episodes together. Admittedly, my expectations were perhaps irrationally high, only because I loved the show so very much and because the original writers were involved in this reboot. (Not to mention—hello, Internet hype!) Did the show meet my hopes and expectations? Nope. It left a lot to be desired, I think, and I agree with the vast majority of the Internet: Rory was terrible, and her decisions were terrible, and just generally WHAT THE HECK RORY, GET IT TOGETHER.

However.

I still found the experience of watching the show so incredibly enjoyable. As cheesy as it sounds, it felt like being reunited with old friends. But what I keep coming back to more than anything else is this: I love Stars Hollow.

It’s true. I love that quirky, unrealistic little town. On a recent episode of The Simple Show, Tsh Oxenreider and her guest Kendra talked about how Stars Hollow is a character in and of itself; it has personality and in so many ways, it drives the plot. I couldn’t agree more. (That episode is full of spoilers, just FYI.) All I keep thinking since watching the revival is that somewhere, deep in my soul, I needed a visit to Stars Hollow, and I am missing it even now.

(Please note that there may be some spoilers here. You’ve been warned!)

Here’s what Stars Hollow taught me and reminded me, this go-around:

1. Our commitment to home matters. Our move to Michigan has left me feeling like my heart is divided between so many different homes, and I guess that’s ok. After all, C.S. Lewis has said that our longing for something this world can’t satisfy reminds us that earth, after all, is not meant to be our home. And yet. I don’t want to live like Rory, three different cell phones in my purse, never actually feeling committed or tethered to any given place. I don’t want to walk around saying, “I’m not back, I’m not back, I’m not back.” I don’t want to put too much pressure on any given place to be something it’s not or never could be. At the same time, we can not be whole and healthy if we are divorced from our physical surroundings. We need to choose a place and be all in, for as long as life’s circumstances allow. Rory’s inability to choose a home mirrors her inability to choose who she wants to be in this season, and I don’t want to fall victim to the same trick.

2. Achievement matters little, but integrity matters a great deal. I, like Rory, have fallen victim to the idea that a college degree, prestigious career, and impressive resume is my highest calling. Rory had one great achievement and then felt completely lost in its wake. Meanwhile, Luke actively avoids building the “empire” Richard hoped for, but we love him all the more for it. And aren’t Paris and Doyle choosing achievement (in the form of careers and a crazy house) over each other, dismantling their marriage? Stars Hollow may not provide many opportunities for achievement or upward mobility, but it does allow people to be their most authentic selves.

3. We all need people who see us, believe in us, and call out the best in us. This is what Jess does for Rory always (but specifically, in the revival, by giving her the book idea). This is what Sookie and Luke do for Lorelai. Sometimes, the loudest voices in our lives are not these most helpful voices; we need to seek out the good ones and give them highest priority. #teamjess

4. It is worth working for the kind of families and communities we want. Lorelai did this for much of her life—working hard and forsaking almost everything to build the kind of home and family she wanted and needed. Taylor does this with every insane statute and community initiative. Even Kirk does this in his own crazy way. Yes, you have to suspend disbelief a lot in Stars Hollow, but I find that this relentless optimism is giving me hope in these crazy times.

5. To be people of integrity, we’ll sometimes need to forge our own path and write our own rules. A friend of mine pointed out that Rory thrives when the rules are written for her and when there is a rubric or syllabus to follow; she excels in school because the expectations are perfectly clear. Rory flounders when the rules aren’t spelled out for her, when someone might be disappointed, or when the right answer isn’t immediately clear. She second-guesses herself and makes poor decisions. As someone who has clung to the rules far too tightly for most of my life, I get it. Meanwhile, people like Lane and Luke seem to be people of such integrity because they are more concerned about who they are becoming than what they are doing.

I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had about Gilmore girls over the past week, and even that fact seems to mirror Stars Hollow somehow. Let’s be honest—the Internet has been straight-up terrible in the aftermath of the election. But the Gilmore girls revival reminded me that the Internet can also be a place to discuss, analyze, and celebrate together. (Not to mention, collectively groan over a fictional character’s terrible decisions.)

Thanks, Stars Hollow, for being a lovely little home away from home. Thanks for all you’ve taught me about family, community, forgiveness, and loyalty. I can’t wait to visit again with my own daughter one day.

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Advent, Week 1: Hope

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
–Psalm 130

This Advent season, we are anxiously waiting for our third baby, Ruthie, who is due in mid-January. I’m thinking of Mary and how our stories–though very different–align in many ways this year: our bellies swollen and growing, our families far away, our babies surprising but so welcome.

With both Ian and Leo, I was eventually induced because those boys were content to make us wait. Waiting was torture. Admittedly, I’m one of those strange women who really enjoys being pregnant, but I hate the approach (and passing) of a due date; I don’t like surprises. 

As I marked an X through each box on the calendar, I could think of almost nothing else. I watched for a sign: every twinge, cramp, and movement. Is this it? Was that a contraction? Is this the moment? Multiple times a day, texts would come in from my mom, mother-in-law, and best friends: Anything yet? No, nothing.

I think of the Jewish people, expectantly waiting for a Messiah. Their wait was not forty weeks (or forty-one and two days), but generations. For hundreds of years, they waited for the Messiah they thought was surely arriving yesterday. 

I can imagine that with every prophecy, every shift in the weather, and every change of regime and ruler, they wondered: Is this it? Is that the Messiah? Is this the moment?

Anything yet? No, nothing.

The truth about this Advent season is that I am not just waiting for a baby. I’m waiting to see how our family will change and how my sons will adjust to a new little attention-hog. I’m speculating about sleep patterns, labor pains, and weather reports. I’m waiting for my life and family to irreversibly, markedly change. I’m waiting for the hope and dream of this baby to become flesh, for my faith to become sight.

And the Jewish people were not waiting for merely a king. They were waiting for victory, for freedom, for generations of oppression to be reversed and rectified. They were waiting for a new reality and new story.

We all have something for which we’ve hoped, but the reality of which we can’t even imagine. So it was for the Jewish people waiting for a Messiah, so it is for us pregnant and adoptive mamas with approaching due dates and court dates, so it is for the patient waiting on clear scans, so it is for the graduate waiting on job offers.

We sit with our questions, our fears, and our hope. We sit, we watch, and we wait.

Advent has come to mean more and more to me over the past few years. November and December have been marked by pregnancy announcements and infant sons, by deaths and national tragedies, by lots of uncertainty and questions about what might be next. On some days, I have asked myself, “Where is God right now?” and I have cried literal tears as I prayed for his return. On other days, I have rejoiced and stood amazed at his goodness and obvious presence with us. I’ve felt the meaning of Advent deep in my bones.

And no matter in which place I found myself, hope is the anchor. We look to the star and walk hopefully in that direction, knowing that though we haven’t seen our Savior yet, he is surely on his way. It seems that Christmas is more meaningful when I don’t skip straight to the joy, instead pausing to acknowledge the longing and the desire and the heartache that comes first—for all of God’s people throughout time and also for me in this very moment.

“Maybe it’s a better thing, a better thing, to be more than merely innocent, but to be broken then redeemed by love.

Maybe this old world is bent, but it’s waking up, and I’m waking up.

‘Cause I can hear the voice of one. He’s crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready for the Kingdom Come.’ Don’t you want to thank someone for this?” –Andrew Peterson, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone”

This is the reality of Advent: hopeful anticipation, the slow and watchful journey toward our faith made sight.

Heavenly Father, we are waiting. Give us a glimpse of eternal realities, so we don’t miss a single sign of Your hope and Your presence this season.

#29: Don’t confuse roles with purpose.

Have you spent much time reading Instagram and Twitter bios? They usually read like a list of jobs. “Wife, mom, entrepreneur.” “Writer and speaker.” I was just looking at Joanna Gaines’ profile (because my mom gifted me a copy of the Magnolia Journal…yay!), and it reads, “Wife. Mom. Renovator. Designer. Shop Owner. Homebody.” I’m not immune to this trend; my profile says, “Writer, reader, and mom.”

I understand the value in describing ourselves this way. When I clicks on someone’s profile, I want to quickly know she is and what she’s about. I want someone else to learn the same thing about me. Listing our various roles is a good way to define how we spend our time and energy and the kind of things they might see in our profile.

A problem emerges when I define my worth, my value, and my identity in terms of the roles I fill. Roles change and shift over time, but I’ve often resisted this change because I didn’t know how to reframe my identity when a certain role passed away.

When I’m focused primarily on my roles and doing them well, I am disjointed. Both my heart and mind feel divided; I can’t decide which task to complete first, which person to direct my attention toward, or which hobby or passion is most deserving of my time in that moment.

Focusing on roles also leads me down the path to comparison. Life and the Internet give me ten million vantage points from which to compare my motherhood, my home, my productivity, and my career with those of other people. I need only to scroll through Instagram for a few minutes to see how thousands of other people are living into their roles, and when my own roles feel tenuous or unfulfilling, I immediately begin to wonder if I measure up or if I’m doing it as well as they are. (Whatever “it” is.)

As I’ve mulled it over, I’ve come to realize that getting clear about purpose helps shift the focus away from roles and responsibilities. If, for example, my purpose is to “pursue freedom instead of grace and encourage others to do the same,” then there are about a million different ways to do that. No matter what role I do or do not fill, there’s a path toward pursuing that purpose.

While Jesus walked the earth, he filled a lot of roles. He was a son and brother, a teacher and leader. He was likely a carpenter. He was a healer, a provider, and an encourager. But none of those roles—in and of itself—composed his entire purpose. Right? Jesus fulfilled his purpose within each of those roles, but also apart from them. I would even argue that sometimes, the roles society expected him to fill were distracting everyone from his purpose. Because so many expected him to be a political leader and overthrow the Roman empire, they missed that his purpose was to forgive and redeem and reconcile.

This can be true of us, too. When I focus too much on my various roles, I am tempted to place my identity in relationships with others, in accomplishments, and in definitions. I begin to ignore my God-given purpose and forget that my value lies in being a child of God.

Success in each role is often defined by outside forces and society at large, and as a perfectionist, I cling to those sorts of standards and definitions. Whereas purpose? Well, that’s mostly up to me and Jesus to define. There’s a lot more gray area, a lot more wiggle room. That can feel a little intimidating, but in reality, it involves a lot of freedom. When I focus on purpose instead of roles, I experience the freedom to set my own definitions and standards of success, plus the freedom to recognize that success isn’t required to make my life valuable.

“I can’t think of a better way to describe what it feels like to try and get your head and heart around who you are and where you come from than wrestling a greased pig in the dark. Our identities are always changing and growing, they’re not meant to be pinned down.” —Brené Brown

#28: Don’t paint the edges.

Sometimes I joke that my house is my personal arts and crafts museum. I love a good DIY, and so you’ll find them everywhere: the Craigslist dining chairs we spray painted, my map wall, the homemade garland I hang from our bannister every autumn. Ideas abound in the age of Pinterest, and I have loved a good craft project since I was a little girl.

Back when Pinterest was invite-only (does anyone else remember those days?), one of the very first things I pinned was a pair of side-by-side canvases. One read, “It is well,” and the other completed the thought: “with my soul.” (Sadly, the pin doesn’t even link to any kind of original source, so I don’t know where the idea came from.) The townhouse we moved into after a couple years of marriage had this funny corner fireplace. I struggled with how to decorate that tricky corner mantle, but as I scrolled through Pinterest, those two side-by-side canvas struck me as perfect.

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The canvas has gone through a few different iterations. First, they were white with purple block letters. Later, I painted the background a blend of blues and greens and used a script font. The script is a little wonky, and I’ve debated going back and tweaking it, but that seems like too much work at this point.

But besides the imperfect lettering, I have to admit that I never technically finished those canvases. I never finished painting the edges. If you look closely enough, you’ll see that the blue paint drips onto the sides, but many of the sides are still mostly white. Oops.

At first, this was simply because I’m impatient. You can really only paint one or two edges at a time, and I hated waiting for the paint to try before I could complete the next section. But then, lots of time just passed, and I kept forgetting until I looked closely. In our old home, they hung like that for more than two years.

Then we moved, and I suppose that was the perfect opportunity to finish off those suckers…but I didn’t. I found a new spot for them and hung them up without giving it much thought. It’s been another 1.5 years. And you know what? I don’t so much mind that they are unfinished.

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Over the years, “It is well with my soul” has been a soothing and helpful reminder during rough or uncertain times. In our new home, the blueish green matches our stained glass window almost perfectly. And you know what? I’m sure someone, at some point, has noticed those unfinished edges, but it hasn’t stopped plenty of people from offering compliments about that simple little art project.

When I look at those canvases, I’m reminded of what The Nester always says: It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. And they remind me of one of my other favorite mantras: Done is better than perfect.

What’s true of those canvases is also true of you and me: Incomplete imperfect is perfectly acceptable. Even if we are unfinished or messy or a little rough around the edges, we have something worthwhile to contribute. Resist the temptation to paint the edges.