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Because you never know where the smallest invitation and warm welcome will lead

By the time the fourth African family settled themselves into the pews on Sunday morning, I was sort of crying. Happy crying, but crying nonetheless.

I tend to tear up a lot in the back row. Just ignore me and pretend I’m not weeping over the amazing things God does when I least expect it. Nothing to see here; move along.

My tears were completely and totally due to a tiny portion of Africa streaming into church. A new family with the three boys arrived early, smiling tentatively (because at that point the foyer was full of blindingly white people such as yours truly), shaking hands, and pronouncing their very non-English names carefully for us.

Then, as the service started, their fellow continent-men joined as they got around to it. The three boys headed to children’s church, the smaller twins in matching white shirts did too, and I’m not sure where the baby ended up after the last family walked in.

It was really the baby who got me crying. He was just so pudgy and fat and happy and I was so profoundly thankful to be in a congregation where Kenyans feel welcome.

It all started a few years ago with Harry. He wandered into our church one Sunday because our building was close enough for him to walk from his apartment. A doctoral student at the local university, he was studying in Kalamazoo while his wife and children were home in Kenya.

I’m not exactly sure how we got from “Hello, welcome!” to a congregation with beautiful African dresses. I’m not sure when we moved from warm smiles to needing the translate option on Facebook to decipher Swahili when our friends switch over to their native language.

But we did. Somehow a warm welcome turned into friendship, and then the congregation brought Harry’s family here, then one international student after another ended up in our pews.

We don’t even have a formal ministry to international students. We don’t teach them English, or help them prepare for the Michigan driving test, or intercede on their behalf with their professors.

But we do give their kids a few too many cookies during the fellowship hour. We invite them to parties in the backyard and heaven knows we make sure they’re warm enough through our terrible Michigan winters.

It occurs to me that formal programs aren’t really what most of us are looking for, are we? Do you wake up in the morning and hope your husband will give you a formal lecture on how to load the dishwasher? Do you have a six-hour retreat scheduled for your friends tomorrow?

Probably not. That would be super weird. What we’re longing for is relationships, real and deep ones, to share food and time and parenting duties as we trudge through life next to each other.

And it appears that the Kenyans want exactly that, too.

It’s the smallest things that sometimes lead to the biggest, longest lasting relationships. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. We don’t need formal programs or fancy meals or the next ten years mapped out.

I need to be honest– I’m still pretty bad about this. Part of the reason I leaked tears on Sunday was because I’m not great about the invitations and all the hanging out. It’s often our pastor and his wife and a few specific families in our church who turn those invitations into the kind of relationships that keep our congregation full of Kenyans.

But I can see the results in living technicolor from that back pew. I can see the relationships that have grown, three years after an invitation was offered. I learn from hindsight and others’ actions, it turns out.

And maybe, after this long and meandering blog post, you can too.

When social media misses the important half of the story

My friend Ashley and I sat outside Starbucks the other night, sipping our “low calorie” drinks. (Humor us and let’s not get into specifics like calorie counts or nutritional values, mmm-kay?) While we sipped we discussed something that’s bothering me lately, but we didn’t solve anything.

And then the following day my friend Paul and I had a repeat of the same conversation.

Which is a version of what Eric and I had already been discussing all week long. And now I bring the conversation to you, my beloved reader, to get your input.

The topic? Authenticity on the internet. 

Specifically, how can we represent our lives in an honest, but uplifting, way on social media? Because let’s be frank– things are going a little sideways here in Interweb Perfect World, and I think the consequences are far more dangerous than we anticipate.

The conversation started last Friday night, as Eric and I drove alone to Taco-Tuesday-on-a-Friday (don’t ask– it involves a pontoon boat and bacon and we call it what we want) with friends. Eric casually asked if I’d heard that one of my favorite women’s ministry leaders had decided to divorce her husband.

I gasped out loud and my mouth hung open and I probably looked like one of those fish who breathes her last on the sand.

Basically this face…

I dove for my phone to look up the blog post he referenced, and he was completely accurate. While I only have her side of the story, it appears from the outside that the grounds for divorce are biblical and she tried everything to reconcile.

For two years she’s lived this private nightmare. I mentally reviewed her posts– I remember beautiful photos from her daughters’ weddings, adorable grandbabies, and even a bad health scare.

I don’t remember anything about a broken heart or relationship. I didn’t see any puffy red eyes or angry rants, but I did see a carefully curated assortment of beautiful and inspirational photos.

I firmly believe that part of this is due to her maturity. It’s tacky and awful to air your husband’s failures to the entire world, especially if you have any desire to restore that marriage to health.

Of course we want to discern carefully when we post. We think of others, we think of privacy, and we think about how an embarrassing post might be irrevocable. Mature people think before they communicate. Thank goodness and hallelujah for that.

But this whole event made me wonder how many other public marriages are quietly failing. What about other favorite authors? The ministers at our churches? The leaders of national ministries? The need to uphold a public image plus the desire to encourage others’ faith is probably leading too many people to hide their personal pain, messes, and failure.

church split

Is it any different for the rest of us?

I doubt it. Even if we don’t have ministries or book sales at stake, I think we’re all curating our images on social media. Again, some of that is due to maturity. Nobody likes a whiney baby with constant bad news. I have been known to quietly unfollow acquaintances who publicly air their never-ending pity party.

Some of our posts, however, have little to do with maturity and a lot to do with ego. When we’re looking especially cute and our family is acting in a way that reflects well upon us, then we bust out the camera and make sure it makes it online. This is perfectly natural behavior, but I think we all know “perfectly natural behavior” is often little more than dressed up sin.

Pride is a sneaky stinker. It silently slides in between us and our loved ones, causing divisions and bad feelings. Even when we don’t mean for our post to make others feel bad, we’re certainly enjoying how good it makes us feel, so we often don’t think too deeply about whether those words are puffing up our ego instead of communicating honestly about our life.

Before we get depressed and delete all our social media accounts, I do have two suggestions for how we can dig ourselves out of this social media image game and begin to show an encouraging peek into our lives.

Stop fearing the mess of real life.

Our friends are each slogging through their own mess. Why can’t we join each other there, where we really live? My friend Brenda Yoder posted something perfect on Instagram last week. It was her kitchen sink, piled high with dishes. I loved it. And she offered encouragement and grace from her very real kitchen situation. It’s been several days and I can only hope she’s dug her way to the bottom of the sink.

My friend Christina often shows the hilarious messes her kids make– she sees no need to convince us that her children are shiny angels with golden halos. And she does it in a way that endears those children to us, without embarrassing anyone. Also, anytime Christina kills off another kitchen appliance she posts it. I think she’s up to her tenth crock pot, which only makes me love her more.

There’s a way to share real life without being a weirdo who depresses everyone. Maybe we should get Brenda and Christina to teach classes on the art.

Start to make face-to-face quality time a priority.

You know where my best relationships thrive? Face to face.

Our small group meets on Monday nights, and because of the dynamics of the group (eighteen adults and approximately one hundred toddlers/infants) we share real, gritty life together. There’s no pretending in a group that always includes poopy pants. We’ve been in deep discussion about the Bible and turned our heads to find a completely naked child in the room. Noodles have been thrown. I have locked horns with my child who thinks that two grapes and five brownies constitute a real meal– right in front of these friends.

All I’m saying is that you can’t pretend life is perfect when your kid has poop climbing up his back or your tween decides to engage in a battle of wills in the church kitchen. The truth betrays our efforts to convince people we have our acts together.

Two hours after small group I see my friends’ new posts of their adorable children. I’m not fooled– I know these perfect photos are part of the truth, but the poopy pants are also part of the deal. But I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t make en effort to get close enough to smell those kids.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Could we make an effort to allow our friends into our real lives, instead of curating masks that keep them at a distance? What would that look like for you?

This week, let’s make that effort. Amen?

Amen.

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When a loved one faces a crisis, simply show up. (And maybe shush up a teeny little bit.)

Last Tuesday found me driving through miles of cornfields, sweating through my good silk polyester blouse. The air conditioning in the van was out, the mid-May temperatures had skyrocketed to the high eighties, and I had no choice but to get in that hot box with wheels and drive to the middle of nowhere.

I mean, technically I drove to the middle of Michigan but that’s pretty much the middle of nowhere.

A family member had passed away and I was headed to the funeral. I wasn’t sure what I was about to experience in what was bound to be a very difficult service. I was absolutely certain I had nothing to say, no way to help, and zero ability to relate to their pain.

It was hard, folks. Sometimes life is just so hard, and even though we walk next to the pain, not directly through it ourselves, being on the fringes can be hard too. Sometimes we pull away because we realize we have no way to make it better, and fear any words we offer will only make things worse.

But I’ve learned this– pulling away is the worst possible thing we can do.

What we do is this– we show up.

That’s it. Our very presence is often the best gift we can offer. It doesn’t have to be just at a funeral, either. Sometimes we show up in hospital rooms, on front porches, church sanctuaries, or backyard fire pits. Anyplace your loved one finds herself, join her there.

This is why I drove through cornfields and gladly sweated through that blouse. I did it because I learned an important lesson more than twenty years ago when my grandmother passed away. Although Grandma had lived for more than seven decades in her Polish Catholic community in Detroit, she’d moved across the state a few years before she’d died. My mother was an only child and it seemed fitting that Grandma lived close to us as she aged.

When Josie died and we planned the funeral, my twenty-year old self knew, just absolutely knew, that no one would come. Grandma had only lived in our town for a few short years, and really hadn’t developed strong friendships or ties. Who was going to drive to our little podunk town just for a short funeral?

I’ll tell you who. The Polacks, that’s who. They showed up in droves. It felt like hundreds of wrinkly old Polish people drove in from Detroit, Chicago, and Toledo.

Many of them didn’t even talk to me, and they didn’t need to. Their presence in that little funeral service was more than enough. Their effort to be there spoke love to us.

There was one little guy who did speak to me, and he told me about how wonderful my grandmother had always been. Then he told me how nice her figure was (my grandma was hot?!) while his wife was standing next to him, and I’m pretty sure I’ll take the memory of that awkward conversation to my grave. So honestly it would have been better if he hadn’t spoken at all.

Which brings us to our point about shushing up…

It’s often our anxiety that runs our mouth in uncomfortable situations. We don’t know what to say, so we say all the things.

No. Please, just no jabbering to calm our own nerves.

This is the space to listen.

This is the space to choose to be calm and very, very attentive.

This is the space for hugs. Possibly gifts of chocolate or a cake.

And if there are words to be spoken, they need to be very encouraging, kind, and gracious. Completely focused on the other person, not our own story to tell.

Also, those words need to be really brief.

That’s it. We just need to show up and shush up.

The last two years have brought some really difficult situations into our family. Never have I had the answers or the solutions or anything close to the right words.

But three times I’ve looked into a cousin’s eyes and seen the difference that showing up makes.

And yes, on the way home I stopped for a milkshake with 800 calories that barely took the edge off my emotions, but while I was there I pulled it together for their sake.

Friends, let’s show up for one another. May our presence speak love when there just aren’t words.

 

 

Pray A to Z: a book to help us pray like we promise we will

pray-with-purposeWhen a friend reveals a terrible thing going on in her life, we might respond with a hug and “Oh, how hard. I’ll pray for you.”

And then we forget.

We watch the news and our retinas are burned out by the horrible things we see broadcast and we think I should pray about that more.

But we get distracted.

The church emails the really long and detailed prayer list and our eyes glaze over immediately, completely unprepared to pray for Mr. Stone’s prostate surgery on Thursday.

BECAUSE I’M NOT PREPARED TO DISCUSS MR. SMITH’S PROSTATE WITH THE ALMIGHTY, okay?

I’m just not.

Guilt ensues.

We feel guilty about how we don’t actually pray for our friends, family, and community enough, but we have no idea of how to fit that into our lives.

We want to worship and focus on God’s mighty attributes, but the children and the piles of laundry are so much louder than God most days.

Guess what. Someone saw this need coming and they wrote a book for us, and then a copy was thoughtfully provided for us for free here on the blog. It’s called Pray A to Z (***affiliate link) and Amelia Rhodes understands our messy, crazy lives. Her organized brain has categorized our concerns so we can actually pray like we want to do.

pray-a-to-z-coverFrom A (adoption, abuse, Almighty…) to P (pregnancies, Pain, Promise Keeper) to Z (zest, Zion, zeal), we can read through the simple, quick entries to direct our thoughts outward to God, seeking him.

Let’s take a peek inside Pray A to Z

Of course I turned first to the Finances entry, because that’s how my brain works. I loved how this section fits in exactly with what we talk about on this blog all the time:

Father, forgive me for where I have allowed the love of money to creep into my life. Help me remember to put my trust in You, not in a bank account, in possessions, or in what money can do for me. Let my security rest in You, not my stuff. Help me learn to be content with what I have, and not always be searching for the next great thing. Grow my desire to use money to serve You and Your kingdom… (p. 54).

I love prayers that are written out, simply because they gather my thoughts and intentions and express them so beautifully. This book is a gentle way to keep me on track and focused on the right things when I pray, instead of running my brain around like an anxious chicken.

Amelia Rhodes
Amelia Rhodes

Win a copy!

If you’d like to be more prayerful, more worshipful, and more competent to discuss Mr. Smith’s prostate with the Lord (just kidding, there’s no Prostate chapter), this book is exactly what you need. You can click the icon below to be entered into a contest to win a copy for yourself!

Pray A to Z Amelia Rhodes
Amelia Rhodes is fabulous, and I know you’ll love to get to know her. You can find her at her website, ameliarhodes.comFollowing God into the Unknown is my favorite series on her blog, and you can read all about how her family believed God was calling them to downsize and move to a new house. It’s a story of faith, contentment, and rejection of modern culture’s expectations. You’re going to love it; check it out!

Halloween Reframe: How we can reclaim the holiday for good

So, I’m sitting here in a house that’s stuffed to the gills with Halloween candy. Almost twelve pounds, to be exact. And while I’m sitting here and the smell of sugar is wafting out of the cupboard, I’m thinking deep thoughts.
Halloween candy!

These deep thoughts tend to be comparisons between the Halloweens I grew up with and the Halloween I know now. Way, way back in the 80s, our conservative church culture viewed the holiday with suspicion and fear, like perhaps Satan was in the streets gobbling up little children as they went from door to door.

One of these things is not like the other...
One of these things is not like the other…

It seemed safer to stay home and watch TV and avoid Satan all together. Oh, sometimes we could go to the school party at night, or maybe the church put on an alternative Harvest Party– a little bit of Halloween, but not too much.

I get the general idea behind the mindset. It’s absolutely dangerous to go dabbling in the dark, spiritual realm. But whether we like it or not, I think we can all acknowledge that our communities and neighborhoods are on the move Halloween night. Not only are things hopping, they’re coming right to our doors. And we’re going to right to theirs. hot pink mums

We had a neighbor move in two months ago, and I swear to you I’ve seen his face three times (at a distance) in eight weeks. There were two weeks where I wondered if he’d actually died in the house and we should send in a rescue team. I’ve looked for ways to introduce myself, but he skitters in and out like he’s afraid of the fresh air.

Guess what, buddy. We’re coming over on Halloween and we’re going to introduce ourselves.  Prepare yourself.

Another set of neighbors held a party on Saturday and we had a chance to catch up with people we usually just wave at while passing. Small children ran rampant through Josh and Heather’s home, battling with plastic weapons from their costumes. During this chaos Josh and Heather calmly chatted with the adults, watching their house being slowly torn to shreds. They just laughed and said they’d clean up in the morning. They were more interested in building friendships than protecting their carpet.

gourds and pumpkin

I’ve been watching our friends online and I’ve seen pumpkin carving parties, trunk or treat preparations, and group outings to the pumpkin farm. I love how people are coming together over chocolate and giant orange vegetables. We can reframe this holiday and use it to reach out, to grow closer, to strengthen friendships and start new ones.

At the moment I have all the candy in the high cupboard over the fridge. I like to tell myself it’s because I’m hiding it from the children, but really it’s to slow myself down from eating all of it before the trick or treaters show up. Because when the little ghosties and ghouls come begging, I’m going to be ready for them.

They might leave my porch a little bit afraid of the over-friendly lady handing out twelve pounds of candy, but they’ll certainly know I was glad they stopped by. I’ve decided this is a chance to love my neighbors, and community. And I may take a wee nibble of chocolate while I’m at it.

What about you? How does your family approach this subject?

How to find your blue carpet friends (and why you need to!)

blue-carpet-friends-3Are you surrounded by friends who get you? I mean, do you have friends who support you in all your life choices? I think they’re key to living out your calling and dreams, and here’s why.

I have this good friend, Betsy, who is also my hairstylist. Now that my hair care routine requires quite a bit of dye to restore my luscious locks to the color I remember them being at age 25, Betsy and I get quite a bit of quality time together every six weeks.

The last time I was in the shop we started talking about priorities in life, and the toll they take on our finances. For example: choosing to travel as a family and/or enrolling the kids in a Christian school. Both are wonderful options, but neither comes cheaply. We talked about making all the budget areas stretch so we could fit our priorities into our financial picture without taking on debt.

And then we really got on a roll and examined how our friendships can be the key to helping us stay on track with our life choices, or they can derail us in the most dangerous ways.

I told her about how many years ago we’d chosen a completely different preschool for Caleb, because the community at his older sister’s preschool included people who actually went to the yacht club. They drove SUVs the size of my living room. They gave birthday parties for three year olds that cost hundreds of dollars.

I was out of my league in my rusty Chevy and wee little house and homemade cupcakes. So far out of my league, that for Caleb’s preschool experience we chose a little school in a farming community to our south. I felt far more comfortable there, like my life goals made sense to them and then, in turn, to me while I was there.

Betsy understood exactly what I meant, and told me about their friends with blue carpet. “They can afford new carpet,” she said, “but they have other priorities. They just haven’t changed it yet.”

That blue carpet brings something important to their relationship. It’s a statement. A reminder that not everything in life has to be perfect. It’s okay to have financial limitations or life goals other people might not understand.


It’s camaraderie, too. When we can peer into a friend’s life and see tangible proof that they feel no need to have everything matching and new and shiny and perfect, we can hold our our mismatched little lives close together and feel like we’re on the same team. Someone gets us.

On Thursday nights I take our kids to a local youth group and pull my beat up Sienna in next to my friend Kris’s beat up Sienna. We open up our trunks together to try to locate the leaks we both have, leaks that soak our trunk carpets in a good rain. We’ve been bonding over weird things since our college days, but those leaky trunks are just one more piece in the friendship.

photo-1475027204167-3187bf798ba2

It’s not like friendships start and blossom over things like wet carpet or blue carpet or even brand new carpet.

They blossom when something in me recognizes something in you, and we feel like we’re understood. We might not have the same life goals, we might not have the same blue carpet or old minivan, but we understand that you’re picking your important things and it’s okay for me to pick mine, too.

Friends who support us while we carve out our lives are one of God’s greatest gifts. So, today, I hope you’ll take a moment to notice your friends’ oddities and quirks and mismatched life. And may you say, out loud, how wonderful you think it all is. Your words might just give them the courage and joy they need today.

Flop down on their blue carpet and tell them it brings out the blue in their eyes. Climb into that minivan and say, “Oh, no. Mine smells so much worse than this. This is fine.”

Blue carpet is a way to connect and encourage. It’s kind of precious like that.

4-decisions-banner

Four easy steps to building your authentic community

You, right there. The woman in the car, reading this blog post on her mobile phone and wishing she had a new life.

You, the mother in the living room who has 1,342 children and only two arms.

You, the man who is married to the woman who has 1,342 children and even with your two arms involved, you’re feeling like your life is 1,338 arms short.

You.

Any person who is alive, I am speaking to you.

I’ve been carefully watching everyone lately and I’m seeing a recurring theme: everyone is stressed out. Everyone.

It looks like the person next to you has everything together and they’re dancing through life like a hippy in a field of flowers. Carefree, money in the bank, and having an excellent hair day.

Meanwhile, you feel like life has chewed you up and spit you back into that same field and the hippy is about to accidentally stomp on your face whilst she prances among the flowers. But you’re too exhausted to get out of her way, so you lie there and wait for the delicate sandal to the eye socket.

But here is the truth– all your friends probably feel the same way as you. Oh, sure– they might be having a good day. It’s possible. But in general, they’re probably worried about the same things. There are no perfect families, there is no perfect health, and there will never be enough money in the bank.

But we’re not fans of giant crybabies, so we all put on our Adult Panties and go about our business, pretending everything is fine. That’s why you think your friends are fine and dandy– they’re fakers.

I said it. Fakers!

I’m a faker. Maybe you’re a faker too.

What if we tried this instead:

  1. Stopped faking.
  2. Reached out to our friends and family and shared our real issues.
  3. Asked them how they are really doing. And then listened.
  4. Repeat forever.

We might eventually have a community where all the grass looked just about the same, and maybe we’d all be sitting on it having impromptu picnic lunches. Together.

A photo by Aranxa Esteve. unsplash.com/photos/pOXHU0UEDcg

 

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The Aftermath (things I find after the toddlers leave)

Tuesday morning I sank into my favorite chair, coffee mug in hand, robe firmly affixed to my person. I was a vision of loveliness, I assure you.

I set my coffee cup down on the 1970s hi-fi we keep in that corner of the living room (because the Clemences are all about 8 tracks, if you have a stack in a closet you’d like to get rid of) and noticed a pile of crumbs. Cookie crumbs.

I plopped the mug right on top of the crumbs and smiled.

Something caught my eye across the room and I laughed out loud. An entire shelf of books had been haphazardly rearranged like some sort of toddler army had been playing library. And that’s exactly what had happened, I reckon. I didn’t actually see the stubby librarian in action, but it’s a fair guess.

They still look like this, two days later.
They still look like this, two days later.

Monday nights our small group meets at our house. When we first started we had one toddler and four babies on the way. Now we have two little girls who are two-ish and four (count them, four) one-year old boys. We also have a newborn and another one due any day. And we can’t forget the two tweens who live in this house and keep it “child-friendly” on a daily basis.

If life and God had left me to my own devices, I’d keep my home like a magazine spread. The floors would be polished, the books tidily stacked in some artsy way, the stools at the breakfast bar lined up in military precision.

Lucky for me, God and children of all types have been giving me a reason to get over myself for twelve years now.

The pile of books and cookie crumbs are proof that life exists in this home. A herd of tiny people feels comfortable here, rummaging through my tupperware cupboard and the shoe closet.

One of the children, who shall remain nameless, took to  finding the bag of potatoes and taking a bite out of one each week. I thought this was hilarious. She hasn’t done it for a few months now, and I sort of miss her once-bitten potatoes I’d find next to the shoes.

If you’re living in a potato-strewn, book-piled, crumb-covered place today, take heart. Life is messy. Relationships are messy. Toddlers are the messiest of them all.

The mess is proof of life and love and a future.

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