I Call it Good: Reflections on 12 Years of Marriage

On Sunday, August 5, Bryan and I will have been married for 12 years.  And I’ve been pretty contemplative about this particular anniversary.  Perhaps it’s because this one falls on the same year as our 40th birthdays, which means that we’ve spent an entire decade of our lives married to each other. In a decade plus, you go through much as an individual, but when you’ve chosen to live your life in tandem with someone else, and then add a few little people to the mix, the moments become much richer, much more meaningful and weighty.

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I look back at photos of us at our wedding and can see how we’ve changed.  Bryan’s dark golden hair is now speckled salt and pepper.  He has deeper smile lines around his eyes and greater responsibilities at work, greater impact at home.  I too have finer lines around my eyes, my hips are a little wider thanks to three little children whose voices I now hear in the hallway, and I drive a minivan.  (I used to drive a red-hot BMW 325i.)  I see those two idealistic twenty-somethings walking up the aisle after saying “I do,” and I know that they had no idea what they were getting into.  Sure, they believed God put them together–they’d prayed urgently about it, gone through pre-marital counseling, spoken to more mature married couples, but they didn’t have any idea what marriage would demand of them, how it would transform them, or the learning opportunities it would provide.

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Marriage is so hard.  Many people say being a parent/mother is the hardest relationship/job of all, but I disagree.  I think the husband/wife relationship, the work of marriage, is by far more difficult.  Children are born of your own flesh–they naturally receive your love.  Unless you are a sociopath, your love for them comes without choice, without reservation or limit, and there is a fresh store of it every morning regardless of what your children said or did to you the night before.  And let’s not forget: they are CHILDREN, which means that they act impulsively, and you excuse their behavior as childishness.

But your spouse is yours by choice.  Your spouse is a fully-grown adult who has a fully-matured brain and is able to weigh pros and cons, wisdom versus foolishness when making decisions.  Your spouse has the option of acting in their best interest and neglecting your desires, or acting in your best interest and neglecting their own desires.  In Christian circles you’re often called “one flesh” but it’s not often that you’re of “one mind.”  You can say things, do things to each other that require a fresh choice to unconditionally love each day.  So marriage, you quickly learn, is a teaching work of compromise, of sacrifice and surrender.

I knew that Bryan and I were highly compatible when we got married.  I was aware how well we complimented one another.  I had no idea how very much alike we actually are: competitive, highly sensitive, moody, introspective, playful, analytical, social, performance-driven, easily bored.  We are two very passionate, very emotional people.  Our fights are frequent and often combustible–we say things we don’t mean, I get discouraged and look for a way out, Bryan feels sad that I would ever consider running from him.

But then I look back at all that we’ve been through.  Death of a mother, three miscarriages, job loss, multiple moves, financial uncertainty, personal sin–and I realize that each day with Bryan has been marked by choice, by hope, and by a commitment to something greater than ourselves.  I think of John 15:13 that says:

“There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

And I know that this is what Bryan and I have been doing for each other for the last decade plus: figuratively laying down our lives for each other each time we’ve asked for forgiveness, each time we’ve surrendered a foolish desire for a wiser choice, each time we’ve comforted one another during moments of grief.  If the gracious God of the universe would offer His Son’s perfect life without hesitation for a sinner like me, I can certainly learn to lay down my pride and extend grace to my husband who is choosing to love me every day.

Every day is a choice because we made a commitment to God and to each other.  Every day has hope because of what God has brought us through, and because of the blessings He has promised.  And every day I am called to renew my mind, because although there has been a lot of work, there has also been much joy.

I have seen so much of the world with Bryan by my side.  I’ve seen the pride in his blue eyes when we first met our newborn children.  I have jumped up and down with him at concerts.  We’ve shared bottles of wine and deep conversation late into the night.  We’ve played in the ocean like little kids.  We’ve dared each other to do stupid things that later made us laugh until we cried.  We’ve dined on fancy nine-course meals and greasy chicken wings.  We’ve snow-skiied, water-skiied, and jet-skiied together.  We’ve started a business together.  We’ve served in ministry. We’ve made a life–one that has weathered too much to give up, one that has so much promise despite the unknowns.

And I call it Good.

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Party On–Joy in the Face of Judgment

I have an annual tradition for Mother’s Day that began about five years ago.  Every year, I throw a party for my local mommy-friends.  We gather without husbands and children with no purpose other than to celebrate the one thing that we all have in common—being mothers.  I can always tell that those who are new to the party aren’t sure what to expect because there’s no agenda at all.  I’m not trying to sell Pampered Chef, Norwex or Lula Roe.  I’m not raising money for a charity.  We’re not throwing a baby shower for anyone, and most difficult for these sweet women to wrap their heads around is that I don’t need them to bring anything.  They are so accustomed to helping and serving that showing up to something empty-handed, and then consuming food and drink, seems selfish.

And that’s exactly why I do this.  Moms throw parties for their children.  They bring food to families welcoming newborn babies, struggling with serious illness or recovering from surgeries, or mourning a loss.  They are always so busy working, working working—inside and outside their homes, that they often forget how it feels to enjoy their own brand of fun.

My Mother’s Day parties have varied in their style and size over the years.  One was a fancy brunch, several were evening parties with lots of snacks and wine and a chick-flick about motherhood.  We’ve played funny ice-breaker games at a couple, and at my first one I asked everyone to bring photos of them with their mothers or of them with their children.  But one thing that all my parties have had in common is an interesting blend of women.

My friendship spheres sometimes intersect, but many times they don’t, and what I love about my parties is that they are comprised of women from many different countries: Americans, Brits, South Africans, Canadians, Swiss, Australians, Luxembourgers, Belgians.  They’ve been comprised of women with different religious beliefs: Atheists, Christians and Muslims.  I’ve invited moms I’ve met through church, mom’s groups, the gym, my neighborhood, my children’s’ school, and through some very random connections.  I’ve invited women from different ethnic backgrounds.  And the beauty of this gathering is to see them begin to open up to one another as they laugh and relax, to watch them discover the things that they have in common with each other as they gather as mothers.  In a world where we tend to congregate with those groups of people who are most like us, what I seek to provide in this environment is an opportunity for the Lord to reveal His nature in the surprise that comes when we find a kindred spirit in someone we may never have spoken to otherwise.

But this year, when I decided to go with a Zumba theme for my party, I discovered that Phariseeism is alive and well. I know that my party idea this year was a little unusual, but it’s very frustrating when people assume the worst about something you’re doing simply because they misjudge your intentions.  Because I know that God desires hearts and community, I knew that He could even use my Zumba party to spark conversations about Him, and to build friendships that can lead to testimonies of His goodness.

On the outside looking in, apparently that wasn’t the conclusion for some people.  They questioned the holiness of Zumba-style dancing—even though there were no men around for women to grind on, and no children to influence one way or another.  They questioned the lyrics of the song choices—even though I went over and over the playlist to ensure there were no offensive curse words or extremely suggestive lyrics.  They questioned the fact that I served alcohol—even though almost every gathering in the Bible involved wine because it’s a social beverage, and I barely served enough for my guests to have more than two drinks.

And I don’t know what judging a fellow sister in Christ for throwing a dance party will profit anyone.  Does it make the judge happier to declare the party unholy or inappropriate?  No, it just divides the family of God even more because it pits one person against another over something that’s really a gray area.  I bet if I asked those critical of the party if they really thought that Jesus loves them more because they think my party was a bad idea, they’d honestly say no, so why bother judging?

Would it benefit me to argue with people to try to convince them that my way was right, that my party was okay?  No, because it’s not my job to try to win an argument and allow myself to be distracted by someone’s opinion of me.  And to get wrapped up in defending myself would waste energy that I could be spending loving on people, and it would make me angry instead of filling my heart with compassion for those who are picking my choices apart.

Would it be better for the party not to happen and for none of these women to interact and socialize?  I say no, because God is all about seeking people out and building relationships and opportunities to share the gospel.  So by now, the ladies who came to my soiree and are still reading, have learned that my surface goal was to have fun with my menagerie of friends from my life here in Raleigh, NC, but as usual with me, there was an underlying purpose, which was to serve up just a taste of the goodness and extravagance of the Lord’s love by loving on my friends.  To show them what joy and fellowship and diversity exists in the kingdom and family of God.  And I don’t think that any Pharisee could argue with that.

And you know what?  I suspect that Jesus loved a good party, and maybe even a little dancing.

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“You’ll Never Sleep Again” and Other Myths

People love to give you their worst-case scenarios.  Seriously, from the moment I got engaged to my husband 13 years ago, people started telling me how terrible my marriage would be in 15 years.  Maybe I was surrounded by the wrong people, and yes there probably were people with great marriages who were genuinely happy for me, but for some reason my brain lingered on the bad, the scary, especially from those I perceived had experience and probably knew a thing or two.  Were these people right?  I didn’t want to believe them.

It got worse when I was obviously pregnant with my oldest child.  Suddenly there was tidal wave of strong opinions rushing my way about the best way to take care of my body, to raise a child, to adjust my life to parenthood.  And, oh, the list of “you’ll nevers.”  I got so scared after getting pregnant because so many people started implying that my life was going to get so, so hard and so, so exhausting.

Now that I have come through the most intense years of motherhood—pregnancy, breast-feeding, caring for infants, keeping toddlers alive, and am entering the school-aged years, I want to debunk some of the myths that are told to expectant and new parents that are not entirely, and certainly don’t have to be, true.  Unless there are health and development problems in your family, or you have serious financial limitations or perhaps are a single parent, you’ll probably see how false these myths really are.  The truth lies somewhere beneath the myth, and it’s this that can give you hope as a parent.

So below, I’ve tackled five of the myths I hear most often when people bemoan the changes of becoming parents.

Myth #1: You’ll never sleep again.  Sleep is that one thing that you do every day of your life that doesn’t seem so important until you aren’t getting it any longer.  And there’s no foolproof way to prepare expectant parents for the mind-numb, zombielike, caffeine-guzzling creature they’ll become in those first few months of parenting, so many people just resort to extremes by telling them to get used to it because it’ll never end.  The good news is, your child will start sleeping through the night, it’s just a question of when.  The timeframe depends on numerous factors: the child, the sleep-training techniques the parents use, the sleeping arrangements, health.  But I promise you, your child will most likely enter the preschool years as a great sleeper.  Have you ever met an elementary aged child who doesn’t sleep?  Be patient—it’ll happen.

Myth #2:  You’ll never fit into your old clothes.  Pregnancy does quite the number on a woman.  Your skin stretches to an extent you didn’t think possible.  Your ankles and feet swell and you’re permanently a size 9 in shoes and no longer an 8.5.  Even your vision can change!  But to throw out all your old clothes would be hasty.   This truth is one that you must work for—you won’t suddenly lose the weight like your child suddenly starts sleeping through the night.  You must plan, prioritize, and dedicate yourself to making this one a reality.  It absolutely is possible to get back into your skinny jeans.  It’s all a question of whether you want it badly enough.  As a former personal trainer and fitness enthusiast, I know this to be true.  Your body is fully capable of being fit after giving birth—if you decide to put it to work.

Myth #3: Your house will never be clean.  I sometimes feel like this is just something people say when they feel guilty because they haven’t picked up all week.  They blame the mess on the kids, when the reality is, just a little intention and discipline can keep the mess at bay.  Dedicate one room to toys so they don’t spread across the entire house; put things away as you go; wash the dishes as soon as a meal is over; make your bed when you wake up in the morning.  As you discipline yourself to clean up and put things away, you will indirectly teach your children to do the same.  They are teachable—if cleaning up is important to you, you can train them to do it as well.

Myth #4: You and your husband will never travel again.  I think this one bothers me the most because so many of us look back on the trips we took with our spouses as some of our favorite experiences together—discovering new foods, places, and people.  To think that those days are over until we’re empty nesters is downright depressing.  That’s why I’m here to tell you that it does not have to be true!  My husband and I have gone on many trips alone together since our kids were born, and to make this possible you need do just two things: ask someone you trust to keep your children and relinquish control of their childcare for the duration of your time away.  If you are blessed to have helpful family members living nearby, the only thing standing between you and some time away is you just exploring this possibility.  If you don’t have family but you do have some disposable income, consider paying a nanny.  There are several reputable sights where you can search for and interview nannies for extended time away from your children.  And all of us have close friends to whom we would trust our children for a few nights.  If cost is an issue but travel is something you’d really like to do–drop some extra-curriculars or eat at restaurants less to save money for a trip.  My point is: the possibility of spending a few nights away from your children is not unreachable, but most of us are too nervous to ask for help or are too controlling in our role as parents to take some time off.  And it’s precisely the controlling parents who need time away the most!

Myth #5: Your children will turn into jerks when they become teenagers.  So, to be fair, I don’t know for sure that this one isn’t true because my kids are only 7, 5, and 3.  But, because I know that people love to tell you how bad things are going to be, and because all the preceding “nevers” have not proven true for me, I suspect that the above myth is not true either.  Because, I have great kids.  Yes, they can be jerks sometimes, but so can I, and that doesn’t mean that I am actually a jerk.  It just means that I have bad days when I can use a little more grace, not that I’m without hope.  I fully intend for my kids to go through some difficult developmental years, but I’m not dreading the years ahead.  I’m enjoying the moments with them, and all their changes as they grow, and dealing with the hard days as they come.  (And spending a lot of time in prayer.)  After all, what good will it do me or my children if I dread the teen years before they even arrive?  Most likely, they’ll turn out to be better than I expected.  I’ll learn a lot and look back on them with fondness, much like I’m doing now when I think about my children in their infancy, years ago.

See, what people should say to you when you’re expecting, is that the degree to which you enjoy your role as a mother depends on your ability to let go of your past.  If you cling to the “used to be’s” you’ll only focus on what you’ve lost: 8 hours of careless sleep, a neat but silent house, a flexible yet self-focused schedule—and you’ll become someone who recites the “never myths” to other parents with sarcastic flair.  But, if you approach parenthood embracing your new normal and not trying to be the same person you were, you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and your opportunities to enjoy the small pleasures that remind you of your carefree days will only be limited by your creativity.

So my advice, if you want it, is much simpler: Never believe the “you’ll never’s,” because there’s always the hope that you can.

My Month of Dresses

I spent the entire month of December wearing a dress, well, at least publicly.  At the end of 2017, an organization called the Dressember Foundation launched a campaign to raise 2 million dollars of support for victims of human trafficking worldwide.  People were encouraged to advocate for Dressember’s mission as individuals or teams via social media outlets.  Around 80% of victims of sex trafficking are women and girls, and as a victim of rape myself, this subject as been close to my heart for many years.  Whereas my assault was an isolated incident, a crime that was immediately reported, sex trafficking is usually a nightmare that goes on and on for its victims, with no end in sight.  Also, it’s a profitable business across the globe, making it easier to push on the dark web and almost directly under people’s noses.

So, when I found out about Dressember’s mission during the month of December, my interest was piqued.  All I was asked to do as an advocate was wear a dress every day, take photos of myself and post them to social media, and ask people to donate.  That last part was the most intimidating for me because I’m not a natural salesperson, and December is already a heavy spending month for people; I felt a little awkward asking them to stretch their budgets even more.

But several things surprised me about my month of dresses.  Wearing a dress didn’t seem like such a big commitment or statement to me at first, probably because I’m a girly-girl and I like to wear dresses anyway.  But as the first week ended and the second week began, my perspective on my limited wardrobe options changed.

First, I noticed that I was relegated to about four dresses that suited the wintry weather in December in North Carolina, and that got me thinking about women in second and third world countries who may not even have that many dresses for the season.  The fact that I had four warm and fashionable dresses and then went out and easily purchased a skirt to wear with some of my sweaters, just because I could, increased my gratitude.  Second, as I had to decide which dress or skirt was better for that day’s schedule or itinerary—was it grocery shopping, hiking with my family, church or yard-work—I was aware that pants are a recent and western adornment for women, and that for centuries (and even today in certain parts of the world) women performed every task under the sun in a dress.  It’s not comfortable to squat, to lift, or to sweat in a bulky skirt.  This awareness tied my heart to women of all nationalities and races, past and present, and increased my resolve.

Finally, as I posted photos of myself in my dresses (more uncomfortably as the month went along), I learned how little people know about this issue, and how desperately most want to help once they become aware of its scale and power.  Human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular, is often regarded as something that happens in third world countries.  Americans don’t believe that it’s a problem in their own country.  But as I continued to post my photos with statistics about sex trafficking in the USA, I saw support pour in from women AND men, old friends and recent acquaintances who wanted to help somehow.  I started to see the dress as a symbol not only of femininity and beauty, but of solidarity and strength to overcome.

If I’m being honest, yes, I really missed my jeans.  There were days that month when the last thing I wanted to do was to pull on my tights and shimmy into a dress, but then I thought of all the women and girls who are victims of human trafficking.  How many days have they wished that they could stay in their sweats, or just walk down the street in jeans and comfortable shoes in freedom?  How many times have they been forced to shimmy into a tight miniskirt and step into strappy heels, only to walk down the street as slaves?  The dress-wearing ended for me on December 31 and I began a new year in clothes of my own choosing.  For victims of sex trafficking, 2018 brought no comfortable options.  This year when you choose to wear a dress, I hope that you’ll stop and consider women across the world, across time, and that you’ll be grateful for the freedom your wardrobe represents.

To find out more about how you can donate to or partner with the Dressember Foundation, please visit http://www.dressember.org.

 

 

When Being in Control Controls You

Come with me for a moment and picture this—you’re sitting on the bow of a boat in rough water.  The boat moves steadily toward an approaching wave.  It’s big, and you know when you reach it the boat will tilt upward and slam down hard on the other side of the wave.  It may hurt, it may jolt you from your seat, so your body tenses in anticipation.  You grab onto your towel and the handle beside your seat.  And sure enough, you feel some pain after that wave.  You may come away with some bruises from knocking sideways into the hull.  But here comes another wave, and another, and soon your jaw hurts from clenching your teeth so hard every time the boat crests the water.  So you decide to let go, and when the next wave approaches and the boat rolls over it, you intentionally relax your muscles, loosen your grip, and allow the movement of the boat to pass through you.  The downward dip doesn’t seem as steep, you haven’t lost your place and you find yourself leaning forward, ready for the next wave.

Trying to maintain control of forces and people out of your control is like the above scenario.  Over the last ten years, I’ve been noticing and pondering the differences in people’s reactions when things don’t go their way.  When someone realizes that they have no control there are a myriad of ways they can respond.  Perhaps they’ll be angry and bitter, frightened and immobilized.  They can become withdrawn and uncommunicative.  Or they can step back and take stock of the situation, understand they have something to learn or some plans to adjust, and they can change course and sail on.

What makes the difference for people in how they respond to drastic change or loss of control?  For so much of our lives we are taught to become independent, to set goals and make plans, but I think there’s a flip-side to setting goals that you can only learn through failure.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “there is no effort without error and shortcoming, so that doers shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.”  Teddy Roosevelt talks about action, about effort and perseverance.  Truly, it’s a mark of maturity to work, to plan for our futures.  To sit idly by expecting fortune to smile upon us is vain and irresponsible.  There is definitely a time to plan, to rebound and be a “doer.”

But it’s also a mark of maturity for us to be at peace in the midst of adversity and unwanted change.  There is an element of humility and trust that goes along with remaining flexible and teachable.  The book of James speaks about contentment, perseverance, generally a humble and positive perspective toward life, but what I really like is this remark about making plans.

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil.” James 4: 13-17

Ouch, that stings a little, doesn’t it?  How many of us have laid out blueprints for our lives only to see the colors smear and run when rain begins to fall?  Yet, these are good precepts to keep in mind.  As far as I know, there is only One who knows exactly how my life will turn out.  And after moving 14 times in my 39 years of life, being a victim of abduction and sexual assault, suffering three miscarriages, watching friendships die, dealing with personal temptation and sin, I can say with certainty that my life has not gone the way I expected.

Yet, I have a wonderful life.  I can only be grateful, and it’s because of my trials, defeats, failures, that I can recognize today’s blessings.  It’s because I have tasted humility and sorrow and heartache that I can have compassion, acceptance, and empathy for others when they are tempted to withdraw or lash out because their lives take a dip.  If I had never experienced these dips in life, I wouldn’t see when I’ve crested the waves.  And because I have gratitude, I have perseverance, because I know there’s always hope.  This gives me the courage to not remain defeated.

A recognition of my lack of complete control also prevents me from giving full reign to judgment.  Because of my past struggles, I know that at any moment, everything that I hold dear could be taken from me or I could make a mistake that would cost me peace and stability.  This last year I’ve seen good friends suddenly lose loved ones.  I’ve talked to people whose lives have changed drastically in mere hours due to hurricanes, health diagnoses, marital bombshells, and more.  And as I get older, these things seem to happen more frequently.

When days and weeks and months of comfort go by, I count my blessings.  I know that they come as a gift from my good Father.  But I must confess that I am tempted to soak in that comfort and look down my nose at others who are struggling and wonder what they could have done to earn these difficulties It’s tempting to judge people, to sit back and analyze and smugly prescribe a solution for someone’s problem.  My compassion weakens.  My humility suffers.  And I don’t like myself that way because it means that I’m starting to worship my blessings more than the One who blessed me.  I forget that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1: 17).

I have a trick for bringing myself back to earth when I tend to mentally boast in how “together” I am.  To me, the ultimate test for how I’d handle utter lack of control, human dependence and find out for sure how much I depend upon the Lord would be if I suddenly lost my husband.  There have been nights when he’s been late getting home from a business trip and I’ve wondered: is he okay?  Is he alive?  And then that gets me thinking, what if he doesn’t come home tonight?  So, every once in a while, I’ll allow myself to ask the “what if” questions.  What would I do, how would I respond if I no longer had Bryan?  How would I live if my bread-winner was gone?  Would I trust in the Lord for my daily bread?  How would I sleep at night and feel comforted if my lover wasn’t in bed beside me, holding me?  Would I cling to my Comforter and the Lover of my soul?  Would I remember that no matter how quickly my life changes, my Father does not change?

It’s these “what-if” questions in life’s comfortable moments that turn into living, breathing “what now” questions in life’s terrible moments.  Because the fact is, as much as we like to pretend that we do, we don’t have absolute control over our lives.  And living under the pretense that we do makes us self-focused, fearful, judgmental people.  We grip so tightly to whatever is in our reach, whether that’s diet control, health control, emotional control, child control, spouse control, calendar control, to the point that we bring ourselves more pain, more fear, more reluctance to let go and ride the wave.

Life is an unpredictable sea rich with depths and storms and doldrums and peaceful currents.  At times we will cruise comfortably, but rough waters are always a possibility.  Then we will get jostled.  Things around us will roll and tumble and fall.  We can fight the wave and come away bruised and weakened, dreading what comes next.  Or, we can loosen our grip and trust the boat to carry us over the swells to smoother waters once again.  Either way, we will reach them, but our approach to the next swells will largely depend upon our posture in the past, and who we trust more, ourselves or the boat.

I trust the boat every time because it has an Anchor, a Life Preserver, and a Captain.  Only He is fully equipped to guide me safely across the sea.