A year of dreams

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I never make New Year’s Resolutions. I guess I think if something is important enough for me to change, it won’t matter what day of the year it is. But there is no doubt that as another year passes into “last year,” I am a year older, hopefully a year wiser, a year further into being a mother, and a year closer Jesus.  And that is enough of a reason for reflection.

My reflection today came while I was mindlessly cleaning my room. Yes, it dates me, but it was one of those days where I felt like God was speaking through my “favorites” playlist on iTunes. First, the words of Jimmy Eat World:

 “Oh babe, I know it’s alive, and somewhere for us to find tonight. Chase this light with me.”

Then Guster – “If that’s all you will be, you’ll be a waste of time. You’ve dreamed a thousand dreams, none seem to stick in your mind.”

Oh sweet Switchfoot – “Dare you to move.”

We all have dreams, don’t we? We all hear words to songs and get inspired to do something, change something, fulfill something. As I reflected on these lyrics, a conversation I had with my son came to mind about the book “The Three Trees.” I of course was crying (if you don’t cry while reading that book you are just a monster), and my sweet son literally wiped the tears off my face and asked why I was crying. I looked at Jacob and said, “I’m crying because it’s sad but it’s also happy. These three trees had dreams that didn’t come true. The first one was not a treasure box, the second one wasn’t a mighty sailing ship, and the third one didn’t grow to be the tallest tree in the world, did it?”

“No.”

“But who made all of their dreams come true?”

“Jesus.”

“That’s why I’m crying, babe. God takes all of our dreams and through Jesus, makes them come true in a beautiful way. Our dreams can come true because Jesus came.”

If we all have dreams, then we all also have broken dreams. Fractured relationships. Failures in our character. Wounds from our childhood. Anger and confusion in our thoughts toward God. Disappointments and heartaches and sadness about how life had turned out. But God…God redeems and restores and reconciles. He can fulfill even our broken dreams.

I love my life. But I can’t deny that there are passions and dreams that I have dismissed. This year, I feel like the Lord is prompting me to dream again and that he is going to make some of those dreams come to pass in 2014. And I also feel like it is a greater word than just for me. I feel like it is a word for many.

This new year, dream again. Dream the dreams you thought were dead. Dream the dreams you don’t think are possible.

Maybe for you, that’s asking God what dreams you have forgotten.

Maybe it’s believing that God actually talks to you when you ask him things.

Maybe it’s taking that college course.

Opening up that new business.

Filling out the adoption paperwork.

Picking up the phone and calling your friend.

Recording your album.

Writing your book.

Moving to that city and planting that church.

Forgiving your father.

The beautiful truth is that our dreams are not in the way of God’s plans. They are the way of God’s plans. He has given us our hopes and desires on purpose – He wants to use them for his Kingdom.  He is so kind that he created us in such a way that as we follow him, as we pursue His Kingdom, as we yield our plans to Him, He gives us back our dreams in ways we never imagine.

And that’s better than being the tallest tree in the world.

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Three things I tell my son

Theoretically, I am a fantastic mom. I know the way I want to mother, I know the things I want to teach my kids, I know what kind of people I want to raise them to be. I know how to discipline in most situations, I care about their eating habits and sleeping habits, and I think TV should be a last resort.

Of course, in reality, I’m just a regular old imperfect mom. I get lazy. I don’t follow through on the discipline I know how to do. I let TV be a first resort. I lose my temper. I am inconsistent.

But I am always working on bridging the “theoretical” and the “reality.” I want to constantly move toward being a better mom. Lately, as I am asking God what things he wants to work on in my character, he showed me three things. They just so happen to be three things I am working on with my oldest son, Jacob.

1. “Not immediate is disobedient”

My husband coined this phrase for our son. We don’t count to three, we don’t “give warnings” (I mean, theoretically of course). But our goal is that Jacob would obey immediately, and any arguing or ignoring or bargaining from him is the same as being disobedient, even if he plans on obeying after fixing one more Lego.

Yet this is not the way I always view God’s voice. I have found myself thinking, “If he really wants me to do that, he will tell me again.” Why would I think like that? Is that the way I want Jacob to view my authority?

Immediate obedience is sometimes about convenience. “Come here please” because I don’t want to stand at the fountain at the mall any longer. “Come for dinner” because I’m starving. But most of the time, I want Jacob to be obedient right away for his safety or for an opportunity. If I tell him to stop in a parking lot, it is because he is running out into an aisle where cars are driving. If he is not obedient immediately, his safety is at risk. Or if I tell him not to touch something, it is for his own good. Sometimes I ask him to come to me because I can see something he can’t and I want to show him. For instance, there is a train going by and I know he will want to see it, but he has to come to where I am. If he delays in his obedience, the train will pass without him seeing it.

It’s the same with me and God. Sometimes I think he just wants us to do what he says right away out of honor and love for him. But most times, I think it is for our safety or for an opportunity. If God wakes me up and tells me to pray for someone, I need to do it right away. Who knows what is happening in the spiritual realm that I am fighting against with my prayers? And if I go to sleep and think, “If he really wants me to pray he can wake me up again,” what am I forfeiting? If God tells me to go give a word to a random person at the park, and I falter in obedience, thinking he will tell me again if it’s important, what opportunity could I miss because in that time, the person leaves? What did God want to say to that person that I forfeited on their behalf because of fear?

2. “Don’t let the way other people act determine the way you act.”

This is a big one for all parents, isn’t it? We tell our kids, “It is never ok to hit/bite/say mean things, no matter what someone else does.” We expect them to have consistent character traits, regardless of the situation. Just because someone steals a toy from you does not give you the right to steal a toy from them. And just because someone else breaks the rules does not make it okay for you break them as well.

We expect this from our kids, but not from ourselves.  So often we are vindictive, mean-spirited, sarcastic people, but we think it is justified because of what someone has done to us. Do you know what God has been showing me?

If I think I am a kind person, but I say biting things to my husband when he disappoints me, I am not a kind person.

If I think I am a gerenous person, but I withhold giving to others because I don’t like the lifestyle they are living, I am not a generous person.

If I think I am a forgiving person, but I don’t forgive until the other person has made it up to me, I am not a forgiving person.

The substance of my character is how I act in the face of injustice, cruelty, disappointment, frustration. I, in most situations, let other people determine how I act. I hate that. I want to be bigger than that. I want to be someone who, no matter what, is kind. Who, no matter what, is generous, and forgiving, and patient, and sweet.

3. “Share with your brother. If you are sharing, I promise you will always have enough.”

For Jacob, this is very specific to food. Jacob loves his little brother, and doesn’t withhold his snack out of spite or to be mean. He doesn’t want to share because he is afraid he won’t have enough if he gives some to Rohan. At the core, this is selfish, and in an older child I would address the idea of sacrificing for the good of others.  But for a four year old, this is a very natural thing to worry about, and instead of telling him to sacrifice, I promise him that as long as he is sharing, he will always have enough. What Jacob sees is his small bowl of cheddar bunnies. What he doesn’t see is the Costco size box I have on the counter. I have more bunnies than he could ever, ever eat. And if I run out of those, I can buy more. I have, in essence, an infinite amount of cheddar bunnies. And I want to give them to Jacob! I have them for the sole reason of giving them to him! I just want him, in turn, to give some to Rohan.

Most of the time, all we see is our bank account. Or our debt. Or our bills. What we don’t see is God’s Costco size box of resources. We don’t give generously, not because we don’t want to bless others, but because we are afraid of not having enough for ourselves and our family. If you believe in the God I believe in, you must know this – money is not an issue for him. It’s just not. He is the author and sustainer of life itself; a human tool like money will never, ever stop him from his intended purposes. I don’t believe in the prosperity gospel – that if you give generously to God you will be rich. It’s not a formula. In fact, Jesus himself was homeless. He relied on the generosity of others to sustain his lifestyle. But I do think it is a principle. If you are a good steward of what God has given you, whether it is much or little, he will rejoice in giving you more because he knows you are responsible and generous with it. And God doesn’t always provide through dollar bills. It is often through the generosity of other Christians that God provides food, and clothing, and housing and education and networks…and also money.  He no doubt also wants to use you to provide for someone else. Isn’t that the greatest idea? In the church family, if we are all always giving, then we will all always be receiving. May I be so bold as to make you a promise on behalf of Jesus? Give generously this month. Or tithe a simple 10% if you don’t already. And I will promise that all of your needs as a family will be met. It might be miraculous and it might be mundane. But if you give with a generous heart, not for the formula but out of the principle, God will bless you.

So those are the things I am working on right now, in Jacob and in myself. It’s kind of fun to have the same project as my son, so to speak. I can use what God is teaching me to guide how I am walking with Jacob through these situations. I think that the greatest lesson comes from me watching Jacob’s responses to my parenting. He is much better at it than I am. I’m trying to be as good of a parent as God is and as good of a child as Jacob is.  And somehow, in the busyness and seemingly unexciting day to day life of mine, God is giving me opportunities to practice both.

Why the joy of the Lord is my strength

In full disclosure, I have had a hard time moving to Atlanta. I’m not sure how to explain it well, but the fast way is to say I’m never really happy. I love my boys and I enjoy doing fun things, but I find that I’m never smiling. I never feel filled with joy. I’m just kind of doing life right now.

I know a lot of it is transition and probably mourning the loss of our life in Seattle. But knowing this is normal doesn’t make it better. Some days when I’m in the shower I just stare at the wall and think “I have no motivation to do anything at all today.”

I’m sure you have been there. Whether you are going through a tough time or you are just an exhausted mom/student/employee, there are days we just don’t feel anything, the least of which is joy. It’s on those days that I think about the verse that says “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” And you know what I think? I think, “Yeah. Sure.” We hear this verse and assume that, by knowing Jesus, we should be filled with this inexplicable joy that just surges us forward in our day with renewed energy and delight. To instantly fix our problems. To battle depression. To gloss over real emotions that we have regarding real life situations. And when we don’t feel overwhelmed by joy and strength, we think something is wrong with us.

I do believe this kind of joy exists, that can fill us and overwhelm us. But I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying. Have you ever read it? It’s from a great book called Nehemiah. First, though, a very brief historical setting –

Go back to around 586 B.C. Israel as a nation disobeys God and disregards his law and is taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Years pass, many Jews settle into Babylon, make it their home, and start a family. Babylon, meanwhile, is defeated by Persia. The new Persian king decrees that anyone who wants to go back home to Jerusalem can (Read about it in the book of Daniel). Some do, most don’t. The ones that do go back rebuild the temple (read about it in the book of Ezra). That brings us to the story of Nehemiah. He was a second or third generation Israelite living in Persia. Not only does he live there, he works in the service of the king, Artaxerxes. He cares about Jerusalem and asks around one day to see how the progress of rebuilding the city and nation is going.  The men say, ““Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3) This overwhelms Nehemiah with grief. He asks God to give him a way to go help, and then talks to the king, his boss. Artaxerxes lets him go back to Jerusalem. When Nehemiah gets there, he starts crafting a plan to rebuild the wall.  In ancient cities, a wall both figuratively and literally defined the city. Without a wall, you had no city. He chronicles his work and his struggles against a lot of opposition. Finally, the wall is rebuilt and he gathers all of the people living there to dedicate the wall.

Now, remember, these people have been separated from the way of their ancestors by generations. They have either been raised in another country, or they were the children of people left in a devastated Isreal because they weren’t important enough to be brought to Babylon. They don’t follow the law of God, but it is because they don’t even know it. They don’t even know their God has a standard of living for them. They have never heard it.

So during the dedication, Nehemiah has the priest Ezra read the law to the people and explain it. And here’s what it says (Nehemiah 8),

“Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.”For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

The people were weeping because they understood how much they had missed the heart of God. They had no idea how wrong they were living, and when they were faced with their sin, they mourned. They were saddened that they had turned away. They repented of the way they had lived. But then Nehemiah says the most amazing thing.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Do you understand how powerful this statement is in light of the context?? The people are convicted (as they should be). They are sad (as they should be). They are mourning and crying and trying to show God how sorry they are. And instead of letting them mourn, and cry, and punish themselves, God says, “This is a day to celebrate, not to mourn.” Why? Because he is filled with joy in this moment. His people came back to him. He never sees a repentant heart as a reason to be sad, but a reason to celebrate. And how were the people to wipe their eyes and get enough strength to celebrate? Because they knew that the Lord rejoiced over them.

The joy of the Lord in this verse is not some supernatural joy imparted to us. It is the joy the Lord feels over his people when they are running toward him. THAT is what gives us strength. When I posture my life and will toward him, it THRILLS him.

Now whenever I think of this verse, it holds a lot more meaning for me. No matter what I’m going through, how I’m feeling, or even when faced with things I have done, I can choose to ignore the self-pity and self-depricating thoughts that pop into my head because I know that my savior is rejoicing over me. The joy the Lord has over me gives me the strength to love myself, to be content with who I am, and my perceived shortcomings as a mom and wife. Does this mean I always feel joyful, or full of strength? No. But it does mean that if I am enough to make God smile, I am enough.

A lesson from the soccer field

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My almost-four-year-old just started soccer this year. As big soccer fans, we have been waiting for this moment for a long time. The day our son would put on his first pair of shin guards, wobble toward us in new cleats, and be as excited for something as we are!

This past Saturday was his first game, which is a generous term for a bunch of three and four-year-olds with one practice under their belts. The morning came with snow, which is rather rare in Georgia, but we bundled up the best we could, still optimistic, and somehow got his white jersey over his winter coat. He ran around happily kicking the ball with Phil as the coaches rallied the kids and talked to parents. And then, the game started.

It was a disaster.

Most of the kids ran around, shoving and kicking at the ball, and goals were scored about every 30 seconds. Our kid, on the other hand, did what makes every parent cringe. He cried. Almost the whole game. His demeanor went from joyous to panicked as soon as the whistle blew.

As first time soccer parents, Phil and I thought we had a plan for this but really had no idea what to do. We coerced, we (gently) threatened, we talked about being part of a team, we cheered loudly for other kids who were playing, we got frustrated, we gave up, we tried again. About thirty minutes into it, I decided to go home with our one-year-old, who was pretty miserable in the snow. The game only had five minutes left and Phil wanted some alone time with Jacob.

As I walked to the car, my first thoughts were “Well, there has to be something online about how to parent through this!” What do you do with an introvert who breaks down or shuts down on the turn of a dime? How do you remind him how much he loves soccer or whatever activity his is doing? How do you teach life lessons of perserverance and commitment when things get uncomfortable? What motivates our son? It’s not attention, or praise, or fear of punishment, or promise of a reward, or any of the things we tried to do at the game. As I considered what I would search for online when I got home, my heart was struck that the greatest Parent of all time knows my son more than I ever will, and also knows the right way to handle all situations, even soccer game meltdowns.

So on the drive home, I simply asked God, “What motivates our son?” And immediately he answered, “Safety.” Don’t you love it when God answers right away? Safety. Jacob is motivated by safety. That’s why at home he is a daredevil, a leader, a risk-taker, but on the playground he is timid. He won’t perform to receive accolades, but he will perform when he feels safe. As I pondered this thought, a much more temporal one came into my head. “I am freezing, hot chocolate will taste great when I get home. Should I make some for Jacob? No, I don’t want to reward him for how he acted. I can just tell him that if he wants hot chocolate next week he has to play in the game – give him something to look forward to!” Faster than I could form the thought (which is often how I know it is God), God said to me,

“I don’t withhold blessings when you have failed. Why would you?”

Touche. So when Phil and Jacob walked in the door twenty minutes later, I was waiting with a big smile and a cup of hot chocolate for him. I told Jacob I loved him and gave him a hug.

This week I have been working on how to respond to the word God gave me. Of course feeling safe is a bedrock for all kids, especially introverts, but I took it very seriously that God said it specifically about my son. The thing about safety is that I am the one who provides it. Jacob feeling safe is my responsibility. And it’s not me holding him or coddling him all the time, it’s him going out on his own and knowing that I will be there when he turns around to look for me. It also means me getting over my insecurities and talking to the other moms and planning playdates. If Jacob knows the kids on his team and is friends with them, he will feel safe. So even if I don’t want to sit around with the awkward small talk of getting to know another mom, it’s something I need to do for Jacob. So I wrote an email to all the team parents and asked if any of them wanted to do a playdate next week. Should I probably be doing this anyways? Sure. Am I dreading it? Yes. But I could wait around and hope Jacob starts to enjoy games on his own, or I could step up and make myself feel unsafe so that Jacob feels safe.

As parents, we are really good at choices and consequences, behavior and discipline. All of those are godly things. But being more like Jesus means parenting more like him too. It means giving blessings just because I love, not because they are earned. It means making sacrifices because it is the best thing for my son. It means showing unending grace in the face of failure. We are not as good at those aspects of parenting. Let’s start asking God parenting questions as our first resort, not our last one. He knows a lot more than any books or websites or articles.

Jacob’s first soccer game could have been a parenting fail for me. But fortunately, God is a much better soccer mom than I am, and he doesn’t let failures go by without turning them for good.