It’s the little things…

DSC_0697Dave was watching football while grading papers (a common Sunday afternoon for him). I stopped as I walked by because a commercial caught my eye.

Scene: a man sits at the foot of his immaculate bed at the end of his day. He slips off his work shoes and then his socks. He sits there, socks dangling from one hand. Voice over says, “Just as Phil is about to drop his socks on the floor, as he does every evening, something occurs to him for the very first time: The clothes hamper is only four feet away, straight across from him.” Phil then leans forward and tosses the socks in the hamper. The camera pans to a woman just about to walk into the bedroom. Voice over: “Proving to Phil’s wife that miracles really can happen.” Her jaw falls slack, the shot holds for another beat and then fades to an Illinois State Lottery logo.

I howled with laughter.

Howled.

Dave raised his eyebrows at me, with a look that said, “Please tell me you don’t identify with that woman because I am NOT a slob, and if you tell me I am, I will have to remind you that I—yes, I—cleaned up after YOU in the early days of our marriage.”

When I finally stopped laughing, I said, “It’s not because it’s the husband. I mean, they could easily do it from the opposite point of view, wife for husband. Plus, for me, this is not really about you. Just think of all the things the kids do that could have been used for this commercial. I mean, if I went in the kitchen and found that someone had actually put the clean pots and pans away, I would think our house had been broken into by someone who was trying to stock their kitchen!”

He laughed then, too, and we brainstormed a couple together, but I decided to journal a longer list that, were they to change, I might just consider that a miracle:

  1. I open the cereal cupboard to find not one but two (and sometimes three) open boxes of the same exact cereal. When I look into them, I see why. There’s a little bit of cereal at the bottom of one bag. Rather than finish it off and have to actually deal with the empty box, “whoever” just opened a new box.
  2. Use #1 above and apply it to the last bit of leftovers in the fridge, the final slosh of milk in the bottom of the gallon, etc.
  3. I open the under-sink cupboard to put trash in the kitchen can and find it is overflowing. No one besides my husband and I seem to ever think of actually emptying the overflowing kitchen trash can—or at least pushing down the debris. Rather they all try to balance trash on top so they don’t have to “touch it—eww!”
  4. Apply #3 to the recycling bin.
  5. I find empty toilet paper tubes on the holder—with a new roll half-unrolled on the floor next to the toilet. (To be honest, they’re getting better about this.)
  6. “Mo-om, where’s my…?” I walk into the room and discover it’s three feet to their left.
  7. I change the kids’ sheets (confession: I don’t do that very often!) and learn the bed has become a dresser. Missing socks underneath the covers, t-shirts between the pillow and headboard, jeans stuffed behind the mattress.
  8. The top rack of the dishwasher is stuffed full—while the bottom is nearly empty, EXCEPT for the first compartment in the silverware container—which is bristling with forks, spoons, and knives stuffed in all directions! Reason: it’s more effort to actually bend over to put things in the bottom rack, and—in the case of silverware, which obviously can’t go in the top—it’s easier to pull out the bottom rack just a little bit.
  9. In the transition time from summer to fall, when the temperature outside is suddenly colder than inside, I find open doors, open doors, open doors. “Close the door!” Don’t know how many times I holler that.
  10. 10. Clothes on the floor. Doesn’t matter how often I make my boys clean them up (and I fuss the whole time), they STILL simply drop their clothes onto the floor when they change.
  11. 11. I KNOW I did this when I was a kid (and I have to remind myself of this often), but why is it that kids can take something out of its accustomed spot and never, ever, ever think of putting it back there when they are finished with said item. Then, when they need it again, they go back to the accustomed spot and assume that it will be there. (What do they think it is, magic?)
  12. 12. Question: “Mom, where are my shoes?” Answer: “Where you left them.” Question: “Where did I leave them?” Answer: “How on earth would I know?” (But I usually do L).
  13. 13. Soggy cereal in the sink. Don’t know why—but a pet peeve and one of the few things that gross me out.
  14. 14. “What’s for dinner?” I think this question should be banned for anyone who isn’t planning on contributing in some way to the dinner.

Oh, kids! Gotta’ love ‘em! And we gotta’ laugh, right?

Got any of your own? Let’s share a chuckle!

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When our stories stretch long

genregraphFor years I taught the short story plot graph to middle and high school students. You first encounter the exposition—where you meet everyone and discover the setting. Then a conflict is introduced—things get exciting. The action rises (called “rising action”—surprise!) and culminates in the climax! (Trust me—I know that high school boys get the innuendo.) Then there is falling action and the resolution. Some stories have a denouement (a French term I was never sure I pronounced correctly), which is like an afterward—the “____ years later” addition to stories. (I love denouements).

Last fall my good friend Susanna visited. She’s in her first job, working as a third-shift ER nurse, and we talked about how she often leaves so many “stories” unfinished when her shift ends at 11 in the morning, before the doctors or social workers or psychiatrists see the patients admitted during the wee hours of the morning. “Often, all I’ve done is stabilize them,” she told me. “I never hear what happens with them unless they come in again.”

We talked about what that does to our souls when we continually leave stories (the real ones that people live) unfinished. Susanna doesn’t like doing this with her patients, and the stress of constantly living in the rising action of her patients’ hospital stories often makes her weary and numb.

But we also talked about the human tendency to exit stories before the ending or to dream about entering other, more exciting stories.

Susanna and I both have this tendency. We like traveling to needy places, and we’re constantly intrigued by the thought of going someplace new/doing something new.

Part of that desire is driven by the instinct to live only the more exciting half of the story, to move on when the action is no longer rising, when a climax is not around every turn.

To live out full stories, though—through the falling action, into the resolution, even past the denouement—requires determination and commitment.

I think of child-rearing—particularly when the child has a special need or illness or trauma;

Nursing older parents—especially when the years of diminishing ability or memory stretch long;

Marriage past the honeymoon stage;

Keeping the same job when the promotion offers begin passing us by.

These long-term stories sometimes seem short on excitement and long on the daily grind.

Until trauma hits! Then we remember the daily grind with nostalgia. “Oh, if I could only have that again,” we think. “I wouldn’t complain about …”

But when we are in the doldrums of our long stories, excitement beckons. We get weary. We long for … something. We forget that God has put us right in the middle of these stories for a reason. We forget that every daily grind moment has purpose and how we live these times affects the Story-at-Large. We may never know the hows or the whys or the specific effects, but we can know these times have meaning.

Oh, Lord, help us to remember this.

Living in GRACE

We leave for a trip to Africa on July 7. Dave and I will go with 12 girls from his soccer team, our oldest child (Emily), one of his assistant coaches, and two soccer moms to Kenya and Uganda.

Dave gave each girl going on the trip a copy of Kisses from Katie, and he asked me to write devotions for each day of the trip using Scripture and sections from the book.

“I would love to,” I told him.

Well, I still “will love to,” and I probably will post many of them here on the blog, but I have to admit that the book sent me into a spiritual funk for about a week—sorry for the silence.

Kisses from Katie is the story of a young suburban-raised girl who decided to visit Uganda during Christmas break of her senior year in high school. Then she just had to go back after graduation for a gap year before college. (I know, this sounds eerily like the story of Jody—who rescued our PJ). Katie’s “job” for the year was to teach kindergarten, but she soon felt led by God to rent a house, and abandoned children began showing up on her doorstep. She is now in the process of adopting 13 Ugandan girls and lives full-time in Uganda, coming back to the States only for visits and fundraising purposes. Her life is filled with sharing Christ—through words and actions—with the poorest of the poor.

I’m not doing enough. I’m not doing enough. This nasty chorus ran rampant through my mind as I read the book—though I knew that was not Katie’s reason for writing it and I also knew it wasn’t good theology.

What dug my spiritual funk deeper was the fact that I had bought a rug for the living room the day before beginning the book. Like we needed a rug, I thought as I read about Katie raising money to pay school fees for the children in her village. I should have sent the money to World Vision!

(BTW, I felt quite a bit better about the new rug when we spread the old rug out on our grass for the yard sale we had last weekend. Sunlight exposed a LOT more than my living room lamps did. The all-ivory rug may have worked for the empty-nesters we bought the house from, but with our six kids, their friends, our dog—yeesh!)

As I read further, I defaulted to guilt wallowing, and God felt very, very far away.

I know now—and knew then—this kind of guilt is not from God, but I was stuck and digging in deeper. Saturday morning, I woke tired, glum, discouraged already. But this was yard-sale-for-Africa day, filled with opportunities to meet neighbors, make new friends, share life.

Oh God, I prayed, I don’t have the strength for this, and I am so spiritually bankrupt right now. I can’t do this. But rather than drawing me closer to God, my prayer made me more convinced of my failure.

But a beautiful thing happened as the day went on. One of the soccer moms came and helped, and we had genuine fellowship. I met a lovely little woman from Syria who asked me to pray for persecuted believers in her native country. Before she left, she pronounced Christ’s blessings on us and our trip. I met another neighbor, large with her third child, who had moved in just that day down the street. I liked her; Dave hit it off with her husband; Em was ready to babysit. Dave had fun conversation with our next-door neighbor when he asked, “So why are you going to Africa?”

As soon as the yard sale was over, though, the cloud descended again.

All week Dave gave me funny looks when I answered, “Fine,” in response to his, “How are you?” Finally, on our early Sunday morning run (yes, we’re running again, and, oh, I am so sore!), he didn’t let my “Fine” slide by. “No, you’re not,” he pressed. “What’s up?”

“I’m missing God,” I cried. “I just feel like I’m not pleasing Him, that I’m so filled up with self I’m missing Him. I’m trying and trying, but all I can think of is what I’m NOT doing, and then I feel guilty and farther away than ever.”

Dave didn’t let that answer slide by, either. He pushed quite a bit on my faulty theology—and I said, “I know, I know! My head sees it, but what do I do with my heart?”

What ultimately led to a breakthrough was this question he asked: “If you’re so far away from God, then what was going on yesterday at the yard sale?”

That stopped me. I’d gone into the yard sale with dread, with a lack of strength and purpose—with guilt at my attitude.

But somewhere during the day, I’d forgotten ME. I’d forgotten to try so, so hard. I’d let go of guilt and let others minister to me (oh, how Christ works through His body!), and in the process I was able to share myself with them and others. I’d felt joy and peace—and I know where those come from. (Galatians 5:22)

Later on Sunday morning, when I had a few quiet minutes to be still, I wrote in my journal: “If MY doing never truly accomplishes anything—for myself or anyone else, then why do I try so hard? If I really believe that my ‘righteousness is as filthy rags,’ then doing more in my own strength, out of my own guilt, accomplishes no good.”

Not long ago, I listened to a sermon by Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Portland, about the importance of the Gospel in our lives AFTER salvation. He said something like this: We Christians have little problem seeing our need for complete grace for salvation, but then we act as if we have to accomplish the Christian life on our own. We need the Gospel just as much after salvation as we did before.

In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabus are speaking to people who have just trusted Christ. The two missionaries “urged them to continue to rely on the grace of God.” (emphasis mine)

It’s so, so easy to abandon grace in our daily lives. My tendency is to forget that I have no ability to please God on my own; I feel I must do more, do more, do more to make Him like me. What heresy! And it has such terrible results: guilt, broken sleep, fatigue, a broken spirit.

I wasn’t relying on God to work in me and through me last week. I put far more responsibility on myself than He ever wants me to have. HE guides; HE convicts; HE leads and directs.

I must live in the Gospel:

I need rescuing, every day, often from myself.

And my God is a God who saves.

Marriage Advice, part 2

Just after I wrote the blog entry “Marriage Advice, part 1” https://journeytojen.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/902/, Dave (my husband) left for Germany for two weeks. For some reason, it felt odd to write about marriage while my spouse was gone (plus, I run nearly every blog entry by him before I post it), so I decided to wait.

Well, he’s back (has been for almost two weeks), and here is the Second Most Important Piece of Marriage Advice I would give to young women about to be married:

Understand the true purpose of your marriage.

This sounds un-romantic.

But the truth is that romance is a horrible purpose for a marriage. So are children, companionship, sex, fulfillment, even “love.”

Those all fall abysmally short of the true purpose: to honor God and make Him known.

If that seems a little too “spiritual” or dry, hang on. My contention is that when we make romance or “love” the ultimate goal for our marriage, we are aiming far, far too low.

To honor God and make Him known: that is a purpose that is sacred, amazing, practical, mystical, adventurous, and, yes, incredibly romantic.

Every marriage, including yours, is meant to build a love that is like the love Christ has for His own bride, the church. This has two major implications:

First, this means that you are focused on meeting the needs (emotional, physical, social, and spiritual) of the other person, not on the needs of self. To do this consistently and well requires the power of the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ; there is no other way to accomplish this. (Marriage was the first major tool God used to expose and combat selfishness in my life.) This results in true romance, a marriage that has others saying, “There’s something about that couple. They love each other differently.”

Second, God has good works planned for the two of you together. He has adventures mapped out for you as a couple. He did not create your marriage only to impact you and your spouse. This is a really, really cool thing. You get to be a team. You get to do ministry together. You get to develop and then share God passions. When Dave and I look back on our marriage, we don’t point to weekend getaways or candlelight dinners as times of growth; no, it was moving together to Okinawa—and the difficult decision to move back. It’s been having children together. It’s been feeling the nudges of the Holy Spirit separately and then realizing He’s guiding us in the same direction (like to take in international students or make one of our many moves or adopt or simply befriend a particular neighbor).

Your marriage has a big, BIG purpose. It’s part of a big, BIG plan! That’s exciting! And when the two of you are more focused on this—on your marriage being an agent for the Gospel—your love and romance will deepen in ways that make movie romance appear shallow.

Marriage Advice, Part 1

DSC_0806When I’m at bridal showers and the hostess asks all the married women to write down their most valued marriage advice for the bride, I blank. Other women begin scratching almost immediately but not me. “The most important?” I think. “On this little card?”

A few days ago Dave and I celebrated our anniversary. Son Jake kept reminding me of it throughout the day, hugging me and whispering in my ear, “Happy 21 years of marriage, Mom.” (It was a welcome change from the zerberts on the cheek and burps in the ear I more often get from my eight year old.)

We’re amazed by the 21 years. We went into marriage young; we’ve never been organized or systematic about it; and plenty of couples we thought were stronger or more compatible have been split apart. We were reminded of that not long ago when Dave saw a picture on Facebook of a friend from long ago with someone other than his wife. The “someone other” turned out to be a relative, but there were certainly no signs—on either his or the wife’s page—that the two of them are still together, and this was a couple we had really looked up to.

(Side note: Their lack of “together” pictures made me think about my own Facebook account, so I checked my photos and info page for evidence of our marriage. Dave must have been doing the same because a message popped up in the middle of my checking. “Dave Underwood has posted that he is married to you. Is this correct?” “Yes,” I clicked. “Jennifer Underwood is now married to Dave Underwood” became my new status—which several friends “liked” and one of my former students commented on: “About time!”)

Last spring Dave and I walked through pre-marital counseling with a young couple. We re-discovered that every bit of advice we gave—about finances, family differences, personality types, love languages, disagreements and fights—has its roots in grace.

I think that’s perhaps the “most important thing,” though the purpose for marriage and a right view of it would also have to be on my “advice for the bride” card. Maybe I’ll write it down and put it in my wallet so I can copy it at the next bridal shower I attend.

Part 1: “Cling to grace—hard! Require daily that your soul be nourished by God’s boundless grace for you. Then let it overflow for your husband. Let grace bridle your tongue and season the words you do say—and how you say them. Let grace be the undercurrent of your actions, your silences, even the looks you give him. And never, ever think you are past your need for it.”