Simple Pleasures, Simple Gifts

So last night I’m blogging about a rough day and being refocused on the God who is getting me through each rough day. Today, I had some simple blessings that helped it be not so rough.
The biggest one is the phone call I got last night I’m still flying high from. There’s a wonderful family GIVING my eldest son a car. It’s a beater car with lots of miles but he’s put tons of work into it so it will last us a while. And I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a beat up first car and a crappy first apartment. It helps you appreciate moving up from there. This family felt moved of God not to sell it to me but to simply give it.
This morning I was “privileged” to get to wake at 6:00 to get my daughter to track practice. But the joy was it’s an off exercise day so I got to head back to bed after the last little duckling was dropped off at school. So what if the dog woke me twice? I got to rest in a comfy bed under warm covers for a whole hour.
I got to take an uninterrupted shower in the quiet of an empty house. How many of my MOPS friends just got jealous? It was so relaxing. Didn’t even shave my legs. I just enjoyed the hot water and nobody pounding on the door to tell me their sibling was picking on them.
I got to put into practice the new organizational tip I’m trying. I bought the kids mesh laundry bags and three out of four of them had actually put their dirty socks inside. Seriously that’s gonna be amazing when they come out of the dryer. You have no idea the levels of hatred I have for sorting socks.
The best treat of my morning was heading to my friend Jaime’s house and sharing with her how amazing and how do-able a family vacation to Disney World would be for her family. I gave her all my best tips and showed her money saving tricks and at one point she laughed out loud and said, “Look at you talk about this. You’re beaming!” I really do love doing Disney right. It brought joy to me and gave her a much-needed break in the midst of her chaos of home remodeling and sick kiddos.
But the day wasn’t over yet! I took my blessing-from-heaven new van in for its first service visit. It was included in my purchase so I didn’t have to worry about what they’d find or how much it would cost. The Toyota lady even ordered me a new part for a small thing that fell off one of the seats—under warranty. And they washed it. That right there made me smile. It looks so pretty now.
As I type this I’m getting ready to start my insane, early-release-Wednesday routine. Today’s will include driving to two schools, getting Ryan to the Y to swim laps, taking Kati shopping, making dinner, and running kids to various youth groups. I really hate Wednesdays lately so I think that’s why God’s helping me focus on the fantastic simple pleasures and simple gifts of this morning. These simple blessings, both big and small, will help me, I hope, to keep my focus where it should be for the rest of today.

The Fit that Never Was

There’s a t-shirt I’ve seen that reads “I speak in fluent movie quotes.” This is so me. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you that far too many of my sentences begin, “That’s like that episode of…” or “That’s like that movie…” or “Have you heard that song where….” What’s funny is that I think like that, too. And sometimes, God even uses those images that are trapped in my head or those lines to speak to me.
Today I had a replay of a scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and it was not pretty. Remember the scene where the creature, Gollum, is arguing with himself? One side of his personality is drawing closer to being kind and letting go of his rage and the rage side is arguing. The argument is taking place inside his head but it is so masterfully directed that after a while, you think you are watching two people fight.
I sometimes feel like that when I get overwhelmed these days. There’s a part of me, sometimes but not often, that wants to scream. It wants to stomp my feet and throw a fit worthy of a three-year-old. Having my helper, my husband, my partner suddenly ripped from my life right as my children are becoming busy teens isn’t fair. Six months ago when my sisters came to grieve with me, they made me an offer I kind of wish I would have accepted. They offered to drive out into the Black Hills someplace and let me scream at the unfairness of it all until my throat was raw. I didn’t do it then and I didn’t do it today.
Maybe it would be cathartic. Mostly, though, I fear it would mean admitting defeat. I would feel it would be as immature as a small child, even if nobody else heard me. Or perhaps it would just open a floodgate of emotions. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not hiding from my grief. I cry and I feel sad. But I do not wallow and giving in to this seems like wallowing.
Tonight’s trigger was too many scheduled things at once and having to talk my 15-year-old through finishing dinner and trusting him to serve his siblings while I had to run to work later than was normal. It wasn’t even the worst day I’d had like this. But I was exhausted and as I drove to work, the split-screen fight was waging in my head. I’m pretty sure the one side might have been as ugly as Gollum. But it’s the smaller side.
I mean, I have friends who are doing the single parenting thing off and on and they don’t get to pitch a fit. Two of my friends have husbands working for the railroad. They can be gone 36 hours, home for 12, and gone again. Another has a husband gone in the oil fields for two to three weeks at a time. I have military wives as friends. They are doing this and therefore I do not feel I have the right to throw a pity party.
Instead I needed to put on my smile and go record my voice in a professional manner for the radio show I do. I needed to announce coming events and toss in some personal banter all with a smile in my voice so there didn’t need to be a schizophrenic fight lurking beneath the surface. Suck it up, Jenn.
But as the show went on, I think God was gently nudging me back to a place where I wasn’t focused on how hard this was. To be honest, working as a DJ at a Christian station means a lot of times the song titles are just words I’m reading. But not tonight. The very songs I was announcing were gentle reminders of God’s presence in this life I’m living.
There was “Broken Hallelujah” by The Afters reminding me to offer my praise to God even if I’m having to dig deep to find any. There was “I Am” by Crowder with its chorus reminding me where God is in this: “I am holding on to you, in the middle of the storm, I am holding on, I am.” There was Francesca Battistelli’s new song, “Write Your Story,” perfect for the journey I believe God is prompting me to pursue as a writer of the story of all He’s done in my life.
As I continued to struggle to keep the toddler inside me from pitching that fit the songs kept speaking to my heart. “Be My Rescue” by Nicole Nordeman and “Lord I Need You” by Matt Maher echoed that when the stress starts to overwhelm and exhaust me, I know where to turn. The tears were close to the surface now for a different reason. I knew that God knows this stinks. He knows this is hard and it’s gonna take time to figure it out. He knows it’s taking all my strength some days to keep moving forward.
And then I came to a song that reached me in another dark moment of my life. It was a day when my youngest child was having an MRI to see if she could handle open-heart surgery. She was three days old. In that moment of absolute helplessness to do anything for her, God sent me a song by Third Day, “Call My Name.”
Tonight as I listened to the last chords of that song play and started to talk into the commercial break, my voice cracked. I shared with whomever would be listening why this song moves me and encouraged them that God has promised to run to whomever calls on the name of Jesus. Maybe the tears in my voice will reach someone listening. I may never know. But they reached me and shut that little fit-throwing-toddler in my head right up.

Maybe there will come a day when I need to scream at the unfairness of it all—of losing my husband of twenty years with no warning, of having to care for four kids all by myself on the hectic nights when friends are too busy to help, of grief just not being fair. But not tonight. I just needed some reminders of who God is and where He is. I just needed to call His name.

Blessed are the Cheerleaders

After spending the last six and a half months walking through the valley of grief, I need to give a shout out to my cheering section. There are days when life seems to be pretty normal. There are days when hiccups hit me out of nowhere and make me lose my balance. Or there are days when huge waves of grief return to crash on my shores and I’m left soaking wet and feeling lost.

Since the first moments of my nightmare I have not been alone. Yes, I know that God was here. I know without any doubt Jesus walked that dark day with me. But He also sent me others, so many others.

As the weeks and months passed, there have been many who have promised me they are not going anywhere. And they didn’t. That’s an incredible credit to the people I have chosen as friends and the family God gave me. Many people dealing with grief seem to sense that everyone in their support circles vanishes after a few months. I’ve heard of those who feel an expectation to just let it go already, hasn’t it been long enough?

I have received none of that from anyone but myself.

One of my biggest cheerleaders in this process started cheering me on 20 years ago. Kraig said he saw in me the strength he wanted in a wife. His greatest fear was that he would die, leaving his wife and children as his own father had. He wanted to be wise and choose a wife with the strength to keep going, keep living. I am and I will.

The Bible paints a picture in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 12 that has always made me smile. “For we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses….” The image of the giants of the faith and loved ones who have gone before encouraging us to keep going, cheering us on in our faith, is one that makes me smile. But I think I’m also blessed with my own cloud of witnesses here, now, as I have struggled to tackle the unexpected and keep moving forward.

When those bumps in the journey have arisen, I have been blessed with some of the most encouraging words from several friends and family. Words like:

You are doing amazing!

There is nothing wrong at all with how you are handling this.

Now (months later) is when you need us to still be here.

You are not alone. What can I do?

Of course you can always call me/text me.

I’m so proud of you.

That last one is my favorite. I guess the pat on the back in those words is sometimes all I need to keep moving forward. When I have no idea if I’m making the right parenting decision, I sometimes need to hear that it’s OK. When I’m having a good day but one of my kids gets hit by grief, I need to know I can call someone or text someone and tell them this stinks without being a burden. When I start feeling as if I am a burden to my friends because it’s a bad day, I need to hear this is in my head. I am not forgotten.

I do not spend my days wallowing in a dark room. I do not spend my time lost in grief and unable to function. That’s not the woman my husband married. That’s not the mother my kids deserve. Maybe that’s why it’s easier for my friends to be here and cheer me on. I’m not lost in a morose world looking for others to pull in. I spend my days asking God to lead my steps and making sure I’m still taking steps forward. When grief hits, I let it but only for a while. It does not own me. It is my temporary traveling companion and once it has done its work to help me heal, I will send it on its way. But it does not determine where I go. It is along for this small portion of my journey as I follow Jesus.

So thanks to my cheerleaders. And if you aren’t one of mine and you are reading this, be one for someone else going through grief. Give them time to mourn and encouragement to keep attempting to live life at the same time. Help them find the joy in the everyday and let them weep when they must.

Blessed are the cheerleaders for they are being used by God to help me keep moving forward.

Lucy’s Thankful Heart

This morning my youngest child once again spouted wisdom that brought a smile to my face. My little Lucy lives up to her name often. Lucy means “bringer of light.” Since the day she arrived she’s been bringing God’s light with her. She is the surprise child I didn’t plan for and I’m so thankful God knew better than my plans. Doesn’t he always? She often says things that bring a smile to my face and to others’.

This morning Lucy did not want to wake up. She’s my late-riser. Her delightful older siblings never had that problem. But Lucy is the one I must often coax out of bed. Last night she had a nightmare so she was in my bed. After I’d gotten the rest of the kids up and going, I walked into my room and snuggled up next to her. She resisted my insistence that it was time to get moving. I smiled as I told her she should count her blessings because none of her siblings were getting snuggled awake. Her reply was gold: “I have a million zillion blessings. There’s no way I could count them all.”

There’s a sermon in there.

The night was fitful with scary dreams. Morning came early and it was warm under those covers. Her daddy has only been in heaven for six months. She’s had a rough week that included fights with her sister and disagreements with a particularly unpleasant girl at school. She did not want to wake up. And yet, in her semi-sleepy state, she knew a wonderful truth that she didn’t have to think about—she is blessed. Pretty impressive for a five year old. Heck, that’s pretty impressive for any of us.

Life stings sometimes. It’s rough and it’s hard and we have to do things we don’t always want to do. In the midst of stress and disappointment we can often forget that essential truth that God has blessed us with so much. He’s given us another day to enjoy and relish in. He’s given His Son, Jesus, to forgive our sins. He’s sent His Holy Spirit to guide us and correct us. Those right there should fill our hearts with gratitude each day. And that’s not even counting family, friends, and material blessings. She’s right—it would take too long to count.

My heart swelled with pride a little. I think parents are allowed moments sometimes when they see the fruits of their labors. Right then I saw that somehow, somewhere my daughter had gotten the message that her life is full of blessings. I pray that’s a lesson she never forgets and neither should I.

Roller Coaster Week

This has been a roller coaster week for me. I’ve felt amazing hope that I have God’s next step for me in the form of the She Speaks Conference I am attending in North Carolina this summer. It was an answer to the prayer, “What next?” that has been ringing in my soul for a while now. It seemed the breath of fresh air in the musty chambers of a heart that’s been walking through grief.
Then the coaster headed down as one of my sons virtually collapsed under the weight of grief and school problems and faith issues and just the weight of the world. He’s such a good kid. My heart broke that he was struggling. But I know this is part of the journey of grief. It is affecting each of my kids differently as it is me. So we dealt with what we could deal with and I went to bat with him at school. I encountered fantastic support there. Things started to look up.
Then came another day of God’s magnificent provision. In one day I was given two financial gifts. One friend had been negotiating a used car for my son to drive with someone in her Bible study. When she told the lady my situation, the negotiation stopped. She wanted to give me the car for free. Jaime, the friend who had been searching for the car, wept. And then she called me. As a fantastic bonus, the man who has be the mechanic for this car offered to help teach Jarod how to do any repairs that should arise. Amazing.
In that same day I had the privilege of hanging out with a new friend. I shared with her more about my conference and why I was so excited that this was God opening a door for me to pursue my dreams of writing and speaking professionally. She was excited for me. She said she felt certain God was going to us me, use my story to glorify Him and to encourage and bless others. Later I received a text from her telling me she was so sure that God was behind this that she and her husband had decided to pay for my plane ticket.
The roller coaster went on.
So as the weekend arrived, I felt a little weary from all these ups and downs. It had been a long week. I decided to do more research online to help me prepare the proposals for my writing ideas for the conference. I get to meet, one-on-one, with a publisher and I need to be professional and have my stuff ready to sell. So I headed to Google to try and figure out how I would package the two books I’ve got almost finished and the two I have ideas for.
Google can be very discouraging. Google tells me it is going to be pretty impossible to get a publisher to buy my book. It tells me that the style of two of my books are what every writer tries first and pretty much unless I’m a survivor of a tsunami followed by alien abduction or the Queen of Quite a Lot, no one is going to pay me for it. It tells me that I’d better try my talent at a few other styles or just make a nice, self-published couple of books to give my grandkids someday and move along so the better writers can be seen. Ok, so that last one may be a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s close.
I spent the day trying to go back to the drawing board. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Starting fresh can lead to new angles, new ideas, and sometimes new ways of telling stories so the audience is captivated. But when I was feeling like I’d failed before I’d even started, back to the drawing board was not any of those amazing things. It was defeating. It was exhausting. It was unproductive. After a while I realized I was writing stuff so boring I was getting sleepy.
And then I glanced at Facebook tonight. What I found was a post by Lysa TerKeurst, founder of the very conference I’m so excited to be attending. Here’s what she posted:
Over the years, I’ve come to a realization – I can rest in the assurance that if something is meant to be, it isn’t up to me. It’s up to God. I give what I can give. And then wait for Him to give what only He can give. So, if He makes it happen without all my chaotic self-effort, then I will know it is His best. And if it doesn’t happen, I will praise Him for saving me from myself. 
And just like that the roller coaster leveled out. It’s not up to me to figure it all out from here. It’s up to me to do my best with what God has given me and take the next step in the direction He provides. The rest is up to Him. And His plans are always good ones.
So I’m headed to bed. I’m exhausted and we all lose an hour of sleep tonight. I’m going to take to heart the words from Psalm 4:8, “I will lie down and sleep in peace for you, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” God is faithful to care for me. He will direct my paths when I let him. It’s up to me to do my best and follow His leading. He will take care of the details.
I think I’ll try to exit this coaster now.

Light Ahead

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true at last, there is life and joy.” Proverbs 13:12 Living Bible

For the past six months I have been walking in the valley of the shadow of death. It’s dark here. The walls are steep crags of jagged rocks dotted with simple glimmers of life and hope growing in unexpected places. The walls seem to go up and up forever, though, blocking out most of the light. Maybe it’s to force me to look up towards heaven to see the beautiful blue of the sky overhead—even if it is only a sliver.

This weekend I received my first sign that the end of the valley is approaching. I can see light up ahead. I knew there would be. I knew this path was temporary, is temporary. But it’s hard and it’s sad.

Since the day Kraig died, I have held on to the promises of God. They are truth that brings healing. These wounds are real but I have always known that God walks this valley with me. His rod and His staff comfort me. He will restore my soul. He will lead me if I let him.

After a few months in this valley, I started to feel like I was in limbo; like I was at a crossroads. What next? Where our family has lived has always been determined by Kraig’s career. Now it was up to me to decide where our family belonged. Stay here? His job brought us here. This is not where either of us was from and not near any family. It’s a big world full of great places. So, move? If so, where and why? I have a great support system here and I’ve networked well. I now understand why the best advice to someone in grief is not to make any major life decisions for the first six months to a year. It was all so murky. But the question persisted: what next?

I have always known that God has the best view on my journey. From where He sits He is able to see what is coming next. He directs my paths and, when I allow Him to, He leads me where I should go. I have known that since the day Kraig died. But this valley has still been dark.

For the past several years, a spark of a dream has been growing in my heart. I want to write and speak professionally. I want to be published and to use the gift of words He has given me to encourage and equip women with the story of what God can do.

I believe God whispered this dream to me several years ago when I had no idea how to make it happen. I had been published already in a few magazines. I had spoken publically in small venues for years. This seemed like a good dream. I believe God was speaking through my husband last summer when he suggested this is where I should focus my time and energy once our last little duckling waddled out the door to Kindergarten. He suggested this might be the next step for me. I just had no idea how.

This weekend a friend sent me a glimmer of light. She sent me information on the She Speaks Conference taking place this summer in North Carolina. Put on by the Proverbs 31 Ministries and led by Lysa TerKeurst, this conference offers tools for women longing to use their writing and speaking talents. It helps women start using their gifts to glorify God as leaders, speakers, and writers. It tells me how.

I read the information and I wept.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick. I had felt without specific hope. I have always had the hope of God’s overarching wisdom and plan for my life. But the specifics for what’s next eluded me. I can see a bit of that now. In front of me the walls of the valley are getting wider, the crags further apart. There is light on the horizon in the distance and it brings with it life and joy just as the proverb promises.

I still have work to do and a long way to go before I am living that dream fully. But I can see the path. I have the wisdom I have been praying for to help me head towards what’s next. I have always known He would turn my mourning into dancing. This week I got to enjoy a few steps of a jig and it felt good.

Missed Opportunity

I think it was Madeleine L’Engel who wrote in A Wrinkle in Time that a lie mixed with a bit of truth is always stronger. (It’s been a long time since I’ve read that book. Bear with me if I’m mistaken.) I fell for a lie this week because there was enough truth or potential truth in it that it seemed wise.

I have this friend who has been amazing since my husband died. Actually, I have many who have been amazing but this story is about one in particular. Chelsea was the one who was with my kids while we were at the hospital. She’s the one who had to wake them up and bring them. And she is the one who held my hand and went to see his body with me. I think these events made her feel almost responsible for me.

I have been blessed with many friends who are walking through this journey with me—so many acts of love and service from so many friends. Seriously, it’s been amazing. But Chelsea is an organizer and that sense of responsibility has manifested as a protective instinct over me, though I’m several years older. From the first day, she has actively looked for what I might need and tried to find people to fill those needs. She’s checked in on me regularly and been a listening ear. She has two kids and a husband of her own and yet she takes time almost daily to text me or listen when I’m falling apart. She’s been amazing. (Again, other friends reading this, you’ve all been amazing, too. Just go with the story here.)

Last week I had a really bad day. I met her at Starbucks and just couldn’t hold it together. Several things had converged and I was a mess. She, again, was calm and understanding. She directed me to two people who could help me take care of two things amplifying my stress. And she welcomed me into her circle of friends so that I could simply focus on a salted caramel mocha and try to pull myself together.

This week, she was quiet for a whole day—no texts, no calls. By afternoon a simple thought crossed my mind: “It must be exhausting to be my friend right now.” The thought was that simple. I guessed that perhaps since I hadn’t called or texted her, she might be enjoying a break and really, who could blame her? It’s been almost six months of helping me deal with this. So I decided to leave her alone, to let her escape from being responsible for me.

The first day, I wallowed a bit in feeling bad that I was such a burden. Self-pity is really pathetic. I tried to think that I was being noble, giving her time off. The second day, I was not in a pity party but I wondered if she was enjoying not having to “handle” my stuff. At the end of that day, a different friend texted me to ask about something she was helping me with and I confessed to her my concern that being my friend must be exhausting right now.

Jaime’s response was gentle but firm—stop that. It’s not true. We are here in love to help you and you must never feel that way. The lie was revealed. Though helping me deal with the loss of my husband and adjusting to parenting my kids alone may be hard work, my friends were ministering with God’s grace. This was an act of love.

The next morning, I texted Chelsea, realizing I had missed her. I discovered something that put me to shame. Chelsea had injured her back and had been basically immobile. She hadn’t wanted to bother me. Those three days of quiet were ones when I could have helped her. I could have turned my eyes away from my own pain and reached out to a friend in need. Instead, a lie had festered in my heart and caused me to turn inward, selfishly isolated in self-pity.

I apologized to my friend. She forgave me with quick assurances that her husband had been around to help her and she was fine. She said she knew I was still dealing with a lot. She hadn’t expected me to do anything. But I think I learned a lesson.

Sometimes in our greatest sorrow, giving to others is our rescue. Sometimes when we feel the most alone and lost, reaching out to help someone can connect us and help us find hope. There are days when just caring for my kids is all the grace God has given me right now. But there are others when I relish being a listening ear for my sister as she struggles with her own parenting issues. There are days when what little strength I have to give would be amplified if I was helping a friend accomplish a simple task. I had forgotten those days when listening to a friend’s or sister’s problem was welcome distraction from my own.

When we give of ourselves to others, we take our eyes off ourselves. Lesson learned, I hope.