We’ve Moved!

weve-moved

Hi, there!  Just wanted to let you know that  “Just Wendy” has a new home on our brand spanking new website, www.wendyduke.net.  My friend Barry Burnett did an amazing job helping me design and set up the new website, and we packed up all of the old blog posts and pictures and moved them over to the new digs last week. So I want to invite you to move over with us. I’d be thrilled if you’d check out the new site and subscribe (or resubscribe) to my blog by entering your email address into any of the tabs throughout the new site.  My biggest fear in making this change was losing contact with any subscribers, so I’m hoping this transition will be easy and that

I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now, and I’ve been so grateful for the kind notes of encouragement many of you leave in the comments. I really do feel like God is opening some doors that are sometimes a little scary to walk through, but every time someone subscribes to the blog or says something kind about a blog I’ve posted, it gives me courage to keep writing and walking in obedience.

As my first subscribers, I’d really love to have your input as I try to hone my skills as a writer and use my words to speak life into people.  You’ve traveled this journey with me, and  I’m trying to identify exactly what people are looking for as they choose what to read and what moves them. So if you’d be willing to answer a few questions, it would help me know how better to serve you:

  • In what areas of life do you need encouragement / perspective?
  • What are you most interested in reading about?
  • How does my writing style / fit into those needs? Which of my posts have been most inspiring or encouraging to you?
  • What does the world need to hear? Or maybe just you?

If you have the time to answer some of these, you can respond in a comment below or email me at wendy@wendyduke.net. Seriously, I want to know what moves you and others, and I’d be grateful for your input.

I also want to share some of my favorite blogs. I don’t have time to surf the web much, but when I come across a writer who is fresh and thoughtful and looks at the world with a different slant, I take note, and I want to pass them along.  So here are a few I’ve been reading lately:

Sarah Bessey

sarah bessey

http://sarahbessey.com/  Sarah Bessey is one of my favorite writers right now.  She is incredibly intelligent, a mom of four and radical follower of Jesus, but her writing is heart-felt and emotional, getting down to the nitty-gritty in family, faith and justice. I REALLY like her.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary

jamie the very worst missionary  www.theveryworstmissionary.com  I discovered Jamie Wright while we were living in Myanmar.  She was leaving the mission field that summer and moving back to the States where her husband would serve on staff at a new church.  She’s irreverent, hilarious, and spot on in her observations about Christians and ministry.  I have laughed out loud more than a few times reading about her blunders as a pastor’s wife–she writes what most of us don’t have the guts to say.  Warning: she verges on being crass, but she’ll definitely never be called pretentious.

T.E. HANNA

Hanna_TE

Of Dust & Kings by TE Hanna  at http://tehanna.com   He’s thoughtful and smart and challenges our religious traditions.

Rachel Held Evans

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Everybody needs to check out Rachel Held Evans at www.rachelheldevans.com.  She’s she’s already rocking the boat in her photo shoot. She’s tapped into current events and discusses them through the lens of Jesus, but without being churchy.  She’s not afraid to tackle controversial issues (mainly issues of the Church),and her journey of faith has stirred up some dissention, but I find her to be witty and thoughtful and courageous in dealing head-on with tough topics.

This guy, Anthony, at http://www.ironandiron.com/ is such a typical guy.  His blogs are really short and sometimes randomly funny, but other times he’ll post a video like this one that every man in the world needs to watch.  So I’m trying to get the word out about Anthony, because I think men will like him.

So, check out these great voices.  And . . . you’re welcome.

I’m posting my next blog tonight so click over and subscribe really fast so you’ll see it first.

Hope to see ya at http://www.wendyduke.net!

WD

Winning 1.4 Seconds at a Time

 

Last week, I found myself sitting at another of my daughter’s swim meets. Fate has landed me in a spot I never envisioned for myself: I’m a swim parent. My daughter has chosen this sport and drags us along kicking and screaming. I’ve written about some of my less glamorous experiences in this sport; you can revisit that ridiculousness here. (www.wendyduke.wordpress.com/agooddaytostartablog). Let’s just say I have a love-hate relationship with swim meets.

So I’m shifting around on the metal bleachers last week because my back was already killing me, my face had melted and was sliding off of my skull like liquid-hot magma into a puddle of sweat around my neck, and the cute hairstyle I whipped up before I left the house had wilted to damp strands clinging to the sweat on my face. My head was pounding from the chlorine fumes and the sound waves reverberating around the concrete walls, carrying the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher through the outdated PA system: Wha-wha, wha wha-wha wha-wha… I have no idea what event that guy’s announcing. My throat and bloodshot eyes burn from the lethal amounts of chlorine swirling in the air, I look like I just left a frat house, and I have three more hours of splashing to look forward to. I am trapped inside my own personal hell. A humid, chlorine-laced, metal bleacher-filled, watery hell.

I look across the pool from my seat in the sauna and see my thirteen-year-old, flitting her little social-butterfly self around the pool deck, cheering on her teammates, and I smile for a half a second until I remember where I am. She loves this stuff, and though I’m happy watching her enjoy her social time and the mere 2 minutes and 47 seconds that she will actually be in the water during this three-hour meet, I’m complaining in my head about every second I have to sit there in between her events. I spend the whole meet thinking up ways to make this thing more efficient (though no one asks me for this), and I’m feeling a mix between sheer resentment and guilt for not enjoying this season in our lives more.

Parenting is an exercise in self-denial. And I need more practice.

I would like to be the good parent and support all the other kids on the team if I could actually tell who was who in their identical swim caps thrashing around with their heads underwater, and if they could actually hear me cheering instead of just the sound of underwater whale calls. But they can’t hear or see a thing, despite all the screaming and wild arm waving going on around the pool deck. I want to encourage her fantastic coaches, to pump my arms in solidarity…but those arms have been welded to my sides by the heat. It’s just too dang hot. So sometimes I’ll yell a kid’s name and hope he’s in the pool at the time, just so his parents can hear me cheering for their kid, because I want to be supportive, you know?

So I’m sitting there feeling all guilty about how much I despise the sweat swim meets, and I’m also super sleepy from the heat, like a disaster show of some little kid who’s been locked in a car in the summertime, rescue workers banging on the window saying Stay with me, just stay with me … I try to shake off the heat coma and look around to see how the other parents are coping–and realize that the entire congregation of fans in the stands has their heads bowed to their iPhones. Every single parent has their phone out, well, unless their own kid is swimming. Suddenly I don’t feel like such a loser parent. So this is how we swim-parents survive in the pool stands: check Facebook, look up to see what event is up, respond to email, check how many more events til the backstroke, text your husband (who is at your son’s baseball practice) an update, realize your daughter is next in line, pull up the camera app, zoom in for her start, hit record, and scream your guts out as she dives in and thrashes 50 yards freestyle. The big event lasts 42 seconds, start to finish. And now I have 45 minutes to wait til her next event. This is the life.

So I’m sitting there halfway through the meet, making small talk with my sister when a parent pokes me and says, “Isn’t that Savannah in lane 4?” For the love of sweet Moses, I’ve missed half of her event! So I stand up and scream unintelligible things until she touches the wall, then I give her the thumbs-up sign like I watched the whole thing.

She finished last again. I always wonder if she knows she’s in last place as she pumps her arms –if others watch and feel sorry for her or if they’re hoping, like me, that she’ll catch somebody just one time. I sit down, searching her face for any sign of disappointment or frustration, but she high fives the competitor next to her and vaults herself out of the pool, shaking water out of her ears.

My daughter was born without a left leg. That she still wants to swim on the Varsity team baffles me every day. She knows she can’t compare to her two-legged teammates and competitors. But that’s not why she’s here. She shows up day after blessed day because she wants to belong, wants to compete, to work toward a goal, to be pushed harder than she can push herself. That apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. But it’s still hard to see her finish last every time after working so hard.

I sit there kicking myself for missing the first twenty-five meters, and for feeling entitled to complain about watching her swim here today when cancer threatened to steal her from us in her earliest days. This is a gift. I shouldn’t have to be reminded.

She skips toward me across the wet tile like a pogo stick on glass, which stops my heart and keeps me in a state of levitation over my seat, poised to leap out and reach her should she wipe out. But I’m trying to give her the wings she needs, trying to give her room to fall so she can correct her own mistakes and learn for herself. And I’m still trying to fake like I didn’t just miss half of her race.

Red-faced and panting, she hops up to the rail where I’m sitting and holds her fist up, announcing, “1.4 seconds. I improved my time by 1.4 seconds!”

My voice sticks in my throat. She’s not worried about how fast everybody else swam, or where she ranked. We’ve kept track of her times each meet, and her one goal–her standard of winning–is whether or not she improved this week. She doesn’t measure victory by comparing herself with others, but whether or not she got stronger in the struggle.

My daughter teaches me, every day. This is what it’s all about: doing the right things–day in, day out—no glory, no recognition, just hard work and will and commitment so that one day…one day we’ll look up and see that we’re better for it. Maybe just 1.4 seconds better today, but better. Bad habits are broken one good choice at a time. Weight is lost one pound, one passed-up soda at a time. Relationships change one kind word, one choice to forgive, one decision to prioritize at a time. Careers are built one long day of work at a time. We win by working hard every day, pushing a little harder, a little farther … until we look up and realize how far we’ve come, how much we’ve accomplished, how much we’ve changed and learned from our mistakes. And it’s all worth it. Every day is a chance to become more of the person we want to be. Doing the little things, the hard things, consistently and diligently, puts us in position to experience a few seconds of the miraculous. Skipping out on those things ensures our failure. Think of Jesus, cutting wood, studying scriptures, walking miles, healing lepers, carrying his own cross.  Without the gut-wrenching, there is no glorious.

Today, she was 1.4 seconds better than last week. And last week, she was 2.3 seconds faster than the week before. This is winning, and wisdom that took me almost 42 years to learn. She’s so got the heart of a champion. And the days I spend driving her to practice, or sitting on a plank of metal, or watching my ankles swell in the heat of a swim meet … even those days are worth it. Because this kind of perseverance will make her a winner in the important things later on, and that’s what parenting is all about. I don’t think I could have been more proud if she’d won first place.

We celebrated those 1.4 seconds of winning with high fives all around, and then she turned to go get ready for her last race. After a few hops, she stopped, spun around and, with a smirk, said, “You missed the start, didn’t you?”

So busted. Gah, that one misses nothing.

Hey, now, let’s not dwell in the past,” I said, shooing her off. “You’ve got a new race to swim.”

She grinned. “Good one, Mama.” And she was off.

Onward, my girl. Onward.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9

The Beaten, Bloody Body of the Church

The Church has taken a lot of heat lately.  Some of it may have been warranted.  Some not. But something happened last Sunday that’s been churning in my head for five days now.  It reminded me why I haven’t given up on the Church.

My husband and I teach a Bible study class of young couples on Sunday mornings with our friend, Chris.  This past Sunday, Chris was teaching and he changed things up a little, strayed from the usual Bible lesson.  He and his wife Hope shared their story, their struggles with infertility and adoption and how God had been faithful during those difficult days.  Then Chris committed a no-no in the traditional Baptist church: he opened the floor. He invited people to tell their stories, to share their own struggles and testimonies of how God had come through for them.

And I gotta be honest: I got nervous.  I want the study of the Bible to be engaging and enlightening, for people to leave class knowing more about God’s Word and about God Himself than they did before they walked in the door.  I take the responsibility of co-leading this class very seriously–probably too seriously, sometimes.  And so when I realized that we were going to spend most of the hour telling stories, my heart started to race because you never know what’s going to come out of people’s mouths, and what about the Bible, for cryin’ out loud?!  So I sat there squirming in my seat during the first awkward moments of silence, and I just started praying, Holy Spirit, I’m gonna trust you to lead this and do what you want here today.

And something miraculous happened.  One by hesitant one, people started sharing their stories, their struggles, their crises of faith. They told of bouts of depression and anxiety, and how they had learned to lean on God in those dark moments.  They told of sick children, and aging parents, and losing their jobs and how they were holding onto their faith by shreds. They shared the loneliness of being new, the pain of watching loved ones struggle, the fear that hovers over raising children.  And each of them had a little moment where God had shined through their darkness, shown up for them in small ways and bigger ones.  Their voices broke as they gave testimony that God had never left them but was sustaining them every day.

I looked around while these brave ones shared their broken hearts and their unfailing God.  Grown men were wiping tears from their eyes as they listened.  People nodded their heads in solidarity, patted the hands and shoulders of those next to them who shared their stories to say, Yes, you’re not alone. Me, too…me, too. 

It was, … well … beautiful.  Messy, sloppy, raw, unfiltered… and nothing short of beautiful.  For almost an hour we took off our masks and our armor, unloaded our burdens and helped each other carry them.  I watched men hug each other after class; women gathered around each other to pray and to thank their friends for opening up.  The walls had come down, and it was a beautiful sight.

Because this is what the Church is.  We’re not making statements or rending judgements on the latest topics or issues.  These people aren’t condemning gay marriage or protesting abortion clinics or writing blog posts about social injustice. They’re not pounding podiums or pointing fingers. They’re just trying to survive, to honor God in quiet, gentle ways while they raise children and hold their marriages together and work and serve in their communities and look for jobs and take care of sick loved ones.

And this is when we look the most like Christ.  When we are broken, and battered, and weary from pouring ourselves out, we look like Him.  When we come alongside the bloody messes of hurting people and offer water or bandages or kindness or love, we are the most like Jesus. When we are weak, He is strong.

So maybe we need to remember that Jesus said it was a blessing to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to hunger and thirst for righteousness. He said we would be blessed when we are gentle and merciful, pure in heart, when we are peacemakers. He said our reward would be great when we suffer, when we’re persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused. Though we struggle, it is with the full honor of becoming more like our Jesus.

But it’s hard to remember that in the heat of the battle.  That’s why we need each other.   That’s why the writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;  and let us consider how to spur one another toward love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as the days draw to an end.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV, emphasis mine).

That’s why I haven’t given up on the Church. I need them to remind me I’m not alone.  And they need me to tell them the same.  We have to remind each other that God is still worth it, that He’s still working in our lives.  There are Christians risking their lives all over the world, walking for miles under cover of darkness to meet with fellow Believers for encouragement and hope. Sometimes just showing up for each other makes all the difference.  Our pastors and leaders and congregations need us to show up, to say We’re still in it.  And all I have to do is pack my people in a car and drive 10 minutes down the interstate to meet with these beautiful, messed up, flawed people who are the dwelling place of the Living God.  I will not take this freedom for granted.  The fellowship of the Body of Christ is so worth that small effort. They are my Family, my refuge in this cruel world. They remind me what I live for.

So if you’re someone who thinks the Church is dead, I’m here to tell you She’s not.  She may be bruised, broken, maimed, and bloodied, but She’s not dead.  She has self-medicated with programming and productions; She has self-mutilated with hypocrisy and gossip and slander of her own people; She has poisoned herself with legalism and pride and lack of mercy… but SHE’S NOT DEAD. There’s hope for Her yet. Don’t count her out. She might be struggling for every breath, fighting to keep Her eyes open, but if you lean close, if you don’t give up on Her, you’ll hear the faintest of heartbeats…bomp, bomp…bomp, bomp…  Jesus still lives in Her.

So don’t quit, Beautiful, Broken Bride of Christ.  Believe in each other. Give the Church another chance. Be the change you want to see, but don’t quit. Don’t buy the press and the predictions that the Church of Jesus is dead in the water. If Sunday was any indication of the kind of Church that’s ready to be resurrected, we’re about to be a part of something miraculous: a calling forth from the grave. So hold on to Jesus with one hand and each other with the other hand, and know that there’s no way Christ is going to let His Church die. That’s His promise. I’m that girl who goes to the end of the book to find out what happens to my favorite character, so just let me tell you: I’ve read the end of this story, and we make it, friends. We’re gonna make it.

So thank you to my friend Chris, who had the courage and insight to remind us who we are and what we’re living for: the broken, bloody beautiful Body of Christ and the message of His enduring Love.

Blessings,

Wendy

Your thoughts on the resurrection of the Church? What are you seeing God do in your local Body?

It’s Been a Crazy Summer

But I’m back!

OK, so I’ve been MIA for a while, and I want let you know why it’s been quiet here at just wendy. In April, I attended a writer’s conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I met with a few publishers and editors that encouraged me to redraft and republish the book I wrote a few years ago about our daughter Savannah’s battle with cancer. So for the last few months, I’ve been working on that project, adding about 30 pages worth of tweaks and revisions, and an additional chapter of updated stories since the first publication six years ago. I have to say, I’m very proud of this project. It was a BEAST, and way more work than I remembered, but it’s finished and we just released it with a new title a couple of weeks ago: Grace in the Middle. The title was a bit of a debate, and everybody and their brother had an opinion about it, but it really just came down to this: this title is way easier to remember than the old one. No more I tried to order your book, um…something about grace…but I couldn’t remember the title to look it up… So, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, Grace in the Middle is now available on Amazon and on Kindle. The books just arrived and I actually opened one and smelled the pages inside. Is that weird? Anyway, here is the link:
http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Middle-Wendy-Duke/dp/0692255850

I’m pretty excited about it, to be honest. Grace in the Middle is the story of how God drew me to Himself in the midst of a devastating time in our family’s life. It’s my personal testimony, but also the story of my family’s survival. But I warn you: it’s pretty gut-wrenching. I’ve had two men fuss at me for making them cry in public while reading it. But it’s not a sad story to me—maybe because I already know the ending—but mainly because I’m not sure I would know God otherwise. So this story marks my beginning, really. And that’s a good thing.

Since then, God has given me (and our family) some amazing opportunities, and I feel a growing responsibility to share through writing and speaking what God has taught me. I’ve had several opportunities to speak at events lately, and Scott and I just returned from a project in Myanmar where we got to see our old friends and make some new ones.  I’m currently working on a book about our experiences in Myanmar last fall because what we learned there has far greater implications than just one country and one sport.  We’re grateful for the voice God’s given us and the people we get to meet.

View More: http://marianashleyphoto.pass.us/gmoe
We had a fantastic day at Girls Morning Out in Spartanburg on July 19.

My first book signing since the books arrived is this Wednesday, August 13th, at Delightful Dishes in Inman from 11 to 1. If you’re local, we’d love to see you if you have time to pop in…Savannah will be with me and has been practicing her signature for WEEKS. (And by the way, DD’s chicken salad is to-die-for, so you’re gonna want to grab some lunch.) We’d love to see some familiar faces if you’re in town. This book signing / marketing thing is a little weird for me, though, and I keep having nightmares about sitting at a table with a pile of books all by myself without any clothes on … but maybe I’m just drinking too much caffeine.

book promo
This is the snazzy little graphic my sister, Jenny, made for her FB post. Love her.
Delightful Dishes
Delightful Dishes in Inman: one of my top five places IN THE WORLD to eat! (And my kids’ #1)

Lastly, I want to tell you how much I appreciate that you actually read the posts I’ve written. Genuinely, I do. I don’t take it for granted, I’m humbled at the kind and encouraging comments many of you have sent me, and I’m grateful for the time it takes to stop and give my words your attention with the gazillion tons of information coming at us all the time. I’m trying to be thoughtful and deliberate about what I post — to make sure I have something to say that’s worth listening to. I’m ignoring the marketing experts who say I need to post something every day to keep myself in front of my “followers” constantly to keep their interest, because, honestly, I’d much rather you follow God instead, and hope that anything I have to say would simply help move you in that direction. You don’t need me to be in front of you. That’s God’s place. But if I can help push you forward, I want to.

So “Thank you.” If you’re a Subscriber, hitting that button may have been inconsequential to you, but that tiny click of your mouse waters a seed of courage for me. You remind me that we all need a little encouragement, a little wisdom, a little challenge, a little hope. Every time someone hits “Share”, it reminds me to keep doing the thing God tells me to do: speak truth and light into the world. So thanks for encouraging me. I hope I’ll do the same for you.

Please let me know if there are topics you’d like for me to write about. I’m always interested to hear your suggestions, so feel free to comment with ideas or questions.

Thanks again for your encouragement. I’m looking forward to seeing where God takes us.

Many blessings and thanks,
Wendy

Holding On To Golden Days

This morning, I packed the last two lunches of the school year.  My husband and I celebrated the feat with a silent fist-bump.  No more PB&J’s at 6:45 a.m.  No more fighting to get everybody out the door on time. No more signing homework folders at the eleventh hour… But then my eleven-year-old son came down to the kitchen and asked if he could go to Early Bird Gym, since it would be the last one ever.  And then it got real.

The last few weeks have been the final days of our family’s life in Elementary School. Last Field Day.  Last Beach Day. Last paperback yearbook.  Last class party. Last signed agenda. We have spent the last seven years of our life skipping with our little ones through the magical wonderland of Woodland Heights Elementary, an unexplainable Utopia of a neighborhood public school where the children of our diverse community are educated and inspired and nurtured and fed and loved. Our principal, Dr. Pridgen, whose sing-songy voice has made me feel like her favorite kindergarten student for seven years running…she is THE BEST ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PRINCIPAL EVER. This is her clear calling in life.  She is Queen Supreme over an amazing faculty who has enriched our family’s life in so many ways. In first grade, I walked my first-born, pig-tailed little girl to class and left her in the kind hands of Jennifer Novak, all of us crying.  We got a mini-van that fall, not because I succumbed to the stereotype, but because my 6-year-old, carrying a bookbag half the size of her body and walking on crutches, needed to be able to actually get into our car in the pick-up line, so I said good-bye to my beloved Pathfinder and grew up. Some things are important, and some are just not.  The next year, my five-year-old son told me I couldn’t hold his hand on the first day of kindergarten because he wasn’t a baby. I removed the dagger from my heart in the car, the sting eased only by the smiling faces of Mrs. Thigpen and Mrs. Brockman, the matron saints of childhood. Mrs. James loved my daughter as much as I do and taught her to love to read. Mrs. Parris did the impossible and taught my son to sit in a seat for more than five minutes and didn’t lose her mind in the process. She also kept up with all the teeth he pulled in class and sent them home in the tooth necklace, which we still have. (The necklace, not the teeth.)  Mrs. Boykin, bless her, reminded us daily that learning multiplication tables was not only possible but necessary for going to college, and she made my third grader feel like a superstar when she remembered that 9X8=73. I mean 72.  Jed Dearybury got in my car at the end of the car line and rode with me all the way around the school where we hashed out a strategy to keep us both from killing my 9-year-old son.  After I scraped my pride off the pavement, I realized that it indeed takes a village to raise a child, and I’ll forever be indebted to Mr. Dearybury for not giving up on my boy and not giving him an easy out.  Mrs. Crump and Mrs. Felton were both Savannah and JP’s fourth and fifth grade teachers who hammered and smoothed out that important transition time between being a little kid and becoming more. They were stabilizing factors in a rocky patch of child-rearing, and I never saw them raise their voices.  I’m pretty sure they’re not human, in a good way. Like half-angel or something.

But this year–this year…well, during what has been the hardest year of our lives, the blessed fairy Princess teachers at Woodland Heights have swooped in and worked their magic.  I love them so much.  SO MUCH!  In his last year of elementary school, when my son packed it all up and moved with us overseas for three months and struggled through online school and came back to organized classrooms and regimented schedules and he lost his mind and fell off the track…his teachers rallied around him–and us–and put the wheels back on.  They worked with him after school, kept me in the loop, worked with us and signed his agenda everyday when we made him write down EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT.  I’m not gonna say I didn’t sometimes draw a frowny face right back ‘atcha sometimes, because, friends, this was a hard year. But I sat down and looked at the kids’ grades on Power School last night, and I put my head down and cried because WE DID IT.  They did it.  We got through this tumultuous year with decent grades and SIGNIFICANT improvements in some classes.  And Dude, we’re celebrating tomorrow when they see those Report Cards because we have overcome some things this year.  My kids’ teachers deserve a Purple Heart and a Congressional Medal of Honor for keeping the wheels on this Crazy Train.  Chrissy Felton. Blair Wright. Caitlyn Teachey.  Engrave their names on something important. They salvaged a milestone year in my son’s life…while teaching 25 other students at the same time.  I don’t know how I can ever come up with a teacher gift worthy of what they’ve done for us.  Teachers deserve big bonuses and paid vacations and company cars and an office with a riverfront view.  But that’s not what they signed up for.  I’m betting they’ll have a sweet set-up in Heaven.

And so, today, as my kiddos waved to me while I stood at the kitchen door in my PJ’s and my husband backed out of the driveway on their way to the last full day of school, I had to make myself not cry.  Because I knew they’d make fun of me all the way to school. But this is the last day my son will have recess on a playground.  It’s the last day I’ll pick him up in the car line where teachers will open the door for him.  It’s the last day we’ll stop and get a Dr. Pepper on the way to pick up my daughter from middle school, because he’ll be there with her next year and OH MY GOSH–the thought of that reality strikes fear in my heart. Not that middle school is horrible–my daughter has had amazing teachers and our middle school experience has been surprisingly pleasant, so far. (Except for the mom that cussed me out in the car line the first week of school because I didn’t know where to go and blocked her in…that was rich.) It’s just not the same  You’re on your own in middle school. They don’t even open the car door for you…

SAM_1115
Last Field Day at Woodland Heights

 

So these are the last sweet days of innocence and I am grieving a little. Elementary school days are melting away with the rising temperatures. But not the memories.  We’ll look back at these days and wish things were simpler sometimes. But mostly we’ll be grateful for the people who helped build in our children a solid foundation so that they can become who they were meant to be.  Staying in the past would cripple them.  They’ve got more to do.  I know that.  Somewhere deep down I know it’s time.  But today and tomorrow, we’re gonna squeeze these last days for all they’re worth, basking in the sunlight of Awards Day and the Fifth Grade Parade through the halls, where all the little kids will applaud and yell and scream, and I will bawl my eyes out and capture it all on camera.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

              Robert Frost

From Hand to Hand: My Chance to Pass it On

I want to pass on a gift I received this weekend at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  This was perhaps the most surprising blessing of the whole conference.

On Saturday afternoon, I met a wonderful gentleman who has recently written and published a book of his own. His name is William Montgomery, from Traverse City, Michigan, and we met in a workshop Saturday that was attended by the two of us who rounded out a whopping crowd of four fledgling writers; but I happen to believe that all human intersections are divinely orchestrated, and so I count it a gift to have met Mr. William Montgomery from Traverse City, Michigan during that otherwise weird session. He reminds me of my Daddy, and so I listened when he talked, because he, like my father, seems to hold his tongue unless he has something of value to say. And I try to make it a habit to always listen to those who’ve lived longer and well, especially if they are interested in passing on their wisdom to the next generations.

Mr. Montgomery was refreshingly forthcoming with me when he handed me a copy and said he hoped it would help someone.  I believe he is right: it will. I read the book, cover to cover on the plane ride home, and my life will be better for it.

Prayer for Time is a reverent, retrospective memoir of Mr. William’s life, written after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer–it’s a brief, poignant reflection on a long, blessed life that is being called into account by Time. Like it does for so many, the looming cloud of finality brings an urgency and careful examination of our years, and William takes the reader through a compact recollection of his life in Michigan. He writes in the clear, slightly formal language passed down from the Irish and English forefathers he mentions–not with fear or bitterness, but with gratefulness for blessings received and a fresh passion to finish strong. His is the unmistakable voice of the Baby Boomer, the children of immigrants, the first truly American work force…his voice is a fresh change from the controversial, lingo-laced and sensationalized reading material on many book displays today. The story is neither sad nor glib nor emotional or dramatic, but a serious (but not too serious) introspection of life and our unmerited privilege to dance on its stage. Williams’ book is short, thoughtful and unembellished—a fitting metaphor for the fleetingness and potential of life, this disappearing vapor we call Ours..

Prayer for Time is a gift to my generation who will eventually find ourselves sitting in waiting rooms with loved ones and holding hands with them as they pray and attending funerals  and looking back over the lives we’ve lived. It’s a quiet charge to stop running madly through our days.

In a culture where youth is glamorized and we stand in line for the next hot trend, I’m appreciative for the rare opportunity to glean wisdom from the life of someone who has accumulated 72 years, learned from his mistakes and is choosing to live intentionally for as long as he can. And as someone who has battled alongside a loved one with cancer, it is comforting to know we are not alone—there is beauty in the struggle.

So, thank you, William Montgomery, for the fortitude to tap out the letters of your struggle and offer it without strings to others. Congratulations on finishing the book and on deciding to live the rest your story with purpose and integrity. Your generosity and vulnerability will matter.

And if you, reader, are  struggling with the brevity of life or loss or regret, or just need to be reminded to live well, bless yourself by reading Mr. William Montgomery’s Prayer for Time. Your life will be better for it. I loved it. Truly, like a bedtime story that you think about all night long.

It’s available on Kindle so you could devour its contents in the next couple of hours if convenience is your thing, but my humble suggestion is to buy the beautiful book and pass it on to someone who might need it. That’s how we writers envision our books moving along– from one hand to another with a whisper “Take this…you’ll love it.”
Because I believe you will.

You can order the book at this link. AND YOU REALLY SHOULD ORDER IT…  http://www.amazon.com/Prayer-Time-William-R-Montgomery/dp/1494457989

http://nationalwritersseries.org/book-signing-at-horizon-books-this-saturday-william-montgomery-author-of-prayer-for-time/

http://www.amazon.com/Prayer-Time-Memoir-William-Montgomery-ebook/dp/B00HVL0T5W

Good luck, Bill–in writing and in enjoying the ending of your own story, as none of us knows which of our pages will be last.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

1 Thessalonians 5:11

http://www.amazon.com/Prayer-Time-Memoir-William-Montgomery-ebook/dp/B00HVL0T5W

Guilt-free Motherhood

My friend, and brand new author(!) Brenda McGraw,recently shared my thoughts on “Guilt-free Motherhood” on her site http://www.askgodtoday.com.  Brenda just released a new book, Joy Beyond: 28 Days to Discovering Joy Beyond Your Circumstances.

This is the piece I wrote for her website a few weeks ago, and I just needed a reminder today.  Hope this is an encouragement to you all you mamas out there…

Guilt-free Motherhood…

Spoiler alert: I don’t think this exists. It is like the Utopia of parenting, that vaporous fairy-tale land tucked away in some far away mountain paradise. It’s an urban legend. A mother’s myth.

Every mom I know struggles with guilt of some sort. We constantly blame ourselves for every mistake, every disappointment, every ounce of unhappiness our kids experience. Will they be psychologically scarred for life because I just lost my cool? Will they be materialistic if I buy them this new iPod case, or develop an unhealthy desire for worldly possessions if I don’t? Is she going to be emotionally damaged and seek affection from boys because I don’t hug her enough?…on and on the voices go.  Seriously, it’s exhausting.

And I don’t know a single mama who doesn’t take it personally when her child brings home a Friday Folder with a frowny face. My mind tends to wander down the most twisted roads possible: Have I not communicated our expectations clearly enough? Am I too soft on him because he’s the baby? Is she trying to get my attention? Does this teacher hate my child and I’m not defending him enough? Oh my gosh, what if he’s a sociopath and I’m enabling him and we end up on a future episode of Law & Order?

Is it just me, or do we Mamas all project our own insecurities, fears and failures onto our children—imagining the horrible scenarios that are possible if we blow this assignment? It could just be me: I have a wicked imagination, and I watch too many crime shows. But I’m guessing it’s not just me.

And as a mom in ministry, this guiltfest is compounded when I recognize the sacrifices my kids have made in our commitment to serve God. We’ve hauled our kiddos kicking and screaming to a gazillion church events, meetings, service projects, mission conferences and worship services. We travel across the world either toting them along or leaving them behind. All traveling parents know this kind of guilt, but it’s a different thing altogether to resent your dad’s boss for sending him on a business trip, and resenting God for sending your parents to a third world country to share the Gospel for two weeks. I want my children to love Jesus more than life itself. And most days, I tell myself that the rewards outweigh the risks—that my kids get to see God work in extraordinary ways. And then there are weeks like this last one, when both kids come home with less-than-stellar grades and I start the blame spiral: It’s because we took them out of school for three months and we’ve probably ruined their chances at getting into college and they’ll have to live in our basement until they’re 40 and they will never want to be a missionary or serve God in any voluntary way because the costs are too high…

These are the fears that make nights long and creep up on me in airports on my way to giving away Jesus. They rise up in the pit of my stomach when I drive to a speaking engagement, knowing I’ll miss telling my babies goodnight. They’re the things I don’t mention in prayer circles because I can’t bear the thought of a condescending expression that says, That’s what you get when you drag your kids all over the world.

I went to a U2 concert when I was a freshman in college. During the show there was this marquee that would flash intermittently with GUILT IS NOT FROM GOD in flashing lights. I was a little indignant, at first– chalked it up to a cop-out for living like the devil, even though it was U2 and all, and criticism of U2 is pretty much illegal. But it stuck with me, and as my theology developed, I realized that guilt is not the voice of God but the scare tactics of the Enemy. While the powers of darkness see the little lives at stake and screech my failures, weaknesses and flaws, the still, small voice of God is calling me forward tenderly: Follow me. I won’t leave you. My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness. There is a way to do this well, and I am it. Trust me.

There is a difference between conviction and guilt: conviction calls us out of defeat and sin toward victory; guilt tries to convince us to quit. God’s voice is not mean and accusing; it’s gentle and kind. But the voice of our Enemy is condemning and destructive and knows exactly where to strike. We’ve gotta recognize the conspiracy to take us out. Don’t fall for it, sisters.

We can help each other with this. We can stop passing judgment on parents who do this thing differently than we do. We can encourage each other rather than comparing ourselves to each other, because, hey, our kids were custom-made for us, and us for them. We can stop posting articles affirming our chosen method of parenting, hoping that someone else will see that we are RIGHT; that stuff just engages the voices of guilt for someone else. We can learn from each other without abandoning our convictions. It’s not a competition…you know there’s no prize for this job, right? Except for the beautiful kids who will grow up to be beautiful people with their own set of strengths and weaknesses when this is all over and done. Sometimes mistakes and disappointments are the best way to learn. So we can stop looking at the mistakes of other people’s kids and pointing an accusing finger: If they used more discipline…hadn’t have gotten divorced…fed their children organic food…didn’t work so much…didn’t homeschool…weren’t so strict…didn’t let their kids play video games… That noise sounds little like our Defender and a whole lot like our Accuser.

So pick your heads up, Mamas. Trust God to fill in the gaps. Ask Him for His help continually. Give yourself, and others, some grace. Encourage fellow moms. And remember that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are following His lead.

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left,your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,

“This is the way; walk in it.” Isaiah 30:21

Wendy Duke family

We Get to Do This

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Tonight, 33 Christians sit on the floors of their prison cells in a high-security prison camp in North Korea, wondering how and when their deaths will be displayed to their countrymen as a warning: This is what happens to Christians here. On Thursday of last week, the 33 Christians were arrested in North Korea, and under the orders of supreme leader Kim Jung-Un, have been sentenced to execution for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government by starting more than 500 house-churches throughout North Korea.

You can read details here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/mar/6/kim-jong-un-calls-execution-33-christians/

But when the news story about these 33 Christians popped up on my Facebook screen Sunday morning, something stuck in my throat. I cannot stop thinking about these brothers and sisters of mine, suffering in prison cells across the ocean, thousands of miles from my middle class neighborhood, while we “Christians” in America argue over what music should be played and how loud it should be, how long the pastor’s sermon lasted, and who was wearing inappropriate clothing in Sunday’s service. Maybe we’ve missed the point of this faith and freedom we’ve been granted. The reality of the lives and current conditions of these 33 North Korean Christians haunts me, makes me ask hard questions of myself, burdens me to not sit this one out.

 

I dare say that my life is lived in ignorant bliss most days. I risk little to call myself a Christian.  I forget the freedoms I have. I forget the sacrifices so many around this world make so that the message of Christ can be heard.  I forget that the worship service I attend every Sunday morning is illegal in 53 countries, and comes at a high price in so many others.  And God seems to be nudging me, “Don’t miss out on this.  Don’t forget what the Church was meant to be.”

God is stirring something in my heart, and I’m going to share it with you because maybe He’s stirring it in your heart, too. There’s a helplessness I feel when I think about persecuted Christ-followers, suffering so far away while I go on about my day.  I don’t know what to do. (And not knowing what to do is not something we Americans do well.) What can I possibly do? But every time I think this way, God’s Word whispers Call upon the name of the Lord…This kind only comes out by prayer…With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God…  There is something we can do.  And it’s not a last resort; it is a supernatural gift, a mixing of the human and the divine. It is the one thing we can do that will not be limited by our own humanity and perspective. The power of the Living God sits perched upon the lips of His people like an eagle waiting on the edge of a cliff for a wind to soar upon. Perhaps, as we concoct plans and strategies and place our requests on prayer lists for other people to pray, God is waiting for us to ask Him. Maybe He is waiting for our desires to match His.

 

Prayer is the signature of Christianity. It is the Living God’s daily allowance for His people to join Him in the miraculous.  We get to do this, people.

So, what if we could come along with God in providing for His beloved in North Korea?

 

It’s not like God hasn’t done the impossible before. Think the parting of the Red Sea. Think the Battle of Jericho. Remember Daniel and the lions, or his three friends in the fiery furnace. In Acts 12, when Peter, their great failure-turned-hero of the faith, was arrested for preaching the Gospel, the Believers cried out to God because there was nothing else they could do. So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. Acts 12: 5   As the church was still pleading on their knees, the impossible happened: an angel broke the chains binding Peter and led him through the guards and out of the prison, unharmed, right to the doors of the church.  The results were so unimaginable that, interrupted by the answer to their own prayers, the Believers did not believe it was Peter when he arrived at their doorstep to tell them the story. They couldn’t wrap their first-century minds around it.  Neither can I, really.

 

Able to do immeasurably more than all we could ask for or imagine…

 

 

I am not calling for an uprising. I am not asking for our government to step in with Navy SEALS and rescue these people from the North Koreans.  I’m not recruiting mercenaries for Jesus. I am not calling for protests or economic sanctions.  I’m not even asking for Christians to rise up and speak out.

 

I’m asking The Church not to stand up and fight, but to lower ourselves and kneel.

 

I’m convinced God is inviting us to participate in the divine by bowing our heads.

 

So I’m asking my friends and fellow Christians who have known the freedom of Christ and live in the sunshine of it every day to join me in coming alongside these brothers and sisters in their suffering and ask God to do the impossible, whatever that may be. To plead for peace and strength for the prisoners, for comfort for their families, for courageous leaders to fill their places in the wounded church. I am asking God’s people to pray for these thirty-three saints, once a day for thirty-three days. I am asking The Church, the worldwide Body of Jesus Christ, to cry out to our great God, who is able to do immeasurably more than what we can imagine, on the behalf of beloved brethren desperate to see God come through in North Korea.

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For the next thirty-three days, couldn’t we, The Church, boldly commit to praying for our brothers and sisters?  Couldn’t we set our calendars and smart phones down, turn off our TV’s and computers, and just stop to pray for men and women actually suffering to follow Christ in the darkest place in the world tonight? They have counted the cost, taken the risks, made the sacrifices to obey God’s calling on their lives—it seems that lifting a prayer for them every day is the very least and the very most we can do.  Five, maybe ten minutes a day.  That’s all it would take. Surely we can make that much of a sacrifice.

 

We owe them that much.

 

Listen, I am no activist. I’m not involved in politics. This is not some platform I want to stand on. I’m not even much of a prayer warrior, truth be told.  There are a million things I should be praying for, every day, all around me, and all of those things are important.  I’m also fully aware that there are millions of people around the world who are persecuted for their faith every day. They are equally precious in God’s sight, and equally deserving of our prayers. But I cannot shake the feeling that right now, in this moment in the history of the Church, we not only have the responsibility but the privilege to participate in divine intercession for these 33 men and women of courageous faith who suffer for the sake of Jesus tonight.

 

And please, I beg of you, give me no credit or applause for bringing this to light.  Any attention that might be directed at me would be SO misguided…Seriously, posting a mere article on Facebook is a grotesquely lame gesture when compared with people WHO STARTED HOUSE CHURCHES IN NORTH KOREA.  I would rather swallow hot coals than be included in the same sentence with these heroes of faith because I am wholly unworthy.  If anything, I am ashamed at how little attention I give to the needs of others, how little of my time is spent on my knees interceding on behalf of someone else.  My eyes are far too much on me and mine. In the category of “being too consumed with my own life to notice the suffering of others”, I am chief of sinners and deserve no award.  So, should you find this cause worthy of joining or passing along, use the time you would spend writing a comment on my post to lift a prayer instead. I’m not writing this to get hits on my blog or Likes on my Facebook page (because seriously, who “Likes” the persecution of Christians…?”) I’m writing this because these people are part of my spiritual family and fellow heirs of Heaven. They are my heroes. Regardless of our coloring or language or cultural differences, we are siblings adopted from all over the world, paid for in full by the Son of God and sealed with the same Holy Spirit. No matter when any of us leaves this world, we’ll share eternity one day. That’s pretty mind-blowing. There’s gonna be a day when we’re all sitting together in Heaven and telling stories, and I hope I get to hear about some miracle God worked while they were sitting there in a North Korean prison. I hope I get to say, Dude!  I was praying for you when that happened!!  And they’ll show us scars and say, in a language we’ll all speak, “It was totally worth it.”  So thirty-three days of praying for these men and women is not a burden but a chance to do something right, something important; to look beyond myself and participate in the divine work that occurs when the Body links arms in solidarity to say “You are not alone. We are with you. God is enough.” 

 

So if you are willing to kneel with me, to ask God to move in a way that only He can, then I thank you in advance for your partnership in love and encouragement to the saints. My little family of four will be praying for these dear warriors of our faith every morning at 7 a.m. EST; maybe, between us all, we can cover every watch.  Should you feel the need to comment, please let it be a note of encouragement to the brave thirty-three souls who’ve found Christ trustworthy enough to lay down their lives to spread the word. 

 

By this they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another. “ – Jesus (John 13:35)

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

Burning Up Upon Reentry

burningup on reentry
OK, this is a pretty lame picture, but apparently there is a shortage of photographers willing to follow flaming spacecraft hurtling through the atmosphere.

Reflections on our first few weeks back home:

January 7, 2014

I realized this morning that that it has been exactly three weeks since our last game at the SEA Games in Myanmar.  Whaaaaattt??  Only three weeks??  It feels like three lifetimes ago…

Three weeks ago, we were sitting on the sidelines and coaching a national team in an international tournament against professional basketball players, and I got a warning for wearing open-toed shoes on the bench (because nobody clued me in on the FIBA Appropriate Coaching Footwear Rule…) We spent an evening meeting officials from the ASEAN Basketball League, shaking hands with players and coaches from all over South East Asia, and eating duck and pork belly with all the participants in the tournament. Since then, let’s see…we’ve said good-bye to all of our team in shifts over three days and cried our guts out every time.  Our family got to watch international competitions and Olympic athletes in a whole slew of sports.   We packed up or gave away every item we owned and loaded it on a truck headed for Yangon, then flew to Yangon the next evening where we celebrated showering under hot water, shopped for souvenirs and ate out for three days.  I lost my mind and had my hair dyed.  We repacked, loaded a plane and flew five hours to Korea, ate a Whopper at Burger King in the airport at 9 in the morning, and made a 13-hour flight to Atlanta with two kids, eight bags and a whole bunch of conflicting emotions. We yelled “Merry Christmas” to everybody we passed in the Atlanta airport.  I cried when I saw my family waiting at the terminal to pick us up and take us home. We drove three hours home (with a pit stop at Cracker Barrel. Yes. Just, yes.) and slept-walked through a Christmas Eve Service, dinner and gift-exchange with my family. (JP tried his best to keep his eyes open during the service, but looked like a bobble-head doll and finally left early with my sister. Poor guy.) I think we exchanged gifts around the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, but I can’t actually remember. We drove to Columbia and spent the day with Scott’s family. I don’t know what happened during the next three days because jet-lag just about killed me and I stumbled through the end of the week like a zombie. We celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends and have watched a bunch of football games without caring in the least who won. Savannah and I went to a musical with my mom, the kids spent the night at friends’, we’ve gone to three movies. The kids started school yesterday and I swear, they looked two years older when I picked them up.  They’ve been so close I haven’t noticed how much they’ve grown up in the last three months.

So, seriously…we were sitting on the sidelines coaching three weeks ago???!

January 15, three and a half weeks after arriving home…

We are in some kind of weird time warp, and the last week and a half has flown by at supersonic speed.   There’s something about the kids being in school that makes time disappear.

To be honest, the transition home has been harder than I thought it would be.  I can’t explain why. Here’s the best analogy I can come up with: when NASA began sending missions into outer space, they learned by trial and error to add heat resistant coatings to the outside of the spacecraft because they were burning up upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.  The spacecraft couldn’t withstand the heat created by the speed and the friction against the earth’s air.  That’s kind of like what it feels like to come back to America after living abroad.  And we weren’t even gone that long. High speeds, high pressure, high emotions: the perfect concoction for a meltdown.  There’s no way to prepare yourself for reentry because there’s no place like America. Some of it has been great; some has been difficult. But my heat shield is malfunctioning, and it’s requiring way more adjustment than we expected.

For one thing, we arrived home just in time to experience the Polar Vortex, which is undoubtedly a stage of purgatory.   We left a place where we had to wear sunglasses to keep our retinas from frying, and entered the frozen underbelly of hell itself. For the first three weeks we’ve been home, the weather has been what the people in my house call “booty cold”, as in, “you’ll-freeze-your-booty-off”, 18-degrees-Farenheit-outside cold.  *If you live in the Midwest, or the Northeast, I imagine you’re rolling your eyes and blowing little puffs of frozen breath at what a big wuss I am for losing the ability to function at 18 degrees, but we are in South Carolina, for cryin’ out loud. We don’t do cold here.  I cannot stop shivering and am currently wearing three pairs of socks. There is obviously no one to blame…this arctic affront just so happened to coincide with our entrance into the western hemisphere. But thank you, Al Gore, for being the exact opposite of right about global warming. My body is in shock and I’ve been walking around the house in boots, a scarf and my heavy coat because I…cannot…get…warm.  My lips chapped so bad the bottom one split in half and I looked like a battered spouse for a week, and my skin is like frozen tundra. I’m literally freezing.

Sticker shock has also been an unwelcome sign of home in America.  I nearly fainted when I checked out at the grocery store the first time…I just stood there blinking at the total on the cash register.   There are perks to living in a third world country, and one of them is being able to buy a week’s supply of vegetables at the market for $3 and knowing the smiling vendor you just handed your money to thinks they pulled one over on you.   And when we stopped at Cracker Barrel on the way home from the airport, I experienced a paralysis of sorts in the general store and just stood in the middle, wide-eyed, saying “so…much…stuff…” over and over.

And my English is weird. I’m saying things in short little choppy, simple sentences, like: “Come. Eat now.” Or: “You. Clean room.” I sound like Yoda.  My spoken syntax is all messed up and words are accompanied with exaggerated gestures like some kind of silent movie actor. It is bizarre. I keep stumbling over words, which is awkward, so I frequently just opt to stay quiet.  My brain can’t get used to speaking to people who understand English.

I also got great WiFi connection…just in time to have the entire internet hijacked by the Duck Dynasty Debate.  I couldn’t help but think how many people in Myanmar are sitting in prison for voicing their outrage at much more important issues.  Welcome home to the land of free speech, rampant opinions and limitless attitude.  One of the things I love most about the Burmese people is their extreme effort to avoid being disrespectful or impolite.  I had hoped it would stick to me longer, but being immersed in a culture that glorifies tearing others down and making sport of people’s mistakes influences us way more than we realize.  I’ve already caught myself being sucked up into it, and I am struggling to swim against the current. It’s a battle I was not expecting to have to fight.  I should know better.

Time is all out of whack. We’re having sleeping issues. School has been tough for the kids—they’ve probably sacrificed more than anybody in this whole story. There’s a pervading sense of What’s next? for us and there are some disappointments and heartbreak that we’re wading through. It’s been a weird few weeks.

We miss our players.  All of them.  We’ll be talking around the dinner table or in the car and one of us will say, “You looked just like Wang Jia when you said that!” or “Remember when DiDi said this, or LaJa did that, or P did this?…”  Our standard response of gratitude is “Sank you, sir,” in our best Ar Bing voice. We chat with the guys on Facebook sometimes, and we all share pictures with each other, but it’s hard to be separated so abruptly from a community you shared your whole life with every single day in intense circumstances for three months.  It’s not like we could go back to it. But there’s been a kind of mourning hanging over us–a sort of grieving, if you will.  We just miss them. Every day, we miss them.

Other things I’ve had a hard time adjusting to: Sucky customer service.  Unchecked opinions.  Profanity. Cynicism. The flagrant sexualization of women.  An entire society hypnotized by their smart phones. Entitlement.  The stress and fatigue of juggling four schedules again, and being pulled in four different directions. The disintegration of families.  Anger…oh my gosh, why is everybody so angry? Fans who scream at referees.  People complaining about their church. The substitution of technology for people. Blatant disrespect for others.

I am noticing all the things I had grown desensitized to.

And so I’m struggling with how to be the change I want to see in the world…how to engage in culture without getting sucked back into the black hole of sarcasm and “fend for yourself” and speak your mind no matter who gets hurt.  There are things here I don’t want to adjust to, don’t want to become again.

And yet my heart is also full with gratitude for beautiful things I so love here in the United States of America. First and foremost: family, family, FAMILY. We’re so glad to see them and eat with them and laugh with them and talk with them.  We have amazing families and we’re so thankful for them.  We also have great friends who have loved and supported us, especially while we were abroad, and it’s been so good to hang out with them and speak English together without a translator.  That is an underappreciated gift.

Other things we’ve loved about coming home:

1.      Food, glorious food.  We’ve eaten out like 20 times and gained at least 5 pounds each.  There is no substitute for American pizza or cheeseburgers or Mama’s cooking.  But I now have to engage the practice of self-control.

2.      Church.  I’ve cried throughout the entire service every Sunday morning since we’ve been home.  I can’t describe the relief and joy that comes from worshipping freely with others who love Christ and to not feel like you’re pushing your faith on someone else…to talk and sing about Jesus without feeling like you’re gonna be in trouble or cause problems. There is comfort just to rest in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of His people…I do not take religious freedom and the beauty of the Bride of Christ for granted. Ever.

3.      Efficiency.  I might be on a slower timeline than most people, but I’m a big fan of efficiency even if I don’t practice it.  We have missed you, Efficiency. America’s got it going on in this department.

4.      Getting where I need to go fast….Interstates and paved roads, 70 mph speed limits, drive-thru windows…Yes, yes, yes!!!  Driving my own van without having to tell anybody where I’m going or dodging motorbikes or steering from the right side of the car.   Most important: Internet speed!!  Whaaat? We just sit around for hours watching all the youtube videos people sent us that we couldn’t open or download in Myanmar.  I can’t say it’s added one ounce of intellect or wisdom to our lives, but we’ve laughed a lot and nobody has huffed and puffed one time because they couldn’t open or download something…a miracle if there ever was one.  I shall never complain about internet speed again.  Ever.

5.      Freedom.  I cannot say this enough.  We have no idea how blessed we are here. The freedoms we have—freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, human rights, quality healthcare (I don’t care how bad you think it is, we have the best in the world. I could tell you stories about sitting in hospitals with no equipment or electricity).  I have taken these freedoms for granted all my life.

6.      Education. OHMYGOSH. I could not be more grateful for the educational system my children are afforded.  Our kids go to public school, which I constantly am told is dysfunctional and dangerous and inept, but I have been in love with my kids’ schools since my oldest started first grade six years go. We live in a magical wonderland of school choice and choice schools. Plus, I have just tried to educate my kids online without internet for three months, and have driven by hundreds of children walking dirt roads to undersupplied schools where they sit in rooms stuffed with 100 children in each class, so I can do little else but sing the praises of our teachers and school district.  My children have the privilege of being educated by well-trained, vested educators with books and computers and science fairs and field trips and only 30 students in a class.  There are always improvements that can be made, but it is all relative, my friends, and we are unbelievably blessed.

So, we have much to be grateful for.  We’re so thankful for the family and friends and even strangers who sent encouragement to us while we were overseas.  We’ve had a tremendous support network that we could not have survived without.  And we have great privileges here at home.

Which is why I don’t understand why I feel so sad. People keep asking me how I’m doing, how we’re adjusting.  I know you’re glad to be home, they say. Yes? I answer, because it will just be awkward to stand in the hallway or lobby with you and cry as I tell you how hard it is to pack up an entire life and  leave behind a different kind of family that we’ve poured our lives into every day–again–to come back to a culture that is chest-beating passionate about football games and fashion and reality show characters, and generally apathetic about justice and mercy and the God we have so much access to.  So, although I know you’re just trying to make conversation and let me know you’re glad I’m home (and I am honestly and humbly appreciative), that conversation would be awkward for both of us and I imagine what your face would look like as you walk away from that so I just decide to say “Yes. We’re adjusting,” and nod and smile my little head off.  Because I like you.  And you don’t deserve all this that’s inside me spewed out all over you.

Truth be told, this reentry process has not been pretty. Nor have I. I’ve been moody and emotional and generally hard to get along with lately.  I’ve been angry and impatient, irritable and short-tempered. I’ve shown less grace than I should.  My poor family has borne the brunt of it, but others have been victim as well.  I totally went off on one of my kids yesterday for wearing a shoe that didn’t match the outfit…while I was wearing sweats and running shoes with black dress socks.  I don’t know why it is that when we are hurt, we lash out to hurt others in response.  It feels sort of like walking around with no skin on, like my heat shield got burned up in the atmosphere between there and here.  Everything gets to me. There are friends here I have avoided seeing yet because I know I will burst into tears as soon as I see their faces; some hearts can see the hurt in your eyes before you say a word, and I just can’t do it yet. I don’t have a way to describe the sadness I’ve felt since being home and frankly, it seems melodramatic to talk about. There’s no good reason for this, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on why I’m such a mess…my heart just hurts.  I just keep telling myself to get over it, for cryin’ out loud, get over yourself!  and I’m mad at myself for not being able to climb out of it.  I have no right to be sad. I’m blessed way more than I deserve and there are people who love me and help me and want the best for me. There are also people with real struggles all around me…I’m fully aware that there are far greater problems and tragedies to deal with, enduring hurts I can’t even imagine. So, it embarrasses me to tell you that I am burning up on the reentry.  That I have crashed and burned and cannot pull myself together some days.  For no apparent reason at all.

So God and I are engaging in peace talks.  There are things I need to make peace with, reconciliations that need to be made in my head and heart, and He’s the only negotiator with any authority.  So we’ve been wrestling, God and I, and it’s not been pretty. I have a new limp every day. The alternative is to walk away from God altogether, but I’ve been down that road before and never want to go that way again.  So, after much tussling, here’s where we’ve landed:

I will bring them into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.  They will call on my name, and I will answer them.  Zechariah 13:9

And I realize that I am, once again, in the blue-hot middle of Refinement—that painfully sweet process of burning away the impurities in precious materials to get to the pure stuff.  These are not fun times. But we’ve been here before, me under God’s wing, in this time-tested method God has of applying heat and pressure, waiting for the yuck to rise to the top, then scraping it away and trashing it.  It is the divine sanctification process, mimicked in the silversmith’s hands as he holds the nugget of gold or silver in a fireproof vessel and slowly moves it over the hottest part of a flame, watching the metal melt to liquid and the impurities rising to the top. He drags the surface until he can see the junk no more…until only the reflection of his face is left shining back at him.  Purity. Kindness. Humility. Soft precious material ready to be shaped and molded into the finest creations of the master silversmith’s imagination.  It is a beauty born of pain and struggle. But it is breath-taking.

My past responses to this process have varied: sometimes I run from that heat, delaying the riddance of those down-deep issues and choosing instead to ignore them, pretend they’re not there.  Comfortable and easy are much easier to choose than melting down and burning up. But there are times, far fewer times, that I’ve turned and walked into the fire, clenched my jaw and hands against the burn, and given God full permission to melt away those things in me that must come out.  Fear. Pride. Hurt. Stubbornness. Doubt.  Unforgiveness.  A critical spirit. These are poisons that God continually leads me away from, yet is patient enough to cleanse me from when I let them in.  Only desperation can cause someone to walk into that heat.

So, I’m deliberating.  Do I volunteer or wait to be dragged kicking and screaming?  Do I have impurities that need to be burned away?   I’m good, I tell myself most days.  Compared to some people, I’m in good shape…   And I can live with that most of the time…until those quiet moments when I am alone with my thoughts and my mind keeps wandering back to one question: Can God see Himself in me right now? How much self-pity and frustration and disappointment and bitterness will He have to move to see His own reflection?

So, my skin has melted off, my defenses are down. Humiliation has done its work, and humility and vulnerability are all that’s left.  So I guess it’s as good a time as ever to let God have His way in me. But it’s gonna be ugly for a while.

Search me, Oh God, and know my heart

Try me and know my anxious thoughts

And see if there is any wicked way in me

And lead me in the way everlasting

Psalm 139: 23-24

It gets a little better every day.  There are sweet, sweet-spirited people who have given me the space and patience I’ve needed for my heart to heal.  I’m grateful for these sweet friends and family.  I went to choir rehearsal for the first time in four months tonight and wept through the first song.  I was both humbled and encouraged at so many men and women who gather together at the end of a long work day to join their voices together in harmony and sing a new song of praise.  They come in with their own struggles, difficult circumstances, worries, fears and wounds, but they forget all of that in turning their eyes upon Jesus and basking in His awesomeness. They dwell on Him and not on their circumstances.  It was a healing time for my spirit. My skin is starting to grow back—sweet people are helping layer it on, not with their hands but with their hearts.  I am watching their lives and forgetting mine. I am following their gaze:  What…what are they looking at? and when I turn to see, I see too:  Jesus. He never ends.  Pages are turned in our lives, chapters come to a close, but Jesus never ends.

And I know it’s time to get back up and move on.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

His mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning.

Great is Your faithfulness, oh God.”

Lamentations 3:22-23

So if you, too, are in the midst of burning up on reentry, learn from my mistakes and resist the pull to hole up and isolate.  Get in the middle of good people who will make your landing a little softer.  The Enemy has no greater power over us than isolating us from people and God.  It is his most wicked tool. And crawl up under the wing of the Most High God.   Wrestle with Him over your deepest questions and doubts—He’s plenty big enough to handle your darkest thoughts and fiercest interrogations.  They won’t intimidate Him one bit. He has none of the insecurity that causes us to bow up at the criticism or questioning of others. Seek Him out.  You’ll find Him strongest in your weakness, largest in your smallness, clearest in your darkness.

And if you’re in a good place right now, reach out to somebody who’s surviving a burn-up.  A friend who lost a loved one some time ago and feels like she or he should be getting on with life but just can’t get there.  A neighbor who’s been through a divorce. A friend who moved away and is still smoldering from the move, the friends left behind and the uncertainty of making new ones. An international student at a local university who’s left family and country and home and is drowning in our slightly overwhelming American culture. Find them. Take them to lunch. Listen to their story. Hug their neck. Don’t expect too much.

Maybe you’ll soften somebody’s landing.

The Day my Brain went on Holiday

I’m a fairly intelligent person.  Really.  But I do really dumb things sometimes.  Really stupid. Like when I was 13, and one of my neighbors dared me to wear roller skates and roll down the incline of our outdoor pool.  It didn’t seem like such a horrible idea in the heat of the moment. Even though I obviously didn’t drown,  it freaks me out to think about either of my children doing something that stupid–although I’m pretty sure my son has done worse (and obviously gets it honestly). Or like when I thought it would be a good idea to take my infant and toddler on a road trip to Savannah, Georgia by myself… that was a trainwreck of epic proportions, complete with a dead battery at a rest stop, driving 30 miles down the wrong way on the interstate, an overflowing diaper, taking a potty break in a Wendy’s takeout bag on the side of the road, plus three epic meltdowns. I bought a 300 pound vacuum from a door-to-door salesman that I must now keep all my life.  I also volunteered to serve on the PTO Board one time.   So you can see, I’ve had some serious lapses in good judgement. And yesterday was one of them.

This whole thing started about six weeks ago when we were the only foreigners in an entire city and I was so over being the tall blond who could be spotted a mile away.  Having our picture taken at the grocery store was getting really old. So I had this bright idea that if I got my hair darkened,  I wouldn’t stand out so much in a crowd. Like that was gonna make a big difference.  I’m sure having dark hair would divert the attraction from my 6’5 husband, or my white children–one who walks with lime green crutches and the other who is constantly hanging from a fixture somewhere. All of that would surely be camouflaged if my hair were dark… So I floated the idea in jest to Scott. To my legit surprise, my husband said I should go for it…we’re in a foreign country, how bad could it be?… yada, yada, yada… This is when your spouse-should step in and protect you from yourself and tell you to, for the love of all reason, Stop!  Yank the emergency brake. Pull the whole submit-to-my authority thing.  Anything to stall the seizure of mental capacity. But, no…he eggs me on.   So for six weeks the idea has been gaining speed in this whacked up brain of mine, and the hubs just keeps asking me when I’m going to go to Tony Tun Tun’s and go dark.  So we got to Yangon three days before we were scheduled to fly home, and since we had pretty much nothing to do, we went with one of the players from the women’s team to her salon the day before we were returning home.  I honestly went with the full intention of just getting a quick trim. My hair has not been cut in three months and it has taken a beating, what with all the humidity and ponytails and sleeping on it wet because my hairdryer has the horsepower of blowing out candles.  But I just got caught up in the moment.  Everybody was asking me if I wanted color and I was sitting there with a book full of synthetic hair samples of different shades of color, and the adventure of it got to me…and I was all like when am I ever going to have this chance again?  Or something ridiculous like that. Plus it was only $30 and I am a sucker for a deal.

Hair-Color-Shade-Chart
This is not as easy as it looks.

I have never had my hair colored dark before…I’ve had it highlighted for several years, but my hair’s never been darker than a light brown and presently I was a solid blonde. I have no idea what my natural hair color is anymore, although from the three months’ growth crowning my head, I was guessing a medium brown.  I just decided to try to go with that. But here’s where I went wrong: I had no idea what color to choose out of the book of fake hair loops, and apparently I’m the first white person who’s ever been in the Rain Salon, so I let the stylist choose the color for me.  Big mistake.  Big. Mistake. Nobody mentioned they’d never put color on a blonde before. Of course, the 22-year old guy who was the color Big Dog spoke Chinese, my friend speaks Burmese plus a little Chinese and some English, and I am American with 6 years of Spanish under my belt…so maybe it got lost in translation.

I should have known this was a bad idea when I saw the selfies of the Rain Salon’s stylists on the wall instead of licenses or certifications–all making pouty faces and sporting rainbow colored hair.  And I should have packed up and run for the door when they had a committee meeting around my chair to decide what colors to mix.  When the first color went on, my heart started racing when I noticed the colorist wiping sweat from his forehead.  He looked like he was going to have a nervous breakdown, and, frankly so was I. A second wave of stylists came  over to help out. They looked  like paramedics or triage Army units I’ve seen on TV when they’re in an emergency and have that look of controlled panic on their faces. They  circled my head like vultures and each would take a turn bringing  a new color tube to add to the potion they were applying to my hair. After an hour of indecision, they took me to the shampoo table.  They dried it and turned me around to the mirror and I swear I threw up in my mouth.

My hair was burgundy.  BUR-GUN-DY. My least favorite, ugliest color in the world. Burgundy! Maybe maroon, I’m not exactly sure, but you get the picture.  I could not say a word. Not that it would matter since nobody spoke English.  But I was trying to be polite and not hyperventilate at the same time.  Theint (the player I came with) remained very calm and said, “They will change it.  Don’t worry.  It will be okay.”

Too late. We were in it now.

So the committee reconvened and changed up the potion. This time he tested a big lock of hair on the front, and straight panicked when it turned green.  Nope, that’s not it. He disappeared–I don’t know if he just couldn’t handle the pressure or they have a firing squad out back or what–but the next colorist’s hands were shaking. Two or three people starting spraying water from a bottle on the green streak.

That’s when I just started laughing. Hysterically.

They washed and dried and colored my hair three times before giving up and pretending it was decent.  After four hours, I didn’t even care anymore.  And I didn’t even get the haircut I came for. Nobody really said much as I took off the cape and tried not to look in mirrors.  Scott had already left, so really only strangers were left to see me and I had shut down all emotion after the third color, so just whatever, man.

End result: my hair does not resemble anything natural on this planet.  I look like a character from Narnia. It is an ungodly concoction of shades of red, orange and brown, like a sunset over the Grand Canyon, except not pretty at all.  Or Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street.  Or Carolina red dirt. It sort of fades from like a peachy, apricot-ish shade, to fire orange, to auburn to brown.  I really love red hair on people who were born with it or have mastered the art of red-headedness, but this color was not made for humans.

I texted my sister right after the fiasco and asked her for a hat for Christmas. Our Christmas pictures will be memorable this year, to say the least.

So, we left the next day for the USA and made it home on the morning of Christmas Eve.  My family met us at the airport and my sisters were prepared to not be able to hold their composure upon sight of the hair I described.  But they were sweet and said things like, “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be…” Which is really the best I could hope for. And if you live in Spartanburg, SC, and saw me at the Christmas Eve service or elsewhere over the last couple of days, and you just pretended you didn’t notice the color on my head…I will love you forever. And if I haven’t see you yet,  for the love of mercy, just pretend like you don’t notice that my head belongs on a Bratz doll. Just act like you don’t see me, if you must. But my emotions are at DefCon 3, people, so this is fair warning.

My husband just smiled and hugged me when he saw it.  He has learned well.  My daughter loves it, but she also asked for turquoise hair chalk for Christmas.  My son keeps saying things like, “Tell me again what happened to your hair?” or “It looks kinda better today…I think some of it washed out.”

I’ve learned a few things through this little mishap:

  1. Although I was pleading with Jesus not to teach me humility this way while I was sitting in that chair, it was a good lesson. What I look like is of miniscule concern to the rest of the world–nobody’s life will be bettered or worsened by it.  We worry way more about our appearance than anybody else does.  So although I felt like Ralphie wearing the pink rabbit suit in Christmas Story for a few days, nobody else really noticed or cared. The people who love me won’t love me any less. Self-consciousness is the devil’s greatest tool in keeping us in our own self-absorbed world so that we don’t see others. In the grand scheme of things, what I look like is utterly insignificant.  Vanity is way uglier than orange-and-purplish hair.
  2. This, like every other unpleasant experience, shall pass.  The longer I act like it’s a big deal, the longer it will stick around.
  3. Never, EVER add “Hair Salon” to your list of tourist stops in a country that has no people of your skin tone or coloring, and where no one speaks your language.
  4. It could always be worse.  I saw a Facebook story about a man who chronicled his wife’s battle with cancer and saw the photos of her losing her hair.  My hair color doesn’t seem like a problem at all after that. I have little to complain about.

I had already scheduled an appointment with my hairdresser for the second week of January, and I don’t want to go any earlier for two reasons: 1) she’s gonna kill me, and 2) I’m afraid my hair will fall out if anymore chemicals touch it. So, this is it for the next week and a half.  I’m still startled every time I see myself in the mirror, but honestly, it’s not so bad anymore…it’s actually kind of growing on me.  It’s kind of like going incognito in Witness Protection or working for the CIA…but without people trying to kill me. Although it’s not my best look, I’m considering this a “character-building” opportunity.  Which is what I usually say to other people…  This too shall pass, and we’ll have two pictures to laugh about 10 years from now…because I’ve only allowed two pictures to be taken of me looking like this.

Embracing the circumstances,

Wendy

looking for God in all the hard places