Heath Fam Goes West: Part 2

Well, this second blog post in this series has taken much longer than I hoped. I actually had it almost finished before I published the first one, but I have been having some computer issues and somehow it disappeared. At first, I just lost part of it, but now the entire file is nowhere to be found. Ugh!! So I shall begin again…

PART 2: COLORADO

Day 1: Travel Day

Day 1 started out with us flying from Atlanta to Denver, Colorado. Since we do not usually fly anywhere (3 of the 4 kids have only flown once!), even the plane ride was a somewhat new adventure. The boys were super excited to be able to play games and watch movies on the plane, and the girls were glad they brought their own headphones because apparently they work much better than the complimentary ones provided by Delta. Ha! So after parking our car at Peachy Airport Parking and then navigating the airport security lines, we boarded the plane. We had no idea that our “adventures” would start so soon… due to a very large hailstorm over Colorado, our plane was diverted to Salt Lake City, Utah. The kids were actually super excited about this because they had asked me multiple times to add Salt Lake City to our itinerary for the sole purpose of visiting East High, the high school where the High School Musical movies were filmed. The girls quickly informed us that we were only 10 miles from East High, and we seriously considered getting an uber just to take some pictures! Unfortunately, our layover was less than an hour, so we were not able to make it happen. However, we did get an unplanned aerial view of the Great Salt Lake, so that was pretty cool!

We arrived in Denver late that night and made our way over to Avis to collect our rental car. Thankfully, we had signed up as “preferred members” online before making our reservation; this ended up saving us some money on insurance “extras” that were included for preferred members, as well as helping us secure a 2019 Yukon XL for our extended road trip, versus whatever vehicle the customer representative had initially selected for us. The process was very smooth and easy (especially once he realized we were “preferred” customers), and we were on the road to Colorado Springs in no time. It was an easy drive that late at night, and we were grateful to be settled in by midnight!

Colorado was the longest portion of our trip and the most time we spent in one place. My younger brother, Sonny, and his sweet wife, Courtney, live in Colorado Springs with their 2 children, and so do Courtney’s parents, so our lodging was taken care of for this part of our trip. However, if you are looking for a unique place to stay in Colorado Springs, check out this Country Cottage I found on airbnb. The owners are super nice and very easy to work with, and it looks like a great place for a family to spend a few days! In addition to my brother’s family, we have some close family friends who live in the Springs, so our goal was to spend as much time with all of them as possible while experiencing some of the many fun things to do in Colorado Springs. Mission accomplished!

Days 2 & 3:  Reconnecting with Family & Friends, Garden of the Gods

Our 2nd day brought some rainy weather, and since we were pretty tired from our late night travel adventure, we spent most of the day relaxing at home and enjoying time with our family and friends. Jeff was able to play some golf with Sue (Courtney’s mom) while the rest of us chatted, worked on a Lego space shuttle, and played some football in the yard. It was fun to be reunited with our friends after several years apart and for the boys to get to play with their cousins!

On Day 3, we headed over to explore Garden of the Gods with my brother’s family. First, we rode around the big loop looking at all the different rock formations. Parking along the loop was extremely limited, so we made our way to the Trading Post for a map and some ice cream! It was delicious… I highly recommend the Pikes Peak flavor, because, well, how often do you find Pikes Peak flavored ice cream in Georgia? For our first adventure, we decided to trek over to the Balanced Rock area, which was a quick, easy walk from the Trading Post. We spent an hour there and everyone loved it! The boys were in heaven, climbing and scampering over the rocks like little monkeys, while the girls found it to be a great spot for some Instagram pics.  As we were finishing up with our group photos and deciding where to hike next, the clouds rolled in, along with the thunder. 

Fortunately, we made it back to the Trading Post just as the downpour began! We used it as an opportunity to try out their café menu and browse the enormous gift shop. By the time the rain stopped, we decided to make a quick stop by the Visitor’s Center for some great rooftop photos with the rocks, and a stroll through the museum. The highlight was definitely the “Poop Quiz” (which I aced, by the way. Apparently, I’m an expert on various types of poop. Who knew?). We spent the evening with our friends, the Locke family, eating a yummy dinner and reminiscing about old times.  What a blessing to watch our kids, who first became friends many years ago in preschool, all back together again, now as teenagers! They ended the night collapsed on the floor in a pile of laughter, so I’d say they had a good time (and no one is a better Magical Harp than Jessie, just saying)!

Day 4:  Cave of the Winds, Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings, Edelweiss Restaurant

This was our boys’ favorite day in Colorado. We spent the whole day with their cousins, which meant it would be fun no matter what!  Our first stop was Cave of the Winds, near Manitou Springs.  This place was awesome! We started with a Discovery Tour of the cave, which took about an hour and was super fun. Our guide, Tatiana, had a great sense of humor and really made it enjoyable for all ages. I think the teens and adults would have definitely enjoyed the Lantern tour, but with younger children, the basic tour was perfect. When we finished, there was a large seating area with picnic tables and beautiful views where we sat to eat lunch. Sonny and Courtney had packed lunches for all of us, but there was also a snack bar available for those who wanted to purchase food. After lunch, we purchased the “Pioneer Package” for all the kids, which included the Wind Walker Challenge Course (high ropes course on the edge of Williams Canyon), Cliffhanger Climbing Wall, Geronimo’s Leap, Bat-a-pault, and Magic Lantern Theater (Virtual Reality rides).  They spent most of their time on the Challenge Course and Climbing Wall, but once the girls found the virtual reality theater, they all spent the last half hour there. We had planned to spend about an hour at Cave of the Winds and then make the drive up to Pike’s Peak, but since the kids were having so much fun (and we weren’t sure the high altitude and long drive were going to be worth our time on this trip), we decided to stay and let them enjoy it. We definitely got our money’s worth out of it, and it was an overall trip highlight for the boys!

Since we didn’t go to Pikes Peak, we had an hour or two to kill before our dinner reservations, and Courtney suggested we stop by the Cliff Dwellings in Manitou Springs. I am so glad we did! I had originally planned for us to make a stop in Mesa Verde on the way to the Grand Canyon, but ultimately decided that was a lot of extra driving just for some cliff dwellings, so this was perfect! We all had a great time exploring all the different rooms and marveling at the architecture and history of a simpler time. The museum part of the gift shop had some really interesting photos and history as well, so if you go there, make sure to spend a few minutes inside. After the obligatory photo by the teepees, we headed to Edelweiss for dinner, a German restaurant Sonny and Courtney really like. Since our family lived in Germany when we were growing up, they thought we would enjoy it, and they were right! My sweet college friend, Michelle, and her boys were able to join us, which made it extra special. The food was authentic and amazing, and our boys all became fast friends. It was a great ending to a wonderful day!

Day 5: USAFA, Teen hike, Laundry & Packing, Birthday Dinner

Our last day in Colorado was a special treat.  Both my dad and Sonny graduated from the Air Force Academy, and my dad taught there for a few years when I was a child, so it was definitely something I wanted our kids to experience. Courtney’s father, Gary, was one of my dad’s best friends when they were at the Academy together and while we were growing up, so it was a real treat to have him give us a tour. He was able to show us the chapel, which is soon to be renovated, as well as various other buildings around campus. Gary shared details and stories of all the planes scattered around the quad; the kids favorite story was about the hot-shot pilot who flew his plane over the quad, hitting the speed of sound just a smidge too early, causing ALL THE GLASS on the windows to suck in and then shatter outwards onto everyone marching to the Mess Hall! While they all enjoyed the tour, I’m not sure they realize yet what a privilege it was to have a former astronaut for a tour guide… to him, he’s just their “Uncle Snake”/“Grandpa”!  

While the rest of us headed home to do laundry and pack, the teens headed out for a fun afternoon together, climbing some big rock (this turned out to be a theme of our trip!) and seeing where Carson and Jess spend their days. I know they treasure the chance to reconnect with their friends!

Sonny and Courtney were kind enough to host all of us at their house that night for dinner, and we were excited to be together to celebrate Courtney’s and Gary’s birthdays. We had a fantastic time and soaked up every minute of being together! Unfortunately, Joe & Erin’s youngest son, Garrett, was at camp for the week, so our boys missed out on seeing their buddy. We’ll make sure they catch up next time! Overall, our time in Colorado was everything we had hoped, and our Western Adventure was off to a great start!

STAY TUNED FOR PART 3… (if you’re lucky, it will be out by Christmas! LOL!)

Heath Fam Goes West!

Our East-coast family of six just returned from a 17 day trip out West, which included 3 plane rides, 2,000 driving miles, 5 states, 4 hotels (plus 3 relatives’ homes), 3 National Parks, 2 theme parks, 1 elk, and lots of hiking. Whew!! As our oldest daughter begins her Senior year of high school, I cannot express how thankful I am for this time together. Yes, there were a few squabbles along the way, as you can imagine with 4 kids in tight quarters! But, overall, everyone kept a great attitude and we created life-long memories that we already cherish.

Several friends have asked about our itinerary. Since I know firsthand how much planning and preparation goes into a trip like this, I decided to share some details from our trip in the hopes that it may help some of you plan your own adventure! So this first post will be about how we went about planning our trip. Over the next couple weeks, I will share details from each portion of our trip for those of you who are interested!

PART 1: The Planning Process

This trip has actually been in the works for more than 5 years. What I mean by that is that we have talked about “going out West” for much of our married life (22 years), and more intentionally over the last 5 years as our boys got older and our girls approached high school.  Jeff and I both knew this was a trip we wanted to take all together as a family, but to be honest, the logistics of planning a trip like this scared and overwhelmed me. There were so many unknowns; I wasn’t even sure where to start! So every year we would sit down and dream about what we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it, and I would write it all down. I would google a few things, get overwhelmed, and walk away.  Sounds like a great planning process, right? Ha! So take heart- this trip does not require 5 years of planning! It just requires making the decision to actually do it.

Last Fall, as Sarah began her Junior year of high school, Jeff and I knew it was now or never, so I got serious about planning.  We had been told you need to reserve lodging at the Grand Canyon a year in advance, which is where I usually got derailed. So this time I was determined to make a plan and stick to it! 

Stage 1:  Dream

Our first step was to dream of everything we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it. This stage for us began with our “5 years of planning” and gradually evolved into what you will see on our itinerary. Our original dream was to rent an RV and travel from Georgia out West, seeing everything we could possibly see along the way. The idea of living together in a small space for a long time was both exciting and terrifying. Can’t you just picture us as the Griswalds? LOL!

We made a bucket list of everything we wanted to experience along the way: The St. Louis Arch, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon, Colorado, Cliff Dwellings, Las Vegas, Disneyland… the list went on and on. It only took a little research for me to determine that our dream trip would require at least 3 months for us to accomplish if we wanted to see everything! Wow!! So if you are interested in this trip, sit down together and start your list. Ask questions like: What do we want to see and do? Do we want to camp or stay in hotels? Do we want to drive or fly? Do we have friends or family we want to visit along the way? Don’t be afraid to dream big! Write it all down, even if you doubt you will include it. It may be part of a future trip!

Stage 2: Funnel

Next, I began research on the RV. After talking to a few friends who had taken RV trips, we quickly determined that we liked the IDEA of a long RV trip better than we would like the actual trip. Originally we were thinking it would be more cost effective, but once you figure in the overall rental plus gas, mileage, and site rentals, that was not the case. Also, with as much as we wanted to see, the slower travel involved would be counter-productive for us. I still think an RV trip would be really fun! But for this particular trip, we decided to just drive our own car. 

From there, we began to funnel down our “dream list” and cross things off until we were a little more centrally focused.  This was one of the most difficult processes for me (because I want to see everything!!) and took a lot of time and research. I decided to pull out a map and start with the family and friends we hoped to visit along the way. Since my brother lives in Colorado Springs, along with a few other very close friends, Colorado became a priority destination for us.  (If you have no reason to go to Colorado, I would recommend possibly starting in Arizona instead). I also have an aunt and uncle in St. George, Utah that we hoped to visit along the way.  With those 2 stops on the map, it just made sense for us to focus on the Grand Canyon as our primary destination and plan our other adventures around it. That decision alone eliminated nearly half of our dream list… so we will save those adventures for another time!  

In this stage, you should take out a map and prioritize your dream list. Make sure to ask questions like: How long can we realistically be gone? What is our budget? Do we want to see as many places as possible or spend quality time at just a few? What makes the most sense for us? 

Stage 3: Focus

At this point, I began researching other things to see and do near the Grand Canyon and stumbled upon “The Grand Circle.” I am embarrassed to admit I had no idea there are so many National Parks in that area! Pinterest was my friend, as I found details of what the Grand Circle was, which hikes to take, what other families had enjoyed and recommended, etc. Even this part required narrowing things down, as we were trying to keep our trip to about 2 weeks. Since we would be driving to the Grand Canyon from Colorado Springs, we added Moab, UT as a stopping point so we could visit Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. My relatives live close to both Zion and Bryce National Parks, so those went on the itinerary as well. And if you know my husband at all, you know there is no way we could be within driving distance of a Disney park and not end up there, so Disneyland became a required destination as well.  When I put it all down on the map, Las Vegas (and the Hoover Dam) was a natural stop along the way. We had a trip! However, with driving out and back from Georgia, our trip was still going to have to be at least 3 weeks. Because it’s so expensive for a family of 6 to fly, we decided to fly out one way, rent a car for our trip and drive home. But eventually we determined we would rather use those travel days visiting people and enjoying our adventure, so we decided to bite the bullet and fly both ways.

Once you have narrowed down your prioritized destinations, do a little research to see what other things are close by or on the way that you may not know about. If your family is like ours, we have several different ages and both genders represented and not everyone enjoys the same things, so be sure to include something fun for everyone along the way!

Stage 4:  Finalize

Now that we had a basic travel itinerary, it was time to finalize our plans! This also took some research, but was more fun.  I basically started with lodging at the Grand Canyon, and planned the rest of our trip around that. Lodging options are extremely limited at the North Rim, and fill up quickly at the South Rim, so make this part your priority. We were about 9 months out when I started planning, and at first I was unable to find anything to accommodate our family of 6. There are some really cool packages that include lodging and meals in Williams, AZ and a 2 hour train ride to the South Rim, so this was my back up plan. Eventually, though, I was able to find 2 nights at the Yavapai Lodge in a family suite (2 queen beds and a bunk bed), so I planned the rest of our trips around that. Frontier and Southwest offer some really good flight deals out West (make sure you read their policies on luggage), but I booked our flights on Delta during a Thanksgiving sale. We actually added 3 days to our trip based on cheaper flights on specific days, and I am so glad! 

Here are some of my overall travel tips when planning a family trip out West:

  • If travelling to the Grand Canyon or other National Park, reserve your lodging there first, and plan around that.  Their websites recommend booking 1 year in advance. If you can’t find anything at first, keep checking back. 
  • Use tripadvisor.com as a resource for your other destinations, lodging, and activities. I added Moab to our itinerary based on reviews from this site, and also booked our sunset tour at the Grand Canyon after reading recommendations. It was pricey and I wasn’t sure it would be worth it, but it was one of our kids’ favorite parts of the whole trip!
  • If you have points through a certain hotel chain, use those hotels and/or points. My husband is a Hilton Honors member due to business travel, so we found hotels in the Hilton family whenever possible. And because we are DVC members, we used points to stay at Dinseyland, so the lodging for that part of our trip was free (or at least already paid for, ha!).
  • Since you’re planning in advance, you have time to watch for deals on your actual travel arrangements. There are several apps and websites that will alert you for airline deals. If you need to rent a car, we rented ours through Avis and had a great experience. You can become a “premiere member” online before making your reservations- this came in handy for us when we picked up our car and made the process much smoother. Someone had recommended it on tripadvisor.com, and I would definitely recommend it as well!
  • Make yourself a spreadsheet to keep track of all the details- destination, lodging, confirmation number, details, price, etc. This will come in very handy along the way!

Our finalized Itinerary looked like this:

Day 1Fly to Denver, rent car & drive to Colorado Springs
Days 2-5Colorado Springs: Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, Manitou Springs Cliff Dwelligns, USAFA tour (and time with family & friends)
Day 6Drive to Moab, UT and hike in Canyonlands National Park
Day 7Arches National Park, dinner in Moab
Day 8Drive to Grand Canyon’s South Rim (AZ)- Desert Watchtower, Hummer Sunset Tour
Day 9(Grand Canyon) South Kaibab hike (Ooh Aah Point), Biking along rim
Day 10Drive to St. George, UT (visit with family)
Day 11Zion National Park (*we ended up not going to Zion because half the family was tired of hiking… so a few of us hiked in Snow Canyon State Park instead. Then we toured the local country club, which happens to be where High School Musical 2 was filmed- an unplanned highlight of the trip for our kids!)
Day 12Drive to Hoover Dam, then on to Las Vegas
Day 13Drive to Anaheim, CA (Disneyland)
Days 14-16Disneyland & California Advneture, possible trip into L.A. or to Huntington Beach
Day 17Fly HOME!!

So, that’s pretty much how I went about planning our trip! I am working on more blog posts with details on each of our destinations, so if you want more info, check back soon! We are definitely hoping to do more family trips like this. If you have any tips or suggestions, I would love to hear them. Thanks for reading!

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

Last weekend, my husband and I took our oldest daughter to visit Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky (but that’s another blogpost entirely!). Before we left, we stopped by the campus bookstore and I purchased a devotional book, This Day with the Master, written by Dr. Dennis Kinlaw. He was president of Asbury (then) College many years ago when Jeff was attending Seminary across the street, and Jeff has often mentioned the influence he had on him both personally and spiritually, so I figured it would be a good buy. I have not been disappointed!

As we begin the Advent season, I thought I’d share some thoughts from my prayer journal yesterday, inspired by the December 5 entry in this book. The Scripture reading was 2 Chronicles Chapter 30, in which King Hezekiah decided to honor God by inviting all the scattered people of Israel to celebrate the Passover Feast in the temple of Jerusalem even though they were a month late. This is the part that really stood out to me:

“Since many of the people had not purified (or prepared) themselves, the Levites had to slaughter their Passover Lamb for them, to set them apart for the Lord…” But King Hezekiah prayed for them and they were allowed to eat the Passover meal anyway, even though this was contrary to the Law. He said, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God— the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary. And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.”   (2 Chronicles 30:17-20, partially paraphrased)

What a beautiful passage, Lord! Your people turning back to You and You receiving them, “even though they were not properly cleansed.” The motives of their hearts were pure and that was enough for You to accept the sacrifice made on their behalf. A gift of grace before the coming of the greatest Gift of Grace!

Dr. Kinlaw’s devotion uses this passage to talk about the importance of “Holy Moments” which change lives and the world— forever.  This passage is a reminder of how preparing our hearts before our recurring holy moments can make them even more impactful. When I go on a trip or host a party, there is so much involved in the preparation: planning, organizing, cleaning, packing, decorating, etc.

How little I prepare for spiritual moments compared to how much I prepare for everything else!

Forgive me, Lord.

How can I prepare my heart to receive You in a new way this Christmas?

First, I need to make room for You in the “Inn.” Not cast you off into the leftover rooms, but clear out space for You so You have the place of honor in my life. Practically, this means making my time with You each day a top prioritygetting up earlier if necessary, allowing enough time to really listen to You, choosing this time with You over other things. And not just “having God Time,” but coming expectantly, ready to see You and hear You and learn from Your Word. With our crazy schedule and chaotic life, this is more of a challenge than I would like it to be! But I know that is where my preparation begins.

It also may require some cleaning up and decluttering of my heart, mind, and schedule.

Lord, help me get rid of the things I store inside that really don’t belong there, things that just take up space and distract me from what matters. Some of these things are harmfulbitterness, unforgiveness, discontentment.  Most, however, are simply “good” clutter that must be intentionally removed if I want to make room for the coming of the Christ Child.

Oh, what peace is ushered in with the creation of holy space!

As I prepare my heart to receive You this Christmas, my heart sings out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” God with us.

GOD… with us.

God WITH us.

God with… US.

Please come, Lord Jesus! My heart is waiting.

Let every heart prepare Him room…

A dream fulfilled

You may not know this about me, but when I was in college and my early twenties, I wrestled with a call to full-time mission work. After serving on several short-term mission teams in a few different countries, I had fallen in love with the people and cultures of Jamaica and Venezuela. I loved the food, the slower pace of life, the smiles and laughter of the children, and the true joy and sincerity of faith that comes from truly depending on Jesus because there is little else to depend on. I did not wrestle with whether or not I could leave my family and the comforts of home; no, I already felt at home there and would have gladly “left my nets” to follow Jesus.

Instead, I wrestled with whether or not my heart’s desire was actually His desire for me or simply my own. So, just as Abraham placed Isaac on the altar, I laid my dreams of mission work at my Father’s feet, trusting Him to do whatever was best with them. After much prayer (and honestly, to my great surprise- I mean, how could mission work NOT be His will??) I had my answer. The Lord clearly closed those doors and soon led me in a different direction… a wonderful life as a “pastor’s wife” while I continued in youth ministry, then helping Jeff plant a church, and eventually being a stay at home mom, homeschooling our four children. Still mission work, really, just an entirely different kind than I expected.

I am grateful for every step of the path my Father has chosen for me. No, it is not the sort of Elisabeth Elliot life that inspires future generations, and it doesn’t exactly look impressive or life-changing on social media, like the stories of so many others who are changing lives in Africa and around the world. Instead, my faith has been walked out in mundane, everyday, ordinary ways. I will be honest and tell you that sometimes that has been a challenge for my prideful heart. My heart’s desire has always been to offer all that I am and all that I have to Jesus, and for Him to use me in BIG ways for His glory.

      Apparently, His desire is to use me in small ways for His glory.

Wiping noses and cooking dinner and helping with schoolwork and praying Scripture over my children does not always seem like very much to offer Him. In fact, it seems rather small and useless most of the time!  But as I look at our children now, who are growing up to be kind, thoughtful, Jesus-loving people, the so-called “small ways” have become big in their own way. My prayer has changed- not that I would DO big things, but that my faithfulness in the small things would enable BIG things for His Kingdom, and I am grateful they have.

 

And that is why this week was such a gift to me…

 

 

This week our family had the privilege of joining some friends on a Family mission trip to North Carolina.  We served a small Hispanic mission church by putting on a Vacation Bible School for the children of their community. The pastor borrowed buses from larger churches in Ashville and then drove down the poorer streets in nearby towns, knocking on doors and inviting the children to get on the bus and come to VBS for the day. Children (as young as 4 years old) through teenagers climbed aboard, most of them for the first time, not really even knowing where they were going or what to expect. The buses arrived at the church by 8:30 each morning and departed around 2:00 each afternoon. During the hours in between, the children were fed breakfast, participated in a worship time with music, skits, Bible stories, and prayer time, and then went down by the river for snacks, games, crafts, lunch, and free play with our team.  The meals were important, since many of them would not have eaten because school is not in session. For five and a half hours, we were able to love on these children and shower them with the joy that comes from knowing Jesus. We were able to serve side by side with several Hispanic families from the church (most who did not speak any English), and plant seeds in the hearts of children who had never even heard of Jesus. It was powerful and precious and exhausting and inspiring.

Above all, it was holy ground.

I watched my husband step out of his comfort zone and, after decades of leading adults, joyfully lead worship and share Bible Stories with a room full of children from a completely different culture. I watched as our Eli overcame his shyness and made friends with the Hispanic children by playing soccer. There wasn’t a single moment that our Abby didn’t have a child hanging on her back or climbing in her lap, laughing with glee at the smile on her face and the love in her heart. Our oldest daughter, Sarah, gladly used her gifts in helping lead worship, and then chose to serve behind the scenes by entertaining the babies and toddlers for the Hispanic mamas as they prepared lunch for the group. And our little Noah, at 8 years old, was quite possibly the greatest evangelist we had, praying for the entire group whenever a volunteer was asked for, helping the other kids catch fish in the river and talking to them about Jesus calling us to be Fishers of Men (among the many other “lessons” he taught as he played). The rest of our teammates, mostly teenagers we have grown to love as our own, were just as involved and inspiring. It was beautiful!

 

And in the midst of watching God use my family for His glory, a little 4 year-old boy named Joel decided he liked me. With all those fun, spunky teenagers to choose from, for some reason, Joel chose me. He wanted ME to throw the ball with him and play soccer with him and find treasure with him. He wanted ME to take him in the river and help him catch fish and tell him stories. He wanted ME to eat lunch with him and hold him in my lap and pray over him (well, I’m not sure he wanted that last part but I did it anyway!!). It was like I was twenty again, in a far away land, loving this child in the name of Jesus. Jeff commented that it was beautiful watching me be totally in my element, which I was.  It was an unexpected gift; manna for this momma’s heart. I am grateful.

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Next week, we will be back at home.

I will continue to pray for little Joel and all our other new friends as I sort through curriculum and school supplies and get us ready for school to start back. I will be cooking dinner and folding laundry and lots of other “ordinary” things for the people I love most; all to the glory of God in the place He has called me.  I will encourage my husband and love my children and lead my small group girls, joyfully watching as He uses my small acts of faithfulness for a greater impact.  And I will be grateful, for I know beyond a doubt that God’s plan is the best plan, and I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. Yes, next week I will jump back into my everyday, “ordinary” life.

 

But this week, I was a missionary. ❤

Sneaky Grief

We had beautiful weather for the last week or so here in North Georgia. Sunshine, 80 degree temps, and beautiful blue skies have us all aching for summer to arrive and school to be out. But a few days ago, after another beautiful almost-summer day, I headed off to baseball practice with our boys, and within minutes something changed.

The sky darkened, the clouds rolled in, and out of nowhere the heavens opened up and pelted us with rain.  Instead of sitting on the bleachers cheering on my boys, I found myself covering my head (why do we do that anyway? It accomplishes nothing. But I digress.) and running for the shelter of my car. We were all left shaking our heads, exclaiming, “Where in the world did that come from?”

 

Yeah, grief is sneaky like that, too.

 

Maybe you have had a broken relationship or a broken heart. Perhaps you’ve lost a close friendship or a loved one. Death, divorce, disease, disaster… they all leave us holding a handful of broken pieces that somehow must be dealt with.  It takes awhile to sort through them- some pieces fit back together rather seamlessly, while others require a little more effort. And some pieces need to be put away for awhile, possibly buried, or even thrown away. A lot of this sorting happens pretty quickly, but the “odd” pieces take a little more time. Eventually new pieces find their way into our hands, and our hearts are slowly mended into something a little more whole. Not perfect, not the same- never the same– but a heart nonetheless.  Joy, hope, and love gradually find their way back to us, and our hearts begin to beat again.

 

And then, from out of nowhere, lightning strikes.

 

Perhaps it’s a song on the radio or a favorite food or an activity you shared together. Whatever it is, something happens and suddenly your heart aches and your eyes burn and you find yourself covering your head and running for shelter, fighting the tears as you flee. Grief pops up in unexpected places and unexpected ways.

 

My sweet friend, Diana, recently went HOME to be with Jesus after a long, painful battle with cancer that ravaged her body but strengthened her soul. She taught our oldest daughter piano for many years, and mentored her in life and faith, as well as music. We did much of our grieving throughout her illness, which made her death more a culmination of the grieving process  for us rather than the beginning of it. I have a total peace that she is in Heaven, and have even experienced great joy knowing she is finally completely FREE of the sickness that was consuming her body.  Before she died, she wrote precious words encouraging her family and friends not to mourn her with sadness, but to celebrate her with joy by moving forward with love and laughter, and we have done our best to honor her in that way.

 

But last week, our daughter scored really well in a piano competition, and without thinking I pulled out my phone to text Diana the news like I always do. Only I couldn’t.  (The sky grows dark.)

This week we are preparing for Sarah’s year-end piano recital. She texted me today to remind me to send her new teacher the “dedication” sentences for the program and to ask my help in wording it because she just can’t bring herself to write “in memory of Diana” herself.  (Lightning flashes.)

Mother’s Day was this weekend, and as I was searching for ways to celebrate the “moms” in my life, I suddenly realized her precious girls have no one to give their gifts to this year. (The rain pours down, pelting me in the face.)

And then, a photo of Sarah and Diana popped up in my “memories” on Facebook from last year’s recital. Curse you, Facebook!  And yet, thank you, Facebook.

 

Yes, the clouds rolled in quickly, seemingly from out of nowhere, and surprised me each time with an unexpected downpour of emotions when I least expected them. There was no way to prepare and no way to hide. I had to just embrace the tears, open my arms to the moment, and then…

 

Let it pass.

 

Because that’s the thing about a pop-up storm. It surprises us and it soaks us, but it usually doesn’t last long or cause very much damage. It just gets everything really wet, and then moves on.  If we really want to, we can chase after it, desperate for the rain, aching for the darkness.

 

Or we can let it go.

 

We can open our arms and lift our face to the sky (because, again, what is the point of covering our head?). We can feel the rain as it soaks us and embrace the grief for a few minutes as the memories flood our hearts. And then, we can wipe our eyes, dry ourselves off, and allow the clouds to pass.

The funny thing about pop-up storms is that within minutes, the sky is usually blue once again, and the sun shines just as brightly as before.  Everything is refreshed, greener somehow, ready for whatever is to come next.

Grief doesn’t always feel so sunny afterwards. But if we lift our face to the SON, there is hope and peace and even joy to warm us.

 

 

 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains- where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, The Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2

 

 

 

 

This Moment…

(Author’s note: I wrote this several years ago on New Years Eve, but thought it was appropriate to post today, on Mother’s Day. Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of allowing me to be a mom! It is, by far, the hardest and best role I’ve ever had. Oh, and the 10 year old is a teenager now and takes FOREVER in the shower. How quickly things change!)

 

This moment.

Our 12 year old daughter comes bounding down the stairs in her Disney Princess baseball T-shirt and converse shoes, ponytail swinging behind her, smile full of metal, as she heads towards the piano to play, yet again, that crazy fast run in “Let it Go” that she has worked so hard on for the past few weeks.  And she nails it; only this time she keeps playing the rest of the song, and I can feel her radiating with confidence and pride at the accomplishment and satisfaction that results from really hard work.

 

Our 10 year old daughter interrupts our dinner conversation to tell another random story about something that happened in a 90’s sitcom episode which has nothing to do with anything. After dinner, she chases her brothers around with a marshmallow blaster gun and their new bow and arrow set until we force her to take a shower (and have to remind her again to use soap. Seriously??).  From her room, I can hear her singing about “Taylor, the Latte Boy” at the top of her precious 10 year old lungs.

 

Then there’s the 6 year old. He’s trying so hard to be a big boy, to not cry when he gets hurt and not transform into the Incredible Hulk every time something makes him so mad that he feels like he’s going to explode, which is every other minute.  He thinks so hard about every decision because he just doesn’t want to make the wrong choice.  He is still a little bit timid and nervous in new situations, but he is slowly coming into his own.  I see him stand a little taller when he says something he knows is going to be funny, and that little grin peeks out the corners of his mouth when everyone laughs at just the right time.  In no time, he has convinced his little brother to strip down to his underwear and run around the house with him, as they try desperately to escape from the marshmallow-shooting monster in the minion shirt and ponytail.

 

And my sweet baby. Four years old, almost five; chubby cheeks, dimpled like his daddy’s, and a smile that melts the heart of everyone within a 10 mile radius.  These big words and phrases pop out of his little preschool mouth with uncanny timing, cracking us all up and causing us to temporarily forget the 2,397 messes he has left randomly around the house.  He sneaks another piece of candy off the week-old gingerbread village and scampers away in his bare feet and ninja turtle underwear, his round tummy poking out from behind the couch. A scream of laughter escapes from his lips as an arrow bounces off his bottom.  The big-sister-minion-monster is suddenly tickling him, much to his dismay and delight.  But have no fear; big brother quickly comes to his rescue, and they are off again into the hunt!

This moment. 

Prayers whispered, covers pulled up to their chins, messes remaining all over the house, nightlights glowing softly, and stuffed animals tucked in all cozy-like, too.

Eyes closed, a soft kiss brushing their foreheads, a last look, and the realization that this is the last time I will tuck them in this year.  Another whole year has passed.

My, how time flies!

It has been a regular year with ups and downs; exciting, frustrating, endearing, exhausting… blessed.  I was given another whole year with these precious little ones (and some not so little anymore. Sigh.). And 12 months later, we are all still here.  Another day, another breath, another chance to love and laugh and learn.

Oh, how grateful I am, Lord!

Thank you for the gift of this moment– the opportunity to reflect on all the other little ordinary, everyday moments that have made up this year, to unwrap them and turn them slowly in my mind, treasuring them in my heart like Mary did all those years ago.

This moment…

In Between

I woke up this morning considering how the disciples must have felt on this day in between. The shock. The emptiness. The broken dreams. The loneliness.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be.

And betrayed by Judas? He was one of us, one of our friends! He walked with us, ate with us, prayed with us. How could he just walk away? How could he just discard Jesus as though He didn’t matter, as though none of this mattered? None of us mattered.

Some friend.

And what about us? What kind of friends are we, to just let Jesus die like that? We should have stayed with Him, insisted that they let Him go, or at least that they take us, too. But who are we kidding? We couldn’t even stay awake with Him while he prayed. What is wrong with us?? We are not worthy to be called His friends.

We are no different than Judas, not really. We have betrayed Him in our own ways.

And what about Jesus?

How can He really be gone? We thought He was the One, the One who was to come. The One we have waited for, generation after generation.

The Messiah!

Who else could make the blind man see and the lame man walk? Who else could heal with a touch of His hand or a word from His mouth? I mean, we saw Him raise a dead man to life with our very own eyes! There was definitely something different about Him.

When Jesus looked into your eyes, He saw straight to your soul. He made you feel noticed, valued, seen. He gave us purpose beyond the mundaneness of our days. It wasn’t easy following Him, but it certainly wasn’t boring. If nothing else, we learned to expect the unexpected.

But now He’s gone.

How can He be gone?

He said He’d never leave us, that He would be with us always. That was a lie!

Where are you now, Jesus? How could you just die? Why didn’t you harness the power of heaven and FIGHT?

Are You even who we thought You were?

Are You even who You said You were?

We believed in You.    We believed YOU.

We have no idea what to do now. We are locked up here in this room together, afraid for our lives, terrified they will come for us next. And then what?

What are we supposed to do now, Jesus?

We don’t know what to do without You.  This is the last thing we expected.

You’re dead.

You’re really dead.

Oh, Jesus.

 

(*Spoiler alert… Joy comes in the morning!!)

 

Not Home Yet…

I love serving with teenagers.

More than that, even, I love that my husband and I have teenagers of our own.

But so often, in both cases, my heart just breaks when I hear these young people feeling alone, or left out, or different. I know that feeling. We ALL know that feeling. It is normal, and natural, and part of growing up; part of being human, even. But that doesn’t make it any easier to feel!

I have heard a lot of this from my young friends lately, and it reminded me of something I wrote several years ago- a note for my children about living in a world where they don’t belong. Since I shared last week about my gratitude for “my people,” I thought I’d share this tonight for anyone struggling through those inevitable seasons of not quite fitting in. 

(NOTE: Edited 8/28/17 in response to wise words from a good friend to hopefully be more encouraging specifically to teens wrestling with being in this world at all. Your life is SO valuable and you are not here by accident! Please hear my heart and reach out to me or someone you trust! There are brighter days ahead if you push through the darkness.)

 

I want you to know that there are days-

sometimes even weeks or months-

when I feel like I don’t belong.

Still.

And I’m a grown up.

I know you feel the same way, too. I am sorry you experience this- it is a lonely, sad feeling, and in the midst of it, you will begin to hear lies. The whispers in your heart will tell you that you don’t have any real friends, and that’s why you feel this way. You don’t wear the right clothes, you don’t have the right “toys” (i.e., iPad, phone, jeans, etc), you’re not smart enough or sporty enough or musical enough or good enough… and that’s why you don’t fit in.

You may find yourself wondering why God would leave you all alone.

You may even wonder why He would make you in the first place, just to leave you all alone.

But these are lies, sweet ones, and don’t you believe them.

You see, as I said, even as a grown-up I still feel that way, too. And despite what that voice may tell you, there is actually a very good reason we feel that way, and it has nothing to do with all those lies.

It’s quite simple…

We were not made for this world.

We feel like strangers here, “aliens” even, because this is not our Home! This is not where we belong. Our spirits were created for another world, and until we are Home, we will not completely fit in here.

There are wonderful things to be found in this world-

Love.   Joy.   Friendship.  Laughter.  Purpose.

These are glimpses of our life to come, sparkles of heaven that drift through the mist, encouraging us to run the race with perseverance, trusting that the finish line is more than just an end.

And it is SO much more!

But we are not Home yet.

When the time comes, we will run into our Father’s arms, join the angels in singing His praise, and the piece (and the peace) that is missing from our hearts will fall into place at last.

Until that day, though, we are to live as His children here on this earth. Don’t rush it. Know that He created you and placed you in this world for a purpose, to bring Light and Love in a way that only you can.

Know that’s it’s normal to not quite fit in- EVERYONE feels that way at times (sometimes even lots of the time). You are not alone.

Know that time and maturity will give you a different perspective on those experiences, and may even cause you to be grateful for how they lead you to lean into Jesus.

And in those times when we feel alone, we can trust that God’s Holy Spirit is with us always, teaching us, encouraging us, and reminding us of our way back Home, just as Jesus promised.

You will feel alone, like you don’t fit in. That’s okay.

I still feel alone sometimes, like I don’t fit in.

But we are NOT alone… Our God is with us!

We won’t always fit in, because we were not made for this world. However, we were placed in this world for a purpose…

So don’t give up. 

Make the most of this temporary home. Fight the good fight. Remain faithful even when it’s hard. Reach out to others so they don’t feel so alone. Make a difference.

And when you do,

Heaven won’t seem quite so far away after all.

 

Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.”     -1 Peter 2: 11-12, (The Message)

 

My People

You’ve heard it before.

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

The Church calls it being in “Community.”

My friend, Leah, calls it her “People”

You know the ones; the people who show up for you. The ones you laugh with, hang out with, and share food with. The people you see every day, or every week, or maybe only every so often, but regardless, you know they are there if you need them, and you would drop everything for them as well.

It’s my friends bringing me sleeping bags and air mattresses at 10:00pm the night before we leave on a family trip because all of ours have magically disappeared. Of course.

It’s another friend not only recognizing that schooling two energetic boys at the same time can often be counter-productive, but then offering to take one of them to her house for the day.

It’s my precious friend offering me the leftover food from her own surprise birthday party just to save me a few hours in the kitchen.

Or my other sweet friend who picks up my boys for a few hours when my husband is out of town, just because she knows I desperately need a few minutes to myself. (Even if it’s only to shop at Wal-Mart without my parade tagging along behind me!)

That same friend drops her kids off at my house, only to end up with our oldest daughter jumping in her car. She not only offers to take her grocery shopping with her, but uses the time to listen to her share- about life and faith and boys- and then pours godly wisdom from her mama heart straight into the thirsting soul of my girl. (I love you, you know that right??)

It’s that encouraging text when you need it the most, that smile and hug when you walk in the room, the belly laugh over something silly, and the tearfully whispered prayer with hands clasped tightly when the walls are crumbling around you.

I could go on.

I am so thankful for my “People…

Because I haven’t always had them.

I can remember several different seasons of life when I made an effort to BE that kind of person for others simply because it helped me not dwell on the fact that I had no one to be that person for me. At one point, I remember wondering what would happen if something happened to me or Jeff. Would anyone even show up? Who would bring dinners or pick up our kids?

I couldn’t name anyone for certain.

That was a hard season.

And yet, the Lord has ALWAYS been faithful to provide what we needed when we needed it. By giving us opportunities to reach out to others, He was also laying the groundwork for people who would, in turn, be there for us. And those lonely years planted seeds of gratitude that burst forth in thankfulness every time someone “shows up” for me. I do not take it for granted. I do not expect these acts of kindness, this unselfish thoughtfulness from my friends! I am astounded by it, melted by it, overcome each time it happens.

And I give thanks to the Lord, from whom all blessings flow, for my village.

My community.

My People.

 

“We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

An Unexpected Fan

I take it back.

All those bad things I have said from the first second I heard about “fidget spinners,” I take them all back.

Well, okay, not all of them. In fact, not even most of them. I still think they are horribly distracting and have no place in a classroom or group setting, and accomplish exactly the opposite of what they were created to do. So there’s that.

However

I also must give credit where it is due, and recently my child had his life dramatically changed for the better by none other than- you guessed it- a fidget spinner. But probably not in the way you think.

You see, I made a horrible mom mistake. I ALWAYS check out movies before we watch them. I am that crazy, over-protective mom who believes we need to be extra careful what our kids are watching, particularly when they are young, and so we almost never watch a movie unless Jeff or I have seen it. At the very least, I do a thorough search on commonsensemedia.org to make sure it is age (and values)-appropriate for our family.

But last week, in the midst of about a thousand other things we had going on, our older son’s 3rd grade class decided to go see a movie as an end of the year celebration. It was the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie, and while I wasn’t thrilled with the choice, my daughter had seen the first movie and assured me it would be fine for the boys. Two very dear, respected friends have sons in the same class and we all decided to join in (without any of us checking reviews, btw. That NEVER happens!!).

I stayed and watched the movie with the group, and while I don’t intend to do a movie review here, some knowledge of the movie is imperative to this story. To be fair, there were actually several parts that made me laugh, as they were portraying the crazy, unplanned things that inevitably happen anytime a family attempts to bond via a family road trip. (And it really wasn’t a bad movie; it just turned out to not be so great for my kid). But scattered throughout the movie, as I should have expected, were multiple episodes of gross “boy humor” involving every type of bodily function imaginable. While the bathroom scenes were pretty disgusting, the worst part was definitely when the older brother climbs aboard the spinning ride at the county fair after eating several helpings of “fried butter on a stick.” You can imagine what happened next… only the movie didn’t leave it to our imaginations. Let’s just say it was a very descriptive vomit scene and leave it at that. (Coincidentally, I rode that same ride in images.jpeghigh school at our local fair in an attempt to impress some boy, and I hurled as soon as I got off. I don’t even remember who the boy was, but I am pretty certain he was not impressed.) Anyway, the whole thing was gross enough that neither of my boys really liked the movie at all. Just call me mother of the year…

Fast forward a couple hours, and our youngest son started complaining that his tummy hurt and that he couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. He actually made himself sick several times in a row right before bedtime because the images kept replaying in his head! He was fine once he went to sleep, but the next afternoon at a birthday party he asked to go home, again complaining of a tummy ache, but when we left the party he cried and said he just couldn’t stop thinking about that movie. Poor boy! (It just goes to show how powerful our thought life can be and how important it is for us to guard our minds; but that is a blog post for another day.)

I did everything I could to calm him down. We sang silly songs, I told him a story, we talked about the party, but he remained completely distraught. I realized then that this had the potential to turn into an anxiety-inducing trigger, and so we prayed together that God would remove those images from his mind and replace them with good, happy, peaceful thoughts (Philippians 4:6-8). That seemed to calm him down, and he decided to return to the party. Within a few minutes, though, he was back at my side, near tears, visibly distraught, which is so unlike him. I let him watch a video on my phone (which I NEVER do) just to try to distract his mind, and even that was only sporadically successful. Then, as I desperately began to pray that God would show me how to help my son, the birthday boy’s mom started handing out the party favors to all the kids.

It was a fidget spinner.

My first thought as I groaned inwardly was, “Seriously?? You’re giving my kid a fidget spinner??” (Sorry, Steph!!)

But y’all.

One look at my boy, and I knew.

God had answered my prayer through a fidget spinner.

He quickly tore it out of the packaging, ran off with his friends, and came back only to show me his new tricks he was learning. He didn’t bring up the movie again for the rest of the night. With each spin of the gadget, his fear began to flee and joy filled its place, and I was so grateful! He has mentioned the movie maybe twice since then (again, a blog post for another time), but overcoming it that night with the fidget spinner has given him the power to master his thoughts now when they do return.

And so, with my deepest apologies to my wonderful teacher friends (because I know these blasted things must make trying to teach in an already over-stimulating environment absolutely impossible!), I make my confession to the world:

I am now a fan of the fidget spinner.

And a firm believer that God often answers prayer in mysterious ways.