The same place, a year later

A year ago we were finally heading back to T-stan, after a seven week wait in Germany (thanks again, Luci & Uli!). We finally had the visa we needed to return, Rees to get a work permit and to extend for a year – phew! As most of you know, that didn’t happen and we’ve spent the last year having to leave the country every 30-45 days. I wish I had something new to report a year later, but it seems that our visa situation is the same. We are hoping for a three-month extension that we’ll apply for next week, but there’s again no guarantee that will happen. All we can do is pray, try, and wait and see. I usually pack away all our suitcases in the basement, but this year they’ve stayed stashed in my closet – ready for action.

Our visa-situation hasn’t changed this last year but our attitudes about it are pretty different now, a year later. The first few times we got jerked around – being told that it will be no problem to get our visas or “just wait a couple of weeks til after …” we got really discouraged when it didn’t work out. You know – the moping around kind of discouraged where you alternate between feeling absolutely powerless and clawing at any opportunity to “control” the situation. It really felt like a roller-coaster. After four or five months, however, we came to accept that this is our “normal” for the time being (thanks to the example and encouragement of some friends). We stopped spending tons of time discussing and re-discussing what we perceived our options to be. We also stopped entertaining possibilities that connected-but-kind-of-shady people were offering. We reached out for help and support and received it (thank you!!!) and said, “Lord, you have done bigger things than this. We’re going to persevere through the spring and then re-evaluate. Lead us, guide us and give us the strength to hang in there and not give up joy in the process. We trust you can open doors if they need opening.”

Life has returned to a Central Asian rhythm. Homeschooling continues. Housework continues. Rees is teaching and continues with his livestock small-business hobby. There are weddings, funerals, festivals and visits but we just happen to go somewhere every 6 weeks for 4-5 days. We usually take our travel day off school but just bring our stuff with us wherever we go and do school there (thank God there are benefits to homeschooling). We also find ourselves entertaining more possibilities than we have since we moved here. We talk about where else we would live, what would we do and all that kind of stuff. Then we rein it in and say, “Let’s just try to be here, now.” We aren’t a very pretty picture of perfect peacefulness (especially when we’re at the airport going through passport control – we get ugly every time – it’s embarrassing), but we have experienced repeatedly the grace to get back to focusing on what’s in front of us, laying aside our need to know, for sure what’s next (since who can really know for sure?) and to try to act like we are on a fun adventure with our kids (ok, maybe that only happens a maximum of half the time). I’ve also experienced a lot of grace to stay focused in on the home-front. I would have normally been more inclined to “make it count”- the time we have here, not knowing if it is coming to a close or just a little bump in the road of a long tenure here. We go out and about, but I’m not trying to force my kids to visit lots of people and see lots of things and then be frustrated with their squirreling around and eventually saying, “can’t we just go home?” I feel grace to continue to return to being a safe person and having a safe home. Maybe I’m just worn down enough and I’m raising the white flag of surrender – given up on some of my control techniques. But it seems like surrender and grace are pretty closely connected.

Have you ever ended up with an outdated map or directions? You end up at a dead end but the map shows a road or the navigation voice tells you to continue going straight? Sometimes I get mad at the actual road – what right does it have to defy the map? I insist that the road can’t end there. It’s ridiculous because it doesn’t change the fact that the road doesn’t continue straight. Our status here is no different from a year ago but we are living in more peace about it for the time being, not trying to predict (or prevent) every turn in the road. Just driving and seeing where this road goes.

The one with the open arms

Sometimes I wonder about and wonder over the whole idea of adoption. It is really amazing to me how people can receive someone (or multiple someones) as their own. That’s profound to me.  I grew up knowing something about being adopted as my dad adopted my brother and me  when he married my mom. No step-dad stuff there, he went all in. I’ve always thought I was extra fortunate because I’ve known both being wanted but my (biological) dad not knowing who he was going to get, and also being chosen – as my dad who raised me (my biological dad died when I was two) knew me before choosing to be my dad.

When we moved to Central Asia, our friends set us up with a host family. There is a school of thought (and apparently some research to back up) called, “bonding.” The idea is more or less that people who are “newborn” to a culture will bond with those who care for them, similar to how a newborn bonds with those who primarily care for him/her. So if you are wanting to form strong, close relationships with locals it’s best to have your earliest experiences and “lessons” be with locals.

There was a local family about 15-20 minutes outside the city, in a village, who were open to hosting us for our first month or so in country. They had no idea who we were or what we would be like or what in the world we believed about anything or anyone. They only knew we were a husband, wife, daughter and son from America who knew none of the local language or customs. Once we had learned enough language to talk about it (a year or two after the fact) we found out that they thought that maybe they were about to see and meet the first “black” people of their lives. They were kind of surprised when we got out of the car and looked like “Russians.” I can appreciate now how difficult this must have been for them. They were taking responsibility for being our first teachers and, in a sense, care providers. But they didn’t have a common language to communicate with us and we seemed so incredibly odd to them. I wrapped up my baby (Emmett was four months) and put him in a crib and then left him to drift off to sleep, all alone. They would never do that. They wrap their babies in a type of cradle and rock them to sleep and are careful not to let them cry and rarely leave them alone (so as not to allow them to get scared). I looked like a negligent parent at first. They still marvel at how nicely Emmett would go to sleep as a little baby (I do too!). They have a certain bucket bath system that they’ve all grow up using and I was all thumbs trying to wash my baby, squatting by a fire, on a dirt floor (that was turning to mud), with a bucket of water (I wasn’t supposed to put him all the way in the water). Eventually one of my sisters-in-law grabbed him from me, worried I was going to allow him to get cold and thus sick. Truthfully, I was humbled and humiliated by that but also thankful because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Our local “dad”, who the whole village affectionately refers to as “Teacher,” knew from the start that it would take lots of time and patience to teach us language and culture. Not everyone knew that. A lot of people were surprised that, after a month of living here, we weren’t fluent yet. They would actually chastise us for that. But not our dad. He would daily say the same greetings to us, having us repeat what we were supposed to respond with. Every meal, he would point to things on the dasterkhon (tablecloth on the floor) and say their names over and over and then have us repeat them. Then he started quizzing us on the names of certain items, enthusiastically affirming our correct answers and correcting our incorrect ones with gentleness. We didn’t know then that this amount of patience and encouragement was actually going to be rare.

As we grew in our language ability, we began to understand more of his story. He had been in the Soviet army in Siberia and when he returned, he worked as a teacher and chose one of his students to marry (not scandalous here). They built a little house on some land that the government gave him and lived there together, not with his mother (which is the more typical thing to do). His wife, our “mom,” would tell me about how he would help her with the housework, caring for the children and keeping the fire going in the winter. She told me about how he never once hit her (also very atypical) and how he would ask her advice about any decision he had to make. He told us horrific stories of the civil war during the 90’s. Their home was in the midst of brutal fighting and he sent his wife and younger children to their extended family in a more peaceful city a few hours away. He stayed, looking after their home and helping people in need, eventually taking on the task of teaching children. He shared traumatic stories of being held at gun-point repeatedly, told to hand over all his earthly possessions because he would no longer be needing them. He told us about the time he got snatched and brought to an interrogation center, walls spattered with blood, his oldest son in another room, also being interrogated. The soldiers were looking for any reason to kill them, trying to find any way in which they were aligned with the wrong side. They told our dad that they already shot his son and they were going to kill him too. After a whole day spent this way, apparently someone who knew him and knew he was completely innocent on all sides, convinced the interrogators to let him go. He was driven back to his home, so traumatized that he didn’t even recognize it, saying to his captors, “where have you brought me?” He and our “mom” were unable to communicate during that time. Neither one knowing if the other was still alive. When the war was over and UNESCO came to the village to build a school, he helped the process along and was chosen to be the director of the school. He was still working when we moved here and finally retired a couple of years ago. The news station came to do a program on his life and service to the school. He was highly regarded throughout the village and surrounding villages.

Our “dad” was a great homesteader too. Hannah spent lots of time squatting next to him in the garden as a little girl, harvesting potatoes and pulling weeds. When we’d come to visit during apricot season, he’d climb 20 meters up into an apricot tree with a bucket and fill it up. I remember one day, being in the outdoor kitchen, and one of the chickens kept coming in and causing trouble. He warned that chicken that if she came in one more time, we would be eating her for lunch. We had chicken for lunch that day. He and our “mom” would give us advice, sometimes holding back judgemental language about someone, just telling us something to the effect of, “that’s just someone who is not going to be good to associate with.” They also repeatedly encouraged us to be gentle and grace-filled toward our spirited two and a half year old, as she was in a new place and needed time to get adjusted. We were concerned that if we let up on discipline, we’d have a real problem in the future. But in retrospect, they were right. Our local “parents” brought us to weddings and funerals and taught us how to be hospitable to guests according to local customs.

I really can’t overemphasize the incredible gift it is to have a local “home” when you live so far away from what you’ve always called home and everything is so different. We are still quite different from each other, and there are things we will never fully understand about each other, but it is a wonderful thing to be accepted into a family and not just tolerated but received. There was a rumor going around in those first few years that years ago, our dad had gone to America and had an American wife and a son with that wife. Now that son (Rees) had come to find his father. Our “parents” just laughed at that story, but let the village busy-bodies think it was true. Our dad called Rees his son and if too much time had passed since seeing us or hearing from us, he’d tell our mom, “Let’s call my boy and make sure he’s ok.”

About four weeks ago, I called our mom to see how our dad was doing. He had been looking fragile when we last saw him and I knew he had been weakened by that terrible flu that went around this year. I could tell by her voice that he wasn’t well and we decided that we’d get out to see him the next day. We were surprised and worried when we arrived, to see men milling about outside and a stream of visitors going inside. This frequently indicates that someone recently died. We rushed in and found our dad laying on a bed on the floor, our mom by his side and our brothers and sisters gathered around him. He was still alive, looking around, turning himself from side to side, but not talking and clearly not well. Apparently he had just had a stroke when I called the day before. The kids kneeled next to him, hugged him and Emmett prayed for him. We kissed his cheeks and sat with them, telling him how thankful we are that he called us his children and loved us so well, thinking these may be our last moments with him. We stayed most of the day and then came back the next day and, wonder of wonders, he was eating a bit, trying to sit up, still not able to talk, but doing a bit better. Rees went back a few days later and he was still improving. We were calling our brothers every day to check on him but had to go to Bishkek for new visas. Those visa trips usually result in the kids getting sick when we return so we returned and kept the phone calls going, our brothers came to our house, but we didn’t get back out to the village for fear that the kids would pass on their flu to their “Bobo” (grandpa) and he was already so weak. I have unfortunately witnessed people with lowered immune systems dying of such things as colds and flus when I worked in oncology and I was really concerned that might happen with our dad. On Sunday, I told Rees that if Hannah (the last one to have a high fever) was still fever-free on Monday, we should get out to see our dad. On Monday, Feb. 13th, we got the call that he had passed away. We’ve spent a lot of time in our village this week, grieving with our family there and employing the ministry of tears and hugs. Our local dad was truly a cream-of-the-crop kind of guy. We haven’t met many men like him here. He was honorable and wise, kind and faithful and will be truly missed. Our mom told us that last Friday he told one of the granddaughters, “I’m tired of life” and proceeded to refuse food for the next two days. He had always said that he didn’t want to die during the winter, not for his sake “it won’t matter to me!” he’d say, but for his family’s sake. He wanted to die on a warm, sunny day. It has been a cold, wet, foggy winter here but we had the warmest, sunniest day of the winter the day that he died.

We received a grace we never imagined when we first set out to live here: being received with open arms by a humble, village family and getting to be called “children” by one of the best men in the country.

 

 

Mostly unashamed of the mess

After many months of saying to each other, “We should have _______ & _______ over” Rees and I finally made it happen. His male co-workers pop by and hang out with our family fairly regularly but there were a couple of his female coworkers we wanted to have over too and now one of them is moving away. So we did to others what we don’t tend to want them to do to us – we asked them over during her last couple of days here. She was gracious enough to come.

There have been so many evidences of God’s gracious transformation of my soul these days. They aren’t profound on the outside, in fact, they are pretty mundane and you would never know that they evidence huge helpings of His grace. But I see them and, and even seeing them is a grace-gift. Yesterday, when these two young ladies came over, I was not stressed at all. Don’t get me wrong, I still wished that my house was spotless and that I was more efficient at cooking, but I didn’t run around making more work for myself (a little more cleaning up, maybe I should make another salad, should I run out and get bread that was just-made?…). I ended up just adding more chicken and some rice to the big pot of soup I had made the day before and ran across the street to get some yogurt from a neighbor to eat with our soup. There are so many other things I could have made and done that would have made me look great, but the problem is that those things tend to take too much of my energy away from actually enjoying the people sitting at my table. Don’t get me wrong – I really love food and I really enjoy cooking food and eating yummy food with people. But we just got back from Bishkek and my priority was home-school and staying connected enough to my kids’ hearts that we could look forward to having guests over together (instead of feeling like they were just in the way of my hosting properly). So that left about an hour and a half in the afternoon to do everything else and I chose to augment the soup and bake a cake because women here tend to really enjoy a “different” kind of cake more than they enjoy “different” food. And when I could have made a complex salad, I instead said “yes” to playing Junior Monopoly with Hannah & Emmett.  When these dear girls came, I toured them through our messy house without apologizing for how messy it is (grace!), made a pot of tea and sat with them while peeling and cutting veggies that we just ate raw, no fancy dip or dressing. We ate dinner and played Clue and all too soon, it was time to take them home. And instead of feeling like, “Whew, glad I got through that one. Time to recover.” I felt genuinely happy that we got to enjoy these girls in a more personal setting. That’s God’s grace and a big transformation.

Being great has never been an all-encompassing thought for me, but my actions and drive sure give proof that it is exactly what I’ve been aiming for. There is such a good article on Desiring God that articulates this: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lay-aside-the-weight-of-pride. My limitations (and there are just soooo many!) bother me so much because of this drive to be great, do great things and the like. In that article the author, Jon Bloom, says:

“My shame comes from an exaggeratedly high self-image that feels exposed by my limitations, weaknesses, and sins, making living with or fighting them much more burdensome than necessary.”

There is something in me (pride) that feels strongly like I ought to be able to do it all and then condemns me for being so limited. When we first moved to Central Asia, I was ready (I thought) to set aside my “rights” and take on aspects of the culture that would make me accessible and respectable to my new host-country. I wanted to honor the people around me. But slowly, subtly, some kind of wrong-thinking seeped in that put emphasis on glorifying God by making sure that everything looked fantastic, the way that locals do things. Even how my kids behaved was somehow going to bring God glory and point to His absolute and unconditional love. Local ladies here clean their homes to the point that it looks like no one lives there EVERY DAY. We wake up to the sound of sweeping every day. I’ve had local ladies scold me for the imperfections in my home (coming from the Pac NW, that kind of feedback took some major adjustment!) I had a big problem, however – we actually DO live in our home and it looks like it! I felt stressed all the time by every mess, thinking “What will they think if they see this mess? What if they think we are dirty people and that translates into their perceptions of our spiritual life and the whole community just keeps us at arms’ length because they don’t want to be defiled by us?” Sounds totally irrational coming from the west but I’m telling you, it is not irrational coming from the east. When someone would stop by (which is common here) I would be stressed by my kids’ needing attention and misbehaving all the while I’m making food and putting out nuts and fruits and chocolates and whatnot so that my guest feels honored and well-received – all to God’s glory (I hoped). My performance-oriented wiring is conducive to these pressures. But I wasn’t enjoying my guests and I wasn’t enjoying my kids and I was just. so. tired.

There are so many things that can lead to the ol’ raising the white flag. By the grace of God, I started to become aware that I was not living very differently than my neighbors and local friends. Appearance is everything here and you get merit with God (at least you hope) for how clean your house is and how well you hosted your guests and all that. I was trying to do the whole appearance thing all the while insisting that God loves us right where we are at and gives us freedom to live motivated by His great love, not fear of shame or His wrath. I found myself saying, “I can’t do it” and “I just don’t have the capacity for this” and really, truly, resigning myself to the fact that I am terribly limited. I also felt like I was missing out on being present with my family and local friends and guests. The story of Mary & Martha became inescapable for me and with some cultural context now, became even more poignant. Every local woman I’ve read the story to (in Luke 10:38-42) is agreeing with Martha (whom the Bible says in vs. 40 was ‘distracted with much serving’) that, of course Mary ought to be helping her and serving and doing the whole hospitality thing. They are absolutely shocked when Jesus says to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her.” I just never realized what a leap of faith choosing the “good portion” actually is. As with so many things, grace has met me with each step of faith. It shows up in deciding to sit and drink a cup of tea when I’m done with home school for the day before moving on to the home-front stuff. It also shows up when I have the kids help me clean up and I call it good enough, instead of doing it all over again myself. I think it’s really interesting how quickly I extend grace to others and encourage them to receive grace themselves and yet it is such a journey for me. I don’t remember other people’s messy houses at all but I do remember times when people opened their home and heart to me, making me feel like they were glad to visit with me. I raised the white flag, saying, “Jesus, I can’t keep up with any of this so I need you to make up with your abundance what I lack.”

I’ve come to believe that maybe those who are put off by any of my outer appearances: a rug that hasn’t been vacuumed yet that day, a pile of laundry still sitting in the bathroom, a sink full of dishes, kids walking around pouting or fighting with each other, my scarf tied all village-y or not village-y enough, are not necessarily the ones I’m here for. The ones who are drawn to being known and are craving a peaceful place (notice I didn’t say ‘quiet’) will come even if things don’t look perfect around here – even if it looks like our messy life is being lived here.

 

The grace spots at the end of the year

We got some decent snow fall at the end of November and early December and life slowed into “winter pace” where we aren’t going out for visits as much and are spending more time keeping the water running, getting clothes washed (and dried – that’s the tricky part) and keeping a room or two heated. We spend a bit more time with other ex-pats as we weekly celebrate Advent together, lighting the candles, singing Christmas carols and engaging our hearts with God becoming flesh. The week that we were scheduled to celebrate Thanksgiving together (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) our electricity wasn’t very good and we wondered, as we often do this time of the year, how we were going to keep everyone warm and get all the food cooked (being the only American family in town, we were hosting). We have lived here long enough that though we get stressed about these things at some random moments, we generally expect that we’ll figure out what plan will work when the time comes. That’s a whole lot of grace right there for this plan-ahead-and-be-ready-for-anything girl. Living in Central Asia has really beat a lot of those tendencies out of me (I still try to fight back sometimes, but I’ve learned how to wave the white flag a lot sooner – again, evidence of God’s grace in my life). We ended up with electricity almost the whole day during our Thanksgiving celebration and, as usual, were overwhelmed again by the sweetness of our “family” here – to whole-heartedly join in our holiday, making lots of good food and hanging out together. The kids dressed up in their costumes – Hannah was an “artist/veterinarian,” Emmett was Jake the Neverland Pirate (a costume we brought from the U.S. three or four years ago that finally fits properly) and Annabel was a fairy princess. In lieu of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pinata, Rees sent the kids on a treasure hunt to find bags of candy. That’s another place where I see how grace has changed me. I would have put more pressure on myself to make Thanksgiving just like it usually is when our dear team mates, the Wilburs, are here (because it’s super duper fun). But I’m very slowly accepting some of my limitations and decided we would just do what we could do to make it enjoyable for everyone, even if it meant we wouldn’t do all the fun things we normally would. And guess what – we all had a great time. We also kicked off our first Advent celebration and lit the first candle together. We go youngest to oldest with the candle-lighting so the youngest Bucher twin, Elea, lit the first candle (with her mom’s help, of course). I wish I was one of those people who could say, “I love having people over! I love hosting!” but that wouldn’t be exactly true. I do love the effects of opening my doors and focusing on people and making a safe place for people to relax and enjoy each other. But I’m not a super efficient person and definitely not a multi-tasker, so it takes me a lot of time to get ready and then recover. We’ve made our margins bigger this year (I’ll talk about that later – another grace gift) and these last three months or so have been the first time in my parenthood life where I am actually genuinely excited to have people “stop by” and where I don’t feel great stress over hosting a big group. I was really thankful for that this year.

We followed up our Thanksgiving celebration with heading up into the hills for some sledding. The most amazing thing was that we were able to all go as a family, no one needing to stay home to nap, no one sick, no one too little to enjoy it, we didn’t need to bring diapers or anything. It was one of those milestone moments for us, where we felt that we have entered a new era of family life. I am thankful for three kids who all like the snow and enjoy sledding. Especially with some funny sensory issues in our family, we could have ended up with someone who can’t tolerate the snow or cold or something, but somehow we ended up with three who are happy with the snow. Thank you, Lord.

The rest of December we did “normal” Christmas-y things like making cookies, decorating, and we even took a couple weeks off school. That has been a HUGE gift to us. We have not just taken a regular break from school that wasn’t due to travel or getting ready to travel (and get our house ready for someone to stay in it). It was my favorite “week before Christmas” I’ve ever had. I relaxed a bit on the home-front too. I am usually kind of up-tight when it comes to tidiness – not only because I feel more relaxed when my surroundings aren’t chaotic, but also because (and I’m embarrassed to admit it) I don’t want my neighbors to think I’m a slob. Tajik ladies are ridiculously clean – sweeping, dusting, washing floors every single day. They like for the rooms in their homes to look like no one lives there. My home always looks like someone lives there. Five someones. I have wrestled a lot with this living here – especially since I’m outnumbered in my family. Let’s just say that there are plenty of people I live with who are not at all bothered by chaos, they don’t even notice it. The long and the short of it is that I didn’t want Jesus to look bad because the neighbors thought I was a slob (because the cleanliness of the home is 100% the job of the woman who lives there). I didn’t want them to disqualify the message of my life just because they thought I was “dirty.” Back to the work of accepting limitations – I just can’t make my home be as consistently scrubbed as my neighbors do. I am not superwoman (I still hate that fact some days, but am resigned to it). I value far more highly the discipleship of my children and that love and peace abound in my home than I do a reputation of being a stellar housekeeper (which these ladies do ascribe to people – or don’t, as it were). That is grace right there too – choosing the mission of our life and family, to give and receive the love of God, over trying to help out Jesus’ reputation by being exceptionally clean. He gets to make himself look great in my limitations and inability to fit in completely. He has no end of opportunities 🙂

I also experienced an interesting and subtle grace  during the wedding time of a family we’ve known since we moved here. Their oldest daughter was being married off. This young lady used to come to my apartment on Friday afternoons the second year that we lived in Central Asia. She would help me get some food prepped for the weekend, wash dishes and watch the kids while I did a language lesson. Emmett was always sneaking up and snatching bites of the bread dough she would prepare. He called her “Haho” (her name is Rafo, rah-FO). Well, Haho was getting married and I was so happy to see that she was actually happy about who she was marrying. That is not often the case so it was refreshing to see. Weddings last multiple days so we went on the day that their neighbor ladies came to celebrate with them and while we were there, got the news that another neighbor lady’s husband, 37 years old, had collapsed at the bazaar and was barely alive, not expected to live. His sweet wife and four children were only two doors down, beside themselves with grief. I don’t know this family very well at all, had never set foot in their home actually, but was asked to join the other ladies who were going to check on her and cry with her. These are the kinds of situations that any westerner cringes inside about. We highly value privacy during emotionally charged situations, but Central Asians are “gather-together” people, so by the grace of God I joined them, though it did not feel natural to me. I was with my Finnish friend, Henna-Maria, who knew her, as well as some local ladies I know and just cried and hugged and was there. Henna-Maria eventually figured out that all this woman’s own family was in a neighboring country and she didn’t have enough money on her phone to call them. So Henna-Maria called her husband to put money on this lady’s phone. We also slowly figured out that this woman’s husband was not actually dead yet, but on some kind of machine at the hospital. God gave us the grace to encourage her to go to her husband and because we had a car, we took her with her oldest son, to the hospital. That is an awkward situation – I hardly know this family and here I am driving them to the hospital, probably to say goodbye to their unconscious loved one. We encouraged her that her husband may still be able to hear her and prayed with them as we drove. It was heart-breaking to say the least. She was crying, “Oh God, if I can only get to him and speak some kind words to him. That the last words he hears can be good ones.”This is the kind of situation that our instincts are to move away from, especially if we’ve already done our “part.” It’s uncomfortable and we don’t know what to do. Well, I felt the grace of God again the next day, when we returned as a family to see our friend, the bride, get taken to her new husband’s home. I felt the little bit of courage in a slower moment to don the white funeral scarf (as I had found out the lady’s husband died  later in the night the previous night) and go back into that home where women were gathered to mourn with the bereaved family and hold that precious woman, cry with her and give her a bit of cash to contribute to all the expenses (the whole community helps in different ways like this). Sometimes God’s grace comes in the form of courage to step into a difficult and awkward situation where you don’t want to do the wrong thing, but you put aside your discomfort for long enough to show up. That’s what I experienced those wedding/funeral days.

Well, thank God, there is always sweet mixed in with bitter and we had a really sweet Christmas party with our ex-pat friends. Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the most precious celebrations we have and they are actually extra sweet when shared with those we affectionately refer to as God’s Team. They have become our “family” here and in the absence of all the consumerism and pressure surrounding the holidays, they make the celebration of our holidays extra sweet. Our kids love Advent as much as Christmas and it’s because of these folks being here to celebrate it with. We were missing some people this year – some had moved to their passport country, some were out of the country, but we enjoy it with whoever is around. The years that we haven’t been here for the holidays, we have missed spending them here – that’s grace right there. I never imagined how much we could enjoy the holidays being so far away from our families and our friends and being in a country where our holidays are not celebrated. Of course, we love spending the holidays in the U.S. too, but the holidays in Central Asia will remain a warm, sweet spot in my heart no matter where we are for the rest of our lives.

Christmas day was spent at home, just our family. Hannah told me, “This was my favorite Christmas ever!” That’s grace too. We didn’t have huge piles of presents (don’t worry – they got plenty of presents, just not the big piles they get when we are in the U.S.) and we just played at home. Rees and I watched the Seahawks game since it had been played the day before (they lost – boo for that) and we played games, read books and just relaxed together.  I loved it.

For New Years we went with two other families two hours north to the capital for the weekend and stayed at a nice hotel who offers a significant discount to residents. We checked out a new pizza place – which was AMAZING and did lots of swimming, went in the sauna, took walks, ate really good food, the kids played and played and watched a couple of movies together and it freed up the adults to actually have lots of good adult conversations and play some games together. From our rooms we watched fireworks go off all around us when 2017 started. We all appreciated the constant electricity and endless supply of hot water. Ten years ago I would have felt guilty for doing something that feels so extravagant compared to our daily life here, but it was grace that allowed all of us to look at each other one day in December and say, “Let’s invest in a great family memory!” and then we enjoyed it as a gift given by a good Father.

The return of an old friend, part 2

If I thought that work/career had shaken up my quiet, connect-with-God mornings then having my first baby, five years into that career, was like being thrown into a blender. Of course, I was elated. As anyone who has loved a child more than they ever knew possible knows – the world looks different in light of that child’s existence. I understood in new ways how much God loves me and delights in me, no matter what, as I loved and delighted in Hannah. I went back to work on-call when she was three months old and even work looked different to me. I started taking time to rub patients’ feet, sit down and hear more of their story, and work on the “little” things that could help them or my coworkers out. It’s not that I didn’t want to do those things before, it’s just that they got edged out by other things that needed to happen. I only worked 1-2 days a week and had a baby girl to come home to and was learning a little bit about how to be more present-minded. I was mostly sleep-deprived and had no quiet, Bible reading morning routine, but somehow in the love I had for my little one, I was certain God loved me too – even with messy hair, bags under my eyes and a cup of coffee that was being heated up in the microwave for the third time (I know, gross. But that’s what survival mode does to a person, you know?). When Hannah was two, Emmett was born and that really did Rees and I in as far as love goes. The miracle of life to us was equivalent to the miracle of suddenly loving another little person every bit as much as the first little person. That gave me a teeny, tiny glimpse into the enormity of God’s love. There’s more than enough to go around and it’s always there.

We super-sized that blender to commercial-grade, high volume when Emmett was two months. We sold the majority of our worldly goods and moved to Seattle to be with our families for a couple of months before moving to Central Asia. I’m not going to get into too many of the details of that BIG transition in this post, but you can imagine what moving to a developing country, where we needed to learn pretty much everything, with a two year old and a four month old does to your morning routine. I was sick, often up most of the night, nursing a baby, trying to parent a spirited two year old while learning a new language and how to live in a completely different country. A country where electricity and water would shut off and apartments don’t have elevators. I was exhausted all the time. I applaud my husband for continuing to ask me how I was doing when he knew I would always say, “I’m exhausted.” Boy were there some exhausted years in there. It seemed we were just starting to get hopeful that we were becoming a bit more energetic when I got pregnant with Annabel. We had lived here for three years at that point. My weakness and exhaustion combined with my wiring toward being productive had already catapulted me into a big mound of grace (I’m embarrassed to say that I kicked and screamed as I flew through the air and even continue to). I got some practice dragging myself out of bed in the morning after an interrupted night of sleep – usually to a child demanding to be fed or someone pounding on my door (it’s totally acceptable here to pound and pound on someone’s door at 6am). The morning person in me was actually torturing me because even when Rees tried to let me sleep longer, I just couldn’t. I get all antsy if I feel like the world around me is up and at ‘em and I’m not. So we had a really pleasant morning situation in our home – an exhausted mom and wife who needs to sleep more and can’t and begrudges everyone else for preventing it. I had thrown out the idea of the quiet hour of prayer at some point in the early throws of motherhood and tried to just grab a few minutes of just plain quiet here and there and settled on locking myself in a room one morning during the weekend when Rees could keep the kids occupied (though they always had their radar tuned to this and would plaster themselves on the other side of the door, crying, “Mommy! Mommy!” As if they hadn’t spent every waking moment with me already). I had to accept the reality that I could connect with God and be close to Him in the midst of mess, action, need, and lots of loud. It started to dawn on me that if there wasn’t grace and worship in my everyday tasks and reality, then how could I pass on that grace to any local woman in my stage of life who has far less freedom in what her day-to-day looks like? If changing diapers, washing clothes, cooking food, parenting children, chatting with neighbors and cooking things for their celebrations and gatherings (because that’s what the community does) and connecting with my husband couldn’t be worship and honoring to God and even a joy for me – then what hope do I have to offer to anyone here? I really started to reach for the Bible and pray out of a deep need for His help and perspective and as I did, I began to rejoice all over again over how paradoxical God is. He uses the weak to shame the strong, the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. He chooses the one who isn’t super to show how super He is. I started to even occasionally laugh at the fact that He could use someone like me, someone who hardly got a minute of quiet prayer time, who takes a month to memorize a single verse due to exhaustion and who commits all kinds of faux pas all day long and often doesn’t even realize it. I didn’t even think about quiet mornings or hours of prayer any more. I figured that if I get to live to be an empty-nester, maybe that’s when I’d rediscover mornings.

An incredible gift has been given to me the last few months. We generally all sleep through the night these days (with the exception of sickness). I got up early one morning, not exhausted, and no one else woke up. I couldn’t believe it. Until now, whenever I get up early (in an attempt to find that quiet prayer time), it only serves to be an alarm clock to at least one, if not two kids. But there I was, up early, cup of coffee in hand, Bible in lap, quiet, in disbelief. A whole hour passed before a child woke up. I couldn’t believe it. I tried it again the next day and same thing – an hour, hour and a half of quiet. This has been going on for a few months and it is grace. So much grace. Such a gift and such a gift to be able to be thankful for it, to just appreciate each morning that I get – knowing that seasons change, such a gift of grace to not wake up early some mornings and not feel guilty about it but thank Him for a little extra sleep. What a gift to be able to greet little ones with a smile when they wake up (instead of grumpy-momma with “why do you always need something?” tone of voice). Suddenly those years of the slow disintegration of the morning prayer time seem like a good rebooting of my prayer life. It felt like getting out of touch with a good friend and then finding them on Facebook years later and getting back in touch again, discovering that you appreciate that friend more than ever. So for now, I’m really enjoying getting to know my old friend, early morning again, and by God’s grace, that old rascal guilt is being left out in the cold.

 

 

The return of an old friend, part 1

Something really precious returned to me a few months ago and I am treasuring it and appreciating it more than ever. It is the gift of the early morning. Treasured as only a morning person could. It has been a good 10+ years or so (possibly even 15 or 16) since I’ve been able to savor the early morning and I think I’m savoring it more than ever and that right there is a gift of grace. Fifteen or so years ago, I would have been able to give some tips to anyone about how to get up early and why that’s such a great idea. Now I realize that I’m just more of a morning person so it will just come naturally to me to be alert and productive in the morning and that’s not something I could give tips on. Years ago, two friends of mine were both piano teachers (Jamie Jam and Dana Little – talking about you!). Jamie was more gifted at flowing with the piano and just had a nack for it where Dana had to work hard at it but was also quite accomplished. They both agreed that Dana was the better teacher because she knew what it felt like to have to work at each step so she can break things down for her students. Whereas Jamie* can try to do that and inspire her students but just doesn’t know what it’s like to have to break everything down into small, simple steps and then struggle with them. I’ve thought about that explanation so many times. It highlights for me the reality that even being a morning person and naturally treasuring the early morning is a grace. Something I actually did nothing to accomplish, it is just a gift. And when we have teenagers who finally get around to talking to us at night, when their mom turns into a pumpkin, their dad’s night-owl wiring will be a great gift.

In college, I loved waking up with the rising sun and spending time in prayer and reading my Bible. I went to Western Washington University for a few years and there is an arboretum on campus and I’d get up early, grab my Bible and hike up through the arboretum to the look-out on top of the hill and spend the morning connecting with God while looking out on Bellingham Bay, the green trees and the beautiful mountains. It was dreamy. When I moved back to Seattle to do an internship at my church and then go on to nursing school, I was already in the habit of the early wake-up and my days got busier so I really treasured that quiet, alone time in the morning. It didn’t hurt that one of my dear roommates worked at Starbucks and got us free coffee to help out those gloomy winter Seattle mornings. Also didn’t hurt that we were just a half mile up the street from Magnuson Park and across the street from the Burke-Gilman trail so when the mornings got lighter, I could pop out for a jog, walk or bike-ride and once again be on the water or in a lush green space. I would have attributed more to my discipline in those days but let’s be honest – those are pretty easy places and contexts to wake up and connect with God in. Surrounded by natural beauty, no full-time job, no kids, no major obligations except studying and making enough money to feed, clothe and shelter your own self. That was before the major tech boom too so my roommates (and dear friends, Molly and Taj) and I had our desktop computers, a land line and a TV with antenna. We didn’t have any tech we needed to afford or constantly upgrade. I resonate so well with what Rachel Jancovich says in “Loving the Little Years”:

“The truth is my Christian life then was like a rock being refined by a slow river in a quiet place. It wasn’t as though I wasn’t growing spiritually, but my word! So easily! And so little! But God took me out of that life and threw me into the rock tumbler. Here, it is not so easy to feel godly, because we spend our days crashing into each other and actually getting our problems addressed. Here there is very little time for quiet reflection.”

Of course, it didn’t feel like that as I started to get tossed around and lose “my mornings.” Nursing school started to shake it up a bit as we had clinicals thrown into a full load of classes and labs. Sometimes we had multiple evening shifts during the week and had to wake up early for class the next day in addition to whatever we did to actually make some money to live. My mornings became shorter as I needed to add in some more schoolwork. I felt guilty about that. But I figured I’d “catch up” once I was actually working and not actually going to school any more. Toward the end of nursing school I got married which ended up being a great decision and I don’t regret the timing in the least. However, trying to figure out how my God-time was supposed to mix with Rees’ God-time left me feeling uneasy. Did I have to give up my separate time now that we were “one”? Hmmm. And I felt some more guilt because I didn’t want to share my bit of quiet time with my new husband who I was supposed to want to share everything with and we couldn’t figure out how to do that regularly anyway. I started to feel a bit distant from God. It felt to me like I had a container of quiet, connecting with God time and it could only stay full if I was putting an hour or so into it every day. Every day I didn’t contribute to it, it would drain and any subsequent time I put into it was only trying to make up a deficit but certainly not moving me into any surplus. But as long as I didn’t empty out completely, I felt like one day I’d be able to move back into the surplus.

Rees and I moved down to Portland once I was done with nursing school and I took my nursing boards down there and pretty quickly found my ideal job: a full-time day shift position in oncology. I remember when I was offered the position and immediately said, “yes!” and my manager, Lee, told me that I didn’t have to answer right away but could take a week to think it over and just get back to her. I tried to insist that I didn’t need a week, but she wanted me to take the time to consider it. Well, I was offered the position on a Friday and called her Monday morning to accept. I spent the next two years with my head spinning, trying to get the hang of being an oncology nurse and getting my oncology certification (which was more difficult than my nursing boards). As anyone can imagine, it was really intense working in oncology. I had the amazing privilege of working in a hospital that had a cancer research center and a really remarkable team of doctors and nurses. But, as we used to say, “we put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!” Between the physiology of what was going on or could happen with our patients, the endless treatments and keeping up on what gets treated with what and what can mix with what, the emergencies and the psychological impact of cancer on a person and their family (or the impact of not having a family or supportive community when you have cancer) – I was wrung out at the end of the day. Brain fried. I had to be at work early and my Bible reading and praying turned into more of a “help me, Lord, today!” and glancing at a verse, trying to get it to somehow sink in. What really horrified me was at the end of my shift, as I’d trudge out to my car, I’d realize that I hadn’t even thought about God that day. I’d only been trying to wrap my brain around what to do next. I felt so unspiritual, and guilty and would again apologize to God for not talking to him during my workday. But one day, after apologizing, a verse filtered up into my thinking:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).

The “with all your mind” part lodged into my heart and I thought, “Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m using my mind to do what you’ve allowed me to do right now – serve people with cancer.” Not being one to try to dodge a self-scolding, but rather wallow in it, I was worried maybe I was letting myself off too easy. Certainly God couldn’t be incredibly pleased with me not even talking to him at work. It seems silly, but to a more works-orientation-wired person, it felt like a big step of faith, like taking a step off a cliff – to trust that He was pleased with me and had grace for me in that season of learning a new, intense career. It felt safer for me to just feel guilty and let that motivate me to “do better.” But that wasn’t working and I certainly didn’t feel any closer to God. A thought started to niggle my mind, that maybe my feeling distant from God was largely or wholly on my side of the relationship. So, I started to fight that guilt at the end of the day by just saying, “I know you were with me today at work. Thank you for helping me.” instead of apologizing. That slowly gave way to more thanksgiving (I dare you to try not to be thankful if you’ve spent all day with cancer patients – you can’t do it). Then I started to ask Him to help me see Him and recognize him at work. A slow work of grace was steeping in me. To focus on Him more and less on my short-comings. To discipline my thoughts when they tried to hang out in the “I’m-a-lousy-believer-and-friend” place and instead say, “thank you for being with me and loving me, even when I didn’t recognize you today and thank you for grace that gives me a fresh chance to see you tomorrow.” Even when I didn’t feel it, I said it and that was grace. I can’t say that my mornings returned to an hour of peaceful communion, but I was more able to thank Him for a single verse and worship Him in the car on my drive to work.

Eventually, I settled into a bit of a rhythm with work. I learned how to delegate better, I learned how to anticipate emergencies and how to prioritize and then keep re-prioritizing as needs changed. My brain didn’t feel as terribly wrung out as it did those first couple years. We moved closer to the hospital and I began to chisel out 20 minutes or so to just be quiet and pray while I drank my coffee before going to work. There were still days that I was too tired to get up earlier than absolutely necessary and I felt guilty about that (surprise, surprise) but overall I felt okay with my routine and was at least 98% convinced that God wasn’t disappointed with me for my lapses.

Sometimes Seasons Change Quickly

This is what the barn part of our backyard looks like right now. Hannah and Emmett are so fearless and daring – they’ve always scared me and catching Hannah up on the frozen barn roof was par for the course of how they tend to operate. For the record, she got herself down without problem. She and Emmett have the perfect mix of snow, mud and freezing (for them “refreshing”) temperatures. It’s funny because they make snowmen, complete with carrot noses, but when the sheep and goats get let out of the barn/stable for Rees to clean it out, they go around and eat all the snowman noses.

It was in the 70s last week (20s Celsius for our European friends) and now it’s freezing. Summer seems to last forever around here and spring and fall are gone in a blink. Being from Seattle and having temperatures in the 70s and 80s qualify as summer weather means that it feels like summer for much of the year to us – it just starts as “Seattle summer,” goes to “the hottest Portland summer temperatures summer” next and then settles into “freaking hot/sweltering summer” for most of the months that I always thought of as summer as a kid (and then some).

When the temperatures are freezing, life looks different here. Not just for us but for everyone. We all go into “hunker-down-winter-survival” mode. We are vigilant to keep water on so the pipes don’t freeze. We count the volts we are using to do life so that our stabilizer doesn’t explode. The electricity is not great (it was off from 8am til 5:30pm yesterday) and we move into only heating one room of the house and putting on our parkas before going into the kitchen to cook or do dishes. We have a propane heater that can heat up a whole room pretty well. I usually wear a stocking hat in my house, much to the amusement of my neighbors who just add another scarf to their heads. I’ll wear a scarf when I go out and about but I stand by the stocking hat as the best way to stay warm.

Candle-light lost its romance a long time ago, but the kids still like it. They tear off pieces of bread and toast them over the candle flame. As long as they weren’t watching a movie and had it cut off when electricity went out, they are pretty adaptable.  There’s grace to appreciate the “cozy-ness” of all hanging out in one room and paring down on what we’re doing. We don’t do as many visits when it’s freezing outside, knowing that it’s difficult for people to receive guests when they are in winter-survival mode. I usually move toward 100% stove-top cooking one-pot meals or just buying non (bread) and eating it with whatever we can stuff inside. There are more games, puzzles, books, and drawings that happen when it’s freezing and it’s a little easier to chase the kids down to do school since they are usually either outside playing or inside the one warm room. We get stir-crazy for sure and when there is a fort built and children start wrestling and a little one is pacing around singing at the top of her lungs (darling really), it gets over-stimulating for me and I get irritable. We are usually able to find lots to be thankful for (thank you, God – that’s a grace!) and be content. At least until we see electricity get restored back to all the other neighbors and the apartments across the street from our neighborhood. It is really remarkable how quickly “thankful and content” turns into a pity party. But I’m growing in receiving grace in that pity party. We give the situation three boo’s: BOO, BOO, BOO!!! And then I focus on one task at a time, knowing it won’t last forever and that my foul mood will also pass. I used to internalize that and make judgements against myself like, “You aren’t really thankful, you are fickle. You really need to shape up.” Now I say, “Wow, Lord. My contentment seems pretty fickle. Thank you for loving me and using a fickle girl like me to glorify yourself. Help me operate in your grace, whatever this evening brings.” That’s the working of God’s grace in my life that I see in these days. Less about how I’m not cutting it, more about how He’s great no matter what and doesn’t need me to be super to reveal Himself.

The picture on the left is our veranda, which is equivalent to our living room. We have the propane heater going on the left. We are fortunate to have a three year old who will actually just go to sleep if she needs to, with us doing school and stuff all about her. Can you believe that?! I see God’s grace in where she came in the birth order. If she had been my first, I would have thought it had something to do with how I made the bed, invited her to lay down or how I told her to take a rest. Because He allowed us to have Hannah and Emmett first, we see it’s just how He made Annabel and can thank him for her ability to lay down and sleep if she’s tired. We also rejoice in Hannah and Emmett’s crazy creativity and “wildness” as they can find fun things to do no matter what the weather is like and have energy to take the garbage out for me or sweep the snow/ice/dirt mixture off our porch. The picture on the right is of Emmett and Annabel in their fort. Again, thank you God that they enjoy playing together.

I love how life is so connected to the seasons and I’m seeing how fast this season of having little kids goes. There are moments where it feels more like the endless, sweltering summer but when fall just skipped by last week, I was reminded that this season is really quite brief. So I want to enjoy it, which today will look like lemon tea, store-bought cookies, finishing a Nancy Drew book with Hannah, doing puzzles with Annabel and praising Emmett for being able to do all the puzzles by himself. We’ll reorganize the toy bins and I’ll chop up some things to get ready for Thanksgiving (which we’ll celebrate on Saturday). There will be some loosing of patience and not-wise choices too for sure (complete with ugly mommy faces, the ones that convey “what were you thinking?”). But by the grace of God, I think we’ll land on the thankful side of life.

 

The Gift of the Messy Yard

Gardening seems so dreamy. Working the soil, nurturing little seedlings, and enjoying a harvest – whether it’s things you can eat or just pretty things to look at. How rewarding. I’ve tried to garden and even been a little bit successful at times, but generally I stink at it. Such a bummer. I really can’t count how many springs have found me up to my elbows in dirt and loving it, only to have pathetic looking corn stalks and tomato plants with lots of flowers (but never forming fruit) decorating our yard. I had something kind of humorous happen this spring. One of the few flowers that held over from last year seemed to have really decided to be a fixture in our yard – yay! I looked out my kitchen window just in time to see my sweet hubs hack the thing down, mistaking it for a weed (I guess that tells you how pretty the flower was). That was nothing compared to the time that I had little blueberry bushes established in the yard of our first house in Portland (2004) and one of the college guys from our church came over to do some yard work (I think to make money for an overseas trip) and hacked them all down with a weed-whacker. I was at work and my hubs had to break the news to me when I got home. I cried. Then we had blueberry pancakes for dinner in remembrance. I really think that deep inside me lives a gardener, but she just doesn’t have enough gusto to persevere through the difficulties yet. Terrible allergies, endless interruptions and trying to keep kids relatively safe, stifling heat and subsequent hard-as-concrete ground take their toll and drain my motivation. It’s frankly kind of embarrassing to have a yard and not have it be “productive” by local standards. These people put a stick in the ground and it grows leaves. I’m not exaggerating – saw both of my next-door neighbors do this a couple of years ago. If I put a stick in the ground, it just gets kicked over by a soccer ball. The neighbors have graciously tried to give me advice but I think it’s clear to all of us – I need help.

I’ve had such a conflicted heart over our yard since we moved to this house (in Feb. 2013 – sweet liberation from three years of apartment life!). We were beyond ready to have some more outdoor space and less people-density. My nine and seven-year old both have endless energy – we call it “fizz” (thanks again, Luci). And the fizz has a lot more room to get out with a yard than it did in that apartment. The thing here is that NO ONE gears their yard around their kids’ play needs. Yards are for production of food and for adding to your good reputation by making the non-food-producing parts beautiful. We created quite a stir when we made a sandbox in the back yard. No one could figure that one out, but once the neighbor kids saw we truly intended for kids to play in it = elation. Once we had some grass growing (grass mixed with a lot of weeds) but we quickly took care of that by allowing our kids to play soccer on the grass. It died. So I’ve battled with feeling on one hand like our yard is a neighborhood embarrassment (even though it’s behind walls and you can’t even see it from the street) and on the other hand like our yard is our yard and we should just use it the way we want to. I’ve already lost the war of the really tidy house. I’m completely outnumbered by people who don’t even notice a mess and, indeed appear to love chaos (though we may be building some girl power around here and slowly turning that ship around). So I have no expectation that our yard will be really tidy. But I can’t change how I was made and I just feel more relaxed when there’s not a lot of chaos going on around me. I’m really up and down with this thing.

This summer we received a grace that I didn’t recognize right away but I’m recognizing it now. Rees got into buying livestock (a post for another day) and we now have five sheep and two goats in our yard. The kids would want me to also mention that we have a tortoise. I asked God to teach us through these sheep since there’s so much in the Bible about sheep and shepherds and stuff. He has taught us. But He also liberated me from the yard conflict and that’s a big gift. We’ve discovered that you can’t possibly have plants growing where you have livestock roaming around. They eat the plants. So the choice is: a working yard or a pretty yard and I wasn’t very good at the pretty yard thing anyway. The grace to surrender to the working yard – I’m so thankful for that. Since there’s no hope for the yard to turn into a lovely garden while we have these animals here, it has allowed me to loosen up on what the kids are doing out there too. My older two have made a habit of freaking me out since they born. Seriously, when I was pregnant with my third baby, the prayer I prayed the most (in addition to general health/safety) was, “Oh God, please don’t let this one be a bolter like the other two!” They are out there climbing trees, walking on walls, jumping from stuff and all kind of whatnot. They are really fun people, they just scare me because I am their mom. Now that we have the animals, I let them climb a little higher because they are climbing with a purpose (to get more leaves for the animals) and I let them build whatever they want (so far). The kids love to visit with the animals and the neighbors send over their vegetable food scraps to help feed them.

So now we have a working yard that’s also working for us and the grace to recognize it is a gift. There’s also grace to just accept where we’re at right now with it, not making a sweeping generalization that “I’ll never have a real garden!” As winter approaches and our tortoise moves toward hibernation, I’ve wondered if the gardener in me is also just in hibernation and she’ll wake up someday. For now, we are living in the grace of the messy yard.

The little black goat is Hannah’s. Her name is Rose.

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The kids drawing the kinds of bugs they found out there. The sandbox is the concrete container on the left.

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Nothing pretty but it’s pretty fun.

Submitting to fun

The kids have been sick this week – the fall cold/flu thing. Rees and I have avoided getting sick with them so far which right now feels like a gift but will feel like torture if we get sick once the kids are 100% again. That’s one of the particularly tough things about motherhood – there are no sick days. Although, last summer when we arrived in Germany, I was quite sick and Rees’ cousin, Luci, sent me straight to bed and brought me a pot of tea and some soup. Can you believe that? I hardly knew what to do, I was thinking, “is this allowed?” but I took the opportunity and amazingly, I was feeling way better the next day. Thanks Luci!!

Usually when the kids are sick, I still try to get some homeschooling done. The over-achieving oldest child in me is super conflicted with homeschool. Especially since my older two (the ones who are being homeschooled) are so different from me. On one hand, I have a really difficult time letting things go, leaving things on our list uncrossed at the end of the day. Even when none of us are having a good time with it, I’m some kind of monster teacher who makes it happen anyway, all the while thinking, “Isn’t homeschool supposed to be more fun than regular school?” On the other hand, I can understand the benefits of homeschooling and I myself love to learn so I get to learn along with my kids. It’s amazing how much I missed in school when I was focused so much on getting good grades (which probably says something about both me and school). I am a contextual homeschooler (thanks for the lingo, Danny!). That means, more or less, that I didn’t choose homeschool, homeschool chose me, based on my geographical location. This is different from philosophical homeschoolers who choose to homeschool due to any variety of philosophical reasons. This has meant that I hadn’t bought into any of the philosophical reasons to homeschool, I just knew I’d do it because there wasn’t another option. I have slowly had to catch up on the reasons to homeschool and am trying to become more of a philosophical homeschooler. I guess I just thought if I was patient and consistent and just followed the curriculum I picked out (that had everything marked out day-by-day: what pages of which books to read, what language arts exercises to do, what math lesson to do, etc) everything would work out. That sounds so simplistic now. It turns out that my kids learn way different from I do and have some struggles that I didn’t have and the curriculum I was using wasn’t a good fit for them. But Amazon doesn’t deliver here so it’s not like you can just change your mind, send the thing back and order something different. All I knew how to do was nose-to-the-grindstone. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it, you do it anyway. There’s lots of stuff in life like that. You wish you were my student, don’t you? I also started reading books and blogs by homeschoolers and asking for advice from whoever I could. That awakened me to the fact that most homeschoolers, though certainly overwhelmed at times and just as insecure about it as I am at times, were, on the whole, happy to be homeschooling. I was missing out on the happy part! For the last year and a half, I’ve been trying to figure out how to address my kids’ learning needs/struggles while making homeschool more fun for us. I’m batting .500, which is a big improvement. Only half the days of the week do I look at my husband and say, “I can’t do this.” The other half I happily tell him, “We had a great day!” Even writing that highlights God’s grace to me. While I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the why’s and the joys of homeschooling, I’ve also seen a connection to where I am positioned in Christ. Am I living like a slave – “Gotta keep slugging away at this mess, all on my own, no matter what, because I’m obligated to”  or like a daughter, “I am loved and my father is happy to help me and see me learn and grow, no matter what I do or don’t do, because he’s crazy about me.”

So this week, when the kids got all floppy and sad-looking, a freedom welled up inside me to just take things one day at a time and not try to eek in “at least something.” I’ve been asking God every day to help me be aware of when I’m motivated by a need for control or fear of “getting behind”, to accept them for who they are and where they’re at, and trust Him to help me be the teacher and mom that these particular children need. I felt the grace to let them watch some of a math DVD (Mathtacular – ever heard of it?) and then just read lots of good books to them. We’ve been drinking lemon tea, reading books, coloring, and in their more energetic moments they’ve just been playing. Usually they are climbing the walls (literally) so I’ve actually enjoyed some down time with them. For all of their struggles, they excel at so many “life things” too and I actually slowed down and gave them some space to do their creative things. That push-push-push voice inside me tried to get me to bring out some math worksheets and copy-work at a couple of junctures – in those moments where they were feeling pretty good for a bit, but grace empowered me to take a leap of faith (that’s what it is for me) and give them space to use that moment of feeling good to do the things that they were passionate to do. That ended up being making potions outside for the most part. At one point they found a bunch of different bugs hiding in their tortoise’s home outside and grabbed their science journals and some pens and I found them lying outside, drawing their observations. Totally not instigated by me but the kind of stuff I imaged homeschooling would be all about. You know what? We were all happier and got along better.

Once again, I find myself wanting to figure out what I did that helped things go well this week, so that I can replicate it again and make things go well again next week. But I think the thing that helped us this week is what God already did – making us His children, giving us the security of knowing we are His. So the only thing I plan to do next week is: keep reading His word, talk to Him about my concerns and hopes, ask Him to open my eyes more to the glories of His grace and take a chance here and there when there’s a niggling feeling that says, “More work!” to instead say, “Let’s play!”

 

Arriving in the mess

Before we know it, Advent will be upon us. We don’t have all the physical reminders of the holiday season arriving here because we celebrate different holidays than Tajiks do. They do like to put colored lights in parks and restaurants year-round and due to the days getting shorter, we more often find ourselves driving home from somewhere in the dark during this time of the year so we actually see the lights. The kids call them Christmas lights and get all excited about them and we don’t correct them.

We have some really, really rich and wonderful holiday traditions here – so enjoyable that we actually miss Advent here when we are not here. Don’t get me wrong – we LOVE when we can celebrate the holidays with our families in the U.S. LOVE IT. But our holidays here aren’t impacted by consumerism or comparison or massively increased busyness. So we get to be more focused on the things we want to be focused on. It’s quieter and richer (spoken like an introvert, I know). We will kick off the holiday season with our Thanksgiving celebration the Saturday after the American Thanksgiving. This thing got established by the other ex-pats in our city long before we moved here and we are so thankful for the families that forged the way. Some years, we (I’m using ‘we’ to mean our extended family of ex-pats, whom we affectionately refer to as God’s Team) kill a turkey the day before our meal together. This is kind of sad but it’s that or pay an exorbitant amount to buy a frozen turkey in the capitol and, if I’m honest, we’ve all become kind of country living here. Emmett is more accustomed to this scenario than the frozen turkey scenario and he cracked us up last year while we were in the U.S. He asked us when we were going to kill the turkey for Thanksgiving and we responded to him, “Oh, we don’t kill the turkey when we’re in America for Thanksgiving.” He looked horrified and exclaimed, “We’re going to eat it alive?!” We had to explain the whole frozen turkey thing. We had a heart-to-heart about turkey meat last night with our friends and decided that this year we’ll just buy some of the rotisserie chickens you can get on the street. They are ready to eat, and honestly way yummier than the turkey.

We also dress up in costumes because kids love costumes and there is no Halloween-type of thing here. Everyone gathers around lunch-time and everyone brings a dish. Our dear non-American friends have learned how to make many of the Thanksgiving favorites and, in fact, have come to love Thanksgiving. Many years, there’s some presentation of the Thanksgiving story. If the families with older kids are here (the Wilburs) one of the girls usually organizes the other kids into doing a play about it. Also if the Wilburs are here, we throw in some Cinco de Mayo action too and they make a turkey piñata that the kids get to smash. We eat our big meal and hang out and chat, drink afternoon coffee and eat dessert. Many years, there’s been a post-meal talent show too. This year, we decided to close our Thanksgiving celebration by lighting the first candle of Advent.

That’s one of the great things about celebrating Advent here. That same God’s team joins every Sunday of Advent to light a candle, sing some carols and dive into what Advent means. We rotate the house each week and enjoy celebrating Advent as a big family. We finish Advent on Christmas Eve with a big God’s team party at our friends’ house (they make it so Christmas-y and nice!). We usually have a food theme like curry, Italian, your own nationality, Mexican, etc. We each contribute a small gift into the kids’ bags and each of the big people brings a gift for another big person (who they drew the name of back at Thanksgiving) and we one-by-one open the gift and guess who the giver was. So there’s lots of fun, connection and taking time to steep in what Advent really is.

We (meaning our own little family) had an unusual and early kick-start to Advent this year. Totally unintentional. Last week we had to get new visas again by exiting this country and re-entering. We decided to just fly up and back to Almaty, Kazakhstan (all in the same day). It’s only an hour and a half flight and both flying there and back are during the day-time. It’s really glorious, actually. You see some of the biggest mountains in the world from up there and Almaty is really pretty – green, mountainous, rivers, little lakes, and farms. Our kids are real champs on the plane. All the lines and waiting that you have to do before and after flying aren’t so great, but you can’t win them all, right? Well we did our up and back, witnessing a breath-taking sunset over those huge mountains on the way home. We walked into the arrival hall and took our positions – Rees to the consular’s window to get our visas, me parking the kids somewhere and filling out our immigration cards. The problem this time was that there were no immigration cards anywhere and the kids wouldn’t stay parked. They were crazy and, frankly, rude and couldn’t stop. I really have an internal battle during these times in how to parent out of my own deep convictions. My inclination is to parent out of fear-of-what-people-think and try to get control of the situation (or at least make it look like I have control) and make my kids make me look like a better parent (ie: sitting patiently and obeying me). God is really gracious to me in that the kind of kids he gave me first and second have given me lots of time to struggle with this and even grow a bit. So there were many dirty looks and threats but God gave me grace in the moment to take a deep breath, let #1 flee to her dad (who was having an animated discussion at the consular window) and hold #2 and #3 on the bench and empathize with them (“goodness, it’s hard being cooped up in places that aren’t play areas all day isn’t it?”) and elicit their help (“We need your help to finish strong. Go team Bettinger!”) and after a while we could proceed through the passport control line. We still didn’t have immigration cards but what could we do if there simply weren’t any? The consular gave us a few days short of the amount of days we wanted and wouldn’t budge on that, but it could have been worse. The passport control lady (thank God, she was so nice) asked us why we didn’t fill out immigration cards and we told her there weren’t any. A border control officer came, took our passports, and asked Rees to follow him. He told Rees he had the cards we needed and asked how much Rees would give him for them. Extortion is commonplace here but it gets tiring and is actually really complex. Rees asked the guy if he was from this country and he said he was. Rees said, “but the people from this country are super hospitable and take great care of guests and you are not doing that.” The conversation went on a bit (in Tajik, of course) and Rees said that those forms need to be free and he would not buy them. The nice lady decided to just stamp our boarding passes so we’ll have the stamp we need to leave again (lots of trouble when you leave without this card). We got to our car, and headed out of the parking lot the normal way, which apparently isn’t the right way anymore (the airport has been recently remodeled). Of course there was a police waiting for such a thing to happen. Rees was insisting that he saw no exit signs and nothing was labeled (never is) and the man calmly told him, “Come with me, I’ll show you the sign” which turns out, was right over the actual exit. You wouldn’t see it unless you were already going out the exit. So Rees had to give that guy some money (which is the “correct” response to the question, “what do we do?” just in case you’re ever in the area). Rees was not a happy camper. We had told the kids that if they could behave throughout our travel day we’d stop at the good pizza place for dinner before heading home to our town. I was talking to the kids about how torn I was about the pizza place because there were some moments of great travel behavior but there were also moments of terrible behavior. I told them how I was hungry and wanted a nice hot “real” pizza dinner and some hot lemon tea but that it wouldn’t be very fun to be in a restaurant with kids acting the way they had. Rees was already pretty convinced that sitting in a restaurant with them was NOT what we wanted to do. But in came grace because it’s not in our nature to extend it, we want to make the wrong-doer pay. But it welled up inside me and I saw those contrite faces who had sincerely expressed their regret and understanding and it struck me that the most redemptive thing to do was to have another chance to do it right. I also figured we’d all be a bit more reasonable with a hot meal in our tummies. The kids were thrilled at a second chance and we had a nice meal at the restaurant together. Yay!

 

We swung by some friends’ house on the way home to pick up something they had brought from America for us and we got caught up on their story (involving needing to leave for medical care and being given the run-around with passports and visas and whatnot). More highlighting of broken systems.

Once we were on the road home again (dark and late) a single word came into my mind: incarnation. It’s not like we were actually in glory (as lovely as the scenery from the plane was) and arrived in Dushanbe. But it is perfect love (not that our love is perfect – FAR from it, but God has shown His perfect love to us. That’s a grace for every day) that compels us to come back. It was such a good example of laying aside many of our rights to willingly walk into a mess where things don’t work properly and everything is infected with brokenness. It struck me how the world must have appeared to God. He existed in limitless perfection and wholeness but willingly limited Himself to live like us, among us, in Christ. From His perspective he saw glimpses and evidences of His Father’s perfection and beauty – like a nice passport lady, alpenglow on mountain-tops, friends who live in grace and truth when troubles are being thrown at them. But overall, things looked pretty banged up, nothing working as it should. It made me feel thankful that He entered the mess to give us a chance to have fellowship with him. If He had lived in Dushanbe, at this time, maybe we would have eaten pizza together and drank lemon tea, the fellowship sweeter as we savored a second chance.

That was grace right there. After a day of traveling with three active kids and being cranky and tired, to be stopped to consider the incarnation and the realization of being invited into it. That was a gift.

May He open our eyes to understand, deeper again this year, what His arrival in the mess really means.