When You’re Not Who You Want to Be

When You’re Not Who You Want to Be

It’s been a hard kind of summer. The kind of summer where you look back and remember more of the struggle than the sweetness. The kind of summer that makes you look forward with hope to a new beginning come fall, to the crispness of a new school year with new rhythms and new energy.

I’m ready for a fresh start, not just for my schedule, but for my heart.

Part of what made summer so hard this year was that I didn’t expect it to be hard. I looked forward to the time we would spend away from home, including five weeks serving as a family at Young Life Camp. I was excited about the change of pace and the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Sometimes the hardest parts about making an eternal impact are the everyday sacrifices required along the way. It’s in the unseen, ordinary moments of surrender that the true contents of our hearts are exposed. And often when my comfort is on the line, what I see in my own heart looks more like selfishness than anything else.

I started this summer’s camp assignment with energy and excitement about what was to come. I was hopeful and prayerful and optimistic about all the ways we would all grow from serving while at camp for the month.

But as the exciting first hours turned into days that turned into weeks, reality set in. I missed my husband as he worked long days to run camp for hundreds of middle school kids each week. My own kids were over-stimulated and over-sugared and I was over-tired from living somewhere that wasn’t my home. After full days of rallying my kiddos to transition from our room to a meal then back again over and over, I had no relational margin to connect with the other women who seemed to be so gracefully navigating the parenting waters at camp. Oh, the familiar deathtrap of comparison—it never ceases to shame me into a sense of utter and complete failure.

I wasn’t the encourager I had envisioned—I felt discouraged. I wasn’t the laid-back mom I imagined—I was frazzled and tired of saying no to all the fun things constantly beckoning my children. I wasn’t the confident wife joyfully supporting my husband—I was emotional and needy and missed him like crazy.

My expectations had created a familiar prison of performance that I couldn’t escape. The gap between who I wanted to be and who I had the capacity to be during those weeks felt like failure, and I was trapped inside.

“I don’t like who I am here,” I told a group of women one morning as we gathered together. The female spouses on our team made it a priority to find time each week to connect and pray. Those two hours became my lifeline at camp, grounding me in the reality that I was not alone. One woman looked at me with understanding. She nodded and affirmed that it wasn’t just me. That’s all it took.

As I explained how I felt stuck in my own struggle, wallowing in the difficulty of my days instead of looking for the beauty in them, something shifted. Admitting I actually wasn’t okay gave me permission to stop pressuring myself to be who I thought I should be. Sharing my struggles out loud released me from the snare of shame, which feeds on isolation and hiding.

I was able to just rest in my reality.

Stop fighting against myself and accept that my capacity this summer was less than in summers past.

Quit putting pressure on myself to perform to a standard that no one else knew existed.

Believe that people could love me even when I wasn’t at my best.

Let myself be known as someone with nothing to offer but my honesty. And let it be enough.

As they prayed for me that morning, and as others prayed from home, something in my heart lightened. I felt more like myself again—loved not because I was functioning at my highest level, but loved just because I’m me. It’s a reminder I need every week, every day, every hour: I am loved, just as I am.

This summer proved that I have nothing to prove. My hope is not in my ability to avoid struggle, but in being loved whether I’m struggling or not.

I learned the hard way that I can choose in every moment to give thanks or to grumble.  And my choice affects my ability to see life as a gift to be enjoyed or as a burden to be endured.

Sometimes the miracle doesn’t come in changed circumstances but in a changed heart. As I focused less on myself and more on the grace all around me, my perspective widened. I whispered more prayers of thanksgiving for the small gifts of time with my kids, for unexpected rest, for the chance to sit in the pool on a hot summer day, for community, adventure, and opportunities to grow through discomfort.

I tend to think that if things are hard, I must be doing something wrong. The truth is, life is just hard. But not a moment is wasted for those who are willing to look for its gifts. Thankfulness draws my eyes and heart heavenward, rescuing me from the bottomless pit of self-pity. I need to be rescued regularly. Hourly even. Sometimes more.

As I enter a new season with a new schedule and new weather and new commitments, I’m choosing a new way of thinking about my moments. I’m going on a treasure hunt each day for the gifts of God’s love all around me. No matter the gift, no matter how big or small, I’m writing them down—keeping track in a “joy journal” of sorts to train myself to see with new eyes.

A two-year-old who loves to cuddle, even at 3 am.

Coffee delivered unexpectedly.

Sun breaks on a dreary day.

Multiple errand stops in a row with no tantrums.

A candle burning in the middle of the afternoon.

A five-year-old who loves to dance when no one’s watching.

Silence. Sweet silence.

Will you join me? Grab a pen. Put your list to paper. Don’t make it easy—stretch your current capacity for thankfulness. Can you find five gifts each day to write down? Ten? Let’s do this together and test for ourselves what all those experts are saying about gratitude being good for our health and happiness. It might just be good for our souls, too.

Eyes on the lookout for bits of grace in everyday moments create hearts overflowing with beautiful gratitude. And that’s who I want to be.

Walking the Line Between Tomorrow and Today

Walking the Line Between Tomorrow and Today

Originally posted on my friend, Charity’s blog. Reposted below in celebration of my daughter’s fourth birthday yesterday, or as another friend put it, the fourth anniversary of becoming a mommy. Here’s to many more years of walking the tight rope of the present…

***

Last night as I was putting my precious baby boy to bed, I was cherishing the sweetness of his face and savoring the tenderness of holding him and rocking him in the dark. Then I watched as he wiggled his finger into his nose and reached up to wipe it on my chin.  Oh how quickly a moment turns.

My life is filled with moments like this these days, balancing a tension between seemingly opposite emotions and experiences almost within the same breath. Delighting in my kiddos’ goofiness while counting the minutes until bedtime. Savoring a soft baby hand on my arm until it starts scribbling on my work in permanent marker. Celebrating how engaged and patient I’d been all day until the whining hits. And just. Doesn’t. Stop.

With an almost four (going-on-fourteen) year old and a twenty-one month old (yes, we are still counting months), we are in the thick of parenting in all of its beautiful, excruciating, joyful, exhausting, delightful, frustrating, humbling, heart-wrenching, awe-inspiring glory. My kids cause me daily, often moment-by-moment, to simultaneously thank God for this gift and cry out to him in desperation for help.  And I think that’s probably the point.

Parenting is so hard. And beautiful. Really beautiful. But also really, really hard.

I often daydream about what life will be like as our children get older, how much more freedom we’ll have to do things as a family, how much more independent they’ll be, how much more time I’ll have to myself—then I interrupt my own daydream to scold myself for wishing away the present.

Sometimes it feels like my thoughts are walking a tightrope between two equally irresistible points, today and tomorrow.  If I rush too fast or dawdle too slow toward tomorrow, I’ll lose my footing and plummet to the death of my joy. Hope is like the pole that keeps me balanced as I walk—it helps keep me moving forward, believing that what’s ahead is worth stepping toward. But sometimes all I want to do is gaze off at what I imagine to be on the other end of the rope…

I’ve always struggled to be where I am. What’s around the corner seems so much more appealing at times, even though I usually don’t know what it entails. I’ve always found myself looking forward to the next thing—graduation, college, career, marriage, moving, babies, or any new challenge. Hope for change often gets me through whatever difficulties are in my present. And let me tell you, being a mom is full of difficulties. Oodles of joy, yes. But I would be lying if I said it was all sugary cream puffs and sparkly tiaras.

My kids bring things out in me that I didn’t even know were buried inside. There’s the depth of love that my parents always told me I could never understand until I had children of my own. My heart feels so much affection toward these tiny humans that sometimes I just want to squeeze them and kiss them and snuggle every inch of them so much that I can’t even stand it.  They help me slow down and play. Their delight in bubbles, airplanes, butterflies, and garbage trucks makes me look at the world with wonder through their eyes.

But there are other things that I’d rather not admit my kids have witnessed.

The anger boiling to the surface when my agenda is interrupted again.

The tone of voice I swore I would never use.

The guilt over another day when I failed to discipline consistently, let them watch too much TV or eat too much sugar.

The selfishness causing me resent how much time they demand, the dreams that are put on hold, and the sense of being trapped in a season that is just so exhausting.

The shame coming from even thinking some of these thoughts, especially knowing that these are the babies I begged God for.

Yeah, this parenting thing brings me to the end of myself. But sometimes the hardest things are the best things for us.

 Having these little people always with me, needing me, watching me, wanting me is a strange and lovely protection from thinking that my life is about me.  They force me to die to my selfishness daily, offering my very life as a sacrifice of love to the Giver of Life.

My kids make sure I’m authentic.  My words for others mean nothing if they’re not lived out consistently at home in front of my perma-witnesses. And they see everything. And hear everything. And repeat everything.

They provide built-in boundaries.  For this compulsive yes-sayer, their pull on my heart protects me from chasing every dream and ambition that crosses my mind. Few things are worth the cost of missing time with them.

They keep me humble. I may be competent in other areas, but I have no idea what I’m doing with these tiny humans. (Hence the part about crying out to God for help.)

My kids are possibly the greatest source of refinement and purification in my life. They reveal the true contents in my heart so that it can all be laid bare, out in the open where I can see myself as I really am, in all my need and ugliness and self-centeredness. And my babes reveal the heart of God to me, loving me with reckless abandon despite all that rises to the surface in my worst moments. That’s where healing begins—as shame bubbles up and grace rushes in.

As a mom, I feel stuck in between longing for tomorrow and living thankful for today.  I simultaneously want to freeze these moments and fast forward to the next ones.  I want to treasure this season with both kids at home and also hurry it up so I have more time to pursue things that make me feel more competent than motherhood.

I realize that most of what tempts me to hurry through this season—or this day—is my desire from relief from discomfort.  Anything difficult is uncomfortable, so my natural instinct is to avoid hard things. But as I look back at my life so far, nothing worthwhile has come easily. I’m trusting that these little ones are the most worthwhile thing I can invest in, not only for their benefit, but likely even more for mine.

Even now as I write, I hear cries from the other room telling me naptime has ended prematurely.  And instead of getting to choose what I do for an hour, the choice is made for me: I will cuddle and snuggle and comfort and lay down my desires for another day. And I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Living with Heart Wide Open

Living with Heart Wide Open

I’ve been feeling a little raw the past couple weeks.  My husband went back to work after three sweet months of sabbatical—time for him to rest from his work, and time for our family to slow down and rest from “the tyranny of the urgent” for a season. I think it’s fair to say I’ve been grieving the end of such a beautiful moment in time—weeks spent learning the art of living with hearts open to the gifts of each day, learning thankfulness in all things.

On top of trying to quickly regain my stamina for parenting without a partner at home, I was caught off guard by fear on the same day Corey left for the office again.  A lump that I had ignored for months was suddenly at the front of my attention—I had promised Corey I would get it checked out, but something about calling to make an appointment without him there rocked me.  I was paralyzed by anxiety about the potential for bad news that could dramatically alter the way I envision my life playing out. I imagined a cancer diagnosis that was beyond treatment because of my negligence. I found myself asking, “What if choosing denial has caused me to miss my opportunity for healing?”  Lord, have mercy.

The first few days that Corey was back at work, I was both overwhelmed with emotion as I reflected on our precious time as a family over the previous three months, and also shaken by heartache at the possibility of not watching my kids grow up.  But somehow through tears of sentiment and preemptive sadness, I was overcome with thankfulness, evidence that something has changed in me over these past few months.

Something about reflecting on the tender moments of agenda-free presence we had together while Corey was on Sabbatical has made me more sentimental than ever. (And that’s saying something, because I tend to be pretty sentimental by nature. I think I am the target audience of every Hallmark commercial ever made.)  My heart is overflowing as I look at my kids, adoring them and delighting in their uniqueness. People keep telling me to enjoy this time—it’s over before you know it—but I’m already painfully aware that time only moves forward.

Where did our three months together go?  It went on a road trip adventure with a minivan loaded down with snacks, travel prizes, Frozen paraphernalia, audio books, a pack ‘n’ play, and more stuff than we knew what to do with.  It went to the beach to see my grandma, to Arizona to bask in the sunshine, and to Las Vegas to watch cowboys in rodeo action.  It went to lazy mornings with no agenda, nap time lounging with books in the sun, date nights courtesy of grandparent babysitters, tennis matches and mini golf that brought laughter galore, pool days with peanut butter and jelly picnics, meals at Chick-Fil-A and In-N-Out, relationship building with Corey’s parents, long runs, driving ranges, card games, conversation, a barbeque class, children’s museum, trampoline park and more memories than we can even hold onto. And that was just the first half.

Once back at home we settled into life unhurried.  We were here, but hidden away.  No obligations, nothing on the schedule.  Evenings at home. Spontaneous sledding adventures. Home improvement projects.  A marriage retreat. Time together, uninterrupted.  My heart was filled back up by time, sweet time.  It’s funny how looking backward helps me forget the bumps and bruises we gave each other trying to figure out a new rhythm. Each time we changed venue (from home to Arizona, then to our families’ for the holiday runaround, and then back home) took multiple weeks of transition time, relearning in each new context how we operated with so much togetherness.  It wasn’t smooth, but the discomfort gave us opportunities to talk about what was underneath our frustrations—our needs, our expectations, our hurts.  We had margin for the types of conversations that are usually too exhausting to tackle.

Corey earned a new place of honor in our family: the right to sit on the dining room bench with Brooklynn during dinner.  Even bedtime, a privileged routine previously reserved only for me, became a domain that her daddy was invited to enter.  Wrestling matches, dance parties, pre-dinner frozen yogurt outings, marching band parades, tea parties, playing dollhouse and kitchen—he earned his new position of favor with both kids by the sweat of his brow.

For the first time since becoming parents together 3 ½ years ago, I didn’t feel alone in the daily responsibilities of child rearing.  Not that Corey hasn’t played a significant role in our kids’ lives, but for the first time he was a part of the mundane routines, the windows of time for activities before and after naps, the day in, day out repetition of games and clean up and needing to get out of the house before someone (usually me) loses it (again). I felt understood, and he grew in confidence realizing he is capable of meeting our kids’ needs in ways that only he can.

It was a season of rest.  I had help in what sometimes feels like one of the hardest stages of my life. We felt more like a team again, much like we used to in the days when we were first married and finding ways to serve together. But this time our ministry was to each other, to our kids.

I just wanted to savor it all.  Soak up the gift of time.  Cling to the precious memories.  Yet the tighter I grasp, the more I’m tempted to despair—there is nothing I can do to bring back the beginning of sabbatical.  It was incredibly sweet, but there is no avoiding the fact that it’s over. There will never be another season like this in our lives.  Yes, Corey will get another sabbatical in five more years, assuming he is still working for Young Life at that point.  But it will never look like this—our kids will be in school, I may be working again—everything about our lives could look different next time around.

Time is fleeting, yes.  Kids are the most obvious, potentially cliché measure of how quickly it moves. I look at my babies and I simultaneously long for time to stand still and fast forward.  I can’t wait to see how life changes as they grow (let’s be honest: I can’t wait to see how much easier things become), but I’m terrified of forgetting the sweetness of right now. I’m tempted to spend my days pouring over their mostly empty baby books, recording every milestone and describing how their skin smells. Although I see the value in writing down memories, I also see the danger in trying to cling to the present.  Clinging hands are tight and controlling—their embrace can feel more like a strangle than affection.

Instead of clinging, the past three months have taught me the beauty of surrendered thankfulness.  Naming my gratitude before each moment fades from my memory feels like a miniature ritual of closure.  Gratefulness helps me fully embrace the depth of this moment, absorbing its goodness while simultaneously releasing it into the past. Being thankful allows me to live with my heart wide open to receive the gift of each moment that comes, savoring it without holding on too tightly. And as any parent knows, gratitude honors the one you are thanking—thankfulness always brings pleasure to the heart of the One who gives all good gifts.

Even more, the discipline of naming my reasons for gratitude is cultivating a spirit of thankfulness—thanksgiving is becoming more like a default reaction than a choice.  And so, after hearing that the lump is benign—after a moment of such paralyzing fear of what could have been—I am reminded that thankfulness is not just possible when my husband is on sabbatical.  Thankfulness is possible no matter what is going on in my day, and no matter what lies around the corner.

I’m thankful for the reminder that God doesn’t owe me a long, healthy, easy life; yet no matter what life brings, I’m thankful for the reminder that he is always good, and he is always on my side.

I’m thankful for the renewed desire to make the most of every fleeting moment with my growing kids, to pour all of my heart into teaching them about the God who made them and loves them and created them for a good purpose.

I’m reminded that thankfulness is the only right response to the gift of another day.  And I’m thankful that today wasn’t my last, for another opportunity to respond with gratitude for right now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Beauty of New Beginnings

The Beauty of New Beginnings

I’m one of those people that love New Year’s resolutions.  There’s something about a fresh start, like a real life do-over or something, that makes anything feel possible.  It feels like the gradual increase in caloric consumption between Thanksgiving and Christmas won’t count against me.  Like the whirlwind of family visitation, holiday festivities, and gift-buying won’t leave me too exhausted to regain balance. Like all the areas of discontent in my life can be channeled into specific action steps that will transform my life experience from this point forward.

Something about a new beginning recharges my battery, helps me shake my past failure, and motivates me to work harder at the things I decide matter most. Starting over in January (or February) feels like a fresh chance to apply what I learned through trial and error, as well as through joy and success in the previous year. This usually involves promising myself that this year I’ll eat healthier, exercise more, figure out our budget, be a more intentional mom and more loving wife, and generally become more disciplined in every area. The problem is, my renewed optimism often leads to an inflated perception of what is actually possible.  No matter how realistic I try to be about my goals for the year, there is always more that I want and need to change in my life than I have the capacity to accomplish.

And so at some point, months, weeks, or even days after I resolve to improve myself, I surrender to the reality that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.  I give up hope for a different future because of my inability to achieve what I set out to do.  Ah, the sting of discouragement.  It’s almost like the failure to meet my goals is more detrimental than not even trying to improve in the first place. Isn’t it better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all?  Yet each time my best efforts fail to bring about desired change, I feel more discouraged, less hopeful, more resigned to self-deprecation in that area.

All that to say, this year I found myself resisting my usually joyful tradition of creating resolutions.  This time around, I didn’t want to make any more empty promises that I couldn’t fulfill.  I didn’t want to put extra pressure on myself to do “one more thing.”  Because all striving for self-improvement has done until now is leave me feeling exhausted.  Beyond empty resolutions, I want this year to be different somehow—not just hoping it will be different, but experiencing real, lasting change.

Truthfully, my need for change is deeper than just the things I do—it’s my attitudes, thoughts, and hidden life that come out in behaviors that are much easier to try and fix than what lies beneath. If I’m honest, I don’t need just changed behavior, I need a transformed heart.  I long for a new beginning, a fresh start in so many areas, yet I’m painfully aware that my best efforts consistently fall woefully short:

My inability to deal with stress reveals itself when I raid the pantry for anything sweet that will bring temporary relief. I can cut out sugar to limit stress eating for a while, but anxiety always returns to test and eventually break my resolve. I need a deeper peace.

My lack of patience leads to words of frustration spoken harshly to my daughter at bedtime.  I try to remember to be the grown up who is bigger, kinder, wiser, and stronger—but then she gets out of bed just one more time and I become the parent I don’t want to be.  I need greater compassion.

My limited time and perspective make it impossible to be the friend I want to be to all the people I want to love.  I fail to pursue, miss opportunities to encourage, and cause hurt feelings by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I need real forgiveness.

My controlling agenda and selfishness with how I want to use my time comes out in anger and tears when my toddler wakes up early from a nap we both needed. My best attempt to spend a moment of quiet in prayer turns to frustration and mental expletives in a heartbeat—what a quick decent into ugliness. I need redeeming grace.

My self-centered view of marriage as a means to meet my emotional needs leads to resentment toward my husband when his needs conflict with mine. We both crave honest vulnerability and connection, yet all too often he experiences bitterness and disengagement from the wife who promised to put his needs above her own.  I need authentic love.

The list goes on and on. I need a new beginning not just every 365 days, but every day.  Throughout the day.  No matter how many times I resolve to live right, I come up short—and even if I manage slight improvement, I’m still not fully the woman I was created to be.  And I feel it.

My struggle with perfectionism tempts me to try harder, dig deeper, discipline myself more to be my best self.  The truth is, no matter how hard I work, we all fall short of God’s perfect, glorious standard.[i] I’m not just being hard on myself here—we were made to dwell with Perfection. The frustrating thing about living outside of Eden is that imperfection comes with being human, and it keeps us separate from the Life we were made for. We either seek satisfaction in places that fulfill us incompletely or numb ourselves to the disappointment that life is not what we hoped. These moments remind me that I’m missing something—I’m not the complete version of who I was created to be, and I’m unable to effectively, permanently change myself.  I need Divine rescue from the endless cycle of striving for self-improvement.

Maybe what I need this year isn’t to spend more energy striving to change the things I do; instead, I want to stop “doing” and let Grace transform the person I am. I want this year to be the year when I really learn what it means to receive God’s acceptance, surrender to his rescue from self-made perfection, and live in the beauty of a new beginning.

Peace instead of anxiety.

Compassion instead of impatience.

Forgiveness instead of failure.

Grace instead of control.

Love instead of resentment.

I don’t have to live in the hopelessness of my moments of ugliness, and I don’t have to depend on my own grit and determination to change myself.  I don’t have to be perfect, because I know Someone who already is—and his perfection rubs off on anyone willing to come close.

Hope is believing that change is possible—even if I’m not there yet. So this year, instead of working harder, I’m choosing to be more thankful for gifts of grace all around me.  I’m on the lookout for ways that God is already showing up for me, through me, and all around me.  Because when we spend our energy noticing the gifts of Love, our eyes and mind and heart focus on what’s true: God sees us and wants us, just as we are.  And thankfulness leads to transformation.

I’ve started keeping what my husband calls my “Joy Journal,” literally writing down the sweet moments and morsels of joy that I notice each day, no matter how big or small. It wasn’t my idea—I took it from a beautiful book that a friend recommended over a year ago called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. There is something about keeping an actual written record that makes thankfulness more than just a passing thought—it’s like training my mind to make gratitude an automatic default.

The more I look, the more I’m starting to see Grace everywhere:

my fresh cup of coffee brewed just before I wake;

relief at a doctor’s visit;

the friend willing to watch my kids while they’re sick;

an unexpected date night;

family wrestling matches;

honest conversation;

a moment of sunshine to break up the fog;

those little arms wrapped tight around my neck…

There are always more nuggets of joy than I have time to write down. And the most beautiful thing? The list of gifts is always longer than my list of failures. Always.

The real relief for me this year is in believing that I don’t have to wait until January 1st to have a new beginning.  Today is a fresh start.  This moment.  As I choose to receive the gift of surrender, trading striving for thanksgiving, I find freedom to live fully in this beautiful moment. Imperfect but alive.

[i] Romans 3:23, New Living Translation