Advent Culminates With the Beginning

This Advent season, I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. I like to know where the journey is going, to at least have an endpoint. But that’s not life or faith. I’m remembering that God has gifted us very few answers and endings and instead keeps pointing us back to the beginning. I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today reflecting on what I’m learning this season. Here’s an excerpt – I hope you’ll head over and join the conversation!

We are in the midst of Advent, which looks like lighting a candle each night before dinner and reading a short devotion from a kid-friendly book. Our oldest is now able to do the bulk of the reading which has added an incredible element to our evenings. Because she gets the spotlight for the reading, she has graciously ceded the extinguishing of the candle to her younger sister, meaning we have one less quibble at the table. There’s also something amazing about passing on the reading after seven years of finding the “perfect fit.” It’s a reminder of why we create imperfect habits and rhythms as a family. Now, our girls can’t imagine life without Advent readings and I am grateful that it’s an ingrained part of our year.

I’ve been thinking about imperfect habits lately and how it translates to my view of God and faith. Recently, I was reading the parable of the lost son in Luke 15. It’s a story I’ve read countless times since I was a child and recently taught to the kindergarten Sunday school class at our church. As an oldest, rule-following child, I’ve always had empathy for the elder son. I absolutely understood his frustration at watching the mistakes of his younger brother celebrated. Growing up, I was taught to be like the younger son, and not like the ungrateful and shortsighted older one. But the other day, I was struck with the way this parable ends.

After listening to his oldest son, the father says, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32, NIV)

And there the story ends. We don’t know what happens next. Head over to SheLoves to read the rest!

Where do you see God in the beginnings? What epiphanies are you having this Advent season?

Balancing Environmental Disturbances

The more I learn, the more I unravel. Favorite childhood books are coming under scrutiny and it’s hard to balance nostalgia with a sense of doing better. Last week, I grappled with the idea of Intermediate Disturbance Hypothosis, the idea that too much disturbance is just as harmful as too little diversity. Here’s an excerpt––head over to SheLoves to read the whole essay!

My seven-year-old daughter and I just finished reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It took us all summer with stops and starts because of camping trips and visits with family. I was amazed at how engaged Bea was in the story since this was the first “capital L” piece of literature we tried.

About halfway through the story, Bea stopped me and declared, “There are no girls in this story! Why not?!”

I turned to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1937. We talked a bit about the time period in which Tolkien was writing—that fantasy wasn’t a “girl’s audience.” Bea wasn’t convinced.

When we finished the book, I asked her how she liked it. She decided it was good but added, “I’m writing two more versions. One with only girls and one with both boys and girls so that they’re even.”

I was recently talking with a friend about the books we read with our children. Should I get rid of all the Dr. Seuss books in our house because of his racist artwork? What about Ma’s fear of the Osage Nation as they built a cabin on occupied land? Should all our books pass the Bechdel test, requiring two named female characters to have a conversation with each other?

Our answer is no… not yet.

My husband read the entire Little House series with Bea. I’ve read The Hobbit with her. Our bookshelves still have well-loved copies of Hop on Pop and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? Our answer, as with most of our parenting choices, is really, let’s talk about it. Let’s think critically about our choices. But let’s not ban anything just yet.

As someone who values history and context, I want to raise my girls with a sense of place in time. We are not making decisions in a vacuum—the stories we hear, the politics we support, the ways we think about God are all products of hundreds of years of stories, literature, and collective behaviors. Some of these behaviors are unhealthy, both to us individually and to society as a whole. Most of our western nations have been built on the foundation of colonialism and slavery of some sort. We can’t escape it.

So how do we raise kids who are aware and knowledgeable? How do we start to repair the sins of the past? Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the conversation!

What foundational book do you find yourself questioning today? How do you hold the tension between growth and appreciation for the journey?

The Ten Blessings in “No Other Gods”

I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today introducing our Red Couch Book Club September read, No Other Gods by Ana Levy-Lyons. It’s a book about the Ten Commandments and shifting our view to that of Ten Blessings. Levy-Lyons helped me bring these ancient guidelines into my own daily practices. Here’s an excerpt. I hope you’ll head over to SheLoves to join the conversation!

This summer, my seven-year-old asked why we need speed limits. I thought a moment before replying, “Well, I think it’s because we have trouble loving our neighbors without rules. In a perfect world, every driver would be thinking about kids playing and other people on the road but sometimes we need laws to help us be safe.” We then went on to talk about other laws that would be solved by remembering to love our neighbor.

This is the crux of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments by Ana Levy-Lyons. She takes what can often feel like an obvious and antiquated set of rules and brings them into modernity. What do these practices show us about loving God and loving our neighbors?

I find it interesting that it took centuries of human existence before God had to explicitly spell out how we need to interact with each other. Maybe God held out hope that we’d figure it out through natural consequence? Regardless, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus narrative, the people had trouble blending their routines and expectations. They needed guidelines and a set of non-negotiable boundaries and so the Ten Commandments were given.

I think most of us can map out these ten ways to live: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, honor your parents. These are guidelines that make any community run well. I mean, when’s the last time you really struggled with not stealing something or with murderous thoughts?

Levy-Lyons brings these commandments into a “Ten Blessings” type of practice. What does it really mean for us in the twenty-first century to not covet our neighbor’s property? What does it mean for people to honor their parents when they come from an abusive home? I think we’ve all seen how these rules have been distorted to benefit those in power but how do we live them out in our daily lives?

Through the lens of liberation justice, Levy-Lyons breathes new life into this text. Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the discussion!

Have you read No Other Gods? How do you incorporate the Ten Commandments into your life?

Loving My Neighbor Through School Choice

Over the summer we were at a family gathering halfway across the country. It was a lot of catching up and conversation about education came up. A cousin asked if ours was a good school and I hesitated. Yes, our school is an incredible school! We love it and our teachers. My daughter is thriving and her curiosity is encouraged. But it’s also a school that recently went on academic probation. Our test scores are low, mostly due to the fact that we have a large immigrant and refugee population – one of the things that drew us to our neighborhood. I laughed and said, “Good is such a relative marker.”

We went on to talk about the point of education. Is it to ensure our first graders are constantly challenged or is it to build empathy? Is it to check off a list of skills our kids need to know or is it to learn to be in community, to love our neighbors? For our family, we knew we could fill in any academic gaps that may arise on our own. But it would be much harder to expose our kids to families whose values, economic capabilities, and cultural backgrounds are different from our own.

When we moved to our neighborhood, our oldest was two years old – not even in preschool yet. We knew we were moving into one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our state and also into a highly respected school district. When we walked to our neighborhood school, just a block away, on the weekends to play, we were greeted with an enormous sign, announcing its status as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

Before having kids, I earned a master’s degree in urban education and taught for seven years at a charter school. I had studied the positive impacts of investing in neighborhood education while also working with families who had decided to choice into a different school. I enjoyed my time at a charter school, mostly because my grade level teammate was an incredible teacher. I knew the gift of working with her wouldn’t come often. Our school was a good fit for a lot of families but teaching at a charter was a reminder that there were excellent teachers there and there were people who would probably thrive in a different profession. The curriculum was good but not great. There were highly involved families and families who outsourced a lot of responsibility to the school. What I’m saying is, charter schools are not a magic cure. They have pros and cons, just like public schools.

As attendance to neighborhood public schools dwindles nationwide, my husband and I believed we were brought to our particular neighborhood for a reason. A natural outgrowth of that was to send our children to the school closest to us, where we could walk and meet other families in our area. Going to our local public school was the perfect opportunity to live out one of the Bible’s greatest commands: To love our neighbor.

Our dreams were realized at our school. Our daughter has had absolutely incredible teachers who love her and have poured into her curiosity. She has interacted with students from all over the world – over 40 cultures are represented. Just like my experience as a teacher, there are families who are highly involved and families who outsource responsibility to the school system. And they aren’t always the families you would expect.

Last year, our school went on academic probation. My husband asked if this impacted my love for our community and honestly, it made me value our school even more. When I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom each week, I see teachers who are highly committed to each and every student. When I spend each Wednesday morning teaching English to our immigrant parents, I see moms who are working hard to give their children the best opportunities. I love knowing I am raising my kids among these incredible families, regardless of what a test score shows.

I know school choice is a complex issue. There are as many reasons for choosing a school as there are schools and students. We all want what’s best for our kids. We have close friends who send their daughter to a private school that represents their minority religion and other friends who have chosen a charter school that offers Spanish immersion. We have friends who are as in love with and committed to their neighborhood schools as we are and we have friends who have chosen other options based on a variety of other needs.

As your kids enter school, I’d encourage you to ask: What motivates your school choiceIs it what’s truly best for your child and your neighbors? Is it motivated by fear of the unknown? 

Lean into where God has planted your family – perhaps there’s a reason … I know I have seen God at work in unexpected ways, right here at our neighborhood school and I am thankful I was here to witness it.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/school-choice-questions-ask/

One September Morning

I think my baby girl was about 6 weeks old when I first felt the itch to expand our world beyond the hammock in our backyard. While I loved snuggling my sweet newborn, I knew we needed a community. I was one of the first in our group of friends to have a baby and so I didn’t have a lot of stay-at-home girlfriends to lean on.

I remember typing in “MOPS near me” to Google one morning, knowing that an aunt of mine was a MOPS mentor for a group at her church in California. As little pinpoints filled the map on my screen, I wondered how I would pick one of the several groups that met within a couple miles of our house.

When my daughter woke from her morning nap, I closed my computer, packed a diaper bag with more essentials than I would ever bring with our second baby, strapped Bea into her car seat, clicked it into the stroller, and walked up the block on our first outing to our neighborhood library’s Book Babies hour.

Of course, we arrived late because that’s what moms of newborns do. As I unloaded and sat in the back of the group, a mom without a baby in her lap leaned over with a smile and welcomed me. Later, during “free play” time, she asked for my life story. Kathy is one of those women who probably knows details about everyone she’s in contact with––from regulars in the checkout line to those at her church. She has the ability to ask all the right questions and to make anyone feel safe and comfortable.

As we talked, she invited me to the MOPS group that had just started at her church. It was one of the farthest in my Google search but still only a five- minute drive from our house. I decided that this conversation was Divine Intervention. A few days later, I walked into a church and was greeted with coffee, muffins and women who wanted to know me. Kathy wasn’t there but she had told the leader about a new mom she had met at the library. This group was expecting me and I knew I had found my home.

As I sat at a table, holding my baby, watching the other moms work on a craft project, another mom asked if she could hold Bea so I could make my own craft. Before I knew it, April was bouncing her next to our table as I found myself with baby-free arms for the first time since giving birth.

It’s been seven years since that moment and I can now say with confidence, that morning was life-changing. These women have become our family’s close friends. We’ve celebrated birthdays and baby showers together, we’ve gone to each other’s homes for dinners and watch each other’s kids in a pinch. Recently, my family switched from our church of 10 years to fully commit to the community at our MOPS church. It has always been home, even though it took us time to realize that.

Looking back, that day in September seems so random. It’s rare when God speaks so loudly or so quickly to my questions. As school starts back, I’m looking for those nudges again. Where is God leading me? What relationships do I need to invest in? What volunteer opportunities will fit our family in this season? How will I look back on this season and recognize that God was speaking loud and clear?

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/mops-story-one-september-morning

Front Yard Living

At the beginning of the summer, during our daily Quiet Rest Hour, the energy in our house changed. I looked up from my book and felt that it had gone from Quiet Rest “Quiet” to eerily and suspiciously “Quiet.” I closed my book and walked upstairs where I found my oldest daughter obediently and happily reading in her room. My three-year-old was not in her room or in the playroom – our two designated Quiet Rest spots.

I looked into our garage and, sure enough, found the door open and a tricycle missing. Barefoot, I walked out to the front, crossed the street, and headed toward the most likely of our neighbors. There I found my daughter and her friend playing sweetly in the driveway. I waved to our neighbor who told me that, when asked, my daughter confirmed I knew exactly where she was.

Welcome to our neighborhood. Of the eight houses in our cul-de-sac, seven know my kids and take an interest in our daily lives. Three have an open-door policy, meaning if I can’t find my kids, I’m fairly certain where to look. But really, I know exactly where my girls are: out in the street, biking, playing, imagining, building forts, and exploring with the neighborhood kids and grandkids.

This community didn’t happen overnight. When we moved into our house in the suburbs four years ago, it was December so we didn’t have much of an idea about our neighbors. We had a good feeling – right away, people stopped to introduce themselves and I often found our driveway and sidewalk miraculously shoveled after a snowstorm. As winter merged into spring, we found ourselves outside more and more often.

Garage doors stayed open, front porches were filled in with comfortable chairs and hanging plants, and I discovered we had moved into a neighborhood of front yard people.

I responded by moving our water table to the front yard, stocking our freezer with Otter Pops, and learning the value of shifting from the backyard to the front yard. Often, my inclination is to go out back, where I can read quietly in our hammock, where my preschooler can run through the sprinklers naked, and where we have a sweet haven from the busyness of life.

Our backyard still functions as that but it has become so much more. When we intentionally decided to shift to living out front, we invited our neighbors into our lives. We met the little girl across the street, who is nearly the same age as our oldest. We met the grandparents whose grandkids often bike with our girls. We sat on front lawns and learned the stresses and joys of each other’s lives.

There’s a cost to living out front. We’ve had to navigate boundaries and space when it comes to kids trooping in and out of our side gate. On stressful days, I just want to close the door and hunker down and that’s not always possible.

Choosing community can often be messy. And yet, I wouldn’t give up that intention for the world. Now, as our kids grow and our activities have changed, we’re not just hanging out in front as often. Already I feel pangs of nostalgia as our kids get busier. I’m thankful for the newborn down the street, knowing that front yard living will continue for a few years more.

I think back to that relatively simple act of moving the water table out front and marvel at all that unfolded from there. Even as summer comes to an end and we look toward more structured days, I think about small ways I can keep my focus on our neighbors – from bringing a book or my computer out front to wave as others walk by to date nights after bedtime on the front porch rather in the backyard, I want to continue the spirit of loving my neighbors well by being present in my neighborhood.

What is one small shift you can make to live in your front yard more often? Perhaps sidewalk chalk or bubbles in the front yard will help you meet new neighbors? I am amazed at the ways the simplest acts bring about community.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: https://blog.mops.org/backyard-front-yard-living/

Summer Rhythms

My first summer as a new mom didn’t really feel like summer. I had been staying home nearly a year and so, as I watched moms with older kids reframe their schedules and lament the loss of alone time that school provided, our routine stayed the same. Some things did change. After attending MOPS for that entire school year, I started getting invitations for playdates. A group of moms met for weekly hikes at trails around town and I started experiencing a new world of exploration.

Now, six years later, I’m one of those moms I looked up to. The one who is restructuring schedule and figuring out how to create space for the quiet and alone time I got used to, even with just two mornings a week to myself while our youngest was at preschool.

I hesitate to give advice or share our summer routine because what works for our family could translate to the most stressful summer for yours. One thing I’ve learned over my almost-seven years of motherhood is to try to take the path that is least stressful. If I’m calm and happy, it’s likely my kids will be calm and happy.

Some of my friends make lists of things to do in the summer months so if the kids are bored, they have a preplanned set of ideas to fill the time. I recently read about a mom coordinating her days into “Movement Mondays” and “Water Wednesdays” so their weeks have a rhythm and structure. I know another mom who lets each of her four kids pick one activity they want to do during the summer. She doesn’t guarantee which day they’ll do it but she does promise to make time for those activities.

In our house, summers are for slow mornings in our pajamas, for playdates and water fun, for Costco-sized boxes of OtterPops, for riding bikes after breakfast and before dinner, for extra screen time and reading in our backyard tree castle. As my girls grow, I’m finding a natural rhythm to our days. My oldest thrives on sticker charts and created one for our fridge. I don’t know what reward she’s working toward, but she’ll tidy, sweep, and read to her sister all for the promise of an extra sticker. It works for now.

I thought I’d share a handful of rhythms we’re creating this summer. They didn’t all work last year and they most likely won’t all work next year but in this moment, they are what give me space and the structure I need in these blissfully unstructured days.

Chores Before Screen Time

Normally, I don’t link screen time to a rewards system because screen time is my time. Making my girls give it up means I’m giving up a quiet space in our day. But this year, my almost seven-year-old really wanted to start a chore chart so I did link screen time to her simple chores. Mondays she tidies the main floor, Tuesdays she sweeps, Wednesdays she cleans her bedroom. You get the idea. The baseline is minimal. If she kind of does these chores, she gets screen time. I figure anything is better than nothing and so far it’s decreased my nagging. For me, the key is trying rather than perfection. Our nearly four-year-old is off the hook for this. If she tries at all, we’re good!

Fun Meal Planning

I try to involve my kids in our weekly meal planning anyway, but summers are for saying yes to more. When my youngest asked for cake for dinner, I googled savory cakes and was amazed at the choices! This simple yes means something new in our meal rotation and it feels like a celebration. The other day we ordered pizza, spread the picnic blanket in our front yard, and had an impromptu dinner. Suddenly our normal Friday fare became an out of the norm experience. I’m trying to remember this philosophy in other areas of our days. We have to eat anyway—what’s a simple way to make a normal meal special? What are other daily tasks that can be made fun? Is there a playground next to the grocery store? Can you stop there for a few minutes before your errands? Is there an ice cream shop on the way to another place? Taking some time to mix up your routine feels incredibly special to kids of all ages.

Relaxed Rhythms

Our family works well when we’re on a rhythm rather than a strict schedule. If possible, I like to spend the first few days of summer establishing a new routine. For us, this looks like busier mornings and quieter afternoons. Even though we’re long out of the napping phase, if we’re home we practice an hour of quiet rest after lunch time. Sometimes this means going to our separate rooms with a book. The other day, my girls took their books to the backyard tree fort for the hour. Whatever we do, it has to be an activity that involves minimal interaction with me so that we can all rest.

None of these rhythms happen perfectly on any given day. But because I’m choosing to practice and model them, on those longer days it’s easier to lean into this modified schedule.

If you’re able, take five or ten minutes to think about what gives you the most energy in your mothering. If you need that hour of quiet and space every day, take the time to train your kids to give you that. It won’t be perfect but it will be better than nothing. If you thrive on activity and unique experiences, make a list with your kids and plan out some summer adventures! Just remember that whatever you choose, it has to give you joy and life.

I’m leaning into the paradox of embracing the spontaneity summer offers while creating a structure and rhythm to our days that will keep us sane and safe. It’s what works for our family in this given season and I’m remembering to listen to that more than anything.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: https://blog.mops.org/summer-rhythms/