Saying goodbye to the church I’ve grown to love

Eight and a half years ago I moved to Louisville KY as a bright eyed college student ready to find the church of my own choosing. I hadn’t thought about the specifics, but I knew I wanted something fresh. I was leery of what I thought “traditional” meant: stale and cold and rote. To put it plainly and honestly, I set out to find a really “cool” church. But as God would have it, I walked in the doors of Third Avenue Baptist Church.

At the time the carpet was red and the baptistery had matching curtains. There were pews and suits and lots of ESV Bibles. There was standing up and sitting down. There were hymns. There was somberness. There were 4 singers lined up off to the side of the stage and hidden behind them was instruments and their players. Everyone, including those singers up front, were looking down at the words of their bulletins as they sang. The pastor wore a suit and a tie. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly the rockin’ church I expected. I wasn’t blown away. I wasn’t immediately wowed. It wasn’t love at first sight. But for some reason, I kept going back. And at the time I couldn’t even tell you why; especially when my 3am Saturday night paper writing self kept nodding off during the longest sermons I had ever sat through in my life.

But now I see it more clearly. It wasn’t about stylistic preferences or aesthetics or the fuzzy feelings I left with. I think ever so slowly and subtly it was the people. They are what kept bringing me back. The people who saw the invisible line I was drawing between me and the exit door and who stood in the middle of it. The people who held out a hand and introduced themselves. The people who invited me to Sunday lunch down the road. The people whose lives were so clearly intertwined with one another already, yet still welcomed me, a mere stranger. They were like a family. But not the closed off kind. So as cliche as it sounds, their love won me over. And I wanted in on it. So I kept going back.

And now, hundreds of introductions and invites and (wakeful) sermons later, I am saying goodbye as my family and I move out of state. And in the bittersweet process of leaving I’m reflecting on what this place, no really these people, have forever impressed upon my understanding of what a healthy church is.

Intentionality doesn’t have to mean originality

While the family like feel of this church slowly started to warm my heart, the evident intentionality behind why they did what they did quickly eased my mind. It also corrected it. It exposed the equation my mind had made that repetition and liturgy meant disingenuous. I quickly saw that nothing at Third Avenue was done a certain way just because “it’s the way it’s always been.” Everything, from the singers on the side of the stage to the timing of each pause between transitions, was done with a purpose. Actions that were born out of purposes and purposes that were born out core values and commitments and covenants. Overall, it was all done in order to lift up feeble and weary and longing eyes to the reigning King of Kings.

The body is broken and beautiful

It didn’t take long for me to become proud to call this church my own. The intentionality, the solid teaching, the intellectual depth, the out-working of love for each other and for neighbors and for the nations. But it took many years for me to see that I was still referring to this church in terms of “they” and not so much in terms of “we.” I felt a little more like an admirer from afar and not a family member from within. But then. It was then that I decided to dig in deep. To be close enough to really find out and really be found out. To know and be known. Turns out, this really extraordinary place was made up of pretty ordinary people. Flawed and quirky and struggling and sinful human beings all fumbling to the cross, together. But it was more beautiful than I ever could have seen from staying on the outside. The exterior was polished and pretty but the interior was full of a kind of beauty and wonder that was other-worldly. It was rich and messy and hard, and so very glorious.

Worship isn’t only personal

Something seemingly very strange that stood out to me from the beginning was that if people were not looking down at their bulletins while singing, they were looking around at one another. I came to find out that these people weren’t looking around because they were distracted or because they were trying to find the person who they were saving a seat for or because they were just plain strange. They were looking around as if to say “come on church, sing it with me.” As if to declare that we are in the waiting and working and worshipping, together. As if to scan the room and catch a glorious glimpse and tiny taste of the kind of diversity that will all be gathered around the throne some day with unhindered voices. I’ve grown in understanding that while the Christian life is intimately personal it is also intensely corporate. Whether on a Sunday morning gathered or a weekday evening scattered, we sing songs loudly and we fight sin seriously and we pursue spiritual disciplines gladly, both with one another and for one another. Because one single ligament affects the whole body.

The Word speaks for itself

Matt Smethurst says “I don’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten, but they’ve kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride.” While so many of pastor Greg’s abrupt motions and rich realities and simple sub points will not be easily forgotten, this statement by Matt expresses so well what I believe has happened inside of me as I’ve sat under the preached Word of God. What may have been momentarily forgettable in my mind has made an eternal impact in my soul. In my most unbiased opinion, Greg Gilbert is an exceptionally gifted preacher. But my time at Third hasn’t left me more reliant on him. It’s left me more reliant on Gods Word. Because that’s all he’s done time and time and time again: open up ancient and active Words and let them do their job. The job of convicting and comforting and saving and sustaining. I’ve witnessed how the gospel being preached from the pulpit brings a dead heart to life. My pastors haven’t done anything fancy but they’ve done something that is faithful. And by the grace of God, I have once again been a recipient of this powerful and precious thing called faithful preaching. And I will never be the same because of it.

Unity is a gift that is graciously given and fiercely fought for

I will not quickly forget the picture my pastor once laid out about the enemy planting grumbling and gossiping bombs all around us and among us. All it takes is a slanderous whisper, a biting comeback, an unchecked assumption, or an intentionally exclusive invite for little explosions to lie in wait. Slowly cracking and corroding and corrupting Jesus’ blood bought unity. So we pray for God to grant it and we work hard to protect it. I’ve witnessed firsthand how unity doesn’t mean we check all the same political or theological or life station boxes but it means that we all set aside our preferences and differences to bow down before the cross of Christ. And it is there, at the foot of the cross, that our unity is created and found and kept.

Serving is not for me

My once needed-and-noticed pastors daughter self sat in a Third Avenue members interview being asked if I, along with all other men and women in the church, would volunteer in the nursery and join a home group. Uhh. That’s it? That’s your serving opportunities? Yet it was through this process I learned the valuable distinction between being important and being indispensable. I learned that I could freely love those in my circle while also knowing that the whole of my church would carry on without a slight hinge when I left it. I became painfully aware that far too often I wanted to give with the subtle desire to gain. Be it public recognition or personal satisfaction. This drove me to see the beauty in serving quietly and averagely and ordinarily in a church that didn’t really “need” me. At least not in all the ways I wanted to be needed. Because the reality is that where there are people, there are needs. There are kids to be watched and meals to be delivered and houses to practice hospitality in and sufferers to sit with. It was so very good for me to learn how to serve in the shadows by simply showing up.

Love welcomes in and sends out

When I joined Third Avenue eight years ago I had no intention of sticking around for so long. Yet many years later when we settled in and started raising a family I had no idea we would leave so quickly. So much has happened in these eight years yet it feels like we’ve just barely gotten started. We never thought we’d stay, but once we stayed, we never really thought we’d leave. And now here we are. Along with so many others in this uniquely transient church. In a church where people are stayers longer than planned and goers more quickly than expected. Along with missionaries and pastors and planters being flung out all around the globe. Along with those moving back to be closer to family. Along with those joining up with other churches. It can be hard to love by letting people in. It can be even harder to love by letting them leave. This church, my church, has taught me how to embrace the coming and the going. How to latch on and how to let go.

And now, the hands that brought us in gently are the same hands that send us out gladly. So we go. With this piece of Third Avenue DNA that we will always carry with us. That we will always seek to insert and implant where we can.

Not because she is a flawless bride but because she clings to a faithful Christ.

6 years, 6 lessons

1. Protect each other’s limits

Something Kyle and I have been learning over the years is that we have different limits than others, including one another. This year particularly we have grown in applying that knowledge of each other’s limits. In not only acknowledging them but moving into an acceptance of them and then acting in a way that promotes and protects them. In letting our spouse draw their own boundaries and then helping to keep them.

More personally, for me to lovingly respect Kyle’s limits often means gladly and graciously cutting off a show to make sure he gets the sleep he needs. Or recognizing his signs of word fatigue and being willing to cut off a conversation and pick it up again later. For Kyle to loving respect my limits it often means gladly and graciously cutting work hours to make sure I get the rest and reprieve I need from home life. Or recognizing my signs of social fatigue and being willing to say no to a get together with friends and planning one for another time. We all have different capacities. And they matter. We have grown in seeing how failing to respect and protect those capacities can produce burn out and break down. Yet on the other hand, how fighting to respect and protect those capacities can produce health and wholeness.

2. Push each other’s limits

While we have seen the necessity of protecting limits we have also seen the benefit of pushing them. Like in all of marriage, promoting and protecting can create the kind of trust that is required for pushing. We are more likely to allow those who selflessly serve us to also stretch us. Serving does not shove. It does not obtrude or insist. It sees what is good for the other and it gently nudges and urges towards that end. It even reaches out a hand and walks to it together. We are finding, often by failure, that there is a way to serve your spouse based off the knowledge of how they are naturally wired to be yet also a way to push them based off who you know they can be and are still becoming.

Practically put, based off of my above examples, I sometimes stay at things longer than I want to and Kyle sometimes sleeps less than he prefers to. I’m in go-go mode more than is comfortable and he listens for longer than is natural. Sometimes we ask this limit pushing of one another with our words and other times we require it of one another with our actions. This kind of stretching and strengthening is being produced in us slowly and subtly. It is kindly and carefully pushing the line of our limit outward. It is increasing our capacity. It is helping us to flex a weak muscle. It is changing us and challenging us in ways we wouldn’t have been. And we are better because of it.

3. Don’t forget to look

I wrote a whole blog on this a few years ago so I’m just going to quote a part of it because after this year with more work hours, more commitments, and more kids this has never been more pertinent —

“There are three words that have the potential and power to bring some meaning in the mundane and some calm in the chaos. And mostly they have a way of re-connecting two people who are already one, but may feel miles apart… I see you. Behind the work clothes you put on every morning and behind that spit up filled t-shirt. I see you. Underneath loads of laundry and stacked up dishes. I see you. With a greeting at the door after a long day. I see you. When you watch with pride or cower in fear. I see you. Having a dance party in the kitchen or disciplining in the back room. I see you. With tired or tear filled eyes. With stretched or scarred skin. With a heavy or happy heart. I see you. Not just the ways you give and the things you do. But you. A person. My person.”

We are ever learning that marriage is about making the choice to re-see each other again and again and again.

4. Put it plainly

Even after many years with a person, it can feel uncomfortable to point blank say what we want. To quite literally spell it out. As in “I really want to spend intentional time with you tonight,” or “it would mean a lot if you would comment on my appearance more” or “it seems like you’re not pulling your weight around the house as much.” I may or may not have been known to even say “THE NOTE (you know that theoretical one that will be real some day) CAN LITERALLY SAY ‘I LOVE YOU, HAVE A GOOD DAY.’ THATS IT. THATS ALL.”

Sometimes spelling it out makes us feel pathetic. Pathetic that we care so much about seven actual words being written to us on a page and left before work but also pathetic that at this point I might as well have just done it for you and pretended it was from you. But the truth is that sometimes the best way to get from where we are to where we want to be is just to lay out the path plainly. Vague hint dropping doesn’t tend to build the best bridges. That doesn’t mean our spouse didn’t care enough to see what was on the other side, it just might mean that they didn’t quite know how to get you there on their own. Prompting and planning do not have to make things disingenuous. Therefore we can still gratefully and graciously receive them for what they are.

5. Schedule the things that matter

Kyle and I both tend to balk at the idea of being planners. As if being described as one is somehow an insult. But we’ve learned the hard way that whether it’s a date night out or a game night in, life doesn’t tend to do us the courtesy of interrupting itself to present a magical moment of deep marital connection. Moments, ones of investing and enjoying and resting, mostly seem to come from carving out time and then committing to it. From sinking calendars together and setting reminders. This boring and rigid thing called planning actually ends up producing an eager anticipation for the weekly routines and the monthly rhythms and the yearly traditions. For the late Friday nights and the slow Saturday mornings. For the folding of laundry together and the texts that say “let’s sit down tonight and check in with each other.” This year particularly it has looked like sitting down every Sunday night to talk about each day of the upcoming week. To try and pencil plans in according to priorities. And oh how I’ve come to look forward to those beautifully boring Sunday nights of planning and praying with my husband.

I think overall what I’m trying to say is that we’re still learning that relationships are just not as glamorous or spontaneous or romanticized as we like to think they are or should be. That it really takes ordinary people doing ordinary things. It’s mundane and adultish and slightly disappointing. But maybe extraordinary marriages are really just made up of lots of little ordinaries through the years. The little ordinaries that become extra ordinaries.

6. Time really is a good teacher

Recently a quote was shared with Kyle that says, “in marriage there are good years and bad years. This was a very good year.” As I’ve been thinking about the tension of time, particularly as it collides with marriage, I thought there really wasn’t an easier or better way to state it. Marriage is up and down, back and forth, round and round. It is not so much a steady climb or upward trajectory. After all, nothing in life is always and only moving in one set direction.

Yet I think there is another element to time that comes into play. It’s the reality that, in general, time really does change things. And us. I’ve always found it a bit disheartening when people offer advice and encouragement in the form of “it just takes time.” But I get. Because it’s true. Time does have its own unique way of helping and healing and strengthening. Time takes… time. We cannot speed it up. But on our 6th Anniversary I can say that Kyle and I have already been married for long enough to at least begin seeing that life together is full of reoccurrences. Reoccurrences that allow us to keep revising and keep messing up and then keep trying again.

Whether it’s painting a room, hosting a guest, having a baby, or planning for a birthday party… the more times we do something the easier it typically becomes. The twentieth time may not seem as exhilarating as the first, but it usually seems to feel richer and go smoother. Because time teaches some tricks of the trade. It allows us to see where we can bend and where they might break. It shows us how to come out next time and play better as a team. It reminds us what really matters. It allows us to step back and see how much we’ve grown and how far we’ve come. And then it gives us hope for how far we have yet to go.

Because time really does change things.

Navigating differences, diversity, and disabilities with our kids

1. Education and preparation

I always imagined the distinction between kids being raised “in the home” and kids being sent “into the world” to be a much cleaner break. Much more defined and separated. But the reality is that from a very early age, children are ever coming and going. A healthy child’s life is an ongoing intermingling of being carefully sheltered and abruptly exposed, intentionally equipped and utterly unprepared, knowing the answers and coming with all the questions. Because of this, we will never fully prep our kids for all they will encounter.

So while we know there is no possible way to teach our kids every facet of “different” that they may interface with, it is always worth finding ways to intentionally educate them and strategically prepare them to the best of our ability. Because it starts as an innocently curious toddler in the grocery store asking an all too loud question and one day turns into a teenage clique of clones giving those on the outside an all too condescending sneer.

Education and preparation can start at a young age. It can be naturally incorporated into the books that lean on our shelves, the toys that fill up our boxes, the movies that play through our screens, and the food that sits on our plates. As they grow we are the ones who can fill their eyes with all sorts of colors and capabilities, flood their ears with varying accents and impediments, and stuff their tummies with differing cultures and communities. We can go to stores in different parts of town for the sake of exposure and we can visit hospitals and nursing homes for the sake of interaction. We can learn by going outside of our homes and we can also learn by bringing differences and diversity into our homes. As much as we can help it, we shouldn’t let our kids most teachable moments be forced out of us by their own stopping and staring and shouting out questions. But sometimes that’s the way education will unavoidably come, and that’s okay too.

2. Distinguish rudeness vs awareness

Even with an adequate amount of information and preparation, the truth is that kids are uncomfortably curious. They are loudly observant. They are unashamedly honest. And it doesn’t take long to realize that these things can lead to humorous comments but that they can also produce really hurtful ones too.

This is where we can decide what kind of momentary reaction is appropriate to give and what kind of follow up response we may need to bring back up later. When a child makes a remark that is unkind the result can be and should be, correction. Here we can simply and sternly tell them no. Here is where it is right to whisper that we will talk about it later. Where it is necessary to set a rule or a standard or an expected consequence. Where, depending on the context, an apology may be required for their hurtful words. Some examples of what might fall into this category are words like weird, dumb, ugly, or fat. Under no condition can these words possibly be kind, and therefore they are always worthy of correlated correction.

Certain words and descriptions should be locked and linked to sadness and shame. They always only cause sadness and shame in other people and lead to sadness and shame in ourselves. Curiosity, on the other hand, should be welcomed. It should be listened to. It should be answered. There is a place for teaching appropriate voice volume and informing where the best context for curiosity might be. But when neither are applied very well in the moment (particularly at a more unaware age), we should not resort to ignoring and dismissing. We should not react big. Our eyes do have to bug out and our feet do not have to scurry off.

3. Acknowledge differences

In these experiences that feel uncomfortable and awkward, we can choose to take a deep breath and embrace a teachable moment. We can exemplify before our children what it means to stay. It might be appropriate to explain to the other person that our child isn’t very familiar with whatever is probing their curiosity. It might be genuinely welcomed that we ask themselves to explain to our child what something is called or how it works or what their experience has been like in their own body and skin. Or it might be best for ourselves just to confidently answer out loud in a way that is true and positive and informative. For all parties involved, even by standers, to be reminded that acknowledging differences isn’t mean or embarrassing or shameful.

We can use these circumstances to show our kids that mean words lead to isolation but that acknowledging our differences can actually bring us together. It can help us be more aware of others and how they function in the world, and what they uniquely bring to it. They can learn to appreciate what is different and connect in what is the same, if we take the time to let them do so. Kids who see adults run from other people’s differences turn into adults who run away too. We have to teach our kids that differences aren’t dirty. It’s not something they should be taught to avoid or ignore or fear. Of course a person is more than merely what makes them different. But they are also no less than. Differences are not defining, but they are distinguishing.

As Amy Web (author of When Charlie Met Emma) says “different isn’t bad, sad, or strange– different is just different and different is okay!”

4. Celebrate differences

Trillia Newbell, who wrote my favorite kid’s book on diversity, is notable for emphasizing that differences aren’t just something we should acknowledge as true, they are something we should celebrate as good. This is not to dismiss that some differences are indeed marred by sickness and suffering and sorrow, and will one day be wiped away. This is not to naively heroicize or over glamorize the trials and challenges some may have endured due to what makes them different. But it is to ultimately remember that differences are deliberate and therefore differences should be delighted in. The fact that not all variety and variance will be done away with in heaven shows that differences are not a punishment for what we’ve done but that they are a proclamation of who God is. They are, as Trillia so simply and beautifully states, God’s Very Good Idea.

“We live in God’s world. We are all different, and we are also all the same. They might look different or speak different or play different. But they are all made in God’s image, and so they are all valuable. …This is God’s very good idea: lots of different people enjoying loving him and loving each other. God made it. People ruined it. He rescued it. He will finish it.”

And even today, we can begin celebrating it. We can stay and acknowledge differences in front of our kids, and then we can stop and verbally celebrate them. Our kids should hear us say things like “isn’t that cool they were made like that!” Or “yes! God is uniquely reflected in them just like He is in you!”

5. Emphasize asking not assuming

Amy Web who is quoted above (who is also the mind behind 90% of this conglomeration I pieced together) writes that “the line between pity and empathy is razor thin. My general rule to differentiate between the two is that empathy stems from listening to another person’s perspective and reacting accordingly. Pity, however, assumes. Assuming that a person with a disability automatically has a harder, sadder life because of their disability.”

Once again some differences are hard, emotionally or relationally or physically, for the person embodying those differences. But instead of pitying or assuming, we should teach our kids to listen and to learn and to empathize. To respond based on another persons actual experiences and not what our child perceives those experiences to be. We can teach our kids to see others not as just “disabled” but “differently-abled.” We can teach our kids, whether as a child in the store or a middle schooler on the bus, to ask good and kind and clarifying questions. To engage. To listen. And to learn. To not dismiss the differences of others but also not to define them solely by those differences. To know when to say “I don’t know what that’s like, maybe you can help me understand.” And to also know when to say “yeah, I feel that way sometimes too.” We can teach our kids that others may enjoy the same exact things that they do, they just might have to go about enjoying them a little differently. But they can enjoy them differently, together.

6. Teach more than kindness

Amy also so powerfully points out that the goal we are aiming to teach our kids is about more than kindness. It is about friendship and inclusion. Kindness smiles, nods a head, and keeps passing by. Friendship walks towards, puts out a hand, and invites in.

When our kids see us grit our teeth and hear us threateningly whisper to “be kind” they begin to see that person as someone they must obligatorily sacrifice a minute of their time for. Pay their dues to. Check off their nice-things-I-did-today list. When the base line requirement is quick kindness we teach them that they are the only one who has something to give. And we beg of them to give it, if even only for a moment. Of course we do not want our kids to shout at someone shamefully or ignore someone intentionally. But in the end is it really so much better to instruct them to pity someone politely? Who really wants to be othered and ostracized, even if it’s done “kindly” or belittled and bemoaned even if it’s attempted at “sweetly.”

But this is where we must do more than just insist and instruct. We must exemplify. We must show that we are willing to act on the sometimes scary and often vulnerable initiative that inclusion takes. We have to show our kids the lengths that we ourselves will go to, to include and invest and invite. So we call the mom. We admit that we don’t exactly know what the play date or party could look like for them to be included, yet we emphasize that we want their child’s presence and participation, in whatever way might be. We humbly open ourselves up to not having the answers but wanting to work alongside another parent who will work hard to get the answers with us and for us. The same parent who has always worked hard to modify and make ways for their child to be included and befriended. If we are not willing to include and invite, how can we expect our children to?

The results of not teaching them, both by word and by action, how to do this touches us all. As parents, as children, as teachers, and as care givers, we are only robbing ourselves and the world of the unique kind of beauty and joy that being in relationships with those that are different than us can bring. We are choosing to let our kids buck against a way in which they were created to live and to love and to learn.

And in the end it is likely our own child who will miss out on the fruit of inclusion that often bears fun and formative and long lasting, friendship. The real kind. The kind we all need.

Year 29: mottos and mantras

For my birthday this year I decided to jot down some mottos and mantras that I want to mark, at least in part, year 29. This is not intended to be a list of the deepest or truest things about me. Rather it is a small sampling of go-to phrases that I have or do seek to speak into existence in my own life. Some are old, some are new, some are borrowed… and none are really blue. But maybe they will resonate with you too. Or spur you on to come up with your own.

Thanks, friends, for another year of journeying with me and for counting the words I write as valuable of your time and brain space. There are so many voices.. thank you for listening to mine. It’s a humbling gift so many of you have chosen to give me through the years. And I don’t take it lightly.

YEAR 29 HERE WE GOOO.

I do not have to bow down to my feelings nor kick them to the side

It’s true that sometimes emotions need a reset. A walk, a talk, or simply a really good night of sleep. It’s a wonder how emotions can look so different on the other side of them. Often, momentary emotion does not have the best depth perception or offer the most accurate vantage point. But, on the flip side, I’ve realized the harmful mentality of I am/you are “just being emotional.” As if emotions are categorically irrational or misguided. Sure they can result in irrationality or misguidance, but they themselves, are not. Therefore they are not to be discarded as inferiority or weakness.

29 year old Natalie wants to do better about saying things to myself and to others like “yes I’m feeling really emotional about this, but it doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t accurate or valid or necessary.” Boiling blood can lead to battle. Sorrow can lead to empathy. Grief can lead to depth. Exuberant happiness can lead to lifting and lightening spirits.

My emotions aren’t “too much.” They are dreadful masters, but they are powerful guides. And they should know their place, and then take it.

I am a joyful wife and mom

I heard this mantra recently and it resonated with me immediately. Not because I always am, but because I want to be. Because I want to change some deeply rooted projections and perceptions of myself as a sort of “kill joy” mom or wife. And rewrite them. I all too often see myself as an uptight and impatient mom. Or a nagging and neglectful wife. I want to be a wife and a mom who spreads smiles. Who is playful. Who laughs without fear of the future. Who enjoys. Who embraces. Who is simply a pleasant presence. Who is grateful. Who is deeply rooted in peace which finds its expression in joy. I am these things, and want to become them more.

My 29 year old self will continue to speak into who I want to be “Nat, you are a joyful wife and mom.” To write it in my journal every morning. To pep talk it to myself in the mirror. To sticky note it above my sink. To ask the presence of Jesus and his unshakable joy to permeate all I am and all I do. Won’t He do it.

Good for her, not for me

I also heard this one a while ago and am claiming it as my own. This isn’t a snarky “good for her” or an ashamed “not for me.” It is a realization that some things work for others that don’t work the same for us. It is a reckoning with the reality that their good isn’t always the same as my good. It is being able to genuinely cheer others on while simultaneously having security in the way we ourselves choose to do something. It’s a claim that declares that self worth is not decreased or elevated by comparison to another person.

29 year old me is striving to look at another woman’s life, choices, successes and set up and humbly yet confidently say “good for her, not for me.”

Jesus cares about them, or that, more than I do

Although I would never flat out say that I’m “better” than God at anything, I sure can live like it and think like it. I can let myself believe that I am somehow filling in the gaps of His own lack. Maybe I proclaim that holistically he is “more than” me, but in the day to day I can live like justice will not prevail, mercy will not win, and compassion will not be extended, if I myself do not do it. But I’ve been humbly reminded again and again this past year that His heart is the pure original and mine is but a pale reflection. He is all good things in their fullest form. He made good things have their form and he himself is their form.

My 29 year old self will fight to remember that I am called to carry out the heart of God. To be hands and feet. But by no means do I myself make up the heart of God. His heart, in pale and part, is made up in me. And I will preach the gospel to myself that the very heart of God is what sent his innocent son and the savior king to be crucified on a cross as a criminal. I can never weep more longingly, exact justice more perfectly, be moved more sacrificially, or love more fully, than the one who died for me. And for the whole world.

No matter what happens today, a tall frosted glass of milk and a beautiful piece of chocolate will congratulate you on the other side of it

Milk and chocolate do not talk back. They change not. They fail not. They judge not. Most beautifully put, “chocolate is comfort without words.” And dang it sometimes we’re worded out. But never comforted-out.

So me as a 29 year old will wisely listen to the words of Tom and Donna on Parks and Rec to TREAT YO SELF. And for every single day that makes up another year of this life that I have been given- before my head hits the pillow to pray or to plan or to cry or to crash- I will indeed TREAT MYSELF. Because the days are too long, and our life is too short, not to. My heart needs unshakable truth and my soul needs unchanging chocolate.

6 tips on vacationing with kids

1. Stop calling it a vacation

I’ve heard it said that vacationing with kids is really just normal life picked up and put in a different location. And I would add with potentially more tantrums and tiredness. Parents included.

Despite all our hopes and dreams, kids do not hear the word vacation and decide to put their own needs aside for a few days so that their beloved mom and dad can get some rest and rejuvenation from all the hard work they do day in and day out. Yeah, pretty inconsiderate.

While changing the word “vacation” to something like “trip” clearly hasn’t and couldn’t change everything, it can definitely begin the work of eliminating the potential for so many unspoken assumptions and unmet expectations. Personally, it has helped me to see that my glamorized version of vacation is not the only way to have fun and to make memories. And that vacations can be reserved for my peaceful kids-out-of-the-house future, where I’m on a carefree cruise with no earthly idea of what time it is because there are zero schedules to keep (or arguing with my husband about directions to the resort, either way) instead of toting 7 large beach bags towards the water and yelling at small humans to stop complaining about the hot sand and hurry up because we don’t have long before nap time.

2. Give grace

Often as parents we shame or punish our kids for feeling the exact things we do, but dealing with them in their own child-like way. We resent them for not handling change and stress and overload in the very adult and mature ways that we ourselves are not even handling it all in. Family trips can be fun, but they can also bring on a lot of new emotions. And kids feelings are no exception to this.

My own mom reminds me faithfully, in word and in action, that mamatudes are contagious. We can think we are being silent and subtle, but our expressions and demeanor are potent and powerful. When we are snappy and stressed or anxious and insecure, it spreads. Knowing this reality can lead to a lot of pressure to appear perfect in front of our kids. So that our families then look perfect. Especially on what is supposed to be a care free family vacation. But the surprisingly freeing news is that there will never be a perfect trip enjoyed by perfect people. So instead of setting tense tones or plastering on a fake smile, we can acknowledge to our kids and spouses “we’re all feeling lots of things, and we all need to show each other extra understanding and grace right now. Mom needs it too.”

3. Chill out and let it be

I don’t know about you, but having someone tell me to “chill” is just about the surest way to make me throw off every last chill that was still hanging on. But finding ways to whisper to myself that “it really is fine” is often that small but vital shift in perspective that I need. While life doesn’t stop when you leave town for a getaway with your family, it undoubtedly looks different. Life outside of our home, or town, is never going to look exactly like life inside of it does. It sounds obvious but I think we forget that. I know I do. Things are just simply going to look and feel and be, different.

Maybe recognizing that location change lends itself towards all sorts of other change will help us to relax a little. Maybe it will help us stop pushing against the inevitable. Maybe we will be prone to say yes a little more. To later nights and to sleeping in (or to waking up earlier to get going on the fun). To bigger feelings. To different screen time usage and more treat consumption. To risks. To stretching ourselves. Maybe we can restrict a little less and fudge a little more. Maybe we can prioritize fun over formality, for a short time.

We can take from trips what they have to offer each time. This time it may be adventure and laughter. Next time it could be quality time and growth. It might even give moments of rest and nuggets of rejuvenation. It could be utterly exhausting. Whatever it offers though, it’s a blip on the radar of a life filled with ruts and routines. We can learn to take it for what it is instead of projecting all of life onto it. Our kids aren’t ruined. Their teeth aren’t falling out. Their attitude isn’t locked in forever. Bed time isn’t eternally shot. We can chill out a little.

4. Don’t forgo all boundaries

While I’ve learned the importance of “loosening up” when traveling with kids, I’ve also equally learned the importance of setting and keeping clear limits. My own personality prefers a very slow transition from one thing to the next. I, to an annoying extent, get disjointed when I feel like I am abruptly throwing myself from one thing to the next. I crave time to mentally prepare before something and time to decompress/debrief after something. My husband has to lovingly remind me to die small deaths to myself by being more ready and flexible. But, we’ve also together learned the importance of “naming what matters” to us before we go into any given situation. Especially big ones. Like family trips. To verbalize our expectations, our hesitations, and our goals. Even as simple or silly as they might be sometimes.

I think we all need this sort of prep-work to some extent. Especially kids. They need to be told explicitly what is expected of them and reminded plainly what will happen if they do not meet that expectation. We have found that it works best for us all when we set some sort of rule or requirement and follow up with some sort of if/then statement. As in, “if you choose not to show gratefulness while we’re at the water park today then you will sit out for a while.” Etc.

Family trips should have a noticeable separation from normal life but they cannot be totally divorced from it. We have seen that when kids lose all sense of boundaries they lose a sense of safety and stability. And that they actually deep down crave it. Even during, and maybe especially during, the most unordinary times.

5. Check in with each other

Each trip has its own pace and so sometimes regrouping as a family just means turning natural down-time moments into more intentional ones together. Other times though, it takes creatively carving time out of a busy day to separate from other people or activities and check in with yourselves.

As our kids get older we have begun to see the touchy yet necessary balance of “sending out” and “reigning in.” Our kids want to feel independent and free, especially when they have new options of what to play with and who to sit beside. But they also need to be reminded who their home base is. And to have some sort of semblance of regrouping. That could be as small as asking them to run over and give you hugs or high fives. Or all praying together first thing in the morning or singing together last thing before bed. It could also be bigger, like sneaking away for a few hours as a family to make a memory. Or sitting across each other at a table and asking how everyone is doing and what each person is feeling. Checking in. Getting on the same page. Reunifying.

There are many ways to accomplish it, but I think the most important thing is communicating to our kids a family value that will prove to stand firm in the midst of everything else being out of whack: you belong. It will remind them that they are not just to behave like one of us, but that they belong as one of us. This is about reminding them where authority lies, but also who their main team is and always will be. In good times and in bad, whether they like it (or us) or not, we are each other’s. Given by God.

6. Enjoy yourself

As moms especially, I think it’s easy to be so busy trying to make everyone else happy that we forget that time away, whether in a cabin or on a boat or at an amusement park, is ours too. We, too, can adventure and rest and laugh and play. We can make and take time, too. We can allow ourselves to take a step away and breath or to take a step back and observe or to take a step in and experience.

We want to be able to look back at pictures of a happy mama. Not an exhausted one who was busy trying to force everyone else to smile. But one who couldn’t help but smile herself, as she chose to embrace and enjoy the chaotic and imperfect beauty that was all around her.

Our family, not so, vacation.