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The Power of Friendship

I told my daughter today that I needed to write. She said, “You should write about the power of friendship.”

IMG_0632That’s something she thinks about a lot, being just a couple of months shy of 15. This past year has been dominated by a group of friends she and her 18-year-old brother have that call themselves The Marathoners. It started as a small gathering from the youth group at church that got together weekly to watch movies (thus the name “Marathoners,” from movie marathons, not running marathons.)

It’s funny how just watching movies together can bond people so closely.

The group normally met at the home of a young husband and wife who were volunteer leaders with the group. We knew them fairly well, in fact I mentored the wife, getting together with her each week, so we felt comfortable with all the people involved.

Oh my, how this group loves each other. They formed a chat group and message each other numerous times during the day both to solidify plans and to share funny videos, songs, poetry, prayer, or whatever they desire. Many of them even camped together with a couple of the dads for one’s birthday in order to see a meteor shower.

While keeping tabs on the kinds of things they were sharing with each other, I also cautioned my kids to beware of becoming a clique and to be sure they were including FullSizeRender-3others, especially at youth group meetings where there could be those who felt left out. I told them there would be those who were envious of the kids in the “cool group.” They assured me, “Mom, we’re far from the ‘cool kids.'”

Maybe so, but the closeness and love the Marathoners show for each other would be obvious to those observing.

And then something catastrophic happened.

The young wife, whose secrets I had been aware of for quite some time, went public on Facebook that she and her husband were separating and the leadership of the church had told her that she was not allowed to have contact with any of the youth inside or outside of Wednesday night youth group.

FullSizeRenderTwo problems: #1 That statement wasn’t true

and #2 Without any context whatsoever, that announcement sent the Marathoners into a tailspin.

In a rush of texts and tears and frenzied phone calls, we pulled together the Marathoners and the leadership of the youth the very next day, knowing that we needed them to hear the truth of the matter and have a time to process it all together.

I will forever be grateful for the way the leaders handled that meeting, and for the maturity that my kids showed. As we processed together in the following days, my son showed a huge heart for these friends who meant so much to him. And my daughter, who had been very close to the young wife, cried over this situation more than any other in her life, but found solace in the group who leaned in and loved each other even more.

Just a couple of weeks later, both of my kids were asked to speak to upcoming middle school and high school students at a graduation event at church. My daughter, who hates being in front of people, bravely took the stage to address the rising 5th graders and spoke from her heart about how having the right friends and trusting the leaders of TheCity (the name of the youth group) were so very important for their middle school years. If it FullSizeRender 2weren’t for The Marathoners, she didn’t know how she would have survived struggles she had with long-time friends at school. They meant the world to her.

I can’t say that I have a lot of friends still from high school, and certainly not from junior high. Not only do I live on the other side of the country now, but that was almost 40 years ago. But those friendships I have maintained grew and blossomed in the soil of a solid youth group.

This summer, we’re enjoying having the group over to swim. It gets my 2 introvert cave dwellers out a lot more. I love hearing their laughter, watching their friendship and praying for them.

FullSizeRenderThe power of friendship. It can change everything. It’s what Jesus wants for us. Oneness with Him, and oneness with each other.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47 ESV).

From Death, Life

IMG_3589This is my backyard. Looks good, doesn’t it? If you look closely, though, you can spot the imperfections. You can see the tracks the dog has made as he madly chases his thrown ball. You can see the weeds that have gone unpulled. And if you look closer still, you can see where some plants have just not made it, despite our attention.

Recently, I noticed several examples of places where we thought we had taken out a plant that was dead only to find, months later, that it is thriving again. This comes as a surprise to me, but it really shouldn’t, because it’s so much like God. He reminded me of that this morning.

First, around our pool enclosure we have rows of a pretty flowering bush called Ixora. We had a bad frost several years ago, and all those bushes suffered. Over the years the other bushes made a good comeback, but this little one never recovered. So my husband pulled it out.

Or so we thought.

Second, next to our koi pond, we had a little variegated plant called Stromanthe (at least I think that’s what it is). It grew and blossomed and did really well. For awhile. Then the leaves started turning brown. Though it was large and seemingly happy, something was not right in its little world, and it started to decline. I tried pruning it back, cutting away the dried brown leaves and trying to shape it up a little. But it didn’t respond to my touch. Eventually, we made the decision to pull it out and once again my husband did the deed.

Or so we thought.IMG_2048

Third, we had a beautiful avocado tree in our backyard tragically eaten by beetles. I wrote about that several years ago. You can read that story here. When we found a gnawed-upon fruit that the squirrels had discarded sprouted in the corner of the yard, we thought, well, what could it hurt? So we transplanted that tiny seedling into our front yard, watered it daily, kept an eye on it and hoped. You can read about that part of the story here.

And then something miraculous happened in all 3 cases. New life.

IMG_8106Our pulled-up Ixora is small but blossoming.

The seemingly dead Stromanthe is tiny but growing.

And that little avocado seedling is now a nearly 20-foot tall tree and has fruit of its own.

Amazing.

And the lesson here? Other than caring for, watching and hoping, we did nothing to cause the new growth. It was only and always in the hands of the Creator. Sometimes it took mere months to see the growth; sometimes, as in the case of the avocado, it took IMG_8077years.

In the letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7 ESV).

Do you have a child who is straying? Pray, love, care for, encourage, don’t give up hope. God is at work, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Given up on your marriage? As long as there is breath in your body, pray, nurture, and don’t give up hope. Oh, please, don’t give up hope.

Do you see only death around you? Death of dreams, of chances, of families? Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

IMG_8102Make no mistake, we have had other plants over the years that have, simply put, died. The uprooting was complete and they never came back to life.

Sometimes children never come back to the Lord. Sometimes marriages fail, despite our best efforts.

But God.

He is still working. Sometimes the new life and growth is in our wandering child or our wounded marriage. And sometimes it’s simply and profoundly in us.

 

Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline

I survived my kids little years. I not only survived them, I enjoyed them. I had great community, an involved husband and a knowledge that whatever struggles I encountered—and there were many—would be soon past. But not every mom thrives in motherhood, especially with little kids. For those in the midst of the mess, I would like to present to you author and mom Catherine McNiel and her book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.

hi-res-book-coverTell us about your book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.

Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.

Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?

 A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quiet time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.

But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?

I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.

How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?

There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!

I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and begin to drink.

 

hi-res-author-photoCatherine McNiel survived her children’s preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open eyes to God’s creative, redemptive work in each day. The author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017), Catherine cares for three kids, works two jobs, and grows one enormous garden. Connect with Catherine on social media: Catherinemcniel.com; Twitter: @catherinemcniel; Facebook: CatherineMcNielWrites

Buy Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline by clicking one of the following links:

Amazon

Barnes&Noble

ChristianBooks.com

NavPress

 

 

It Starts With Spilled Milk

After my post the other day regarding lying, I had a conversation with several young moms about how to encourage an atmosphere of grace in their homes when they are more prone to be rule followers.

spilled-milkThat’s a great question. I think it starts with spilled milk.

Surely every parent, sometime in their parent life, has experienced a child spilling milk or some sticky drink either at the dinner table or in the car or on the carpet. Your reaction to these accidents helps set the tone for bigger mistakes in your child’s future.

Mistakes are opportunities to grow and learn.

Here’s what I suggest could be said in different circumstances.

Your child spills his/her drink.

Oops! Well, I’ve spilled my share of drinks, too. Let’s clean it up together and see what we can do to be more careful in the future.

Your child breaks a favorite item of yours on accident.

I’m sad this got broken, but I know you didn’t mean to break it. It’s just a thing. You’re more important to me than that [insert broken item].

You forget to do something you promised your child you’d do. 

I’m sorry I forgot to do [insert whatever it is]. I was wrong to not follow through on what I said. Will you forgive me?

These are all common circumstances that every family can relate to. Building an environment where your child is not afraid to tell you they did something is critical to helping them understand that grace reigns in your household. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for their bad choices, but choosing to do something wrong and having something happen by accident are different.

Open dialog happens from a very early age. Listen to your children with your full attention. Ask them questions. Help them come to their own conclusions about issues. Let them express themselves in an appropriate, respectful manner.

With my kids, I found that there was a little bit of a Catch-22: We had such a close relationship that they didn’t want to disappoint me, even if I had never made performance a priority. The notion that lying to me is more disappointing than the original act doesn’t seem to get through their heads!

The most important thing I think I do is to keep telling them, “I love you.” And it’s never the person I’m disappointed in, it’s the choice. That is emphasized time and again.

 

Amongst many other forgotten things, I’ve had countless items borrowed and lost, and a favorite bowl knocked off the counter and smashed, all accidents. All covered by grace because the lossshattered-trust was unintentional.

But I’ve also had my trust absolutely demolished like that favorite bowl by a child lying right to my face. Things hidden from me because that child knew those actions would grieve me.

But grace wins every time. God will deal with the sin. I’ve given consequences for the actions to my minor kids. But for my adult children, I’ve cried, prayed, told them truth over and over, but ultimately, their decisions are part of the journey God has them on.

And sometimes that journey goes through the stream of spilled milk. Will it be a sour experience or a sweet one, ending in a pool of grace?

Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave

img_7457I hate being lied to. As a parent, I’ve had it happen more than once.

It never gets easier to hear.

I am naturally one who likes to trust people. I want to believe that what you’re telling me is true. When I find out it’s not, something deep inside me dies just a little bit.

I think it’s my innocence. And after 55 years on this planet, I just don’t have much of that left.

I can’t trust commercials on TV. They’re just trying to sell me something.

I can’t trust politicians. They’re just trying to sell me something, too.

And lately, I can’t trust the media either. They have an agenda they’re wanting to promote.

Why is it that lies bother people so much? For me, it’s because it’s so opposite of who Jesus is. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” If we love and follow Jesus, we speak the truth. But the tangled web that deceptions demand dangle ever before us—ours and those of others—and they hide spiders ready to devour us if we let them.

img_7459When I was in 6th grade, I remember getting a piece of jewelry I already owned and telling my friends that a certain boy had given it to me. They were so impressed! I told that lie because I wanted to prove that some boy could love me. I was that desperate.

The lies I’ve heard from my children many times have to do with school. In these cases, it’s more often a lie of omission. They just happen to not tell me that they haven’t been doing their homework or turning in assignments or passing classes.

Other times, what it seems to boil down to is that my kids lie to me because they don’t want me to know that they’ve done something that goes against what they’ve been brought up to believe is wrong. They still want to do it, so they do it and don’t tell me because they don’t want to disappoint me.img_7457-1

But somehow, I always seem to find out. And the web begins to unravel.

I know the decisions are theirs, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of environment I’ve promoted that causes them to not want to tell me the truth. Have I put too many expectations on them? Do they feel pressure to be a certain way to please me?

I’ve done some pretty intense self-examination and can’t find where I’ve ever said to them, “I won’t love you unless you act this way.”

All I can do at this point is pray that the Holy Spirit convicts them of their sin. And I can keep asking the Lord to show me where I am in the wrong.

I only wish discovering the lies of our politicians was that straightforward. I’ll keep praying for them as well.

 

Hold Onto Hope

IMG_2048Awhile back, I wrote a post about my avocado tree. (See The Beetle Within Us) I was sad to have to report that, after just a year of bearing fruit, the tree had to be taken out because it was diseased by the ambrosia beetle. Well, we had a storm more than a year ago that knocked down part of our back fence near where the tree used to grow. In removing the old fence, my husband came across this 18-inch-high seedling that had been growing from a pit discarded by the squirrels in the corner of the yard.

Imagine our surprise and our pleasure at finding this small glimmer of hope that we could still have a healthy avocado tree in the future.

This seemed to me a perfect analogy for the life of a prodigal: There is always hope that there is life left in those who wander from God.

When the new fence panels went in, the seedling was transplanted to our front yard. It was so small back then, and it was hot out, so daily, even twice-daily, watering was vital for its survival. It’s now more than 10 feet tall. It is surrounded by other plantsIMG_5551, yet given its own space. When it was still very small, we could watch it, we could nurture it, we could pray that it would grow big and strong and eventually produce fruit. All we could do was give it the best environment that we knew how to give; the rest was, and still is, up to its Creator. It hasn’t borne fruit yet, but we hope it’s well on its way.

I recently read a phenomenal article by Abraham Piper, the son of pastor and author John Piper, whom I greatly admire. Abraham was a prodigal for many years, and his insight into how to love prodigals back to Jesus is something I think everyone struggling with this should read. The article is quite long, so you can read the entire text here (Let Them Come Home). The following points are his, with my condensed interpretation.

1. Point them to Christ.Piper contends that the real problem with your prodigal is not their behavior, it’s that they don’t see Jesus clearly. Therefore, the best thing you can do is show them Christ. Their only hope is to clearly see Jesus and His love for them.

2. Pray.
“Only God can save your children, so keep on asking Him to display Himself to them in a way they can’t resist worshiping Him for.”

3. Acknowledge that something is wrong.
Don’t pretend that everything is fine. Don’t ignore their unbelief. Reach out and keep reaching out.

4. Don’t expect them to be Christlike.
“No matter how your child’s behavior proves his unbelief, always be sure to focus more on his heart’s sickness than its symptoms.” If they’re not believers, they’re not going to act like believers. Hearts need to change first.

5. Welcome them home.
No matter what they’ve done, if they want to come home, let them. If they have any desire whatsoever to be with you, let them come. You are going to be the best influence in their life. Make sure you aren’t pushing them away.

6. Plead with them more than you rebuke them.
Piper says, “Be gentle in your disappointment. . . Her conscience can condemn her by itself. Your role is to stand kindly and firmly, always living in the hope that you want your child to return to.”

7. Connect them to other believers.
If you know another believer you think might reach them better than you can, by all means, get them together.

8. Respect their friends.
Be hospitable. Her friends are someone else’s wayward children, and they need Jesus, too.

9. E-mail them.
“When you read something in the Bible that encourages you and helps you love Jesus more, write it up in a couple of lines and send it to your child. The best exhortation—better than any correction—is for them to see Christ’s joy in your life. Don’t stress out when you’re composing these as if each one needs to be singularly powerful. Just whip them out and let the cumulative effect of your satisfaction in God gather up in your child’s inbox. God’s Word is never useless.”

10. Take them to lunch.
Have actual facetime. Even if it may hurt to hear what they’re up to, do it anyway. Your interest in them as a person will speak volumes to them. Make the time to get together.

11. Take an interest in their pursuits.
Find value in what they like. Ask questions. Hear their heart.

12. Point them to Christ.
“This can’t be stressed enough. It’s the whole point. No strategy for reaching your son or daughter will have any lasting effect if the underlying goal isn’t to help them know Jesus.”

Be faithful and don’t give up.

 

When The Womb Runs Dry

9-25-02.2I remember with vivid clarity the day we learned I had miscarried our first child. We were traveling home from Colorado to Florida when I started spotting. After 4 years of infertility, the thought of losing this long-awaited baby was terrifying. When the loss was confirmed, it seemed my tears would never stop.

That was almost 21 years ago.

I have 3 healthy children, 13, 17 and 19. Although we lost 2 more babies in the midst, our quiver is as full as we want it. Yet when the realization hit that I was on the downside of menopause, I cried.

I loved being pregnant. I didn’t suffer the nausea of so many of my friends. Although worried during my second pregnancy that the same thing would happen as the first, it got increasingly easier to relax. Nausea-free pregnancies, problem-free births (well, there were 2 short stays in the NICU for #1 and #3, but all was fine in the end), pain-free nursing (although I had to supplement #2 and #3 because they weren’t gaining enough weight). After our infertility struggle, I felt very blessed.

I was 4 days away from being 35 when I had my first child, and I was almost 41 when I Xmas 04had my 3rd, so another pregnancy really wasn’t in the cards for us. But still, the idea that it would never happen again stirred up feelings I didn’t even know were there. Somehow we think childbearing defines us as women and when we find ourselves unable to do that, our self-image takes a hit.

Now, after 2 years of no more visits from Aunt Flo, I am mostly at peace with the situation, knowing that an infant in the house would really throw us for a loop, but the baby boom in the young moms around me causes some melancholy. My friends from high school and college are becoming grandparents, having started parenting a lot sooner than I, and my arms long to cuddle newborns again. I plead for time holding the young mom’s infants, but somehow someone consistently beats me to it.

I know that there are many who cannot bear their own babies. Some opt to remain childless, some adopt infants, some adopt older kids. I have friends in all camps. The struggle is real. When I didn’t know whether I’d be able to have children or not, each new birth around me was painful. Now, each new birth is a joy as I know that it’s my time to be a mentor, to let the younger women have their chance. I’m certainly glad to be able to sleep through the night! And it’s probably a good thing that my daughter and I won’t be hormonal at the same time once she gets in on the act.

IMG_4533Bearing babies isn’t what makes me a woman. It isn’t what gives me worth. It isn’t even what defines me. I am a mom and it’s a wonderful thing. But I am first of all a child of God. Nothing will change that. Instead of being defined by the blood I used to shed each month, I am defined by the blood shed for me on the Cross. It will never run dry.

 

Now excuse me while I go find a baby to hold.