Noticing God in the Voting Line

I didn’t expect my voting experience to be a spiritual one. I’ve never been super into politics and have even exercised my right not to vote a time or two. And while I know and believe that everything is spiritual at some level, most times I just like to get stuff done. Today, voting was just one of the many tasks on my to-do list.

So when I pulled into the parking lot at my polling place and was immediately overwhelmed with emotion, I was caught off-guard.

At first, I thought it might have been anxiety. It’s no secret that this election has been tough to get through. But as I approached the door, I realized I wasn’t feeling anxiety about the outcome of today or what the future holds.

I was feeling inspired and encouraged.

The first person I noticed was a woman with braces on her legs who was almost at the entrance. A man ahead of her was waiting at the door to hold it open for her and then for me as we entered the building. Then, I noticed a woman in line helping direct another voter to his correct polling place. She was using her phone to look up the location, and then gave him directions, making sure he understood where to go.

Once in line, I noticed an elderly women, who had probably voted in countless elections, slowly making her way into the building. Behind her, I noticed a young woman who may have been casting her vote for president for the first time.

I continued to watch people, which is really one of my favorite things to do. In fact, I often feel closest to God when I am around groups of people, just taking it all in. I love sitting in coffee shops and watching people come in and out, going about their daily lives.

Usually I’m too busy to realize that those around me aren’t just a backdrop to my story, but once in a while, when I give myself the space to just sit and watch I begin to notice what is actually true. The people around me have their own relationships and emotions and real lives being lived right along side mine, intersecting with mine for a moment or two as we wait for our coffee or brush past each other to find a seat.

And today, at my polling place, this was another one of those moments – an opportunity to notice God around me by noticing the beautiful people who are my neighbors.

There was great diversity in that line to vote, and I’m sure our ballots looked much different in the end. But as we waited, before the ballots were cast and our political lines were officially drawn, our shared humanity was most evident. We were just people, waiting to do what we all believe to be important, reaching out to one another by holding doors and giving directions.

And I was reminded that God’s image, the imago dei, is in each of us. That his goodness and beauty and love is there. And one of the things I want my life to be about is noticing, standing up for, and calling forth that image of God in those around me every day. Because the truth is, no matter what tomorrow brings, we’re in this together.

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Coffee with Strangers

Five years ago, I had my first one-on-one lunch with someone that I didn’t know super well. We weren’t strangers. We were attending the same church and in the same small group. I had caught glimpses of who she was though our group discussions and casual conversations on Sunday mornings. But we had never just sat down and chatted. In fact, I don’t know that I had ever really (in my adult life) intentionally sat down over coffee or lunch and gotten to know someone who I wanted to become better friends with. I had always liked the group setting more. Hang out with a few friends and play games. Work side-by-side on a service project and chat in-between the tasks.

I had a couple of good girl friends from college that I was still close to, but it was hard to remember how those friendships developed. After all, in college everyone is used to meeting strangers and there are plenty of settings where this sort of thing happens naturally. But this wasn’t college any more, and the settings in which I was really getting to know new people seemed hard to find. Even in my twenties, I began living a more individualistic lifestyle – a lifestyle that is pretty common in our culture.

Through gentle encouragement from my people-person husband, and an unshakeable feeling that she and I were really similar and would connect well, I pushed myself to ask her to lunch. I remember feeling so anxious. The idea of keeping up conversation with just one person for an hour seemed so scary. But I asked anyway, and she was excited to meet.

To my surprise, I remember chatting easily with one another. Hearing her story, finding ways that we connected over our dreams and passions and heart for people. Conversation flowed so easily, and when lunch was over, I was so glad that I had asked her to go. It was one of the best lunches I had ever had, and she is now one of my closest friends.

I soon realized that there were lots of women around our small church who I didn’t know very well. And as uncomfortable as I was, I pushed myself to make a few more “asks” and set-up a handful of coffee and lunch meetings over the next several months.

Each time was the same routine. In the hours before the meeting, I would freak out. I’d start feeling inadequate. I’d worry that I’d be terrible at conversation, boring to talk to, and bad at asking good questions. I am incredibly task-oriented, and while I genuinely wanted to get to know these women, I was worried I wouldn’t be good at it. But somehow, with a little positive self-talk, I’d go to the meeting, praying that it would be ok and that the person on the other side of the table wouldn’t hate the experience.

And the truth is, each meeting was really different. Sometimes, we’d click immediately. Conversation smooth and uncomfortable silences few. Sometimes, it was a little harder. I’d become too self-aware and overly concerned about the other person’s perception of me.

But the more I did it, the better I became. And while it seems a little silly to think of having conversation over coffee as something to become better at, I really think it’s true. I’m learning to be a better listener – to ask another question instead of talking more. I’m learning to be more in-the moment, trying not to analyze and just to be. And I’m learning that while not every coffee or lunch will turn into a life-long friendship, there is something so amazing about hearing someone else’s story and seeing the way that God has been working in her life.

Today, I did what I’ve been doing for several years now – I met a stranger for coffee. I had come across this great organization, The Forgotten Initiative, on Facebook, and I have been wanting to get involved with it for several months. So I finally took the plunge and applied for a volunteer role within the organization. I could have just turned in the application and waited to hear back, but I wanted to get to know the woman on the other end of the computer screen who I had been exchanging emails with for a couple of weeks.

So, I asked if she wanted to meet for coffee. I drove to a coffee shop in Bloomington and then looked up her picture on Facebook to see who I should be looking for as I watched the morning crowd come in.

Five years ago, I would never have dreamed of meeting a stranger for coffee. But there is just something so worth it about pushing myself through those uncomfortable feelings in order to connect with people who have beautiful stories to share. Today, after having coffee with a stranger, I left feeling inspired, challenged, and encouraged, and I’m absolutely certain that we are meant to do this thing called life in relationship with one another.

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Becoming Parents: The First Phone Call

Today is a turning point. This morning, I made a quick phone call to a local agency and scheduled a meeting to talk through the process of becoming foster parents with the dream of adopting one day. After months and months of thinking, talking, praying, and dreaming about our future family, today we took the first small step in a long, slow, and complicated process.

When I got off the phone, I quickly posted to Facebook that we are signed up for our first meeting. I was excited, and I wanted to share. I soon realized that my post was sort of like the pregnancy announcements many of my friends have posted. Actually, it was probably more like a “we’re trying to conceive” announcement, the type of announcement that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on Facebook. Needless to say, we are in the very early stages of becoming parents, and yet today, the reality of that set in a little bit more than it ever has before. With one phone call, I began feeling more fully the joyful anticipation of becoming a mom.

Dustin and I don’t plan to have any biological children. In fact, we have never tried to conceive. Maybe that is over-sharing for some of you who are reading this post, but I think it’s an important aspect of our journey. I know there have been times I have talked with adoptive parents or friends who have been adopted, and I wondered how their journey to become a family began. So, I just thought I’d be open from the beginning.

For a myriad of reasons, some of which I will share in future posts, we have felt pulled to pursue a family in a different way. I’m sure our decision might raise a number of questions from people, and I’m sure that neither of us would have perfect answers to those questions. I’m also confident that this is the right thing for us, and I am incredibly overwhelmed by the love we have already felt from our friends and family.

In reality, the process of becoming foster parents did not really begin today. I have felt God tugging at my heart, gently guiding me toward this future for quite sometime. Today is just the first tangible step. And with that one phone call, something inside me shifted.

I’m nervous, excited, and so overwhelmed for what this year holds. I have a feeling it’s going to be the beginning of something beautiful.

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For Dustin: Celebrating 7 years

So here’s a brief summary of the first seven years of our marriage:

We’ve experienced lots of school. First, you (or should I say “we”) finished your undergraduate senior paper. Then we both finished grad school – earning three Masters degrees between the two of us and far too many student loans. We learned to support one another through so many papers and projects, and also learned that we really never want to go back to school.

We’ve been a part of three churches (four if you count that weird time when you were almost on staff but then you weren’t), and we’ve made some dear friendships along the way, learning how true it is that a church really is the people and not a building or a worship service.

We’ve had LOTS of jobs – some just paid the bills and some utilized our greatest passions. We’re learning that it’s a really unique and ideal experience when a job does both.

We lived alone as a couple, then with a roommate, then two roommates, then back to one, and now on our own again. We’ve learned to see the value in both.

We’ve started and hosted a handful of small groups and have heard so many people’s stories over coffee or dinner. We are continually learning what it means to be in community with others, how to be vulnerable and authentic with people, and how to walk through the joys and hardships of life with friends that have become family. 

We’ve worked together, partnering on many projects and events, and have learned how to agree and disagree with one another as co-workers.

We’ve spent an incredible number of hours with children – neighborhood kids at Hands and Feet, friends’ kids as we babysat, church kids as we led children’s ministry, and of course through our other jobs – you as a manny, and me as a daycare teacher then a therapist. We became an aunt and uncle. I think we’ve begun to learn a little about parenting from afar. We’ve at least learned that we weren’t quite ready to start that journey in those first seven years.

We talked about having biological children and then began learning about orphan care. Now we’re getting ready to start our family through foster care and adoption.

We’ve taken many road trips, mostly to see family or attend conferences, and we’re learning to take time away for just the two of us.

We’ve argued over lots of stuff – some big issues and some small – and I think we’re learning how to argue better, more fairly and with more respect for one another.

We’ve forgiven one another countless times and laughed together many more.

We always joke around about being so different, and I think in many ways this is true. Our personalities are almost completely opposite, and we come from very different families. Even so, in these first seven years, I’m learning our greatest strength is our ability to work as a team. We’re truly better together, and I look forward to navigating the highs and lows of this life with you by my side.

7 Years

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The one thing I learned by being a Brownie

I was talking to my mom last week about missing our friends from Tulsa. I expressed to her how excited I was about their upcoming visit, and she reminded me of a song that I used to sing in Brownies (which was the 1st grade version of Girl Scouts). I immediately knew the one she was talking about. The lyrics were simple, and I remember singing them over and over – “Make new friends, but keep the old – one is silver and the other’s gold.” We would stand in a circle, holding hands with the other girls from our small town in Illinois and proudly belt out the lyrics to that song.

This weekend, four of our closest friends from Tulsa made the 550+ mile trek to Peoria to visit. Dustin and I had been looking forward to seeing them for several months. We had spent four years in a church small group together during our time in Tulsa and have known one of the couples since college. When we told them last spring that we were seriously considering moving back to Illinois, they were sad but supportive, which was just what we had expected.

The decision to move was a hard one, since there was a part of both of us that wanted to stay in Tulsa permanently. We could picture buying a house, staying at the church we loved, and raising our future kids surrounded by friends who had become our family. I could envision our small group meeting for many years – becoming parents together, vacationing as families, and supporting one another through the many seasons of life.

But, the other part of me ached to be near family – to see my nieces and nephew grow up, to be the aunt and uncle that could come to all of their birthday parties and dance recitals and sporting events. I couldn’t imagine raising our one-day adopted children 8 hours away from their grandparents. As time went on and our roots in Tulsa grew deeper by the day, we made the difficult decision to move back to Illinois, away from the city, church, and people that we loved. It felt like a very distinct turning point, one thing was ending and something else was beginning.

As we packed boxes and sold furniture, reality set in. We were saying good-bye to so many people, and I was not good at long-distance relationships. I don’t call often enough, and I get immersed in wherever I am and can quickly forget those who are not nearby. The one exception to this was the nine months that Dustin and I dated apart. But even in that case it was different. I knew that we’d be together at the end of those months. We visited often. We were young and in-love.

But this move could very well be a permanent relocation, and since we haven’t been able to convince anyone to move to Peoria with us, we probably won’t live near these friends again. I’ve always struggled as I’ve thought about these types of long-distance relationships. Maybe they are more work than they are worth. Maybe it’s impractical to keep up with people who will never be close by. Maybe it would be better to just make new friends but not keep the old. If I can only see some friends once or maybe twice a year if we’re really intentional, how can that be fulfilling? Won’t it just be so different?

To me, “different” can automatically equate to “not-as-good”.  I thrive on traditions, and if we can’t watch “Parenthood” together every week, and celebrate Christmas together at our annual Progressive dinner, then what will it be like? If we can’t live life together in the same city as part of the same local church, maybe we’ll be less in sync with one another and maybe being together will just be hard, sad, and remind me of what will never be again. (I can go down some pretty pessimistic rabbit holes if I’m not careful or if Dustin doesn’t pull me out of them.)

When this type of thinking tries to take over, I have to remind myself that different is not necessarily bad; different is just different. And sometimes different is hard. But sometimes, even at the same time, different can be beautiful.

That’s what this weekend was for me. Beautiful. Even as we prepared for their arrival – making food I knew they’d enjoy, washing extra sheets and towels, putting together welcome baskets for each couple, I realized that I didn’t care if everything was perfect when they came. The nervousness that “hosting” can bring out in me wasn’t there. Of course, I wanted our new place to look its best, but I didn’t feel the pressure to impress these long-time friends. I noticed a difference in myself. For a girl who spends lots of time being “Martha” when it comes to hosting guests (many of whom have been new guests in the recent months), I settled into my truest self and rested as “Mary”, excited to spend time with people that I love.

When they arrived, Dustin and I hurried from our apartment and greeted them in the parking lot with hugs. We spent the next two days just enjoying being together. We laughed hard, ate well, and talked about life. We worshipped together, played games, drank delicious coffee, and had arguments with our spouses in front of each other – which is a clear sign of deep friendship. We even got to watch an episode of “Parenthood” complete with our ridiculous rendition of the opening song.

They left this morning, and I was a little sad. But mostly, I was refreshed and grateful. We made a tough decision earlier this year and moved back closer to our families, and it has been incredibly rewarding. We are part of a church that we truly love, and we are building new relationships with people that will last a long time. In the meantime, as those relationships develop and deepen, we still have the joy and strength that comes from “old friends”, who know our flaws and our fears and will continue to walk with us through this life, even if it’s not exactly side-by-side. And in the midst of the newness, there is such comfort in knowing that this isn’t just a beginning. It’s also a continuation of the life we’ve been building, full of people, near and far, who make it a beautiful one.

I am certain that some of the meaning of that song I used to sing in Brownies was lost on me when I was just a 7-year-old girl, wearing a brown sash with a few badges safety-pinned onto it. But this morning, as I was cleaning up from breakfast in my too-quiet-house, I felt such anticipation for the next time we’ll gather together with old friends, picking up right where we left off, and I knew deep in my soul that those words are true, “One is silver and the other really is gold.”

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Inspired by “Kisses from Katie”

I just finished my first book of 2012, and it was fantastic!  This year, I resolved to read two books a month for 12 months. For some of you that may seem pretty easy and for others it may seem ambitious. For me, it’s achievable but will definitely force me to be intentional with my time and not just flip on the television when I have free time.

The book I just finished is “Kisses from Katie”, the story of a young woman who moved to Uganda to follow the call of God upon her life and along the way ended up becoming the mom to 14 adopted girls. I had come across Katie’s story on her blog over a year ago and was reminded of her story again when I saw that she was one of the featured speakers at Catalyst in Atlanta last year.

This book, a vulnerable account of her struggles and fears and joys, was incredibly challenging and inspiring. I found myself being so convicted. Convicted for my lack of love and my lack of compassion. Convicted for my lack of understanding of our world’s great needs and convicted for the complacency that keeps me from truly learning about those needs. It’s so much easier to just check-out on Pinterest than to read a book on the horrible conditions that people, God’s people, live in all over the world.

I am so ashamed that 99% of the time I am perfectly ok with just shielding my eyes from the hurt and brokenness in this world, and I don’t want to be ok with it anymore. I don’t want to be ok with living the same life that I’ve always lived and doing the same things that I’ve always done just because I like my life and I am blessed enough to have been born in the United States. I don’t want to forget the words that Katie wrote in this book about the extreme disease and poverty that engulf Uganda. I don’t want to erase from my mind the fact that there are 143 million children in this world that have no mother or father. I don’t want to forget the way I felt when I read the last page of her book. The feeling of wanting to make a difference.

I loved this book, and I loved the way that Katie shared her story. Katie, who has done some pretty amazing things in the first 22 years of her life, seems extremely humble and grounded. She takes no credit for what God has accomplished through her life – for all the children fed, clothed, bathed, nursed back to health, and taken in as daughters. She has a deep knowing that God has done all the work and seems honored to be used by God in such a way.

But Katie is also bold. She challenges her readers to take seriously the commands of “loving our neighbors as ourselves” and “caring for widows and orphans”. She writes, “My family, adopting these children, it is not optional. It is not my good deed for the day; it is not what I am doing to ‘help out these poor kids.’ I adopt because God commands me to care for the orphans and the widows in their distress. I adopt because Jesus says that to whom much has been given, much will be demanded (see Luke 12:48) and because whoever finds his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for His sake will find it (see Matthew 10:39).”

She explains that the road to accomplish those things isn’t always easy or expected. She’s vulnerable, as she describes the pain with which she said good-bye to her old life – her family & friends, her prospects of going to college, her big house in an upper-class neighborhood, and her plans to marry her high school sweetheart. But she’s also extremely open about the immense joy that she has gained by being in the center of God’s will for her life. She wakes up knowing that each day will be challenging and full of surprises as she cares for 14 little girls and runs a non-profit organization – Amazima Ministries, but she’s confident that He will carry her through it and continue to use her as she remains faithful.

I can’t imagine how overwhelming the situation in front of Katie must be. To daily see so many needs and know that she can’t meet them all. I’m familiar with that feeling in my own way. The feeling that there is so much hurt and pain in this world, and I’m only one person. Sometimes that overwhelming feeling can be paralyzing to me. It can keep me from doing anything because I wish I could do more.

Katie talks about this feeling in one of my favorite sections of this book.

She says, “I was angry because I believed, and still believe, that the God who created the universe did not create too many children in His image and not enough love to go around. And I wanted to do more. I wanted to help them all. God whispered that one is enough. He assured me that He would hold the others while they wait for someone to come along and give them their milk and their medicine. He doesn’t ask me to take them all but to stop for just one, because, as I do for “the least of these” I do it for Him (see Matthew 25:40).”

She continues, “Today, that anger is gone, though sometimes I still have to sit with the Father in my sadness and brokenness over all the hurt in this world. Sometimes I still have to cry to Him and ask Him why innocent children must suffer and beg Him to move people to action. Still we as a family just love the ones with whom God has entrusted us as best we can. We let Him hold us as we hold the little ones He has given us to look after. We do what we can do, and we trust Him with the rest.”

Katie’s story reminded me of the impact that just one person can make, and she reminded me that God isn’t calling us all to start non-profits and move to Uganda and write books.

But He is calling all of us to love the one right in front of us and to love that one radically – the way that Jesus loves each one.

“We do what we can do, and we trust Him with the rest.” I think I’m up to that challenge. Are you?

Oh, and you should definitely read the book. It’s worth it.

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Waiting

Waiting is hard.

Yesterday I spent some time in what I can only assume to be early Christmas shopping traffic on 71st street. I knew it would take extra time to make it only a few short miles back to my house, but no matter how much I tried to prepare myself for the traffic, I still found myself getting frustrated. I was wishing I could find an alternate route, that I could make my way to a side street that could help me cut over to 81st so that I could get back to the house more quickly.

I thought about turning on my GPS to see which streets would go all the way through. I wanted an easier way. A route that wouldn’t require too much waiting. As I was getting out my GPS to check to see which side streets could get me where I wanted to go faster, I realized the line of cars was finally moving a little faster. The way in front of me began to clear and it seemed like sticking to my original path would turn out just fine. With only green lights ahead, I hoped to make it through another light or two before having to stop again.

All of  a sudden the elderly lady who was driving the car in front of me came to a complete stop at the GREEN light. I looked ahead of her to see if there was a reason for her abrupt stop. No dogs. No ambulance. No small child running out in the middle of the busy intersection. Clear road for a quarter-mile ahead. Now normally in this situation, I could have just tapped my horn a little bit and let the lady know that it was ok to proceed. But since I am still driving my little red Mercury Tracer that I got when I was sixteen, my horn no longer works. I know, I know. It’s a bad idea to drive a car without a horn. In fact, it might not just be a bad idea; it might be illegal. Either way, I couldn’t tap my horn to let her know she could proceed. So I tried to get over into the next lane. No chance. Drivers were so happy to finally be moving that I wasn’t going to be able to get over. So I sat there. Getting frustrated. Wishing I could change the situation. That I wouldn’t have to wait. I even rolled down my window and yelled, “You can go!” hoping that she would hear me and we could continue our journey down 71st street. It was no use. I was stuck and the light turned red.

After a few more minutes, I finally made my way home. It took me much longer than it should have. It should have been about a 15-20 minute drive. It took me 30.

Waiting is hard.

I should have had more than one interview in the last two months.  I should have found a job by now. We should have been able to pay off my doctor bills from last January.  We should be working our get out-of-debt plan. We should be thinking about starting a family or buying a house or at least buying a car that has a working horn. 

Or maybe not. Maybe all of the “should’s” that seem to loom over me like a dark cloud of failure aren’t really “should’s” at all. Sure, there are some important things on that list. I need to find a job at some point,and I’m not sure how long my car is going to hold on. We won’t always live with our roommate, and we’d probably like to have a family some day.

But maybe I haven’t had many interviews so that God can teach me to trust him in the waiting. Maybe I haven’t written that last check to pay off those doctor bills because He’s teaching us to be generous even when we have little.  Maybe it’s not time to start our family yet so that we can learn to care for the families that are around us right now. Maybe His timing really is perfect. Maybe He’s more concerned about the process when we just want to see the payoff.

Maybe it’s all about the waiting.

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