Caricatures of Love

I used to love sappy romantic comedies… before I got married. The Notebook was my jam just about every other Friday night, along with frequent showings of Ten Things I Hate about You and Love Actually. All were routinely accompanied by a too- large bowl of ice cream or buttery popcorn. And as I watched I would heave heavy sighs, swoon over their grandiose expressions of “love,” marvel at the subtleties woven into their unspoken language, and, generally speaking, turn into a puddle of ridiculous, nonsensical tears.

Talk about embarrassing.

And then I got married and realized very quickly it was all garbage.  Total, utter garbage. Those movies, storylines, books, articles… every single one only a caricature of love- distorted, exaggerated, and unrealistic. Within the whole are bits of color and pieces of lines that seem honest, that give some sense of an image, but everything else is bloated and unnatural; a false representation of the facts.

I think I’ve watched The Notebook once since being married, and I’m fairly certain I rolled my eyes through the entire thing (or however much I could stomach). Because I know now that actual married life doesn’t get edited and coiffed like the beautiful people and magical moments in those types of stories. The endings don’t often bring satisfying closure. I doubt my husband and I are going die peacefully next to each other while holding hands. There are no hidden lagoons filled with swans in the Midwest.

Notice how markedly absent all the in-between years are in that movie. You know why? Because the in-between years don’t win awards and sell millions of books. But it’s in those very years of mountains, valleys and endless plains, grinding out the monotonous tasks of daily living and raising a family, physical changes, emotional roller coasters, misunderstandings, running from and then back to each other over and over- it’s in the in-between where love develops its roots, spreads, and grows.

After nine years of marriage, love in our house looks a lot like my husband cleaning out my van just because, washing the dishes after dinner, folding a load of laundry, or calling the cable company to negotiate our current rate. Talk about sexy. Have YOU ever had to deal with your cable company? Lord have mercy.

Now, I’m going to make an important distinction here: love and desire are not the same thing. Desire is a feeling, love is a choice. Desire is emotional, love is action. Desire isn’t reliable, love is. Caricatures of love would have us believe that desire is love. Oh no.

“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Tell me that you’re “falling out of love” with someone and I will tell you that is impossible. I will also probably roll my eyes. That has to be one of the most ludicrous expressions ever created by western culture. Maybe your desire has waned because you’ve discovered something you don’t like, or you feel too tired to put in the work of growing roots so you stop trying, or the hard parts feel way too hard so you let your lack of desire dictate your decision to choose to love that person. There is no “falling out of love,” only lack of desire. When you love someone you are choosing hard labor. Desire is not enough to carry any relationship very far. Desire is driving a car, but leaving it on the side of the road when it breaks down. Love is driving that same car, but staying to fix it no matter the location or weather condition; choosing not to walk away despite how impossible the brokenness may seem.

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Desire can also disguise itself as love’s sustenance, and without it love dies. LIE. What sustains real love is choosing patience instead of irritation, kindness instead of frustration, selflessness instead of selfishness, hope instead of despair, protecting instead of damaging, persevering instead of abandoning.

At one point a number of years ago my husband and I were walking the line of divorce. I told him that I didn’t think I loved him anymore. Looking back, what I realize I actually meant was “I don’t want to be patient or kind to you anymore. I would rather be angry. I don’t want to honor you. I would rather be selfish. I’m keeping a running tally of all the things you’ve done and are still doing wrong. I don’t trust you. I don’t have hope for our future. And I certainly don’t feel like persevering through this mess.”

I had to choose love over succumbing to a lack of desire in those moments, as did my husband. We did not like each other, but we made the decision to say yes every time we wanted to say no. It was incredibly difficult, but suffering produced perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (see Romans 5:3-4).

Don’t look for an accurate image of love in the caricatures. They will always be misleading. And never trust desire to dictate love’s decisions. When you choose love, you are choosing the whole- not parts. You are embracing the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the easy and the hard. You accept the pain along with the joy. When you do these things and love this way, you nurture the roots of your relationship. And when you learn to love well, desire often reappears or is strengthened in unexpected ways.

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Jesus didn’t pick and choose. He loved us wholly and then commanded us to “love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) I’m sure the human side of him tired and hurt from the constant heartache, of feeling so deeply and passionately for humanity yet knowing the thoughts and hearts of the people surrounding him and bearing the weight of their rejection over and over. Still He persisted, fought, and died for us… all for the sake of love. Even though we deserved none of it.

Loving means dying to oneself to bring life to another. It means serving instead of waiting to be served. It means giving instead of expecting to receive. It means holding on even when everyone around you would understand if you let go.

I took this photo many years ago when I was a college student studying abroad in Mexico. When I look at this picture I see decades of two lives intertwined spent living, working, struggling, fighting, celebrating, laughing, crying, persevering- two people who didn’t give up on each other despite the influence of a world so steeped in desire.  They made it. I wish I could go back and ask them what life is like on the other side of the in-between.

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But I guess that all just depends on how well we choose to love each other where we are right now.

Peace & Love, Amy

(Important Note: This essay is not a case for justifying abusive relationships of any kind. If you are in such a relationship, please get out and seek help.)

All the Little Things

Scrubbing dishes. Picking up toys. Washing clothes. Folding clothes. Putting clothes away. Making meals. Preparing snacks. Grocery shopping. Fixing broken toys. Playing with children and still-broken toys. Vacuuming. Bath time. Bed time. Early mornings (Lord have mercy…). Potty training. Changing diapers. Buckling and unbuckling car seats. Settling arguments. Disciplining. Putting on clothes, jackets, hats, shoes. Cleaning up messes. Wiping noses. Mopping up vomit. Plunging toilets. Training kids to do things themselves. Taking out the garbage. Holding a wailing infant. Feeding wailing infant. Putting wailing infant to sleep. Making coffee. Making SO MUCH COFFEE. Gazing longingly through dirty windows at a road that leads anywhere but here while doing any of the aforementioned tasks…

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The list could fill a library. All the little things add up, don’t they? In and of themselves they seem completely insignificant. I regularly find myself thinking back over the previous twenty-four hours wondering what I actually did that mattered that day. Too often the guilt of what I didn’t do overshadows what I did. I didn’t play with the kids enough. I didn’t organize that mess. I didn’t scrub out that stain. I didn’t make dinner. I didn’t speak kindly. I didn’t hug enough. I didn’t exercise. I didn’t save the world. Gah. I dig myself a nice large hole and lay down in it right next to Self-pity and Shame.

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Who is this person? I barely recognize myself at times. The problem that I’m discovering, though, is that I keep comparing my current self with kids to my former life before kids. But an irreversible transformation has already carved new lines and edges into my skin, heart, and mind. My time spent drawing comparisons and daydreaming about old freedoms is simply wasted effort and squandered opportunity. Because all these new responsibilities that are now required of me since becoming a parent mean something. Yes, they really do. They are reshaping my life’s purpose.

That seems like kind of a big deal.

My purpose is no longer me finding my own way, on my own time. My purpose has become leading, guiding, sheltering, releasing, giving, sustaining, embracing, teaching and loving so far beyond myself. I have come to understand a new definition of perseverance through the menial tasks and rote chores of daily life as a stay-at-home mom. God must become greater. I must become less.

Jesus specialized in menial tasks that everyone else tried to avoid: washing feet, helping children, fixing breakfast, and serving lepers. Nothing was beneath him, because he came to serve.” (Rick Warren)

Jesus didn’t do all the little things because he had to. He did them to show us how life was meant to be lived and shared; a better way to be and love and do life with others. Can you imagine what this world would look like if we were all willing to serve others more than ourselves?

43 …Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

Living a life of service doesn’t mean being a doormat for others to walk all over. It means paying attention to what can be done to show love and doing it. I love my family, so that’s why I’m learning to embrace doing the little things instead of always complaining about them. I’m not going to make my sick children clean up their own puke, or force them to eat off dirty plates, or sleep in urine soaked pajamas. The things my husband and I do to make our life work and keep the wheels spinning, we do out of love for each other and our children. It’s exhausting and can be incredibly frustrating at times but we are growing and stretching outside of ourselves, strengthening weaknesses and retracing character flaws to create someone better, someone stronger, someone wiser. As our children grow we train them to do things for themselves, to not become dependent in areas that they are capable of being independent. It’s a long, time-consuming, life-consuming process. But all the little things are part of that process.

 

 

I chose to marry my husband. I am here to serve. I chose this life with children. I am here to serve.  I chose to stay at home and walk with my babes through their early formative years. I am here to serve. My life is not, and has never been, my own. When I became a follower of Jesus, I was committing myself to a life of service. That is His way, therefore it must become mine, too.

All the little things we do are a service to someone, whether that person recognizes it as such or not. But their recognition of our service is never the point. It’s the race that we are running, the endurance we are building, the will to persevere that we are strengthening. It’s the love in our hearts for those that we are serving as we do the thing. A transformation is taking place, slowly, carefully… one task at a time.

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My oldest son loves puzzles. I thoroughly admire his quiet thoughtfulness as he takes his time hunting for right pieces and fitting them together to create the larger picture. He’s always so proud of himself when he’s done, even if he’s done that same puzzle a dozen times already. But I notice that each time he starts the puzzle over again, he begins in a new spot. He doesn’t have one particular method, like fitting all the edge pieces together first. He simply picks out a piece from the pile and then searches for another that fits with it, and continues this way until the image begins to take shape.

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Every bit of our days is a tiny piece of our much larger life puzzle. The struggle that we face, however, is that the final image has not yet been revealed to us. It frustrates us to have to inch along in the process, unable to control the building sequence. If we could, I’d be willing to bet that most of us would start with the perfectly lined edges and build in. It’s much cleaner, more ordered, and faster that way. Life doesn’t flow that way, though. I know I’ve spent more than a few moments petitioning God, “Why this thing, Lord? Why now?” But still the days progress at their own pace; and as each task is completed, the pieces connect. At times, everything we do can feel so random and inconsequential… until all those tiny details begin to fit together and form the bigger picture of our life story, day after day after day.

Video games provide another logical understanding of this. “Leveling up” in life doesn’t mean finally getting past all the hard and boring parts; it means that you have been prepared to face far greater challenges that require more skills, knowledge, perseverance, and patience. You haven’t beaten the game when you complete a level, much the same as you don’t win at life when you’ve finally reached the end of a particular phase or season. You simply move into the next with its own set of challenges and obstacles.

The things we do today and every day are a training ground for skills that need developing, hearts that need reshaping, attitudes that need adjusting, and wills that need fortifying in order to be ready to enter into the next season and face new opposition.

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So while you’re chore-ing through your day, consider the tasks opportunities for growth, time for reflection, moments to declutter your mind, a chance to silently pray for clearer vision and strength to move beyond yourself and see a bit more of the larger picture. Because God’s designs never disappoint when viewed through a freshly cleaned lens.

Peace & Love, Amy

A Homemade Latte: something light for your Monday

You know what God did for humanity? Apart from Jesus, of course. Coffee beans. He created coffee beans. He gave us a way to continue living, understanding that in addition to ruining the world with our terrible decisions, we would also need something to stimulate our brains to keep functioning while competing in the daily rat race; And while servicing the thousands of needs of our family twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Year after year.

For a good, long, shameful while, Starbucks owned my checking account. And savings account. And the home equity line of credit account. And if there happened to be anything in the PayPal account, that, too. We have a coin jar in our bedroom. How many quarters and dimes do you think are still in there? Um…

Well, this past Christmas my sister-in-law caused the skies to open up, and all of heaven’s angels came down the ladder to shake her hand and say thank you for teaching me how to not be so appallingly wasteful. This queen of a lady taught me how to make a homemade latte. And no swanky, overpriced machines were needed.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

We latte drinkers like to hedge ourselves in with the real coffee drinkers, don’t we? You know, the ones who like it so dark and bitter it could choke an elephant. But let’s be honest, what we prefer is a splash of ultra-concentrated black death and artificial sugary syrups with our morning cup of warm milk. Then we put it in a cute coffee mug. Like somehow that further separates us from the kids. Right.

Truthfully, though, I had to force myself to learn how to enjoy even a latte. I used to despise the taste of coffee and didn’t actually start drinking it until a few years ago. Six to be exact. And if I’m going to be totally honest it was simply out of a desire to be a part of the coffee “culture.” I wanted membership in the club because it seemed way more sophisticated and trendy to engage someone in thoughtful conversational over a cup of coffee than to be slurping down a milkshake at Steak N’ Shake. Although I’ve done both, and the latter is way more delicious. But then I had children. And now I’m just trying to survive…

So if you are like I was- spending way too much at coffee shops, wishing you knew how to make your own lattes at home, but don’t have money for expensive machines… you are in luck, because I am going to pass along the wisdom of my sister-in-law to you. For FREE.

Step 1.) Make the espresso “shots.” Basically, you make coffee like normal except use 3x the normal amount of coffee grounds to make it extra concentrated.

Step 2.) Heat up 6-8oz of whole milk or 2% milk (you can also mix half n half with skim or 1%) until it’s scalding (just before boiling). This can be done on the stove or in the microwave. Then using a whisk or the stick attachment on your blender, stir the milk at a high speed until it is frothy.

Step 3.) Prepare your mug. Add whatever syrups or sauces you like to the bottom. My favorite is to coat the bottom with real maple syrup, then add a squeeze of caramel sauce, chocolate sauce, and a dash of cinnamon.

Step 4.) Pour in the concentrated coffee and swish around or stir until your syrups and sauces have melted and mixed in.

Step 5.) Pour the milk over the coffee. The milk will pour out first, then you will probably have to spoon the leftover froth on top.

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Step 6.) Top as desired. I use a bit (hah!) of whipped cream and drizzle some caramel or chocolate sauce to finish.

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Final note: whether you want a small or a large latte, the ratio to remember is about 1/3 coffee to 2/3 milk.

That’s it! Now the magic is yours to keep. May your days be filled with more laughter, smiles, and hope as you sip your very own homemade latte for a fraction of the coffee shop price. Happy Monday!

Peace & Love, Amy

Living in Remission

I have been in remission from Leukemia for over twenty five years now. Doctors considered me “cured” long ago. But it’s a paradoxical term, in my opinion; a combination of current success with the possibility of future failure. When someone is said to be “in remission,” that means the cancer has been beaten… for the moment. The body has taken back control and the cancerous cells have surrendered. Until they don’t. Too often they lie dormant, waiting for another opportunity to catch the body’s defense system off guard, only to come flooding back in, working furiously to strengthen their numbers. Sometimes the body successfully beats back the invasion again, once more entering into a state of remission. And sometimes it doesn’t, fighting until the grave. I am, unfortunately, intimately familiar with both.

 

 

 

I believe that every single person combats their own cancer- perhaps not on the cellular level, but on the soul level. If you consider what cancer actually is by definition (a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells), I believe we are all born with a soul containing abnormal “cells” (a.k.a. our sin nature). The thoughts we think and the choices we make throughout our lifetime determine how much those cells divide and proliferate or remain dormant and inactive. Ultimately, though, the sad truth is that we all develop cancers- be it selfishness, pride, greed, anger, depression, hatred, bitterness, or any number of other soul-draining diseases. It is humanity’s curse.

But thank God the grave was not the end of His story, and it’s not the end of ours either.

There are no saints in this world. Even the “best” trudge through the trenches of imperfect living and thinking. I may be in remission from Leukemia, but there remains a more deeply rooted disturbance that gathers its strength daily every time I allow my anger and frustration to supersede kindness, gentleness, and respect.

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My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

“Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

If it seems like much of my writing focuses on this one particular character flaw of mine it’s because I am very much a fool in this regard and it is the refining fire that burns hottest, the one that I often reject walking through out of pride, the one that keeps me lying awake at night wallowing in guilt. My propensity towards immediate frustration and annoyance is the thorn in my side. I get angry that I am angry, for goodness sake! And God’s response to my pleas that He help me acquire more self-control? More opportunities to practice getting it right.

Yay.

Practice makes better, right? Well, unfortunately, my efforts most often feel a lot like one step forward and two steps back. I desire that my body reject the spread of this cancerous beast. Many days I do well. My reactions are slow and thoughtful, kind but firm. Other days I forget I’m the model for my children’s learned behavior and throw some epic adult tantrum-like attitude around, complete with yelling sarcastic responses at my sassy four year old in hopes that he won’t have a witty or quick enough response to “win” the argument. He usually does, though. And how? Because he’s been listening to ME.

It’s the ugliest kind of mirror.

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Wasn’t my previous essay all about how I had finally figured it out and solved my problem? Yeah, that was a glorious week and a half of living in remission, of beating back the dark of my sin nature and living cancer-free. But while patting myself on the back, my heart was blinded by its own self-congratulatory pride, leaving the door cracked open for a few low-lying cells to sneak back in and take my body by surprise.

Normally I might say I’m back to square one, but I know I’m not. I recognize the signs earlier now, the swirls of smoke that signal a potential explosion- the heat rushing up to my face, jaw clenching, eyes narrowing. I have come to the point where, even in the heat of the moment, I hear God’s spirit within me begin to speak the way of wisdom to my rapidly disconnecting mind: slow down, breathe, pause, just wait, close your eyes, breathe again… and if I listen, I win. If I don’t, and allow my initial feelings to boil over into a reaction, I lose.

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Ditto, Paul. Ditto a thousand times.

Living in remission of the soul means staying vigilant to potential threats that would create opportunity for a relapse. It means that the first time my son stares at me with a scowl on his face, I immediately take a deep breath. When his eyes roll all the way around his head and back again, I pause and close mine. Learning to react less and respond more is a developed skill that takes a whole lot of intentional practice and a whole lot more prayer. It means accepting the challenge of opportunities that offer such practice and need for prayer and facing them with a type of brave that goes beyond the natural.

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And with the grit and determination of a mama who is committed to raising the right kind of men, I have resolved to keep on fighting. Every day. Every hour. Every moment.

Peace & Love, Amy

(If you are currently standing on a similar battleground, please let me know how I can pray for you.)

New Happenings

Today I have the privilege of being the featured guest writer over at Coffee + Crumbs. I am so grateful for the opportunity, as I have only recently (as of this past summer) delved into the world of blogging and freelance writing. I am taking baby steps down a path I know almost nothing about, but I’m going to keep on anyway! At 32 years old I’m still chasing new dreams. It feels exciting and a tad crazy, but… why not?

To quote the often-quoted Albert Einstein, Once you stop learning you start dying.” So to sound as cliché as I possibly can: I’ve decided to keep learning.

What are you dreaming about today?

Peace & Love,

Amy

Invite Them In

I’ve struggled to learn the dance of motherhood, wifehood… lifehood. All of it. It’s all hard. So much broken. So much refining. So much fighting, and in all the ways you can think of. The learning curve has been steep, and even still continues its upward slant into the endless atmosphere of infinity. Is there ever a point at which everything in life becomes smooth sailing? Absolutely! The moment after death.

How comforting.

For about the past nine months or so as my four- almost five- year old son had been growing into his personality, our relationship had turned volatile. But I don’t mean physically violent. I mean the train wreck kind of head butting, words flying, voices rising, stomping, sassy, demanding, I-want-it-my-way-so-I’m-going-to-yell-over-you-until-everyone’s-crying type of volatile. It finally culminated into a moment of realization over the Christmas holiday: I’m losing control of him and myself, breaking both our hearts, and damaging our relationship. I HAVE to find a way to do this differently.

 

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Every time there had been an incident, I always ended up “winning” because I’m the mom and he’s still little. But they had begun happening more and more and I had noticed my affection toward him becoming less and less. We are so much alike in the ways we deal with frustration only because I’ve poorly modeled anger management, and so those negative tools are the only ones he knows to use to cope with his own. If you don’t listen I’ll just yell louder. If you don’t put down the toy I’ll snatch it away. If you don’t start walking I will carry you kicking and screaming. You are a frustrating tiny human and I’m going to let you know it and feel it.

And man, did I make sure he knew it and felt it. Especially when he would make huge messes, spill things, drop and break things accidentally, etc. Cue the extra loud, annoyed sigh. And I began to see the uncertainty in his eyes every time my voice would go up. I started to notice his extra attempts at affection and attention- which were of the preschool nature and only helped to further my irritation because his chosen methods often resulted in my clear displays of annoyance and his subsequent misbehavior. I was pushing him away almost every time. Not necessarily physically, but certainly emotionally. I was shutting him out. It was obvious that his sense of emotional safety and stability were on the edge because he never knew how I was going to respond to anything he did.

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I know there’s grace and forgiveness in all of it. But there comes a point at which one must recognize their damaging behavior, own it, change it, and live differently. Grace and forgiveness are real and beautiful gifts, but there are still consequences that result from poor behavior and wrong decisions. I was beginning to lose my son at the tender age of four. At least that’s how it felt to me.

Since returning home from our holiday travelling I have marked a course to pursue the way of love with my sons. And here is how I’m changing my behavior:

I’m beginning to invite them in.

Into my inner thoughts. Into my prayers. Into my daydreams. Into my physical space. Into my arms. Into the tasks that I would normally just try to accomplish myself. Into the hard moments.

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Maybe to most people that seems like a glaringly obvious thing to do. But I struggle to share a lot of things, including my space and time. So for the first week I would very literally repeat the words “invite them in” like a mantra in my brain every time I felt a rush to push back, say no, cut them off, or raise my voice. It was difficult, but every time I successfully resolved a situation peacefully I felt more empowered and at peace than when I would attempt to control a situation by shouting or demanding. When my oldest son would begin arguing with me, instead of yelling I started hugging. What I discovered is that what he has been needing more than anything is reassurance- reassurance of my love, my affection, and my delight in him; that I value him as my son, as a human, and as a part of our family. He was desperate for it.

What it came down to for me was a misconstrued vision of our roles and how I thought our lives were supposed to be playing out. I had been fighting very selfishly for my space and time, wanting to control all the outcomes and avoid more work for myself instead of inviting my children into my space and allowing them to just be present and accepted as they are: preschoolers. They are not fully-functioning adults. My expectations for their behavior were not at all proportionate to their ages, especially my oldest son. They need me to be present, and calm, and listen, and teach, and watch, and take part.  They are clingy sponges that require the space- my space- to simply be and learn and grow. Not pushed out in a wave of heated frustration and heavy sighs.

It’s not convenient. There’s nothing convenient about life with children. And it’s not supposed to be. I have had to let go of this notion of “me and them”, and instead embrace “us.” We are us all of the time. A family. A unit. Our space, our time, our love… it all must be shared- sometimes all day and all night. Like right now when the kids are on winter break, the temperature is below zero, one is potty training, and the van won’t start… we are stuck here together for DAYS. A potential nightmare for any parent with young children.

But I have to say, this last week and a half of change has been nothing short of miraculous- a gift from God. We have needed this time- okay I have needed this time- to fully embrace this truth of us and live into it fully. My relationship with my oldest son has already vastly improved. When his voice goes up, mine stays steady. When his feet start stomping, my arms stretch out. When his words turn sassy, I speak the truth in love. Discipline is necessary and consistent. But already it’s been required less and less. Amazing.

When he looks at me now with his round, sea blue eye, they don’t hold so many questions anymore.

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I’m reading a book right now called Kitchen Table Wisdom. As I was sitting one night just over a week ago reading this book, wallowing in my mom guilt, I read this excerpt that burned me:

“We have all been taught that certain of our ways don’t fit into the common viewpoint and values of the society or the family into which we have been born. Every culture, every family has its Shadow. When we’re told that “big boys don’t cry,” and “ladies never disagree with anyone,” we learn to avoid judgement by disowning our feelings and our perspectives. We make ourselves less whole. It is only human to trade wholeness for approval. Yet parts we disown are not lost, they are just forgotten… In hiding we have kept it safe.

One of the most dramatic manifestations of the life force is seen in the plant kingdom. When times are harsh and what is needed to bloom cannot be found, certain plants become spores. These plants dampen down and wall off their life force in order to survive. It’s an effective strategy. Spores found in mummies, spores thousands of years old, have unfolded into plants when given the opportunity of nurture.

When no one listens, children form spores. In an environment hostile to their uniqueness, when they are judged, criticized, and reshaped through approval into what is wanted rather than supported and allowed to develop naturally into who they are, children wall the unloved parts of themselves away. People may become spores young and stay that way throughout most of their lives. But a spore is a survival strategy, not a way of life. Spores do not grow. They endure. What you needed to do to survive may be very different from what you need to do to live.”

I want to listen. I don’t want to know and shape only the select parts of my children that are riveting and easy to manage. In fact I don’t want to “manage” my kids at all. I want to do life with them. I desire that they develop their whole, unique selves within the safe space of our family instead of feeling the emptiness of a partial existence. For far too long I have seen them as disruptive to my order rather than what they actually are: an extension of God’s holiness and beauty, and grace- His order.

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Parenting is sanctifying work. It’s refining work. It’s a throw-your-entire-body-into-a-vat-of-bubbling-lava kind of work. Because the person that comes out the other side is vastly different from the one who first took the plunge. The crisscrossing battle scars and burns become a precious work of art; reminders of the holy path you’re walking, the miles you’ve already traveled, wisdom gleaned along the way, and the selfishness that’s being chipped away to reveal a clearer image of the Jesus within.

So now I invite them in to live with me, not around me. And it really is the most fulfilling and satisfying kind of life.

Peace & Love, Amy

The Village I Didn’t Know I Had

Well, I popped a baby out on November 13th. A whole week and a half early. Thank goodness, too, because he was just shy of 9 pounds… and he was the smallest of my three boys. We can only make them big around here I guess. It’s been a whirlwind of a couple weeks with all the changes and transitions, though. Three is quite a bit different than two, at least for our clan. And can I just take a second here and talk about the genetic curse that is my children’s inability to latch properly while nursing? Even the lactation consultants, after various suggestions and hands-on efforts, have only ever been able to shrug their shoulders and offer sympathetic smiles as each successive child gnaws and bites and chomps the life and soul out of my nipples. Can I say that? Nipples. Yes. That is what they are. Or were, rather. I have already mourned their passing. Okay moving on…

It always seemed to me that, in general, after someone had one child, everyone tended to make lighter of all subsequent pregnancies and the family was mostly left to figure out their new normal without much help, unless they had family willing to step in for a time. People offer their words of support and often say, “Just call if you need anything!” The thing is, though, it’s not that simple. For someone like me who doesn’t like asking for help out of fear of inconveniencing someone else, calling someone for help of any kind seems impossible and unthinkable. Almost to the point of absurd. My thought process usually goes something like this: I know I need help. I am miserable. Who can I ask? Could I actually ask someone to watch my other kids for a while? Who does that, though?! Isn’t that rude? I can’t just ask people to watch my kids for free. Especially since they have kids of their own! That’s crazy! And I will go through the list of all the ladies in my life who have offered their support and scratch off each one as I make assumptions about all the reasons why they wouldn’t actually be able to help, so I can’t possibly dare burden them by asking. And so I don’t. And my family suffers as I try to do it all and be it all.

The result of trying to do it all and be it all after having my first two children was a downward spiral into postpartum depression. So not only was I trying to not need anyone’s help, I was stuck in a deep chasm of despair, floods of tears and feelings of hopelessness; believing that everyone would just be better off without me. Thank goodness for an innate sense of duty and responsibility and the moving, gracious hand of God that kept me from making terrible decisions. Also the control freak side of me that believed even though I wasn’t doing a good job, no one else would be able to raise my children right either. So better me than a stranger at least. Hah. Ahh… The things our mind can get us to receive and internalize… it’s unreal.

This time around I have had a mindset shift. I’m saying yes. Yes, I would love a diaper shower! Yes, I would appreciate you creating a meal schedule for us! Yes, you can take my kids for the morning! Yes, I will accept your coffee delivery offer! Yes, I WILL call you if I need help… so I sure hope you mean it! Because this time I am doing everything I can to avoid the darkness. My first thoughts when I wake up (or get up- because let’s be real- not much time is spent sleeping) are used in prayer. Prayer for more strength than exhaustion, more kindness than frustration, more gratefulness than discouragement, more patience than irritation, and more hope than despair.

Already I have discovered a village I didn’t know I had. The friend who offered to throw me a diaper shower and the ladies who made it happen, the offers to clean our house, babysit the older kids, provide meals, the promises of mental health inquiries by brave and dear friends, my mom taking on the full responsibility of my older kids and house for an entire week while we transitioned back home, donations of baby items and clothes that were desperately needed… the list continues. Even today, I am only able to write this essay because a precious mom friend took both my older boys, along with her own two children, for the entire morning. AND she brought me my favorite latte when she came to pick them up. I was floored. And all I had to do to receive her gift was say yes.

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All these people were already friends. People I love. But the idea of the village is that everyone is working together to support one another, to pick up the slack, and ease the burdens of one another out of true compassion and kindness… not just getting together to have a good conversation or play date once in a while. The village does the hard things together, too. I can’t imagine my friend had the easiest of mornings today managing four preschoolers. I’m sure she wouldn’t call it “fun.” I’m going to guess she did it out of a pure and simple love. And also because her soul has been kissed by unicorns. She took four preschoolers to an indoor park, guys. I mean, really…

I am learning about a new kind of grateful through this- a grateful that breaks through the pride of a hard and willful heart; that sees genuine compassion in people’s offers to help. I know it brings me joy when someone allows me the opportunity to help them. Why can’t I allow that same joy to be someone else’s when they offer to help me?

We live in a culture filled with expectations and ulterior motives. We’ve been conditioned to assume there’s always a caveat; that it’s never just a simple act of kindness. Instead, it’s easier to presume that everyone, even when offering their help, has some sort of hidden agenda, desire for recognition, or expectations for a return on their “investment.” We have grown accustomed to this idea of “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” Why can’t we just scratch someone else’s back without requiring something in return? WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST BE NICE, COMPASSIONATE, HELPFUL PEOPLE? Why do we have to waste time guessing if what’s being offered truly doesn’t have any strings attached?

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I know I spend an awful lot of time driving around that circle and usually end up refusing help because I don’t want to feel like I owe anything to anyone. Gifts are meant for holidays and birthdays. So why do you want to give me this nice thing or do this wonderful thing for me right now? It’s not Christmas and there is no birthday cake on my table, so what is it you’re really hoping for? That’s how I tend to think. It’s so sad, isn’t it?

I’m starting to believe that the biggest hindrance to the village mentality is the lack of belief in genuine kindness- that people are beginning to doubt that it even still exists. Why do you think there are so many social media posts and links to videos that attempt to “restore your faith in humanity?” Because there is now this prevailing belief in the loss of the genuine goodness of people. Instead of automatically assuming the best about someone, we think the worst until proven otherwise. Compassionless until proven compassionate. Disingenuous until proven genuine. And the trial that we put people on to prove their authenticity is more often than not a self-made, arduous process that requires more effort than we have energy to give, and so we’d just rather say no than take a chance on accepting at face value what is being offered and the person doing the offering. But by doing so we lose a large piece of this beautiful life puzzle because we push away community. We can’t fully invest. We don’t fully trust. We live in the shallows because we think it’s easier and less painful, when in fact the loneliness and struggle of not having community is far more difficult.

Be the kind of person you want others to be. If you’re searching for kindness, be kind. If you desire compassion, be compassionate. If you seek love, be love. If you yourself are genuine in your own efforts, you will begin to recognize the genuineness in others. Good always finds a way to seek out other good. And when you start recognizing that authenticity in others you can then begin making connections and developing your own community.

 

It has taken me far too long to recognize the kind hearts of those that have surrounded me for years because I’ve wasted an exorbitant amount of time believing false assumptions. The village I didn’t know I had is only now emerging from the shadows because I’m allowing the light of their gracious hearts to shine brilliantly on these long, difficult days of sleep deprivation, newborn drama, and preschooler madness. I am finally choosing to believe in their genuine goodness.

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I only regret not fully embracing them sooner. Thank you, friends, for your love and support.

Peace & Love, Amy

 

 

 

When You Just Don’t Feel Like It

I have days when I just don’t feel like it, when I want to Forrest Gump my life and start running and never stop. Like right now, I don’t even feel like writing this. I’m not a bad person for feeling this way, and neither are you if you do, too. Sometimes being an adult just sucks. It’s overwhelming. The expectations are endless. The days are long. The children are all at once precious and tyrannical. My oldest son has recently developed a throat clearing tic that makes me want to send my entire body through a wood chipper. Because at least the sound of that would be slightly more pleasant.

So in the moments when I want to lace up my running shoes and take off down the street, I remember, first, the impossibility of that- as I am nine months pregnant, huge and swollen, and have zero energy. Then common sense kicks in and I realize that even if I DO start running, they will only chase after me. There is no escape. Kind of like when they wait outside the locked bathroom door for me, banging on it with all the feet and fists they have. And so I resign myself to a temporary daydream of a mountain adventure. Solo. And then I learn to breathe again while ignoring their whines and throat clearing and desperate pleas of “mom, watch this!”- which actually translates to, “Mom, watch this thing I can do that I do every single day, a thousand times a day, and demand that you watch every single time or I feel neglected and sad!” Only then can I jump back into the mess of Lego creations, help the Transformers analyze a battle plan with the Power Rangers, and read Goodnight Moon for the 8,346th time. Sigh.

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My life is a good one. No, a great one. But trying to be a responsible adult in life in general, maintain a reasonable level of sanity, AND raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted, well-behaved, loving, compassionate, kind, generous, humble, thoughtful, God-loving, servant-hearted, socially aware, educated children… sometimes it all becomes a tad overwhelming and the weight of all the responsibility pulls at the threads holding my brain parts together and I start to unravel. The raging pregnancy hormones don’t help either. Some days are just hard.

And you know what? It’s okay. Because eventually they go to sleep. Eventually. After a long, drawn out war of the wills.

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And then I get a few moments to myself. I write and release the frustration, or numb it with Netflix. And before my eyes close in restless, often-interrupted sleep, I pray for a chance to try again tomorrow with a little more grace and a lot more patience.

I know I live a blessed life. I am grateful for it. But we all have times when we just don’t feel like it; when we reach the end of ourselves by midday. Or morning. Maybe shortly after waking up. So breathe, take a short daydream trip to your favorite place, control what you can and release what you can’t, pray for patience, listen to a favorite song, drink coffee, eat something good (and by good I mean indulgent, not some kale kefir beetroot concoction that can only ever produce misery and sadness), or simply step outside in the fresh air. Do something to remind yourself that life IS beautiful. Because it is. Then keep on keeping on.

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Peace & Love, Amy

A Faithless Faith

The natural state of the human heart is to be self-seeking and selfish. I’ll just go ahead and raise both my hands in the air in personal confession. If you were to honestly consider your heart’s true motives behind even your best do-gooder actions, more often than not you will come to discover that even your most well-intentioned deeds are motivated by selfishness or pride and were only disguised as something shiny, pure, and selfless. No one wants to hear that, though, right? Because that would essentially nullify the personal reward for all of our wonderful acts of kindness and efforts at improving humanity. And what would that say about us? That even in our attempts to do good, our compassionate acts of service and love, our fight for social justice, we are still very broken people in need of saving. We ourselves are not the saviors. And we are still coughing up dust at the starting line because we are missing the point.

If you believe your faith in God and your salvation are based on a certain moral code, a set of ethical beliefs, or upholding all the do’s and don’ts of your version of Christianity; if you believe you will receive eternal life because you are living a morally upright existence; if you think faith has anything to do with doing… you have missed the mark. And thank GOD that’s not the actual truth.

If you think that any positive thing you are accomplishing is earning yourself the ability to claim righteousness in God’s eyes, you are living in sin. Ugly, prideful sin. And pride was the first sin of both angels and humanity.

People who believe they can save themselves by their own actions believe God approves them because they are better than other people. Even atheists fall into this trap; they simply substitute the world’s praise or history’s opinion for God’s approval. The self-satisfied superiority is the same.” (BSF International)

“Righteousness” is a big, religious-sounding word that some people may have a difficult time understanding. I’ll admit that I have spent the majority of my life glazing over it, having only a general sense of its meaning. So let’s start there. “Righteousness” is being in a right, perfect relationship with God. The only way to be in a right relationship with God is to believe in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; to accept Jesus as God’s gift to us as the only way to receive forgiveness for our sin and be restored to a right relationship with Him.

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I’m not sure why Christians make this so difficult when it is meant to BE and FEEL so incredibly freeing. Why do we want so badly to make it all about us? Pride. It really is the worst.

Perhaps those who live believing they are in a right relationship with God based on the things they do are so bound up in their self-righteous, religious pride that the thought of it actually being that simple is sort of a letdown; they want to believe that all their hard work and personal effort will somehow put them on a more level playing field with God; that they are storing up extra credit points to take them to the next level and leave the rest of us failing peons behind; that they deserve more because they are doing more.

Well, the rain on their parade is a downpour because religious and moral behavior doesn’t save us. Faith in Jesus does. Freely. Believing in the redeeming act of the cross of Christ, having faith in its truth, in its ability to forgive every single wrong action, thought, word, etc.… THAT is what allows us to come back into a right relationship with God. Because when we believe, accept, and internalize that truth, we are justified by grace and made perfect in His sight. It has nothing to do with our “doings.”

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Consider the difference between “works-based faith” and “faith-based works.” The first says that we must do in order to receive God’s forgiveness and salvation. But that would mean salvation comes by way of our own actions, in all our imperfect humanity. Yeah, okay. No thanks. The second says that morality, ethics, good deeds, and righteous living pours out of a desire to be this way because of our faith in Jesus. We love because He first loved us. We give because He gave to us. We serve because He was a servant.

People who simply live good and moral lives because they believe that’s just “the right thing to do” are just as far from the truth as those who live in the sinful pride of religious superiority or the utter darkness of moral depravity. And this is the truth that is often hardest for those that want to believe God is all love and mercy to accept. God IS love and mercy, but there is still a reckoning with the sinful human heart that needs to be satisfied. No one is perfect. No one is without sin. All sin separates us from God. But God, in His perfect love, provided a free avenue for justification through Jesus- justification meaning that we have been forgiven of all our sin and justice has been appropriated so that we can be set free from it, because when Jesus suffered and died on the cross he bore the weight of ALL the sin of humanity, enduring the full wrath and judgement of God for us. He became sin for us so that we could be freed from it. But no matter how good of a person someone is, if they choose not to accept that gift, they remain separated from God. Their morality and ethics are based on humanity’s ever-evolving standards rather than God’s perfect standards. And human standards will never be good enough to save us from ourselves.

That’s why those who know they are screwing up, the people who feel the full weight of their failure and can do nothing but say, “God have mercy on me, a sinner,” these are the ones who are able to experience the freedom in its fullness and receive it with absolute joy.

Jesus, himself, talks about this when he shares the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Beautiful, gracious, gift. Our loving God, who sent His only son, Jesus, to live, suffer, and die in our place. A God for all people – not just the religious ones or the Jewish ones or the ones who do great things… ALL of us. Christianity was never meant to feel or be exclusive- that is the product of human failure and man-made tradition; because Christianity, as intended by Jesus Christ, is, in fact, the most inclusive of all belief systems. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from, what your past or current story is, He loves you and He wants you to accept His free gift of salvation. You don’t have a checklist of things to accomplish before you can receive forgiveness and freedom. You don’t have to fit a certain mold, look a certain way, or do certain acts. You are able to have a right relationship with God through simple faith just as you are right now. It really is that simple. And that’s what makes it such good news!

And how can we know that God never intended for salvation and righteousness to be exclusive? Abraham was called righteous by God even before the law of God was given to the people of earth (Genesis 15:6), simply for believing in the promises God was making with him. His belief was credited to him as righteousness. It didn’t come by way of anything he did (and guys, he did some pretty absurd things). David committed adultery and murder, yet was called a man after God’s own heart and made righteous in God’s eyes because he confessed his sins with an honest, broken heart and repented (Psalm 32, 51). He even specifically says in Psalm 51:16-17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” We are made right with God through our faith in the work Jesus accomplished and the gift of grace and forgiveness that is free, not by the things we do. It is the posture of our heart that matters.

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In Romans 3:21-24, the apostle Paul again explains that a right relationship with God comes through faith in Jesus and not the things we do and the laws we follow.

“21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

Christianity becomes a faithless faith when we trust ourselves more than we trust God, when we walk our own self-made journey believing in our own ability to play God rather than give up control and follow an unfamiliar path that requires trust. Anybody can create all their own answers if they really want to. That doesn’t make them right, good, or true. A right relationship with God requires faith- faith in Jesus, faith in His omnipotence, faith that He is always at work in the world and in our hearts despite the darkness, and faith that He can and WILL do all that He has promised.

When all our good deeds and actions begin to flow out of a faith-filled heart, there is no longer room for pride. Instead, humility takes root and begins to grow, and we begin to do those things out of right desire rather than selfish and prideful desire. That is when the authentic light and hope of Christ can be seen in us. And that is the precious, holy work Christians are called to.

Peace & Love, Amy

(Please feel free to comment or send me a message with any questions you may have.)

The Value of Seasonal Interests

While searching for an extension cord the other night I stumbled across my old sketchbook that I sometimes took to using during my final year of college. When it comes to the arts, I usually stick to music, but for whatever reason, making oil pastel creations for that period of time in my life filled a particular need for expression during a lonely season. I have zero technique or training and I’m not much of a natural drawer, so while the images themselves would probably seem rudimentary and  lacking in form to just about everyone else, I remember the heart and desire behind them. They are precious to me for that reason alone.

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After finding my sketchbook I sat down the next few nights and attempted a couple of artistic, expressive strokes, energized by my discovery of this past “self” I had long since forgotten. I didn’t get very far. Even though I was motivated to engage in the activity, the attempts themselves seemed forced and I was unable to generate the peaceful process of constructing an image that gave me any sense of personal satisfaction in the same way it had ten years ago. I soon understood this creative outlet to be a seasonal one, perhaps even only sporadically useful. I can’t pinpoint what exactly propelled (propels) me toward this desire to draw. I only know it remains dormant until the moment it doesn’t.

I would venture to say there are interests and hobbies in everyone’s lives that take a similar position. We invest in them for a time, and then find life moving us on to the next thing. Maybe you come back to those pursuits and maybe you don’t. Regardless, they shape a piece of you. Or maybe it’s the motivation behind the activity that is more formative than the actual activity itself. Like I said, I’m not a great drawer. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about my pictures. The images themselves didn’t cause any seismic shift in perspective or life direction. It was the flow of desire to create something that filled a void and inhabited a once-empty space I didn’t know existed, a visual representation of feeling separate from my music and tremendously therapeutic.

Life cracks us in ways we may not even recognize as we are carried along in its swiftly moving current- cracks that can unknowingly leak precious energy and soul fuel out into the wide open spaces while we become increasingly baffled by our slowing pace and darkening horizon. Where did this negativity come from? Why do I feel so afraid? What is this confusion? Why am I so frustrated and overwhelmed? Or whatever type of uncertainty or questions you may start to feel and ask yourself. And as the cracks deepen and widen, a void becomes visible.

I find musical expression to be my most common construct for communication between myself and God. All the sadness, intensity, joy, desire, longing, anger, despair, and hope can often be channeled into melodies and lyrics. The largest cracks during my middle school and high school years, and much of my college years were filled and sealed with the flow of poetic rhyme and the strum of guitar strings. But there were other, less noticeable gaps that required something different. Enter oil pastels. And a marathon. Advocating for the Invisible Children organization. Attempting a meal delivery service venture. And now blogging. These are just a few of the activities that have served (and some that still serve) a very specific purpose as seasons of reconstruction and growth, other methods of connection between my spirit and God’s.

Training for and running in the Chicago Marathon for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, for example, was a deeply personal venture; rooted in my own story as a cancer survivor and my sister’s lost battle to that same cancer. During our childhood struggles with Leukemia we were the “heroes” who other runners ran in honor of and raised money for to give to this organization. The loss of my sister has always been a deep, closed off well of thoughts and feelings. But by accepting and entering into this season of training, then running the actual marathon in her honor with this same organization, joy poured itself into that well, filling in the deep cavernous spaces that had for so many years caused an unspoken grief to take up residence. I don’t think I’ll ever run a marathon again. It was all at once terrible and exhilarating. But the driving intensity that fueled the fire of self-discipline to train has since been satisfied. That season came to a close once I crossed the finish line. That period of reconstruction and healing is finished.

And looking back on that time, God was clearly intentional in the way He steered me in that direction. Because what came about through that experience was not just a necessary heart-healing, but a whole new path to personal education in health, wellness, and nutrition which has since transformed the way I live. Mostly. Except for when I’m pregnant… because chocolate. And sugar in general.

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So these seasonal gifts and experiences that are given to us throughout our lifetime are opportunities for growth, healing, reflection, and teaching- to perhaps be the turning point toward a new direction, teach us a truth we would otherwise miss, or simply be a momentary grace in the midst of difficulty.  Embrace them for the time they are given to you, and if you come to a point when the activity or hobby feels forced or no longer brings the joy it once did, consider the possibility that the season for that interest has come to a close. In those moments reflect on the changes it has produced in you, the soul connection created that allowed a different avenue for the channeling of God’s love, grace, and teaching, and then be willing to look up and around and offer up your heart to whatever may come next. Or perhaps you will return to an original passion with renewed zeal.

Whatever the case may be, embrace these seasonal interests, thank God for them, seek out the divine purpose, and grow.

Peace & Love, Amy