One of my sons had a birthday last week, and our neighbour brought him over a gift while he was sleeping. When he saw it the next morning, his brown eyes ignited, the smile stretched across his face as he excitedly talked about finally owning his very own fidget spinner.
For the uninitiated here’s my best fidget-spinner explanation: It’s a piece of metal somehow connected at the centre, and the blades spin fast. This is apparently a source of endless fascination for children, or at the very least, a good source of income for toymakers.
But for my son, this red, white and blue piece of metal is something else entirely. He leaned over to me and whispered in awe, I’ve been wishing for one of these, Mommy.
Wanting to understand what he meant, I prodded. He had never asked us for one. This was my first time to hear of it. Fidget spinners, it turns out, are a popular commodity at school. Several of the boys in his class have them, he’s been watching them for weeks and the seed of desire grew in his heart. Even though he didn’t tell us, he wanted one.
See, I smiled at him, God knows – but the words stuck in my throat, silencing me. I started talking without thinking, and I could feel grown-up fear fighting the words back down.
You can’t tell him that God gives him what he wants, what if he grows up thinking he’s entitled to whatever he wishes for.
You can’t teach him to expect good things when you know bad things are always around the corner.
But I ran my fingers through his brown hair, looked in his eyes, and pressed into territory that feels dangerous and somehow wild and unknown.
God knows what you want before you even say it, I said, he loves giving you good things.
A small postscript: I have not done much research into fidget spinners, but I appreciated the thoughts in this article, “What the fidget spinners fad reveals about disability discrimination.” It’s well worth the read, we all need to be more sensitive, knowledgeable and helpful toward adults and children in our lives whose minds are different from ours.
When I was four-years-old, my family moved to a large house on a dirt road in a small province in the Philippines.
The leaves of mango trees were glossy green, and coconut trees reached their branches for the clouds. On the hot days of the dry season, we felt the sweat trickle down our necks as we sat in front of electric fans. Wet season brought with it daily rain and regular typhoons, the kind that blew trees and electric lines down. Our basement would flood, and we had an assembly line passing buckets along until we emptied it.
We told the tricycle drivers to take us to Guadalupe, and directed them after a fork in the road to go right, down a slight hill, and stop at the rusted brown gate on the right. Like most houses in the Philippines, there was a tall wall all around the property. At the top of the wall, broken glass pieces had been embedded into the cement when the wall was built, a supposed deterrent to robbers and drug addicts scaling it at night.
To the left was our neighbour Ka Loreng who had a sari-sari store (literal translation, “variety of things” store) where people bought shampoo in sachets, candy, corn bits in little orange bags and on the hottest day of the year my mother would take us there to buy soda, which Ka Loreng poured into plastic bags. We sipped it out of straws while we walked down the road.
Across the street was Evie and her three kids, a bit further down the road was her sister-in-law Jubi and her kids. There was a large field next to Evie’s house with corn crops and sometimes, sugar cane.
To the right of our our house was a plot of land, and three families lived there in several ramshackle huts, in the Philippines they were called squatters. I remember the women, Nanay Ange and Teri, and a girl a little older than me, Leah. The walls were flimsy pieces of cardboard-like wood nailed together, the roofs, corrugated metal. There were no ceilings, some of the floors were long pieces of bamboo patched together, some of the floors were the earth of the ground, flattened slightly. Each hut was one room, mothers, fathers, children all lived together. There was no electricity and no running water.
When February starts, I feel a deep settling in, a sense of, “Here we go.” They say our birthday is the day we entered the world, but I think our lifetimes mark days when we are reborn. February holds most of my beginnings.
On February 4, 2009 I boarded an EasyJet flight from London to Geneva, Switzerland. I was in the middle of my trip around the world and about to head into the one part of the trip that was totally unknown. Most people who travel do it for the sense of adventure, the longing to see new places and meet new people, being in an unknown European city would be a dream, but I still don’t know why I did it. I’m a homebody and an introvert, and I had no interest in Switzerland. If I was going somewhere in Europe, I would have gone to Italy, Greece or Spain, the places that fascinated me from my history textbooks.
My bank account was running low, and the Australian dollar was crashing, and I didn’t want to have to figure things out for myself. I wanted to be somewhere where someone else was taking care of me and telling me what to do.
So why was I in Geneva? The answer is one of those awkward “Christianese” responses, but it is the truth. God told me to go.
When I share this story, most people fixate on the God telling me part. How? They ask. That is amazing, they exclaim, How did you know for sure?
But for me the fascinating part isn’t that God told me. It is that I went. And to unwind that story, I have to take you back to Northwest Arkansas in 2003 and my friend Amber.
She has brown hair and brown eyes, and in those early university years, something was happening to her. What I remember her talking about was how God would talk to her, in prayer, through the Bible, but also just prompt her to pull over and talk to the person walking on the road and other things. She wasn’t telling me about who God had told her to marry or what she was going to do with her life. She told me about the person she stopped to encourage, the moments when she sensed she was supposed to go and do something that didn’t make sense and the conviction in her spirit of the things that she was supposed to do differently.
Maybe it was because she was a “dependable” Southern Baptist and not a “crazy” Pentecostal that I trusted what was happening in her life, maybe it was because I knew her and loved her and could see first hand the transformation. Listening led to obedience, hearing led to action, and I witnessed a slow deepening of love in her heart for the things of God, it unlatched freedom in her life, and I watched, captivated by the life of adventure unfolding in her life.
I knew I wanted what she had.
After Christmas break in the drive back to my townhouse room, I decided 2003 was the year I was going to start listening to God. I didn’t set an alarm and depended on the Holy Spirit to wake me up for class (he didn’t, I started setting an alarm again). I could tell you lots of crazy stories, clothing I threw out, music I deleted from my computer, and the many other zealous signs of youthful passion. I could tell you about reading Isaiah 61 and memorising those words, Beauty for ashes, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair, oak of righteousness a planting of God, and holding on to those promises to get me out of a period of depression.
Maybe you smiled, maybe you rolled your eyes, but I can tell you that 2003 is the year when God became my friend, it was the year the words in my Bible started to live inside of me. There was a trust unfolding in my soul as we talked through each day, the knowledge that God would never leave and that I could expect his hand to be faithful.
It is difficult to obey someone you don’t trust, but the more I listened, the stronger his voice grew, the more familiar it sounded. It called me home, slowly redefining my identity, shaping my beliefs, creating a space in my life that was both terrifying and tender, sacred and funny. And slowly obedience became easier.
So much easier that when it made no sense at all to fly to a small town in Switzerland, I did it.
I often wonder what I would say about Geneva if I never met the man who became my husband five days into that two-week February visit.
I think I would say that learning to listen to God and do what he says has been one of the sweetest, most frightening experiences of my life; that you cannot predict how it will go; that obedience is both painful and lovely; that you will wonder if you hear right and you will question yourself; that there is grace abundant for each moment and each day.
For the girl wandering around Lake Geneva in a coat that wasn’t warm enough and for you today, I would say, You can trust him, and it is worth it. You will never regret saying yes to God.
I’m linking up with Amy Peterson today with this story. Amy wrote a beautiful book, Dangerous Territory. I read this memoir in a few days, the writing is solid and meaningful, the story is compelling. For anyone who works overseas in a ministry context, this book will give you language for the many stressors and complexities of missionary work. For anyone in a western country, this book will give you words for your own desire for a meaningful life and the broken ways we can create that for ourselves. I highly recommend it.
For the past week, every time I read the news from any part of the world, I can feel fear wrap around me like a blanket. Strong, heavy, unbearable. I can hear the stories from my history classes in university and high school, stories of people turning against each other, of wars and raids, of the destruction of people, of corruption and power, and it seems like we are running toward our destruction.
We are not nearly as good as we thought we were.
Whatever corner of the world you are in when you read this, it doesn’t matter. I sense that you want your life to matter, and you want to live beyond the seemingly hopeless realities in the news. You feel a call to do something, but what? How? When? You feel helpless. I know I do. This is for you – the one who wants to fight, the one who wants to create and not consume, the one who knows you have something you want to do but isn’t sure how to do it.
Our action step – plan to find daily moments of rest from the news and information, set aside a day week when work stops completely.
Find the margins.
There is always work to be done in the margins. There are people in all of our communities who are forgotten, and who believe that their lives are worthless and disposable. Two weeks ago I was in the library and witnessed a young person mistreating a child. A few days later, I saw the same person again in Kmart. I don’t think this was a coincidence. Both times I was faced with someone in the margin, a bewildered, hurting child and a lost, broken parent. I had no idea what to do then, but I know that this was not a coincidence. It was an invitation. To do something. To ask questions. To provide wisdom and truth. To be present. Your margins are different from my margins – be present in your community and find the people who are afraid and pushed to a corner. Who could you connect with in your community? What are the needs of your schools, government and neighbourhoods? Where do your gifts connect with the needs around you?
Our action step – read your local newspaper or website, go to a part of your town that you haven’t been to, maybe a part that is unsafe, listen to members of your community who are involved and find out what needs to be done.
Pick one thing
Choose one issue to which you can devote whatever time and resources you have. It is impossible to do everything, and in this age of information I can get passionate about everything. But I wonder if everything is distracting me from the one thing that I can do. Find your one thing. Learn about it. Research it. Do what you can. The one thing will also lead you to the people you need to work with.
Our action step – what is one issue to which you want to devote your time and resources? Is there an organisation or team you can partner with? Who can you contact? What can you do?
You are not just a witness to history today. You get to play a part in creating it. Let’s reject helplessness together, let us embrace the small ways we can lend our life toward the needs around us.
Now it’s your turn:What are you going to do today? How can you rest from the anxieties of daily life? What are the margins in your world? What is the one thing you can do?
Most of you may be thinking (or trying not to think) about a certain international event of importance. Me? I can’t help myself, I’m still looking back. History has always fascinated me, it was my favourite subject in school, I majored in it at university, and it continues to be something that keeps me grounded both in my daily life and also in the way I perceive the future.
2016. What was it like for you? As the world seemed to descend into chaos around me, our little world in Melbourne, Australia pieced itself together. I dropped one child off at kindergarten, played with the other one, cooked, started the slow work of getting to know people, reconnected with some of my dearest friends and family, traveled to Alaska, became my niece’s “Wevi.” A million ordinary moments and a few extraordinary ones, the making of a life in one place.
So here’s what I learned this year in no particular order.
Rest is the start I began the year by reading “Soulkeeping” by John Ortberg, and this quotation from the book served as a foundation for the year, undoubtedly for the rest of my life:
“The soul was not made for an easy life; the soul was made for an easy yoke.”
I think that year after year, maintaining a sabbath practice, both daily and weekly, is key to the rest of my life, the root system out of which everything else grows.
Grocery shopping stresses me out I go to the grocery store usually two times a week, sometimes more, but this year was the first time when I realized: This is causing unnatural stress. My kids are wonderful shoppers, which is why I didn’t allow myself to see it (I kept telling myself how blessed I am to shop with kids). We experimented with online shopping and Husband taking care of the groceries, and it has made a difference.
Hold the gifts inside There are two beautiful things that happened to me this year, and my instinct was to share it. Write about it on the blog, tell someone about it, put a photo on Instagram, but something about the the glory of these two gifts stopped me. Sometimes there is space to share about the beautiful things but not the way in which it most deeply touched my soul. I learned to enjoy the gift on the inside, to turn it over in my hand and watch the way it changed in the light, to enjoy watching its different facets and what the process of time did to it, and to let the gifts become part of a system of internal resources, something to rely on during the harder weeks and seasons of life.
My children know when my love for them comes with requirements I used to write a lot about parenting here, and I haven’t in a long time. There’s a reason for that. The past two years have just about done my head in as a mother, not just because of my children, but because of myself. Perhaps the most humbling thing about parenting is the way it will pull out every evil thing in your heart on display for the most easily influenced, innocent members of your family. Someone asked us in August if we weren’t perhaps expecting too much of our children, it was a turning point for us in so many ways. You cannot give your children something you cannot give yourself, and it has been six months of relearning or maybe learning for the first time, the nature of grace and love.
Trust takes time I’ve spent a lifetime rushing into deep relationships, and this was the year when I learned to slow it all down, to pay attention to my soul and to my circumstances, to honour the needs of my husband and kids and the way it impacts my ability to relate to others and connect with others. There are longer, deeper thoughts here, but for now here it is: It takes time to build relationships that are based on trust and connection, and that time has to be taken to sustain healthy, truly deep relationships that are characterized by freedom and love. 2016 was the year I decided that I will take the slow path to healthy relationships; it has been a painful but very worthwhile lession.
A hopeful vision for the future I read The Atlantic Monthly’s essay about Donald Trump in the middle of the year, and it was the source of one of my major “aha’ moments this year. The article helped me to see the powerful way with which fear can drive me, and in contrast I saw the way God leads, through hope. In the middle of my fears (and I have many of them), I sensed God saying to me, I have a hopeful vision for your life. It has served as an anchor and a reminder when I am afraid that God has a different narrative for my life.
Our brains can change I went to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s seminar in Melbourne about renewing the mind, based on her book “Switch On Your Brain,” and even though there are things I disagreed with, this basic truth was profound to me: God made our brains in a way that they can change. The connections in our brains can be rewired, and our thoughts directly impact the way our brain is formed. Something about this seemed like the truth that I know is found in God – he makes all things new, his mercies are new every morning, there are second chances for us when we fail again and again. Change is possible. He has literally wired it into our brains.
There is time Alaska. I spent a week there on a writing retreat in September, and it was probably one of the best weeks of my life. I went into it saddled with many writing fears: Can I sustain a writing life? Will I miss out if I don’t do anything now? Each one was answered not by any person but by the love of God in many tiny, intentional moments. I see you, I know you, and you have time. 2016 was the year when I decided to take the timetable stress off my life, my marriage, children, writing, passions and calling and to embrace instead a trust that God has all of these things in his hands, I can trust the process, and I can enjoy learning along the way. I don’t think I have ever received such an extraordinary gift as the week I spent in Alaska, I will probably spend the rest of my life unpacking the beauty of it all.
Thanks for journeying with me on the blog last year. It was a joy to get to know you and share in your highs and lows as well. I look forward to another year of walking and growing together. Now tell me, what did you learn in 2016?