Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Another Clean Slate

I do not make resolutions. New Year's Day usually comes and goes like any other day of the year for me.  No weight loss or exercise goals, no vowing to give up bad habits, just a day to put away Christmas present packaging and start taking down decorations.  However, as 2010 draws to a close, I feel there are some significant changes that are needed in my life, some things to leave behind and some good habits to pick up. I've often heard it said, "It's never too late to begin again." Thankfully, as a follower of Christ, I wake up each morning to a clean slate and more than enough of His grace and mercy to get through the day if I will just ask Him! But maybe it is a good idea to make some commitments to myself and to God about how I will strive to be more like Him in the coming year.  Resolve is not a virtue that I can claim to possess, so I will be totally dependent on God's grace to keep these commitments, and I hope that sharing them here will help strengthen my efforts.  So here goes the list, and these are, for me, pretty lofty goals!

1.  I will talk less and listen more. For me, specifically, this means not being preoccupied or distracted when my husband or kids are sharing their thoughts or their day with me, giving my undivided attention, and NOT interrupting or "talking over" them (a really nasty habit of mine).

2.  I will stop "sweating the small stuff". Michael asked me recently, "Why do you let yourself get so upset over the little things?" I'm sure at the time I tried to defend myself, but I know he was right. Who cares if the kids make a mess giving the dog a bath? Well, I do, but that is gonna change!

3.  I will choose not to worry about things I have no control over, quit trying to fix people and situations, and start giving them over to God.  I fail in this so often, even though I know He is able to handle things (especially people and relationships) far more effectively than I could ever hope to on my own!

4.  I will be more intentional about discipline. I will work on being more consistent with the kids, for sure, but even more so in my own routine and schedule. This will be the hardest one for me, because I am a free-spirited, non-planning sort of gal.  Gone are the days when I could easily navigate the day with no plan, no calendar, no schedule. It is time to step up to the challenge and adapt!

5.  I will make time to be quiet and listen.  I want so much to know God's will for my life, but He'd have to use a megaphone to be heard above the chaos that so often rules my life.  The still small voice is being drowned out by the din of activity and busy-ness.  I will commit to being quiet before God first thing each day, instead of trying to squeeze in a couple minutes here and there, which, sadly, has become my habit. Does this mean setting an alarm instead of waiting for babies' cries to wake me up? I'm afraid so. Which brings me to #6.

6.  I will start getting more rest and wake up at a set time each morning.  I am always exhausted, with the dark circles and puffy eyes to prove it! Far worse than the effects on my appearance are the effects on my mood and demeanor... By 5pm I am completely out of patience, kindness, and gentleness! I'm sure my whole family will be grateful if by God's grace I somehow manage to keep this one commitment!

So, there you have it. My 6 resolutions. The list is rather intimidating to me, though I'm sure to some it would seem to be nothing more than common "walking around" sense! Unfortunately, I was not gifted with an abundance of common sense, so I learn by trial and error. Well, mostly I learn by error, but let's not dwell on that. I am hopeful that though my progress is slow, it is still forward progress, and will eventually get me to the goal line. If the goal is to be more like Jesus in the coming year, then I will do my best to make each day count. Hopefully at the end of every day I'll be able to claim a few small victories, learn from my failures and defeats, and wake up with another clean slate!

Happy New Year! Have an inspiring and rewarding 2011!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Joy, Hope, & Peace

As Christmas swiftly approaches, I find myself caught up in the spirit of the holiday season. I love hearing Christmas music on the radio and in the stores. I have even enjoyed the shopping and decorating, the two things I was dreading the most!  I have tried to keep my focus on the reason we celebrate, and have been reflecting on the past year and what I have learned about joy and where it comes from. Being a generally positive and happy person, I thought I had joy figured out. This year has held many stressful and "unhappy" moments, so my usual optimism and carefree spirit have suffered some blows.  But, this is December, a month to reflect on the year, learn from mistakes, let go of the baggage we have picked up along the way, and celebrate the joy, hope, and peace that Jesus brought to you and me when He came as a tiny baby, fragile and vulnerable.  In my own quest for "real" faith and healthy spirituality, I have discovered a few things about joy, hope, and peace. 

Happiness is defined by what HAPPENS to us. It is a fleeting moment, an unexpected kindness, a sense of well-being that lasts only until something 'bad' happens to take it away. I can call to mind moments of true happiness, but they are rare. I spent many years trying to find "lasting happiness" only to learn I was seeking something we were not meant to have this side of heaven.  What I have found, through my many failures and missteps, is a kind of joy that lasts through the hardest of times. The kind of joy that comes from a soul at rest with its Creator, from knowing exactly who I am in Christ and believing that I am loved just as I am, not as I ought to be. The joy of knowing that I am forgiven, and seen as righteous because of what Jesus did for me, not because of my meager attempts at being "good enough". Maybe this is a basic truth, but it took many years for my heart to truly accept this and believe it. My joy comes from the freedom that I now feel to be myself, knowing that I am loved no matter what. No mistake, no failure, no sin, no bad decision or wrong motive can ever separate me from the love God has for me! I can finally be comfortable in my own skin, so to speak, without being afraid that God is mad at me.

Hope is hard to find, and even harder to hold on to. We have so many reasons in life to lose hope. I guess the question is this, what is it that we are hoping for? What have we set our sights and our hearts on that is supposedly going to make our lives better or easier?  I have put my hope in money, in people, in jobs, in abilities, only to be disappointed time and time again.  Over the past year, we have had financial problems, health issues that compounded the financial problems, and Michael has been job hunting without success in spite of his education and experience. So many nights I lay in bed worrying about these things.  Will we be kicked out of our house? Will we be able to buy groceries this week? Can we pay the utility bill?  After several months of this I began praying every time I would feel the worry kicking into high gear. I would ask God to meet our needs and show us what He wants us to do TODAY. Just for today. One day at a time. I began to realize that hope is about WHO your trust is in. If my hope and trust is in God, then I have no need to worry, because he loves me and knows what is best for me even when I can't see it. Often my prayer is simply this, "My hope is in You, God". Those few words can change my perspective on any situation, no matter how bleak!

Peace, in my opinion and experience, is the end result of finding our joy and our hope in Christ. Peace is the natural outcome of trusting God with our lives, and can't truly be obtained any other way.  I once thought peace meant that I should always accomodate everyone else, not "make waves" or "rock the boat", essentially making me a doormat to those with stronger personalities. I believed peace came from easy circumstances, bills being paid, money in the bank, job security, and healthy relationships. The problem with that line of thinking is that I had little control over those things, so "peace" was rather difficult to achieve. Over the last few years, I have had some very 'UN-PEACEFUL" circumstances, many caused by my own choices, some by the choices of others. In the midst of the darkest times is where I learned that real peace has nothing to do with anything or anyone around me. I learned that peace comes from finding joy and hope in my relationship with Jesus, trusting that He will work in me to accomplish His purpose in my life, in spite of me or anyone else! My anxiety eventually became nothing more than an occasional unrest in my spirit, which I learned to give to God in a simple prayer of submission. I still forget sometimes. I have bad days, days when my focus is on the storm around me, days when peace seems as far away as heaven itself. But I am learning to go to God with my cares and frustrations, and leave them there in His hands.

My desires have changed. I no longer care only for my own comfort and security. I have a growing desire to see God's will accomplished in my life.  I long to be useful to Him. That is in no way meant to be boastful, because it isn't a result of anything I have done. It is simply the work of God in my heart to accomplish His purposes.  I am still as capable of failure and sin as I have always been, but I have to believe that the change in my desires will lead to change in my choices and behaviors and attitudes. I had to fall a long way down before I looked up, but when I did, my Savior was right there waiting. He didn't make me "pay". He had already paid the price for me.  He restored the joy of my salvation, and gave me a clean heart. He renewed my spirit and set me on my feet again. If I fail Him again, He will be there for me still. This is, to me at least, real peace.  I wish I did not have to learn everything the hard way, but I am resolved to make the most of every lesson in my life, so that hopefully it will not have to be learned again!

Joy, hope, and peace to you! May it be real and abiding in your life this Christmas and always!

Philippians 4:4-7  "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
 will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

John 16:33  "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Psalm 62:5  "Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him."

Psalm 147:11 "The Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love."

Romans 12:12 "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Blues

Happy Thanksgiving!  Over the last few days, my stepsons' mom, Shannan, and I have been trying to tackle the schedule for Thanksgiving weekend.  Thankfully we usually manage a compromise that everyone is happy with for the most part, but it always makes me sad to think about all the family traditions that either no longer exist or are incomplete as a result of divorce. Sure, I still love the holiday season, but it is now clouded with the guilt of knowing that my kids are all probably missing how it was 'before'. If money were no object, I'm sure my guilt would drive me to some pretty extravagant measures to make everything bigger and better in an effort to make them forget what they've lost, but I know in my heart that it wouldn't work. And unfortunately (or thankfully?) money IS an object in this household! I know I am not alone in this struggle from the emails I've gotten from other moms in blended or post-divorce families. Here are some thoughts and ideas (not all my own, many thanks to my friends on Facebook!) on restoring the joy to holidays in a blended family.

Christmas is tricky at best in a blended family. I have been dreading Christmas since August, and yes, I do realize how worldly and non-spiritual that sounds, but it is the truth!  On a very limited (more like nonexistent) budget, I am trying to figure out how to make Christmas morning festive and memorable, and still wondering how to get my kids to think about something other than presents! And although this year all 7 kids will be here on Christmas morning, I am already feeling guilty that their other respective parents will be alone (or at least minus the kids) when they wake up! There are many websites that offer tips for step-families and creative holiday ideas, and I will attach some links for those, but I would like to focus on the attitudes that can make our holidays meaningful and memorable. After all, what we give to our families from our hearts is what it is all about!

Live in the present.  I don't know about yours, but my kids are very intuitive. Even the little ones can sense when Mommy is stressed, angry, or sad. We know as women that our attitudes set the tone for the entire household, but knowing doesn't always make it easy to apply! When I was going through counseling after my divorce, my counselor Lisa said this to me, "If you are ok, they will be ok." That stuck with me as I navigated the murky waters of building a new life that was very different for all of us.  During the holidays, it is easier than ever to dwell on the past and to let guilt or grief settle on us like a cloud. Choosing to live in the moment is one thing I have had to work really hard at, so I understand the difficulty of setting those negative emotions aside in order to focus on the here and now! But the reward is this: Your kids will see that you are "ok" and content to be in your present circumstance, no matter what events brought you here, and they will be "ok" and free to enjoy life in a new way.  We cannot erase their pain or their memories, but we can provide a happy today!

Don't try to make everything "like it used to be". That approach will only magnify the differences! With each holiday, create a new tradition that is unique to your new family. Let everyone participate in planning and preparations, and don't be afraid to be a little unconventional! My friend Mary Kay shared this in an email, "Blending 2 families' traditions is really hard - some want white lights, some want colored. Still do Santa in the morning? No - that's not the way the others do it. So the answer had to be create 'new' ones. And make a big deal about it." This year at her house, everyone got new, color-coordinated monogrammed stockings, and each family member is picking out a new ornament to hang on the tree, which they will decorate together. A simple way for everyone to take "ownership" and feel important!  My friend Robyn is shifting the focus in her house away from "stuff" by implementing the 3 gift tradition. Baby Jesus got 3 gifts for His birthday, and it is a great way to incorporate the true Christmas story into your festivities and direct the focus back to what God did for us when He sent His Son as a tiny baby. These are not drastic measures, just practical things that real moms are doing to create a new family tradition in the wake of some major life changes.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is perhaps the most important thing we can do, for ourselves, our children, our spouses, our ex-spouses, and anyone else in our lives. "Treat others the way you would want to be treated."  How many times do we hear this quoted or say it to our kids? But when it is my schedule that is interrupted or my plans that have to be adapted, how willing am I to live it out?  Moms, we have an opportunity to affect change in the most difficult relationships in our lives by choosing to live by this one principle.  I am not advocating being a doormat to those who would abuse your good intentions. But I have found that most often, if I choose to treat others with this kind of genuine care and respect, they are more than willing to reciprocate! It works!

Don't try to please EVERYONE. This may sound like a contradiction to the last point, but it is not, and here's why: We can have a gracious attitude toward the people in our lives without catering to every request, demand, and opinion.  In fact, it would be impossible to make everyone happy when there are 2, 4, 6, maybe even 8 (if you count grandparents) adults, each with a different idea or schedule! And I know firsthand the burnout and frustration that being a "people-pleaser" can cause.  How many tears have been shed over my need for the approval of other people! If we make it our aim to please only God, then I guarantee He will work the rest out not only for our good, but for the good of those around us. He sees our heart, knows our intentions and motives, and if our heart's desire is to please Him, He will bless it!

Give freely the gift of FORGIVENESS.  I know in every divorce there is blame enough to go around, and we often feel entitled to our bitterness, but the truth is when we harbor unforgiveness in our hearts, it is our kids who pay the price. How easy it is to rob our kids (and ourselves!) of the joy of the holidays by allowing them to glimpse the black hole of unforgiveness toward a parent that they love and cherish. We can give them the gift of seeing real forgiveness at work in our lives by the way we communicate with and speak of others.

We all live in less-than-perfect families, with less-than-perfect people, and we will never get it all "right".  My kids don't have a perfect life, a perfect mom, or a perfect home, but they can have a happy life, a contented mom, and a peaceful home.  That (along with some video games and toys they don't need) will be my gift to them this year and every year, Lord willing.  With a little grace, a LOT of prayer, and some encouragement from friends who are walking this same path, we can help our families not only to survive, but to have a joy-filled holiday season!

Some helpful websites:

http://www.successfulstepfamilies.com/view/92 "Combining Holiday and Family Traditions" Successful Stepfamilies

http://www.focusonthefamily.com/popups/media_player.aspx?MediaId=%7B56B2CFAA-6994-43B3-8484-74D0A62311F1%7D  "Thriving in Your Role as a Stepmom 2" Helping Families Thrive (radio program)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Hardest Thing

"Humility is not thinking less of oneself, it is thinking of oneself less." I came across this quote on a friend's Facebook page a couple months ago.  I thought to myself, "Wow! What a concisely profound statement." So what did I do? I copied, pasted and reposted it on my own page, of course! And though I would never have admitted this at the time, even to myself, in the back of my mind was a long list of folks I thought could benefit from my "borrowed" wisdom. If you know me you are probably already chuckling just a little. Over the next three days, my heavenly Father (who loves me enough to show me when I am being a hypocrite) supplied me with many opportunities, big and small, to live out this principle that I so boldly proclaimed for all 300 of my Facebook friends to see! It was not a good week, to say the least. Pretty sure I failed every single "test" of humility that came my way. So after I finished banging my head against the wall (figuratively speaking), I figured I might as well see what true humility really looks like. 

First I looked at all the ways I had messed up that week and began a list of what humility is NOT, since this was the only area I could claim any expertise in. Here is the list quoted from my journal that week:
1.  Humility is NOT being defensive when I am criticized, either justly or unjustly.
2.  Humility is NOT taking pleasure in someone else's pain or failures.
3.  Humility is NOT responding harshly to my family because I feel overworked and unappreciated.
4.  Humility is NOT constantly perceiving disapproval or judgement in others' remarks. (It's not about ME!)
5.  Humility is NOT low self-esteem, being so consumed with my own self-image that I am of no use to anyone.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, just a few examples. Now to answer the big question... what is true humility? (not to be confused with true humiliation, which I am painfully acquainted with.) The only person I knew who ever existed and exhibited true humility was and is Jesus Himself. He is our example, so I took a look at some familiar Bible verses and came up with a short list of what humility should look like in my life.
1.  Humility is praying for my "enemies".
2.  Humility is loving the difficult people in my life sincerely by my actions, words and attitudes.
3.  Humility is giving grace freely because of the grace God in Christ has given me.
4.  Humility is being willing to recognize and work on my own flaws and weaknesses.
5.  Humility is choosing to see the good in everyone instead of focusing on their flaws.
6.  Humility is giving of my time and resources to serve others.
7.  Humility is being willing to be LED.

I am a work in progress and make no claim to have mastered this list, but I am working on it, and ALL things are possible with God, even for a screw-up like me! Life is hard, relationships take work, and nothing good comes easily. Maybe that is a trite and cliched statement, but it is true nonetheless. My life, like yours, is filled with intricate and complicated relationships, and more than anything I want to be the wife, mom, step-mom, sister, friend, daughter that God desires me to be. I will fail more times than I succeed, but with God's grace I will keep getting back up and trying again!

Phillipians 2:3 "Do nothing out of selfish ambition, but in humility consider others better than yourselves."

Colossians 3:12-14 "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity."

1 Peter 2:21,23 "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps... When they hurled their insults at Him he did not retaliate; when He suffered He made no threats, Instead, He entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly."

1 Peter 3:8-9 "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Life in a Blender

Malachi 2:16 " 'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel."  Pretty plainly spoken.  Does that mean we are abandoned and without hope when we make the choice to end a marriage? Absolutely not! Does it mean that we invite struggle, strife, and challenges into our lives when we choose our way instead of His? A big fat YES!! So where does that leave us? Dependent all the more on His grace to face the obstacles in our path to a healthy family life.

As a woman who has experienced the pain of a failed marriage, the joy of a new marriage, the blessings and frustrations of being a stepmom, as well as the joys and heartaches of raising children who have been wounded by my choices and the choices of others, I am sharing my experiences for the sole purpose of building up and encouraging others who find their lives in a blender! It is not my intention to share details that may in any way cause hurt to anyone in my life (past or present). I will be gleaning wisdom, experiences, and insight from others in order to make this a worthwhile pursuit.

In a household of 9, I have the challenge of figuring out what makes everyone "tick", and believe me, there are no 2 alike! Like little snowflakes, the kids each have their own unique personality, complete with strengths, weaknesses, virtues and flaws.  Most days I find myself feeling very inadequate to meet all of their emotional and physical needs.  The laundry, for instance, is never done, my sink always has dirty dishes in it, and there is more homework than I could ever hope to check in one day. As a result, I usually feel like a total failure by lunchtime! Add to that the challenge of communicating with ex-spouses in a Godly and gracious way and meeting the needs of my husband, and you have the recipe for some pretty major meltdowns!

My eyes were recently opened to the cycle of negativity I had set in motion when in my bible study class this statement was made: "When I walk in obedience, faithfulness, and perseverance with the Lord, there is NOTHING that can stop me from accomplishing His will except ME!"  The Holy Spirit whispered in my ear that I was being my own stumbling block, as well as a stumbling block for others who depend on me. I had been trying to do it all on my own. And I was drowning in it. Lesson learned? If I do not make my relationship with Jesus my #1 priority, I am setting myself up to fail not only myself, but everyone around me. My attitude influences every person in my life. The way I live my life each day, the tone that I use with my spouse, the manner in which I deal with the kids, the relationships I have with my ex-husband, his ex-wife... ALL of it should be an OVERFLOW of my love for Christ. I have a choice to make each and every morning when my eyes open... Will I let God fill me up and love others through me? Or will I go it alone and most likely make a mess of the day? All I know is, TODAY I choose to trust His strength and power in me to accomplish what I cannot on my own.

Romans 8:26  "...the Spirit helps us in our weakness"

1 Corinthians 1:25 "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 "...'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake I delight in weaknesses, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."