Archive for December, 2013

2014: The Year of the Relationship

2013 Christmas card

There’s no question about it:  2013 was a great year for us.  How great was it?  I chose a Christmas card that prominently featured the phrase, “Joyful and Triumphant” because that was how we felt as the year wound down.  At the end of 2012, when I wrote about my hopes for 2013, my heart was kind of heavy.  I longed for stronger social connections in Tennessee, and I desperately wanted to sell our house in South Carolina.  This year, both of those things happened, and in addition to that, my husband won a full scholarship to get his Master’s degree in non-profit business administration!  My semester of teaching college went well, homeschooling has been fabulous, our church had a great year in terms of baptisms and growth, and in general, life is good.  So now here I am, writing my annual “New Year” post.

As usual, I am coming off a Christmas season full of decadence:  over the last three weeks, the wheels have slowly come off of my disciplined life as I’ve neglected my habits and routines in favor of celebration.  It’s been wonderful, but by this point in the month I am always aching to get back to a disciplined schedule.  Thus, I have many mental “resolutions” about renewing my quiet time with God, continuing my exercise routines, eating better, being more purposeful with my kids, and so forth.  But really, I’ve come to realize that those determinations are just part of my normal life, and don’t have much to do with the new year.

Instead, I want to use the new year to adjust my overall focus.  Two years ago, I resolved to “live a life of love,” and I liked how that phrase guided me through the year.  This year, I want my focus to be just one word:  Relationship.  I am naturally a goal-oriented person, and most of the time, I really like that characteristic.  In my opinion, the easiest way to waste your life is to get lost in the minutiae of day-to-day existence and take your eyes off your “big picture” goals.  That’s why I rarely question my compulsive need to step back and examine my life in the light of my overall aspirations.  At the same time, I’ve noticed lately how my goal-oriented nature sometimes gets in the way of personal relationships.

The thing is, sometimes I put ideas before people.  I see this clearly in a larger sense when our society experiences a culture war kerfuffle like we have experienced recently.  When that happens, it seems like most people take a look at the two “sides,” see which one they have the most in common with, and then back the people on that side.  It makes sense, I guess, in a “team sport” kind of way, but that’s just not the way I work.  I don’t have “sides”; I have “causes.”  Most notably, my “cause” is the kingdom of God, and my goal is the spreading of that kingdom.  Anything that supports that cause gets my support.  Anything that detracts from that cause does not get my support.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s not about people; it’s about ideas.

And in the big picture, maybe that’s okay:  it seems somewhat petty to me to blindly back people just because they are more like you than the other guy.  But I’ve also seen in the small picture how that orientation compromises relationships that I care about.  For example, if I feel that someone doesn’t support my (in my mind, well-considered and sound) philosophy of parenting my children, I allow their lack of support to strain our relationship.  Heck–sometimes my philosophy of child-raising even gets in the way of actual relationships with my children, since sometimes I allow my overall goals for them to rupture our relationship in the moment!

Faced with this shortcoming, I’m going to do what I do best:  I’m going to set a goal to prioritize relationships!

As I’ve mulled over all this the last week or so, I’ve pictured my relationships in three concentric circles.  From innermost to outermost, the circles are:

Family, Church, World.

This year I want to purposefully nurture and develop relationships in each of those circles.  I’ve been brainstorming what that looks like, and I have so many different ideas, both large and small.  There’s no point in trying to make an exhaustive list on this blog, but I do need something tangible and measurable in order for this to be a true, achievable resolution.  So my goal is this:  each Sunday, during my planning session for the week to come (which I routinely have, because that’s the way I roll), I’m going to spend time thinking about people and not just goals.  I’m going to think of the people in my life in those categories and how I can strengthen relationships with them this year.  And then over the week, I plan to carry out those goals, just like I carry out my educational goals, homemaking goals, fitness goals, etc.  It might sound sterile, but I believe that this type of thinking and planning will help shift my mindset to be more “people-oriented.”

Ideas are important, but they are not more important than people.  Goals are vital, but they aren’t helpful if you have to trample relationships to achieve them.  And all of those lofty thoughts and hopes and ideals are nothing if their ultimate result is not more love for God and love for neighbor.  Or rather, love for God through love for neighbor.  This year, I want to love my neighbor in whatever form they come to me.  And I want to put them before my ideas.

Reading Makes Me Feel Rich (A Top 10 List for 2013)

I don’t know why, but there is just something luxurious about reading books.  I think it has to with time.  I mean, if I have time to read, I must live a privileged life, right?  Seriously, who has time these days to do anything?  Especially something as leisurely as reading an actual, bound book!  And not just any book, but a book chosen based on one’s own interest and desires?  That’s crazy!  And the fact that I’ve had enough time to read at least ten such books…I mean really, what am I doing with my life??

Here’s the thing, though:  I think we all really do have time.  Some of us have more than others, granted.  I’m guessing all you who work a full-time job, at, you know, an actual place of employment that pays you in money might have a little less time than I do, although I feel like I have a fair enough workload in life.  Even so, I do think that people generally have more time than they think they do.  For instance, it seems like we all have time to get on Facebook.  Or surf the web.  Or watch tv.  So if we have time to do those things, then we have time to read, right?

This year, I decided that I would try to keep up with the books I read, so I made a little note of them as I read them.  And I wanted to put that list somewhere where I could keep up with it.  It occurred to me that the best place to keep up with anything these days is my blog, and to me, such a list fits into the theme of Kingdom Civics because I really do think that reading edifying books is a good, God-honoring use of time.  Just to make it interesting, I decided to put my list into a “top 10” format.  That helped me narrow my books down into the ones most worth mentioning.  So without further ado, here are

My Top 10 Reads of 2013

gracebasedparenting__87626.1295409983.1280.128010.  Grace-Based Parentingby Tim Kimmel

I read this book at the beginning of the year, so I don’t remember a lot of the details.  I do know that it inspired me to be more graceful and loving with my kids, and provided me with a lot of comfort and affirmation.  So often I worry that I need to be more disciplined with my kids–always teaching and training.  That’s definitely a big part of parenting, but in this book, Kimmel helped me to see how gentleness and love are also essential ingredients for successful child-rearing.  Kimmel gives the reader a sense of freedom in parenting; his book is the opposite of a manual.  I came away feeling very inspired and empowered.

language-of-flowers9.  The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This is a fiction book, and I tend to favor non-fiction.  In fact, I really don’t read much fiction at all.  I chose this book, though, because it had garnered rave reviews, including a shout-out from Momastery.  Plus, it was written by a long-time foster mom, and it’s main character grew up in the foster care system.  Because of that, the novel served as an eye-opening look at the lives of neglected children and their tumultuous journey into adulthood.  I read it more for social research than anything else, and was pleasantly surprised by the compelling narrative that accompanied the social message.  The novel had it’s share of heartbreak and pain, but it ultimately ended on a hopeful note.

Johnstown-Flood8.  The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough

First, let it be said:  hands down, David McCullough is my absolute favorite historian.  Seriously, at this point, he has reached the level of personal hero for me; he’s one of the few “famous” people that I would love to meet in real life.  In my opinion, his best work is in biographies, but this (relatively) short look at the most famous flood in America is riveting.  The Johnstown flood itself is fascinating history; it’s one of those things that you can’t really believe happened, even as you read about it in all it’s awful detail.  And McCullough writes about it in such a way that key moments in the flood are seared into my mind.  It feels like I’ve seen film footage of the event, even though none exists.  His words just paint amazing pictures.  Even with the grim subject matter, this was just a fun historical read.

quiet-by-susan-cain7.  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain

I tend to divide my reading interests into three genres:  historical, spiritual, and parenting.  However, this year, I found a new favorite niche:  books about psychology and/or sociology.  After I’d heard raves about Cain’s exploration of introversion, I had to check it out–especially since I myself am a definite introvert!  Cain’s findings regarding introversion and American society were fascinating.  They helped me understand both myself and my children better.  In addition, Cain specifically discusses introversion in the areas of school and church, and her insights were insightful to me, since I am deeply interested in both of those areas.

half the sky real6.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Cheryl Wu Dunn

This is yet another book that had been on my “must read” list for awhile.  It’s a secular book about women’s issues worldwide, which interestingly, made it even more interesting for me as a Christian.  I’m used to hearing about social issues from a Christian perspective, and this more clinical (yet extremely interesting) analysis of global ills was kind of refreshing.  The authors care passionately about women’s rights, and they definitely have opinions on what the best solutions are, but they take pains to stay somewhat detached in their examination of women’s issues.  I will warn you that some of the realities they share are incredibly disturbing.  This book is not for the faint of heart, but it balances out the grimness with some thoroughly researched suggestions of ways the reader can make a tangible difference in the lives of oppressed women.  The call to action is what made the book worth it to me.

97803103329545.  Real Simplicityby Randy and Rhonda Frazee

The Frazees’ book makes ranks high on my list because it was so practical to my life.  They look at the “typical” American life of busyness and chaos and make a good case for how this frantic rushing causes isolation and the breakdown of true community.  They also offer a specific solution in the form of a return to the Israelite concept of a day.  While I found the “Israelite calendar” idea to be somewhat impractical in our family’s life, Greg and I have nevertheless implemented many of the book’s principles as we have determined our family’s direction.  We spent a lot of time this fall cutting unnecessary busyness out of our schedule, and this book was our chief inspiration.  And honestly, my satisfaction with my life has been a lot higher since we’ve made those changes!

redwall_brian_jacques14.  Redwallby Brian Jacques

Remember how I said that I’m more of a non-fiction gal?  Well, even when I do read fiction, I do not read fantasy.  It just holds no appeal to me.  And I will most certainly NOT read a book that stars talking animals; that’s a deal-breaker.  So when people kept recommending the Redwall series as potential readers for Luke, I usually listened to them until they got to “talking mice” and then just shook my head.  However, I could only ignore so many recommendations, and so I eventually gave in and checked it out from the library.  And, oh my.  It was a hit.  The language is rich and descriptive, the characters are exquisitely drawn, and the book is epic in scope.  We’ve been studying the Middle Ages, and this book almost read like a historical novel:  it features a monastery, a siege, and lots of medieval fighting tactics.  Now, keep in mind that the Middle Ages could be pretty gruesome, but in this case, the horrors are mitigated by the all-animal cast.  Things just don’t seem as serious when it’s mice and rats and badgers and sparrows, instead of people.  Regardless, Luke and I were riveted by this book; we would read it for hours.  Upon the death of one character, I found myself choking back tears as I struggled to keep my reading voice steady.  I read lots of books with the kids in “school,” many of them good or great; however, this is the only one that merits a spot on the top ten list.  Luke summed it up best the afternoon we’d finished the book.  I think there were 17 chapters in the third and final  “book” of the novel.  Luke wandered in a few hours after we finished and said wistfully, “I wish we could read chapter 18 of book 3.”  Me, too, Luke.  Me, too.

9780061732324_p0_v1_s260x4203.  Mind in the Making:  The Seven Essential Life Skills that Every Child Needsby Ellen Galinsky

Alright, time to get back to the psychological genre.  This book on child development relies heavily on research from psychological studies, and it was fascinating.  Both philosophical and practical, it was full of the type of information that physically made my heart beat faster, just because it was so mind-blowing and cool!  Galinsky relies on rigorous analysis and decades of experience to narrow down the key elements of a successfully-developing child.  A chapter is devoted to each of these seven “life skills,” and at the end of each chapter, there are LOTS of practical suggestions for how to teach these skills to children.  I loved this book so much I taught a class on it.

j-k-rowling-harry-potter-the-complete-series-4990-68033-1-zoom2.  Harry Potter, Books 1-7by J.K. Rowling

What can I even say that would do justice to the Harry Potter series?  That my six-turning-seven year old devoured the entire series over the space of a few months?  That I myself inhaled them in less than two weeks?  That the series was gorgeous and epic and moving and inspiring and all the things that literature is supposed to be?  I don’t know…I can’t…I don’t have the words to sum up their greatness.  So I’ll just say this:  I skimmed another book this summer called Cultural Literacy, which talked about the “canon” of knowledge that is shared by the members of a given culture.  These books rightly have a place in the our cultural canon, along with Shakespeare and Dickens and Hawthorne and Tolkien and all those guys.  Don’t bother disagreeing with me on this one; you’ll just lose:).

truman1.  Trumanby David McCullough

Given my raptures for the Harry Potter series–and I’m certainly not alone in that–it’s shocking that they don’t have the number 1 spot in my top 10 list for the year.  In fact, I myself am shocked by their relegation to #2.  Here’s the thing, though:  I measure greatness in terms of life impact.  And honestly, Truman changed my life more than Harry Potter.  Of all the genres that I read, my favorite is the historical biography.  A well-written biography (which would include anything  by McCullough) leaves you feeling like you personally know the subject–and Harry Truman is a great guy to know.  His ascendance to the highest office in the land is about as likely as Harry Potter’s ascendance to greatness, and yet Truman’s is real.  Here was a perfectly ordinary guy, seemingly unexceptional in every way.  He had no riches, no family connections, no particular brilliance…and yet through an unlikely series of events, he found himself negotiating the end of World War 2, making fateful decisions about the atomic bombs, and guiding not only our nation, but the world, in the aftermath of a truly devastating war.  At one point, he thought (and not without reason) that he was staring down World War 3, and that the fate of the entire world was in his hands.  And really–it was shocking that it didn’t turn out to be World War 3, that it just turned out to be the Korean War.  But this ordinary guy made it through all that and a lot more through sheer grit and determination to do right.  He had this idea of standing firm and facing whatever comes your way that has really stuck with me.  I honestly think about his outlook about once a week whenever I feel overwhelmed with life.  It’s a little pathetic, because my issues are slightly less cataclysmic than a World War, but the difference actually gives me hope.  Because if Harry Truman could go through everything he went through and come out strong and honorably (which he did), then surely I can handle the curve balls that my little life throws at me.  Because of Truman’s example, McCullough’s biography had more of an impact on me than Harry Potter did–and that’s saying something!

Well, that’s my top ten list for the year.  Honorable Mention goes to Nurtureshock, Persepolis, In the Country of MenPaul Among the Peopleand The Happiness Project.  There were several other books I read or skimmed this year, but these are the ones that were the best use of my time.

What about you?  Did you read anything good this year?


The Saddest Phrase in the English Language

I was talking to a woman once about a recent conflict she had had with another person.  During this conflict, some hurtful words were said, including many by the woman herself.  This woman understood that she had said many things that wounded the other person in the conflict.  However, she excused herself from the hurt that she caused, saying something to the effect of, “I can’t help it.  When I’m angry, you will know.  I share what I feel.  That’s just who I am.

That’s just who I am.

Do you hear it?  At the time, I thought of it as an excuse, and I think that’s how it was meant.  “That’s just who I am.”  In other words, “I can’t help that I hurt someone.  I can’t help that I caused damage.  It’s not my fault; that’s just how I am.”  It sounded like a way to get around one’s negative behavior without facing the consequences.

Now, though, when I hear that phrase, it doesn’t sound like an excuse.  It sounds like prison bars closing.

That’s just who I am.

I will never be different.

I will never grow.

I’m incapable of change.

I am a prisoner, a slave to my natural tendencies.

resources-bookIn our women’s class tonight at church, we talked about labels.  Our class was roughly based on chapter 3 of the book, Unglued, by Lysa TerKeurst, and in that chapter, she discusses how labels imprison us.  Often, these labels are put on us by other people:  “You’re a wreck.”  “You’re stupid.”  “You’ll never get it together.”  I could go on and on with examples of the ways we limit each other with our words, the ways we reduce each other to a dismissive phrase.  In fact, as we discussed in class, even “good” labels, like “Smart,” or “Strong,” or “Mature” can imprison us because we then feel pressure to live up to that label, to the point when we doubt our identity when we fall short.  So labels are bad, and it’s really sad when we feel labeled by others.  But what’s even sadder is when we label ourselves.

Because when we say, “That’s just who I am,” that’s what we are doing:  we are labeling ourselves as hurtful people, or brash people, or people with no self-control.  And that is so sad to me.  “That’s just who I am” has got to be one of the saddest phrases in the English language.  It’s sad because it’s dehumanizing.   Isn’t one of the beautiful things about being human our capacity to grow and adapt, to mature and evolve?  And yet, when we say, “That’s just who I am,” we effectively deny our capability to grow and learn and change.  Furthermore, for the Christian, it’s ultimately a faithless phrase.  Because didn’t Paul proclaim that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation:  the old has gone; the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17)?  When we become Christians, God doesn’t leave us “just how we are.”  He transforms us into a new creation!

He also tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that, as Christians, “we all are being transformed into [God’s] image with ever increasing glory.”  I like that verse because it draws a picture of continual growth.  As we live and pursue Christ, be are being transformed into His image.

And that transformation will continue throughout our lives:  in Galatians 1:6, Paul tells us that he is confident “that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

You see it all throughout Scripture:  the promise that we can be more than a collection of our natural tendencies.  The idea that we are no longer slaves to sin and selfishness.  The hope that we are continually being transformed into the likeness of the living God.  There is no, “that’s just who I am” in the Bible.  Instead, you find another idea:

will smith

Do you remember the movie, Hitch?  It starred Will Smith as some sort of top secret dating guru (I have forgotten the finer details), and for most of the movie, he is trying to help a clueless Kevin James land a beautiful woman.  At one point, he takes James’ character shoe shopping, and they buy some shoes he recommends.  Upon trying on the shoes, James’ character says something like, “They’re just not me.”  And Smith’s character responds with my favorite line from the movie:  “‘You‘ is a very fluid concept right now.  You bought the shoes.  You look great in the shoes…”

I love that idea:  “‘You’ is a very fluid concept.”  That’s biblical, I think.  The Bible tells me that I am God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do good works (Eph. 2:10).  It tells me that I am continually being transformed by God’s Spirit at work within me.  And it tells me that God Himself has begun a good work in me that will continue until it is complete.  He certainly doesn’t leave me, “just who I am.”  Thank heavens!

For the purposes of our class, we needed to identify the way that labels limit us and to talk about ways to overcome the labels that are put on us, both by others and ourselves.  The point of Unglued is, as the subtitle states, to learn how to make “wise choices in the midst of raw emotions.”  And so often, we hide behind labels to justify succumbing to those emotions.  Thus, the first step in learning to deal with our strong emotions–our strong natural tendencies, in other words–is to embrace the idea that labels are a lie.  We are more than the sum of our natural tendencies, and just because we feel something doesn’t mean that we must act on it.  

Next week, we will take a closer look at some of those natural tendencies.  But until then, the challenge is to consider–and reject–the labels that have been put on us.

Do you have any labels that you need to reject?  Feel free to share them in the comments!

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