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!

What Makes You Come “Unglued”?

Have you ever come unglued?  Have your emotions ever welled up to the point where  you have temporarily lost control of your words or you actions?  I know that I certainly have.

What does coming unglued look like for you?  Are you a screamer?  A throwing-things type of person?  Do you cry?  Or say hurtful things?  Do you bottle everything up inside and let your emotions seep out other ways?

When I come unglued, I tend to cry and be emotional.  Or I get super-cranky and snappy.  It’s not pleasant to be around me when I come unglued, and it certainly doesn’t honor God.

resources-bookIn our Wednesday night women’s class at church, we are starting a lesson series on the idea of coming “unglued.”  It is based, aptly enough, on Lysa TerKeurst’s book, Unglued:  Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Raw Emotions.  It’s funny–before I read the book, I never considered myself the “emotional” type.  I have always felt that I’m a pretty rational person, and since my husband has expressed appreciation for that very quality in me, I feel somewhat validated in that belief.  At the same time, a lot of what TerKeurst said in her book really resonated with me.  And, as fate would have it, I read her book during a time when I was under a lot of emotional stress, and the temptation to come “unglued” was very strong.  In that situation, I found her words and strategies to be very helpful, and I hope that you do, as well!

Tonight in class, we talked about what coming “unglued” looked like for us, and we discussed the first step toward what TerKeurst calls, “Imperfect Progress” in this area:  Changing our Thought Patterns.  She explains that the more we think a particular thought, the more engraved it becomes on our mind, and the easier it is to think that thought in the future.  Thus, we need to do what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5 and “take every thought captive.”  Specifically, we need to engrave on our mind positive thoughts, such as,

“I can face things that are out of my control and not act out of control.”

This mantra has helped me so much since I’ve read it.  I have always known that I am the type of person who likes to feel in control of my life.  Which is kind of hilarious when you think about it, because really, there is so little that we can control about our existence.  And yet, I really love having the illusion of control.  However, that means that when I feel out of control, I also feel LOADS of stress.  

This week in class, we made our “Out of My Control” lists, where we wrote down all the things that are out of our control AND that have the potential to make us come unglued.  On my list, I wrote, “other people’s behavior,” and “financial issues (like selling our house).”  Some other lists had “other people’s perception of me,” “my children’s behavior,” and–one that I thought was especially poignant, “Tomorrow.”  What’s on YOUR “Out of My Control” list?

Our challenge for this week is that when circumstances feel out of our control, and we find ourselves being pushed to the point of coming unglued, to step back and remind ourselves that “I can face things that are out of my control and not act out of control.”  After all, as Christians, we serve the One who is IN control of all things, and we are told in His Word to us that He works all things to the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28).  Sometimes we can see that good, and sometimes we have to simply “walk by faith and not by sight,” but either way, in times of stress and strong emotions, it helps to remind ourselves Whose side we are on.

If you could not attend our class this week, I’d love to hear your answers to the questions we asked in class (What does coming unglued look like for you?  And what’s on your “out-of-my-control” list?)  I’d also love to know what purposeful thoughts or verses you turn to when you are tempted to come unglued.  I think we could all use help in changing our thought patterns, so if you have any helpful suggestions, please share in the comments!

Dear Kids: Please Never Be Normal

Dear Luke and Anna,

Let me start off this letter with an admission:  when you were first born, I was very concerned that you were “normal.”  From counting your fingers and toes at birth to comparing your weight gain and sleeping habits with other babies your age, the question I kept coming back to was, “Is this normal?”  Because I wanted you to be okay, you know?  I wasn’t looking for hints of a baby Einstein; I just wanted kids who were normal.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never felt quite normal myself.  I’ve always felt a little “too much”:  too sensitive, too intense, too quiet, too weird.  And as an introvert, I didn’t want to feel that way–I would have rather died than stick out in any way.  So those moments where I felt like I really fit in–where I dressed like everyone else and acted like everyone else–well, I cherished those times.  It was nice to feel normal.

And even as I’ve raised you past infancy into full-blown kid-dom, I’ve always kept a close eye on “normal.”  When we decided to homeschool almost two years ago, one of my biggest hesitations was that we were setting sail from “Normal.”  I was scared, frankly, that, quarantined with myself–whom I know to be weird–you would turn out to be most decidedly “not normal.”  And you know what?  I was right.

You aren’t normal.  You love books, and you love to learn.  Luke, you obsess over stories that age-wise, you should have no interest in.  Anna, you pore over chapter books that you shouldn’t be giving a second look.  You guys like to play chess–chess–in your spare time.  You know who Genghis Khan is, but not Taylor Swift.  You make allusions to “crossing the Rubicon.”  And, God help us all, you enter Target in the middle of a school day looking like this:

Holding hands...cloak and all.  Bless it.

Holding hands…cloak and all. Bless it.

And you know, just to keep it extra real, there are some areas in which it would behoove you to conform just a little more to the patterns set forth by society.  For instance, if you could stop eating like baboons and perhaps start making consistent eye contact with people who are talking to you, that would be fantastic and helpful for your life.  No worries, though.  It will come with time.

And when it does, it might also come with a dawning awareness of larger society and how it functions.  Table manners and people skills will perhaps correspond with a growing self-consciousness, and suddenly, there will be pressure:  the pressure to be normal.  To like the things that other people like.  To pursue the things that other people pursue.  To talk and think and act like everyone else.

I get it, I do.  I’ve already told you that I have felt it myself.  It’s funny, though–the more I’ve grown, the more I’ve decided that normal is not all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, I’ve decided that God does not make “normal” people; “normal” is what we slide into to protect ourselves, or to let ourselves off the hook from truly living.

See, the “normal” life is largely unexamined (and you know what Socrates says about that).  “Normal” doesn’t question its purpose, doesn’t ponder why it’s here.  It just is.

The “normal” life is unoriginal.  It follows well-trodden paths and always looks to others for its cues.  It’s faintly institutional.  It conforms to the template of existence set out by its place and station in life.

Normal lacks vision.  It’s more concerned with whatever is in front of its face at the moment.  In that sense, normal is largely materialistic.

Normal is comfortable, but it’s usually a comfort that comes from settling for less than God created you to be.  I see normal people every day, and sometimes I just want to shake them and say, “Wake up!!!  You have no idea what you are missing right now!”

I pray everyday that you become the people that God designed you to be, and more and more, I see Normal as an obstacle to that prayer:  both a distraction and a temptation.  And that’s why I’ve decided that you guys can be the weirdest kids in the world, and I wouldn’t care a bit.  I wouldn’t want you to lose your ability to relate to others, of course, because relationships are a big part of a full, rich life…but may God spare you from the curse of “cool.”  Obviously, it’s not about being weird for weird’s sake; rather, my hope is that you don’t ignore the God-given possibilities for your life in order to fit in to society’s mold.  God did not create you “normal.”  He created you beautifully unique, with unique gifts.  And the sky is the limit for how you use them.

Be passionate–explore your interests, and pursue your curiosities.  Do you want to learn to cook?  To quilt?  To orate?  Do you want to write computer code?  To learn French or how to fish?  Do you want to make beautiful music or express yourselves through the written word?  To learn about what makes people think and how to truly listen to them?  To be a missionary?  To travel the world?  Then, let’s chase after those things–I’ll do everything I can to help you learn and to be whatever it is that God has put in your heart.  And then my prayer is that you do it with gusto!  (Also, we may have to win the lottery for that world-traveling thing.  But we’ll do what we can.)  But even more than pursuing those things that set your heart on fire, I hope that you will do them in a way that helps others–that blesses this world.  See, Normal tends to think of inner passion in terms of personal fulfillment, a mindset that overlooks the fact that you truly are God’s gifts to the world.  He gave you your passions and talents so that you can use them to show His love to others.  That’s why I pray that you look to Him–and not all around you to what other people are doing–when you decide how to bestow those gifts.

Because society will probably tell you to be Normal.

When you, dear children, are anything but.

I love you higher than the moon and the sun and “all the skyscrapers in Atlanta,”


Two Years Ago Today

Two years ago today, I loaded up my kids in our minivan and made the drive from South Carolina to Nashville, just like I did today.  Two years ago today, we hugged our neighbors goodbye and thanked them for everything, just like we did today.  Two years ago today, I wound my way through the beautiful mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, and I pointed out all the colorful trees and vistas to my kids, just like I did today.  Two years ago today, my heart was full of hope, just like it is today.

But two years ago, my head was full of questions.  The date was 11-1-11, which was fitting, because it was Day 1 of our new lives in Nashville, TN.  I wondered what my house would look like, even as it was being unpacked and painted for me while I drove.  I wondered how the kids would like Tennessee.  I wondered what we were going to do about Luke’s school situation.  I wondered how life in our new church would be.  I wondered how I would do teaching classes at Lipscomb.  And I wondered what was going to happen with our house in Summerville.

Today, I don’t have any of those questions.  I know that I love my house, and that it’s perfect for us.  I know that the kids love Tennessee and that, in fact, some of their best buddies have also moved up from Summerville.  I know that we now homeschool, and that it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.  I know that we love our church and cannot imagine life without that community.  I know that teaching at Lipscomb is fun, but not for me this year–because my husband is now a grad student there!

And I know that we just closed on our house in Summerville yesterday.


The story of our house in Summerville is long and uninteresting to hear about, but frustrating and worrisome to experience.  And I must say that from the beginning to the end of the saga, there was no evidence whatsoever that the process was being guided by an Omnipotent Being Who Values Efficiency, Tidiness, and the Shortest Distance Between Two Points.  However, there was evidence that it was being guided by an Omnipotent Being Who Loves Me, if I had the eyes to see.  And sometimes I did.

I saw it on my birthday in 2011, the day our first renters signed the lease.  It was a huge relief, and I took it as a birthday gift from God.  As my birthday neared again in 2012, Greg and I were just realizing the difference in paying 6% in property taxes versus 4% (hint:  it’s substantial).  It was dawning on us that we would need a little more income in 2012, and then again on my birthday, out of the blue, the head of the English department at Lipscomb called and offered me some courses to teach.  This was after I had turned him down already and assured him that with homeschooling, I wouldn’t have time.  But wouldn’t you know it, one of the courses he offered me was the only one that would have worked with our schedule.  And I took it as another birthday gift from God.

I saw God’s love on Sept. 28 this year, which was our Ladies’ Day at my mom’s church.  By that point, our renters had moved out, and our house had been placed on the market, where it was currently sitting, having had no viewings for weeks.  I was living with a thinly veiled sense of panic: my days wavered between faithfully recounting all the ways that God had guided us up to this point in our lives, and fearfully contemplating the exact nature of our impending financial ruin.  That Saturday at my mom’s church, we got into prayer groups and prayed together about the concerns of our heart.  I put in a request that my house would sell, and my mom prayed for it.

We got a phone call that very afternoon:  there was a contract on the house.

I saw it in the week leading up to closing, when I was assured that, actually, we wouldn’t be able to close on Oct. 31, and yes, you just drove your children nine hours for nothing (well, nothing besides an incredible visit with our good friends).  I saw God’s love when I got into the car to drive to my not-closing-but-maybe-you-can-turn-in-some-necessary-papers, and the first words that came out of the radio were, “Don’t you worry, don’t you worry child–Heaven’s got a plan for you.”  And then I got to closing, and turns out, we were closing, and I got to meet the family moving in, and they told about their six kids, including the two they had adopted as teenagers after hearing their story at church.  They were so excited to be moving down to the warm south, along with the woman’s parents, and their adopted-son’s-former-caseworker-turned-best-friend.  And one of their comments really stuck with me:  “You know, we’ve been wanting to move down here for two years now–we were just waiting for our house to sell.”


I know that God is not my co-pilot–He’s the pilot.  But I confess that sometimes I make a pretty annoying passenger, with my steady stream of suggestions:  “Do you really think this is the best way…?  Surely it would be better for all involved…?  Have You ever stopped to consider…”?  And sometimes my suggestions veer into panic:  “Are you trying to kill us all??  Are you even in control of this aircraft??”  But then God brings my life together with absolutely beautiful timing–like the exact, two year anniversary of our move–and it is like He is winking at me.  Like He is saying, “See?  I got this.”  And it reminds me of a line from the first Lord of the Rings movie, which I watched last week.  Frodo sternly tells Gandalf, “You’re late.”  And Gandalf replies soberly, with a twinkle in his eye:

“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins.  Nor is he early.  He always arrives precisely when he means to.”

I’m so thankful for a God who arranges my life precisely as He means to–and who mercifully lets me see His love throughout the process.

How to Focus on God

Last week at our women’s class, I asked my sisters in Christ the questions that I asked Tuesday on this blog.  One of the best answers I received was that it is easier to focus on God when you step back and keep the “big picture” in mind.  Or, as someone else put it, it is easier to focus on God when we purposefully consider our tasks and then think about how to use them to God’s glory.  This idea of the bigger picture has helped me before, and it also puts a finger on what I think is the answer to my earlier question.

See, no matter if I am focused or unfocused, sick or well, happy or sad…certain things have to get done in my life.  I will do laundry with a happy heart, a stressed mind, or a resentful spirit, but it will get done.  I will teach my kids patiently or impatiently, lovingly or unlovingly, but I will teach them.  So the secret to glorifying God is not necessarily in the things that I do, because they will mostly be the same either way.  Instead, it’s in the mindset that I have when I do them.  If I complete my tasks with a focus on the bigger picture of the life of love I’m supposed to lead, then I can do my tasks in a way that brings glory to God’s kingdom–or perhaps even furthers His kingdom here on earth!

But how do I cultivate that mindset on a daily basis?  Here are some things that have really worked for me over the years:

1.  Start my day off with Him.

Even if I am tired, stressed, or feeling aspiritual.  Even if I have absolutely zero–no, scratch that–negative desire to pray, meditate, or read the Bible.  Even if I can only muster five minutes of focus time.  Even then, I am greatly aided by time spent with God.  In the morning when my mind is all groggy, it helps to write my prayers in a notebook that I keep for that purpose.  Sometimes my prayers are only a few dashed off lines.  Sometimes they end up running pages long (never planned, incidentally.  It just happens).  But regardless, just taking that time to orient my mind around God really helps get my mind on the right track.  On top of that, it helps to get in the Word.  Again, this might consist of reading several chapters, or just a verse or two.  Sometimes I do a particular study, sometimes I follow a reading plan, sometimes I just copy down verses that I like, sometimes I choose one or more on which to meditate.  Honestly, it really doesn’t matter.  Any time spent in the Word helps me.

2.  Play Christian music throughout the day.

First of all, let me confess:  I am a little bit jaded against Christian music.  I rarely listen to Christian radio, as I find the vast amount of songs played on there to be incredibly cheesy.  That said, there is Christian music out there that you will like.  Even if you involuntarily rolled your eyes when you first read this suggestion, I assure you:  the music is out there.  Maybe it’s the old hymns.  Or maybe more devotional style worship.  I personally am drawn to more folksy music like All Sons and Daughters and REND Collective Experiment.  I also like the bluegrassy hymns of Chelsea Moon.  Seriously, there is so much out there from which to choose!

And you know what?  Even when I’m listening to Seeds of Faith on repeat for my kids, the sheer repetition of the Bible verses often leads me to some pretty deep meditation in the car.  Turns out, it doesn’t matter what format it’s in:  hearing Bible verses turns my mind to God.

3.  Surround myself with others who are trying to focus on God.

We were not meant to live for God alone; that’s why He gave us the church.  In my life, I have been blessed with several women who have challenged me in my faith and encouraged me as I seek to live for God daily.  In particular, I have one best friend with whom I check in almost every day.  Just talking to her helps me focus on God and challenges me to look at my tasks–raising kids, keeping a home, serving the church–through the lens of God’s kingdom.

Also, I have found that in over twenty years of being a Christian, I have really come to depend on the church as a whole.  Even on mornings or evenings when I’m really tired and honestly want to stay home, I find that I am always blessed when I go to church.  There’s just something about gathering with other believers that strengthens me, and that strength carries over to my daily walk.

4.  Serve others.

This is huge.  I think it was in Mere Christianity that C.S. Lewis pointed out the fact that our mind so often follows our body.  We tend to assume it is the other way around, that our mind sets the tone for our body.  And in some ways it does, of course.  But the reverse is also true.  See, sometimes I am feeling quite selfish and have absolutely no desire to serve anyone else…and yet, when I do go ahead and serve, despite my selfishness and lack of desire, I find that usually, an amazing thing happens.  Usually, my mind follows my body into a servant mindset.  Usually, the very act of service helps focus me on God.  I guess that works because when I’m serving, I’m actually imitating Christ.  I’m practicing acting like Him.  And when I try to be like Him, I start to think like Him.  Or something.  I haven’t really figured that all out yet, but I do know that it works.  Serving others is a great way for me to focus on God.

5.  Be thankful.

This last one might seem kind of simplistic and maybe even unrelated, but I believe that purposefully practicing gratitude throughout the day always turns my mind to God.  Here’s an example of how it plays out:  A few days ago, it was evening, and I was feeling frustrated.  My dinner plans had not worked out, and I was actually on Plan C.  I was tired after homeschooling the kids all day, and I think they had complained more than usual that day or something.  Regardless, I was full of negative emotions as I prepared dinner.  Then it occurred to me:  the house was very quiet and peaceful.  And not in that “uh-oh, what’s going on” way.  No, Luke was reading a book, and Anna was quietly working on a craft, giving me time to work on dinner in peace.  And as for dinner, I had to acknowledge that even though it wasn’t my original plan, it was amazing that I was able to cobble together a delicious meal from ingredients I had on hand.  What an abundance of food I must have to be able to feed my family so well!  And what wonderful children to quietly entertain themselves and let me prepare it!  In the span of just a few minutes, my attitude when from “in the pits” to “full of gratitude.”  And who did I thank?  God, of course.  God is the one who gave me my life and my family and my food.  Just choosing to be grateful for His blessings helped to focus me on Him.

Those are just some ideas that have worked for me over the years.  Do you have anything to add to the list?  How do you focus on God, even in the midst of your busy life?

How Do You Set Your Mind on Things Above, When The Earthly Things Need So Much Attention??

I have a problem:

I am super good at focusing on one thing.  This ability to really hone in on something made me a fantastic student.  I could sit and absorb a lesson from a teacher or meticulously research, draft, and type out a paper, even if it took hours.  During that time, the rest of the world would be dead to me as I completely zeroed in on my task.

As a mom, however, this “gift” has become more of a hindrance.

See, as a mom, I will find myself folding laundry and trying to figure out what’s for dinner at the same time (this is my version of multi-tasking).  I will be mentally surveying my freezer, fridge, and pantry trying to put together a meal, and then Luke will come in, wanting to walk me through the specs of his latest LEGO creation.  Then, as I’m trying to divert to LEGOland, Greg will enter the room, asking me if I know where the keys are.  And then my head explodes.

Because laundry.  Dinner.  LEGOs.  And keys.  Are four things!  FOUR THINGS!  Not just one thing…but four.  Do you understand?  I just can’t focus on four things at once.

But wait, it gets better.  As I’m working on laundry, dinner, interacting with Luke, and finding the keys, I’m also being a Christian.  And the Bible tells Christians that we also need to be focusing on God during this time.  It even uses all-encompassing words like “continually,” and “in all circumstances”  (“Pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” 1 Thess. 5:17).  And in Colossians 3, Paul tells us to “set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  Sooooo…for those keeping track at home, I’m now apparently supposed to be focusing on seven things:  laundry, dinner, LEGOs, keys, prayer, gratitude, and heavenly things.  At once.

Look, even if I stop folding laundry, wrench my mind away from dinner, and then tell Greg the keys are in my purse before getting down and focusing on Luke’s LEGO creation (thus narrowing my earthly things down to the coveted “one”), how do I interact with Luke in a way that is prayerful, grateful, and focused on God’s kingdom?

In other words, how do I keep my focus where it is supposed to be in the midst of the busyness of life?  How do I set my mind on heavenly things as I do laundry, make lesson plans, pay bills, fix dinner, and interact with other people?  Was God serious when He said to do EVERYTHING for His glory?  And if so, how do we do that?

How do we maintain focus?

THAT is the focus (har har) of tonight’s lesson in our women’s class at church.  I actually do have some ideas about the subject, since I’ve given it a considerable amount of thought and study over the years.  But I’m also interested in what my fellow sisters have to say, both in class, and in our larger Facebook group (and brothers, too!  I’m not trying to leave anyone out).

So, what do you think about all this?  What do you think it means to “set your minds on things above and not on earthly things”?  And how do you manage to do that in this busy life?

Minds for the Kingdom

Two different things have recently made me very excited.

The first one was reading this book:


I would highly recommend this book to anyone who works with kids in any way, be they a parent, an educator, or even a volunteer at an after-school program.  Basically, if you come in contact with kids and want to help them in some form, then this book is for you.

In a nutshell, the book lists seven essential qualities that all people need in order to succeed in this world.  Then, by gleaning from psychological studies, it gives practical suggestions for developing these qualities in children.

And in case I lost you at “psychological studies,” let me reassure you:  they are fascinating.  It is amazing to see how the mind grows and develops.  Let me give you a quick example that I shared at our opening women’s class:

Imagine taking a six-month-old baby and sitting her in front of a puppet show.  The puppet show is wordless and simple:  There is a hill.  A circle is trying to walk up the hill.  A triangle comes and tries to push the circle back down the hill.  A square then comes and helps the circle.  The end.

Next, the triangle and square are set in front of the six-month-old, enabling her to reach and grab one to play with.

Which one do you think she grabs??

You might think, “Hey, she’s a baby!  It doesn’t make a difference to her.  She will grab at random.”  But no.  Almost 100% of the time, the baby will grab the “helper” puppet to play with.  Sometimes in the test, the helper is the triangle; sometimes it is the square.  It doesn’t matter.  Even at that age, a baby can recognize a helper.

Babies know more than we think.  And it’s never too early to start equipping them for life.

Here’s the thing about the book, though.  These seven qualities?  They aren’t just for children.  Like I said earlier, these are qualities we all need in order to succeed in life.  And I’ll take it one step further:  These are qualities every Christian needs in order to be effective in God’s Kingdom.

That brings me to the second thing that has made me very excited lately.

This year, I’m teaching a women’s class on Wednesday nights at my church.  I’ve never really taught a women’s class before, nor have I really considered it “my thing,” but for some reason, I am just giddy at the idea of getting to meet weekly with the amazing women at my church and to discuss ways to live fruitful lives in God’s Kingdom.

For the next eight weeks, we will look at each of these qualities in class.  We will see what the Bible says about them, and we will talk about personal and practical ways to pursue these qualities in our lives.  My hope and prayer is that our time together will be equipping:  I pray that this class will give us each practical, scriptural tools that will help us as we try to serve God.  There will also be a very pragmatic component with tips on developing these qualities in our children.  However, even with this child-focused angle, my hope is that women without children will benefit from this class.

If you live in Nashville, we welcome you to come join us on Wednesday nights at Woodbine Family.  Dinner is served at 5:15, and we start class around 5:45.  If you don’t live in the area, but want to follow along, I invite you to join our Facebook group, Woodbine Family Women’s Class.  In it, I will post weekly links to recap posts like this one, our weekly Bible reading guide, and hopefully start some online discussion about our topics each week.

We would love to have you join us as we seek to develop minds for God’s Kingdom!


Life Lessons From Crazy Town

Friends, it has been a week.

Greg had Impact all week; I taught literacy classes; Luke had his 7th birthday party; two friends had babies; Greg baptized three teens; I had foolishly signed up to make lunch for 80 people at Y.E.S.; my mom came in town; we went out to dinner with new friends; we saw lots of old friends and teens at Impact; we had play dates.  It was nuts.

Oh, and you may have heard that there was a scholarship competition going on during this time.  During the competition, Greg and I joked that this was actually his first grad school course:  Mass Communication.  Even though we hardly got to see each other, we would have impromptu planning sessions by phone:  What about a picture?  It would have to have a link attached…What about a Facebook page?  Maybe Y.E.S. could send out an email.  Maybe so-and-so could tweet about it.  Have you reached out to him?  Have you done your afternoon update?  We’re up a percent.  No, half a percent.  Now, we’re down a percent.  Could we put a link on that church’s Facebook page?  Have you sent your daily email reminder?

Crazy Town.

It felt like we were losing more than we were winning, and that pushed us to keep thinking and brainstorming new ways to reach out, to spread the word.

And yet, that’s not why we won.

My biggest lesson in this whole scholarship brouhaha was that mass communication tools alone can’t take you where you need to go.  We didn’t win because of a picture or a particularly potent post.  We won because we have amazing people in our lives.

We won because my mom and dad beat the bushes just as much as we did.  Also, because of the way they have lived their lives, their friends voted with them, no questions asked.  Even on one of Greg’s posts on the Facebook page he made, a woman we didn’t know commented, “You go Dave Sparrow!”  I’m not sure she ever fully realized that she wasn’t voting for my dad.

We won because Greg’s family supported him 100% and shared with everyone they knew.  Greg’s mom, in particular, talked his cause up to anyone she met.  A high school friend from Murphy messaged him and told him that while she was in the bank, she heard people behind her talking about the contest.  She turned around, and it was Greg’s mom!  At Impact, Glenda took a bunch of fliers and went around passing them out to youth ministers to get them and their teens to vote.

We won because Mr. Rob, the preacher at my parents’ church in Macon, showed Greg’s video in Sunday morning worship and said very sweet things about us, urging the congregation to vote daily.  It appears that they did!

We won because, Jim Yates, the preacher at Radnor, in whose building our church meets, told his congregation about the contest as well.

We won because people like Daphie Sellers and Maria Bunyi took the time not only to share our link, but to write heartfelt pleas begging people to vote.

We won because women from Brentwood Hills Church of Christ, like Leslie Fisher and Jenni Whitefield, and Amy Bowman, voluntarily took up our cause and rounded up votes for us.

We won because our Woodbine teens and our Summerville teens spent their free time at Impact getting votes.  (See also:  the counselor for our Jr. High kids, and several different teens from Greg’s past Workcamp crews.)

We won because Pat Ford…oh, Pat Ford.  We won because he not only shared relentlessly, but helped on the technical side with voting troubleshooting, page maintenance, and basically whatever else we needed.

We won because Bryant Bumpus kept the tweets coming for us.  And so did Jeff Walling, David Skidmore, David Rubio, Zac Smith, and Dave Clayton.

And because family members like Sharon Pogue (and family) and Alan Kirby and Rhonda Gray shared and/or emailed daily reminders to vote.

Because people like Kevin Harris and Rebecca Claypool helped solicit votes daily.

Because Daniel and Jiff Burnell took up our cause wholeheartedly, even though they had a baby during the contest!!

Because Caroline Aly recruited her whole family as active campaigners and at one point got us hundreds of votes by going to Pancake Pantry with an iPad and soliciting votes from people in line.

Because DeRon Rogers is the best cheerleader a team could have.  “THE POWER OF ONE!”

Because Amy Games asked for a daily reminder so that she could share about the vote every single day.

Because Matt Suber shared with his 2,700 friends even though he doesn’t even know Greg.

And Jaima Schutt shared with her 20,000 followers on her blog’s Facebook page.

And Kelsey Eaton voted and solicited votes from the hospital while experiencing a significant health crisis.  Seriously.  There are no words.  Plus, her mom, Nancy, and sister, Lindsey, got in on the action, as well!

Because Viviana Elizalde, Michael and Heidi Peters and Alison Winstead begged multiple times a day for votes and got their families voting.

Because the entire Salley/Brown family got involved:  Larry, Ann, Erica, Tommy, and David shared the link, and Jacob actively campaigned for Greg at Impact!

And also, the Kendall/Steed family:  Penny Kendall, Adrian and Courtney Steed, Joel and Amber Caillouet, and Kayli Kendall all shared Greg’s link.

Because old family friends, like Connie Bedwell and Vickie Rector and Tammy Behel and Whitney Behel Skellie, took the time to post regular reminders.

As did Drea Braddock, Allyson Gaither, Erik Spell, Page McCurry, Kristie Oliver, Nick and Leah Wilson, Jerry and Beverly Bryan, Kari Brooks, Marchelle Cox, Linda Kunkle, Allison Roberts, Doug Wallen, Chris and Lena Lovingood, Audrey Miller, Ron Jones, David Matthews, Jeff Wright, Jeff Carter, Shawn and Holly Duncan, Jonathan Bradley, Kevin and Molly Griggs, Justin Moore, Cortney Seaton, Shana Edinger, Stephanie Strunk, Zack Robinson, Whitney Young, Kari Waltz, Kevin Appleby, Cyndi Albach, and Candi Miller.

As well as former youth groupers like Stephanie Beaudry, Lauren Young, Melissa Price, Vanessa Helbig, Brittni Shannon, Olivia Todd, Olivia Cook, Taylor Dement, C.C. Garland.

C.C. shared from Afghanistan, Penny Kendall and Jesse Mook shared from the Philippines, Dave and Sharon Dement shared from Germany, David and Caryn Henniger shared from Nicaragua, and Keith O’Neal shared from Switzerland.

And there are more.  Oh, so many more.  I keep scrolling through my news feed to try to look to see who all shared, but there are so many posts that I can’t see past a couple days before Facebook gives up and starts showing me highlights from 2013.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’ve left out some wonderful people who were huge helps.  If I didn’t mention you, please let me know because I do want to thank you!  

And I know that you didn’t help us so that I would mention you on a random blog post, but I wanted to write the names down.  I wanted to see them and to think about them.  This list of names includes people from my childhood; dear friends from college; family members from Macon, Murphy, Memphis, Kentucky; our church family at Woodbine; brothers and sisters from Summerville; friends from around the world; and people whom I don’t even know.   I write them because your names represent the lessons I learned during this contest.

I learned about the power of relationships and how we are so connected to each other.  Throughout the contest, we had people voting for us whom we had never met, but who had heard about the contest from several different sources from several different states!

I learned that our friends are a really generous, thoughtful group of people who will spend time and emotional energy on causes from which they will not personally benefit.

But most of all, I learned that the most valuable asset in life is community.  Technology didn’t win this contest.  Desire didn’t win it.  Perseverance didn’t win it.  Our friends and family won it.  Our church won it.

Thank you for showing me how powerful community can be.  And thank you for giving this opportunity to Greg, to our family, and ultimately to our church.  My memory fails me, and words fail me, but please know how deeply grateful I am to all of you.

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