Monday, October 27, 2014

{Welcome to Senegal}

Yesterday afternoon our family had the rare privilege of joining our friends, Joel and Andi McMartin and their boys, for an authentic Senegalese meal. We hadn't seen them in three years. The last time we gathered was to say goodbye, to send them off to Africa, and to make sure they knew we would be praying for their transition to a new life.

What a delight it was to see that their transition, while not without its bumpy roads, has been blessed. The Lord has been faithfully, uniquely and beautifully at work in this family who said, "Yes!" to His calling. They have blossomed and thrived in Senegal, from language learning and cultural expectations to school immersion, community fellowship, and meal preparation.

Joel and Andi especially wanted to share the meal preparation with the many families who know and love them on this side of the world. Because isn't gathering for a meal one of the best ways to live and laugh and learn?

Especially a meal which is eaten . . . from one platter . . . with one's hand. The right hand. Only.

We laughed and learned and dribbled and laughed some more, especially when Mom freaked out over accidentally using her left hand to grab the bread. Major faux pas.

The kids were very excited to eat with their paws (did you wash????), and Bethie beamed over being selected as the table mother. (She would assist any child who might need to have a piece of chicken ripped apart. With one hand.) The kids also liked the idea of not needing to be excused from the table. They could leave whenever they wanted to! (Did you wash????)

As we dined and visited, our experience shed much light onto our American ways of life. Such as the assumption that we should always have a large variety of foods from which to choose for each meal of each day. It's pretty common for a Senagalese villager to have the same dinner every day. How much simpler our lives would be if we didn't have SO many choices. Just cook up the chicken, add some potatoes, bread and veggies, and you're (deliciously) good to go!

Yes, it can definitely be a blessing to have variety, and it's fun to experiment with different flavors and menus. But I wonder how often the plenty turns into a distraction. Something I'll be pondering for a while. (Look out, kids. We might be eating lots of oatmeal, beans and rice in the days to come.)

Another cultural expectation is that of being available to linger and visit. If Andi passes a friend in the street, she is expected to stop and visit for a while. It would be very rude to just wave "hello" and zip on by. In order to attempt to get anywhere on time, people leave their homes with plenty of time to spare. You just might meet a friend along the way.

When visiting those friends in their homes, it is also expected that you will stay for a nice long time (join us for lunch . . . now join us for dinner!) and not move toward the door unless the host has given you permission. I have much to learn about lingering and listening.

We lingered and listened for the afternoon (occasionally asking the boys to speak French because how cute is that?!) but we Americans all eventually had to get to our next commitments. We finally said goodbye to our dear friends, realizing that it will likely be another three years before we'd meet again. Calculating how old the kids would be, we lamented and remarked and hugged and finally loaded up.

As we were leaving, Joel shared a final Senagalese sentiment with us. When guests are allowed to take their leave of a home after a nice long visit, the visitors will say something like this: "May we take the road now?" The generous host will say, "Yes! But you may only take half of the road. The other half is for your return."

And so we said goodbye to our friends, thankful for the road that will take them to their ministry and life in Senegal, and even more thankful for the road that will bring us together again one day.  

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

{Three Bags Full}

When the kids were little, they used to watch a video which included a rather strange version of sheep singing "Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full." The animated sheep couldn't handle much choreography with mere hooves, so it looked odd every time they punctuated the "three bags full" line with determined, outstretched haunches.

The phrase and the motions stuck with us (some things just cannot be erased from the memory), and we still find ourselves referring to a full load as "three bags full." Of course we hold our fists out like hooves to do the song justice, our voices and motions as staccato as possible. Yes, sir, yes sir.

The last couple of weeks have been "three bags full" weeks. Full of emotion, full of new experiences, full of life. I've wanted to write about anything and everything but have hardly had a spare minute. Now that I do, I can't seem to corral my thoughts and will probably end up writing about nothing. Or everything. (You've been warned.)

The tears have sprung to my eyes more readily these days, too. I'm not sure if that means I'm getting old or overly tired. Probably both? But I do know the emotions have been many.

Emotions such as pride-fear-incredulity-awe-denial-love, all wrapped into one. Can you even believe this? I've often referred to this year as the Year of Acceleration. Apt, no?

Nostalgia has haunted me something fierce this week, too, as I think back to this time last year. My sister and I had joined Johnny and Brooke in Slovenia and had one of the more incredible experiences of our lives. I do plan to write more about this trip -- I think I left us in Germany (which, if one must be left, is a lovely place to stay). For now, I've been looking back over my travel journal with a beautiful ache in my heart.

Brooke's birthday was this week, so we snuck in a quick Skype visit -- a balm to my spirit. (Not as perfect as birthday milkshakes in an Austrian castle, but I'll take it.)

And the emotions continued. Joy and longing filled my heart as we soaked in as many hours as we could with my Nanee and Grandpa over the last couple of weeks. Joy in the faithful lives they've lived, joy in the fact that they were able to make the trip from California, and a longing for it to keep on going. I loved listening to my grandparents share stories from their past. From dances and movies to boot camp, the war, and coming to know and love Christ, we covered a lot of ground. It was marvelous.

The three bags got even fuller when my friend Jenae sent me a frantic email early in the week. "Any chance we could do the interview tomorrow?!?!"

Back in June, Jenae had asked if I might be interested in our families joining forces to create a video. The goal was to raise awareness and support for International Justice Mission, in general, and child slavery in Ghana, in particular. Jenae wrote about our experience in a blog post here. I've known Jenae since childhood, and it's a joy and delight to pretend like we're all grown up and allowed to do mom things together. I'm so thankful for her tender, compassionate heart and her ability to eloquently share her kingdom-driven vision with adults and children alike. I'm also thankful that she taught me how to make refried beans in the crockpot. She's a remarkable woman.

Well, our little video made its way to International Justice Mission (IJM). In a series of whirlwind texts and emails, Jenae was contacted by one of the IJM directors in the hopes of arranging a Skype interview with the kids. As soon as possible. We whipped our befuddled kids into shape (or something resembling a shape) and gathered around the laptop at the church on Wednesday. You can see the kids' video and part of the interview here and learn more about IJM's work, too. 

It was humbling and amazing to play even a small part in this incredibly vital work.

* * * * *

The week is wrapping up, and my heart and emotions are indeed full to the brim. So is my stomach. You see, there's something about fall that makes me hang out in the kitchen and bake things. Things with butter and sugar and such.

And so I will leave you with four yummies:

Apple Dutch Babies: We make Dutch babies often, but I had never tried it with apple before. This was a fun variation, and if you like apple pie, it will make you extremely happy.

Earl Grey Latte: Until last week, I didn't know such a thing existed! Oh my goodness, this changes my life. I made one this morning (sans lavender), and it was a loverly way to start the day. I like that it's called a London Fog. It makes me want to snuggle up with a blanket and a book near a crackling fire.  

M&M Cookies: My friend Lauren made these yummies a while ago, and Little Miss couldn't get enough. I asked for the recipe and was surprised to see that vanilla pudding powder was one of the ingredients. Another new kitchen tip for me! Last night I made the traditional Nestle chocolate chip cookie recipe to go along with Family Movie Night (The LEGO Movie), but I used mini chocolate chips and I added a few tablespoons of the vanilla pudding powder to the dough. Wow. Everything is awesome. 

Pumpkin Snickerdoodles: Fall perfection. These are so yummy. So soft. So sweet. Everyone in my family loved them, even those who don't like pumpkin. Or snickerdoodles. (I have an odd family, full of diverse culinary preferences.)

Well, that's all. Have a blessed weekend, dear friends. Know that you are loved beyond measure by the One who lavishes good gifts on His children . . . three bags full!  

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

{While Shopping}

I don't love grocery shopping. It's something, in my opinion, that one does out of necessity. As Mary Poppins would say, "If we must, we must." Well, we must.

Earlier this week I had to pop into WinCo to grab a few things. The sun was bright and cheery and I had Aidan at my side. For some reason, this combination caused me to slow down. I didn't feel rushed or anxious, and the chore became an enjoyable outing. 

I realized that my slowing down that day allowed me to see things more clearly. Except for the time that I left my cart in the middle of the bulk foods aisle while waiting for the almonds to be ground into almond butter. But that ended up being kind of fun. The woman I was blocking kindly popped her head into my line of sight and said, "Excuse me, please."

I came to my senses and laughed. "I'm sorry! I'm just in my own little world over here!" (Almond butter oozing out of a machine is fascinating.) I scooted my cart over and we exchanged smiles as she passed.

Aidan and I then headed toward the bulk granola bins (oh, blueberry flax seed, how I love thee) and the woman approached me once again. "I'm glad I found you! I was wondering what you do with almond butter." I thought it was sweet that she was looking for me and that we -- two strangers -- could have a little conversation right there in the bins, even if it was just over almond butter. She wondered if I use it in my rice . . . which I don't . . . but the suggestion was one of those moments of clarity. My way (almond butter spread on toasted Dave's Killer Bread) isn't the only way. Huh.

We went our separate ways. Aidan continued to hover at my side, eagerly running here and there to add something to the cart, write the number on the bulk food tag, or cross something off the list. I glanced down the next aisle and saw the woman I was sixteen years ago. She had her baby in the cart and was absolutely in love with that child. She kissed his bare toes and looked ready to gobble the creature on the spot. I remember kissing baby toes. I'm pretty sure I did so with practically every diaper change. Sweet babies. Sweet toes. Sweet memories.

Aidan and I started checking out, and I caught another glimpse. This time, it was my son. I was loading the groceries on the conveyer belt and didn't want to leave my purse unattended. I asked if he would mind standing next to it. He stood guard for a minute and then, grabbing my purse with one hand, he started to unload groceries with the other. He couldn't just stand there and watch me work. He wanted to help. Sweet boy. Becoming a man. 

And then the last hurrah. Our checker -- a woman in her sixties, I'm guessing -- had adorned her hair with fresh lavender. She merrily ran our items across the scanner and commented on the bright fall leaves. That did it. I knew she was kindred. I told her that I loved the touch of lavender and she beamed. "They were in my yard and they smelled so pretty!" And so into her hair they went, fragrant and whimsical.

Funny, the things that happen when we slow down and look. We see things differently. Or we just plain see things that we might otherwise have missed in our haste. We may see a new way of doing things, we may see a life that brings back fond memories, or a life that is developing right before our eyes. And if we're wise, we'll stop and pick a sprig of lavender. Because we just never know if our pause might bring joy to someone else. 
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

{Gold Coins}

Last night as I closed up the living room blinds, my eye spied a glimmer of golden light peering through the distant, inky black evergreen trees. My breath caught and I had a sudden inspiration. "I need to go to the park." Jamie was sitting nearby and I appealed to him. "I don't want to go alone . . . ."

I looked again, the golden orb slowly climbing into the night sky, drowned by the distraction of streetlights and lit windows. The park would be dark. It would be more visible there. He smiled, knowing how I adore the moon. "I'll go with you." He grabbed his flannel (the evenings have that lovely nip now), and my inspiration evolved and expanded as I rounded up the befuddled kids. And the dog.

A few minutes later, the six of us -- and our little dog, too -- were padding our way quietly down the sidewalk toward the neighborhood park. We approached the entrance, hushed and expectant. It was completely, eerily dark, save that golden sphere, suspended majestically in the eastern sky.

The kids were tempted to play because, well, that's what one does at the park. But when it's pitch black, one looks at the moon instead. A good trade. We gazed in stillness for a bit and eventually found ourselves sitting in a row on the footbridge.

As we admired the golden coin and the vast, limitless expanse overhead, I thought of the many other golden coins I'd collected over the years. Moons and moons worth of memories and moments spanning just about thirty-nine years now, each one saved, tucked away in my pocket. I felt the richness of it.

* * * * *

Earlier this week when Jamie and I had our Sunday date night, we decided it would be fun to watch You've Got Mail. It had been years since we'd seen it, and it just seemed like a perfect "welcome fall" kind of movie. Bouquets of sharpened pencils, "don't you love New York in the fall," and so on.

It was delightful to revisit the familiar classic, but I wasn't prepared for the flood of nostalgia that would come with it. When we first saw the movie, it was in the theater. (We ran into our dear friends, Jason and Tobi.) The year? 1998. Drew -- our sixteen-year-old -- was a wee babe.

There were numerous scenes that I found myself watching with different eyes this time around. My favorite aha moment? When Kathleen Kelly recommends the series of books to Annabelle in the book store. You see, the 1998 Julianna didn't know about Betsy and Tacy. But the 2014 Julianna has two daughters who've read and loved the Betsy Tacy stories. (In fact Bethie and I just plowed our way through Betsy's first high school book this summer -- what a lovely lark.) I felt rather tingly and misty-eyed over it all.

As we watched Joe and Kathleen fall in love once again, those years of memories -- gold coins of experience and understanding and relationships -- added a fullness to the evening. And yes, I felt the richness of it.

* * * * *

We lined the footbridge, no one really wanting to be the one to say, "We should probably go home. It's a school night." But it happened anyway. We came to our feet, glanced back at the moon, and slowly made our way down the street.

As we did so, my mind wandered back to another, very similar golden moment. I gathered my girls close, walked more slowly, and shared about the time my Nanee and I had gazed upon a harvest moon in that very same neighborhood, the time we gathered a very similar gold coin. I was about Bethie's age. Hand in hand, my grandmother and I had walked in the stillness of the night, the moon so low on the horizon that it was unnaturally large, tinged just the color of the changing birch leaves. Squeezing my hand, she said, "Juni, we'll always remember this night." 

She was right.

Our family of six -- and our little dog, too -- approached the welcome glow of our own front porch. I was content to follow in the wake of my husband and children, contemplative and quiet. Entering the warmth of home, I closed the door softly behind us, another gold coin in my pocket. 

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Monday, September 8, 2014

{Billy and Betty}

It started in May, the day God took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, "Yes, that."

I had been in a Women's Bible study at our church, going through Kelly Minter's book, Nehemiah: A Heart that Can Break. Throughout the study, the author encouraged us to be seeking the Lord, to be open and vulnerable for that which might soften, open, reshape our hearts.

About halfway through the study, Minter invited us to journal some pretty specific stuff. Stuff like, "Is the Lord asking you to say no to something so you can focus on what He's asked you to say yes to? If so, what?"

I pretended like I didn't hear. "La, la, la, la, la!" I don't have anything to say no to, Kelly Minter! So there! Fingers in my ears. "La, la, la, la, la!" But I heard it anyway. I could almost feel the Lord's strong hands on my shoulders, His deep, kind eyes looking into mine: "Full time homeschooling."

Wait. What? No. I can't say no to that. It's what I do. It's . . . it's . . . who I am.

But the Lord continued His work. I asked friends and family to join me in prayer. In faith (and in fear and trembling), I enrolled the kids in an alternative learning program, just in case that's really what I was supposed to do (and because those things need to be taken care of in May -- I could decide later. Because probably I wasn't hearing the Lord properly anyway).

I wrestled all summer long. I agonized. I just couldn't release my grip.

But the more I thought about it, the more I prayed and sought His Word, the more I came to see the root of my problem. 

It was me.

I wasn't determined to homeschool full time because I thought this was the best possible option for this year. I wasn't determined because the kids were begging to stay home or because I saw red flags when we considered enrolling them in school.

I was determined because I wanted to say, "Look at what I did!" And I needed to let go. I needed to live up to what I always verbalized to others but never actually had to carry out in a way that felt contrary to my longings: that we'd take education one year at a time, one kid at a time, and seek the Lord for the answers all along the way -- even if those answers came in the form of a brick building with desks and new teachers.

And I realized that I was hearing the Lord properly, after all. It took me the whole summer, and it wasn't until the very end of August that I finally unclenched my hands and said, "Okay. Even this. Yes."

I asked my friends and family to pray for peace, and it came. My spirit settled and the horizon continued to be free of red flags. We bought school supplies. And last week, they started.

You know what? They love it. And as I've attended meetings and become acquainted with the teachers and staff, I've continued to be impressed and even downright enthusiastic about our choice. (Drew and Bethie were there last year, so I was already familiar with the middle and high school programs.) The kids attend classes for two days a week, have classes at home on alternating days, and have the option to take enrichment classes on Fridays.

I still get to be very involved in my kids' education and I look forward to incorporating many of the aspects I love so much about homeschooling. My kids get to have the classroom experience and the interaction with peers that has, up until now, been somewhat limited.

I also get to wait and see what the Lord has in store for us -- what the "yes" is for this school year. I'm pretty sure He gave me a little clue on the first day of school when I was in 1 Thessalonians 1:8 and read,

"The Lord's message rang out from you . . . ."

This morning as I drove a very eager Little Miss and Big Brother to school, I reminded them, "Look for Billy and Betty!" They grinned, "We will!"

Billy and Betty are the imaginary children that can be found in almost any gathering. They're the kids on the edge, the kids who might need a friend, the kids who are too shy to jump in and start a conversation.

I often remind my kids -- and myself -- to be looking for Billy and Betty. I'm sure there will be many Billys and Bettys as we begin this new venture. And it is my humble prayer that the Lord's message will ring out from these Lawson lives. That Billy and Betty, as they brush shoulders with our awkward, faulty selves, may see a glimmer of Light and Truth, and that they might know how much they are loved.


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