Thursday, June 27, 2013

Birthdays with Allergies

I've found birthday cakes to be one of the tricky parts of having allergies. The dilemma: how to make a cake that you can feed a crowd that is allergy friendly and yummy enough for those without allergies. I've done this a couple different ways.

One is to double my cooking efforts. My son wanted his "normal" chocolate cake. I'm not about to make the kid have a different cake on his birthday just because his sisters and I have food allergies. So for his birthday, I made the Cake Mix Doctor's chocolate cake, having to spit out the batter I absentmindedly licked in order to avoid those gut-wrenching pains. Then I baked some carrot cake muffins from a recipe my sisters created. I plan to bake these sometime even for those without allergies because they are straight-up delicious.

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Vegan Gluten-free Carrot Cake Cupcakes

  • flax seed mix (recipe below or you can simply use 4 eggs)
  • 1 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 c. unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 Tbsp. oil 
  • 5.2 oz or 145 grams of blanched almond flour*
  • 5.2 oz or 145 grams of gluten-free all-purpose four*
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3 c. grated carrots

Flax seed mix:
Stir 4 Tbsp. of ground flax seed with 3/4 c. of water. Let stand at least 10 minutes

Whisk together the flax seed mix, sugar, applesauce, and oil. In a separate bowl, stir together both flours, soda, cinnamon, and salt. Add the wet and dry ingredients together, stirring until just combined; do not over-mix. Gently fold in the grated carrots.

Pour into lined muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Be sure not under-bake since it will result in a gummy consistancy.

*One of the tricks to baking with other flours is to add it according to how much it weighs. If you have no food scale, add approximately 1 1/2 cup of almond flour and 1 1/4 cup of the GF all-purpose flour. But for the best results, take the extra step and weigh it.

The second way to handle the allergy issue was simply to make a cake so yummy that no one could even tell it happened to be missing gluten and dairy. This is what we did for Ava's birthday. You know its good stuff when you're getting compliments on the cake with no one knowing the secret that they were actually eating a healthy cake. The ingredients of this one will totally catch you off guard. A cake made with no sugar, but with lots of black beans...I promise it's good.  You can find that recipe HERE.

Now have a happy birthday with food that makes your body happy, too!

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Together Through Pain {miscarriage}

I've been hearing over and over again how helped y'all have been by the posts from the women in our Together Through Pain series. Isn't our God wonderful!?

This week we'll be hearing about a topic that touches us all. I guarantee that each one of us knows someone who has gone through a miscarriage or have experienced this yourself. Statistics show that at least 1 in 10 pregnancies end in miscarriage. What a perfect area for us to be armed with wisdom on how to care for each other!

Our contributor this week is Abby. She experienced a more rare 2nd trimester miscarriage and will be opening up to us about her loss and pain. Abby is a former middle school teacher (bless her!) and college English teacher. After she and her husband C.J. had a beautiful little girl, Abby put her skills to work full time in her home. Abby is also a gifted writer and is currently working on a book about how God shows up in people's stories of infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth. You can follow her work on her author's Facebook page HERE and can read more of her eloquent writing on her blog HERE.


I'm honored to be included in this wonderful series on Alyssa's blog.  Alyssa's asked me to share a little bit about my experience with miscarriage and what was helpful to me in the days, weeks, and months following my loss.

Let me start by telling you my story.  My husband and I have the privilege of being parents to our beautiful two year old daughter Ellie.  It took us a full year to get pregnant with her, so I was surprised and delighted when we got pregnant right away with our second child.  Ellie was almost one at the time, so my first trimester was full and challenging as I tried to keep up with a busy toddler and deal with my ever-present nausea.  My obstetrician has an ultrasound machine in her office, so my husband and I were able to see our little baby several times at my prenatal check-ups.  Everything seemed to be progressing perfectly.

And then, in late May of last year, I went in for my 15 week check-up, only to discover there was no heartbeat.  It seemed our baby had died somewhere around 14.5 weeks, well past the 12 week point where the odds of a miscarriage drop dramatically to somewhere around 1%.  We underwent many tests, but doctors were never able to uncover a clear reason for our loss.

For me, grieving the loss of our baby was an incredibly difficult time.  I felt lonely as I didn't have any close friends who'd experienced a miscarriage, and I didn't know anyone who'd walked through a second trimester loss.  I was always aware of how far along I "should have been" and felt sadness and envy as I watched the swelling bellies of other pregnant women who appeared to be due around the same time I would have been.  We found out our baby was a little girl, and I grieved the daughter we'd never know, the sister Ellie wouldn't get to grow up with, the member of our family who'd always be missed, no matter how many children we might later go on to have.  For months, sadness lingered at the edges of everything, and I genuinely wondered if I would ever feel truly happy again.

Now, a year later, I still miss the little girl we named Avaleen, but the grief is different:  softer, less consuming.  I'm so grateful for the care I've received and continue to receive from friends and family as I've mourned.  What follows is a list of several ways I've been blessed by them - with a few thoughts about things that weren't so helpful mixed in.  I share these suggestions realizing I'm no expert on the topic and that what blesses me, an introspective, emotional type, may not be as meaningful to others walking through a similar loss.  All the same, I hope these suggestions will serve those of you who are or will be walking alongside a friend who has lost her baby.

1.  Validate her loss.  One of the first things my amazing obstetrician said to me after having to tell me my baby was dead was that I wouldn't be ok for months.  On first glance, that may seem like a harsh or unhelpful thing to tell someone who's just experienced a miscarriage, but it was actually one of the best things anyone said to me because it validated the deep sense of pain and loss I felt rather than trying to minimize it or brush it away.  In times of tragedy, we all want to say something that will make sufferers feel better, but the reality is that no words can magically erase a loss.  Upon hearing about my miscarriage, well-meaning people told me things like, "This is just a setback," or, "At least you got pregnant quickly this time," all of which felt very unhelpful because they minimized the fact that I'd just lost a particular, unique child, one I'd carried for 3 months and seen on an ultrasound, one I desperately wanted back.  At the time, I didn't want another baby; I just wanted Avaleen.  And I really appreciated the family and friends who understood this, who wept with me, and who affirmed the validity of the grief I was feeling.

2.  Show love in tangible ways.  In the days following my miscarriage, it seemed that every time I opened our front door there was another package:  homemade cranberry orange scones, flowers hand-picked from a friend's garden, a delivery from a local bakery, all accompanied by thoughtful cards and notes.  As I sat in our living room recovering, not feeling emotionally ready for lots of visits or long talks, I was surrounded by visible expressions of the love and care of family and friends scattered on end tables and shelves throughout the room.  In a very real sense, the flowers and cards and food upheld me in those early days, making me feel supported and cared for and loved.  Similarly, the families in my small group from church offered to bring us meals for a few weeks after our loss.  I felt strange accepting their offer because my pregnancy nausea finally gone, I actually felt better physically than I had in months.  However, receiving the meals not only freed me up to focus on grieving and being with my family, but it also was yet another way I felt loved in the midst of my pain.  As I told the small group later when I thanked them, each meal delivered said to me, "Your loss matters.  It is a real and hard thing.  We care about your pain, and we care about you."  And though I could have managed to put dinner on the table myself, that care meant so much to me.

3.  Free her up to grieve.  After my miscarriage, one particular friend offered to watch Ellie for me on a few different mornings.  For several hours, she freed me up to take a walk, grab a cup of coffee, think, or to just be.  As the mom of a toddler, this was especially important for me because I was generally too busy changing diapers and making lunch to analyze my thoughts, feel my emotions, or dissolve on the floor in a puddle of tears.  But to move forward in the grieving process, I needed to be able to do these things.  I needed help creating space to mourn.  I think the same would be true for most women, even those who aren't currently caring for small children.  Life is busy, and grieving takes a lot of time, space, and physical and emotional energy.  There are many ways to help a friend find that space:  offer to clean her house or give her a gift certificate for a cleaning service; deliver several frozen meals for days when she just doesn't have the capacity to cook; send her away for a one-day retreat or spa day.  Anything you can do to lighten her load will help.

4.  Remember.  The flowers and notes poured in at first, and as I mentioned above, I felt surrounded by expressions of care and sympathy in those early days.  As time passed though, it was easy for me to feel like no one cared anymore, like I was expected to just move on and get back to normal life.  It meant so much to me when people remembered, months later, to ask how I was doing with processing my loss or genuinely wanted to know how it felt for me to sit through a baby shower.  It meant even more when friends remembered to express their care on a few particularly hard days.  Several people e-mailed or texted to let me know they were praying for me on the day Avaleen was due to be born.  At Christmastime, some dear friends of ours made a donation in her honor to a charity that supports the medical needs of babies in developing countries.  I also received a thoughtful e-mail from a friend on the anniversary of the day we'd lost Avaleen.  Practically speaking, I'd encourage you to make a note on your calendar of your friend's due date and of the anniversary of her loss; that way, you'll be prepared to care for her on those challenging days.

For me, and for many women, a miscarriage is a deep and dark experience, and there's nothing any friend can do to take the pain of that loss away.  I'm so grateful though that pain does not have to be carried alone, that others have chosen to enter into my sadness and walk with me through it.  I hope that hearing how they did so will inspire you as you seek to "mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15).

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Dozen Years...

...with him.

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Happy Anniversary, my love.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Peek In Our Home {master bedroom}

I had a couple requests to see photos of our "new" home. So I'll give you a sneak peek into our master bedroom. It was kind of my pet project since in our condo, our room was my least favorite. I wanted to for a romantic/rustic kind of look. The challenge was to do on an in-the-middle-of-an-adoption budget. But a challenge is fun, isn't it?!

As you can see from the realty picture, we got to start with a wonderfully clean slate...
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And present day...
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Our original bedroom furniture was a beech wood missionary style set. We had picked it out shortly before our wedding; and now I felt I had outgrown it. I made my husband promise me that we would get new furniture for our room when we moved. But it didn't take me long to realize that would totally impractical and not fit in our budget. So I started brainstorming on what to do. I knew I wanted to make sure it no longer "matched". The first step was to move the bed frame to the guest bedroom, and create a headboard that would be centerpiece of our room. This was done by raiding my girlfriend's burn pile that was full of deconstructed pallet boards. I bought a large slab of plywood, and simply started piecing the new headboard together and nailing the pallet wood into place. Next was to paint the dressers white and the nightstand gray.
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Finally, I detached the mirror over my dresser, flipped it, cut out the wooden spindles, and cut a piece of pallet wood to fit.
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My secret weapon was Annie Sloan Chalk Paint™. And, no, I don't mean chalkboard paint. This chalk paint is pure magic. At first I gawked at the price, but it ended up saving me both time and money. It sticks to anything and requires no sanding and no priming and goes on like butter. It literally cuts your work time in a third. Finally, when I say it saved me money, I'm being totally serious because a little goes a very long way. I did both of our dressers and the window cornices (plus a bunch of photo frames) with one quart of this paint and still had some left over.
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A little reading nook with a chair, step ladder, and book holder that I'd snagged for great prices at a local antique dealer...
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All pathetic sewers (like me) rejoice! To cover this pillow, I simply folded the fabric like I was wrapping a present and hand sewed it in place adding three buttons...
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After enduring flowers on his dresser in the past, my husband asked for a more manly set up on his dresser. I found a large gear stashed with the cheaper items outside the antique store. Also, a piece of shelving had fallen out of the freezer in our garage. I covered it in some of the chalk paint (proving it really can stick to anything) and used it as a sort of container. With some other items from around the house, the dresser was complete and met with my hubby's approval...
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I mixed the chalk paint with water to give the pallet board cornices I made a white washed looked. After attaching the wooden cornices to the wall, I used some tension rods that they previous owner had left to hang sheers for that great hard and soft feel...
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Here are some other rustic touches in the room...
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My super-understanding husband came home one day to find our garden rake chopped. Girly necklaces and a garden rake is like a perfect juxtaposition...
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Clockwise from the top left: 1. Some pages removed from my great, great grandfather's diary (I figure I'm enjoying them far more on my wall) make for a personal, unique wall display. 2. Covering a memo board in fabric and framing it makes for a great place to display old family name/post cards. 3. An old window to spruce up the office area. You kind of see a cheap Ikea chair that got a chalk paint make-over as well. 4. Tool holder turned book container.
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The master bath is connected with no door. At first, we thought we would want to change this, but instead we ended up loving the "hotel room" feel that it gives the space. After her death, I found a portion of a chapter in "Job" written out by my grandmother. I framed it and gave it a spot in the bathroom decor.
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There you have it. A new master bedroom with the help of some chalk paint, lots of re-purposed items, and some good old pallet boards.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Together Through Pain {Unexpected Death}

Are you ready for the next guest post in the "Together Through Pain" series? Again we'll look to someone who has actually walked through the tough stuff for advice on how to give truly helpful care to the hurting. This post features Melanie whose Dad unexpectedly died. Melanie (affectionately known as "Mel" to all who know and love her) lived Stateside when she lost her dad 10 years ago. She now lives in Hong Kong with her husband and daughter and writes an entertaining blog which you can find HERE about life's joys and trials, and the journey of how she moved from her hometown in Virginia to one of Asia's biggest cities. Now let me turn this post over to her as she opens up to us.


Sudden Death
"Dad had a stroke," my brother said as I picked up the phone at my workplace. Since I couldn't leave work at that moment, I consoled myself by thinking, "It will be a while before he finishes tests and x-rays anyways, so it'll probably work out better to visit him in a few hours."

But what none of us knew, was that we had already said our last words to Dad. The stroke had caused severe brain hemorrhaging, and my dad would spend the next six days in a coma, shocking all who knew him with his sudden passing that Saturday.  

The author and her father

Left Behind
We were bewildered. Dad was literally "here one day and gone the next", leaving behind a wife, four kids, a boat business, and countless other grieving friends and relatives. Grief mingled with questions. How did this happen? Did we miss the signs? How do we plan a funeral on such short notice? What should we do with his boat business? And then there's questions about the future. Who would usher my sixteen year old brother into manhood, or take my wheelchair-bound brother to hockey and baseball games, or walk my sister and I down the aisle on our wedding days, or send my mom flowers on Valentine's Day?

Death - regardless of cause or warning - leaves a sting for those who are left behind. And how well you walk through the valleys of grief often correlates with the quality of care received from acquaintances and friends. But, what exactly do you do if you suddenly find yourself the friend of someone grieving?

It's awkward.
Let's just get that out in the open, shall we? Before I lost my dad, I had no idea how to act around people who were grieving. My heart ached for those going through difficult times, but I didn't know what to do or say. And those awkward feelings can sometimes produce other awkward actions, like saying the wrong things or unintentionally distancing yourself from that friend because you don't feel qualified to help them with what they're going through.  

Heroes in the Valley
I jumped at the chance to write this post. Not because I'm anything special, but because it reminded me of all the special people that walked with us through the dark valleys after my dad's sudden death. I cannot imagine how heavy our burdens would've seemed had friends not stepped into our world and insisted that we distribute the weight of those burdens with them. Most of what I've learned about "being there" for people was learned from their example. And so, I'm sharing a few practical tips, in case there are other well-intentioned friends out there feeling as helpless as I once did (and sometimes still do).

Before you read, let me just acknowledge the obvious: First, these suggestions are not all-inclusive. There are tons of books and helpful websites out there with great suggestions and advice, but I chose to write about three common misconceptions that came to mind. Second, everyone grieves differently. Even among my siblings and me, we dealt with my dad's passing in very different ways. Some people may have guilt. Some may have delayed grief. Some may want to talk. Some may need a few years before they can talk about it. So, practical tips are good, but you know your friends better than I do. Just be there for them. The rest is just details.

Normal Thought: What will I say? Maybe I shouldn't go to them.
Better Thought: I should go to them. Maybe I don't need to say anything.
Tragedies punch us in the stomach. They leave us speechless. Gasping for air sometimes. There's often nothing we can say that will fix the situation. If you try, you might end up saying something weird like, "I can totally relate to what you're going through because my pet died" (an actual, well-meaning comment made to my brother). Why do we feel like we must have something to say to a friend that has just lost someone? Why did I used to think I had to prepare ahead of time if I was going to encounter a grieving friend? Why pretend there are answers and Band-Aids for people that are crushed? Hug them.

Of course, this is not to say that you can't prepare, or pray, or think about how to best bless your friend. But, don't be intimidated if you don't have time to prepare, or if you don't know what to say, or if you don't understand why this happened to them. Because they don't either! Most of the time, the grieving don't need answers, they just want to know they're not alone. That someone else is wondering the same things and grieving right along with them.

When I consider those six days we spent in the ICU waiting room, there are one or two memorable things that I can remember people saying to me; but, the more memorable picture that hangs in my mind is of a room full of friends who hugged us, cried with us, and were willing to sit in silence with us.

Normal Thought: I offered to help, but I guess they just need some space.
Better Thought: Maybe I shouldn't leave the ball in their court.
"Let me know if there's anything we can do to help." It's one of the kindest, most well-intentioned things you can say to someone. And 99% of the time, the speaker really does mean it. In fact, they probably would've moved mountains for you, had you asked them to.

But, the reality is that for various reasons -maybe they're  too tired to think straight, embarrassed to impose upon people, don't want to mention petty things in case they need help later for something bigger, or simply grieving too much to know how to administrate their own care - they may never take you up on that offer.

Now, sometimes people do want to be left alone. They very well might "need some space", but normally that kind of "need some space" means that they'd prefer not to be called by a bunch of acquaintances and answer the same questions of "what happened?" and "how are you doing?", or maybe it means that they'd like some time to process the death of their loved one before talking about it in depth. But it probably doesn't mean that they want to be cut off from all care and acknowledgement of what just happened to them. Something wonderful that people did for us after my dad passed away was to take thoughtful initiative on their own. The specifics of this will depend on the grieving friend's situation and preferences, but for us it meant a neighbor we hardly knew showing up with a home-cooked meal and latticed pie after seeing that an ambulance had come to our house a few days before, guys showing up to shovel our cars out of the snow that winter, friends showing up with instruments to play worship music for us one night, and people who invited my brother out to sports games, and volunteered to serve at my sister's wedding the following year.

The problem with many a kind offer is that they often leave the ball in the court of the person grieving. Without meaning to (I do it too!), we're asking the grieving friend to (1) come up with ideas themselves and (2) get back to us. With all that's going on with them, it would be rare that they would have the time or energy to do this, even if they know they need the help. One approach that I've found to be a blessing is when people offer specifically - What house/yard projects do you have that I could help you with? What babysitting needs to you have this month? Do you have pictures of your loved one that I could put into a slideshow or scrapbook for you? It seems like you could benefit from a distraction - could I take you out to dinner this week? Another approach is to just surprise them. If they're not in the mood to talk, send them a card, or flowers, or tickets to a concert or ball game, or leave a basket of cookies on their doorstep.  

Normal Thought: It would be awkward to talk about their loved one that has passed away.
Better Thought: It's more awkward to pretend their loved one never existed.'s a secret: most people that have lost a loved one actually want to talk about them. And sometimes the only reason we don't is because we don't want to make you feel awkward. Funny, right? Before my own dad passed away and I had opportunity to talk to lots of people that have also lost loved ones, I never knew this. Again, with the best of intentions, friends often assume that saying the name of the deceased would be cruel or would "re-open the wound". And sometimes it does. Sometimes there are tears mixed in with the memories, and you do need to take into consideration how and when the person died before bringing it up. But, most of us would rather have opportunity to share the occasional tear with someone than to never hear that person's name again.

Otherwise, it's easy to feel like you're the only one that remembers that person. Or you can feel scared that you're forgetting them, and you desperately want others to help you keep those memories alive. But you don't know how to ask for people to help you do that. Sometimes you really want to watch that video and hear them laugh again. You want someone to tell you that they started crying the other day when they thought of your dad. You want a friend of theirs to reminisce about the funny birthday gift they once got from him.

This year marks ten years since my dad passed away, and I have not tired of hearing people's memories of him. Oh how it blesses me when friends are brave enough to bring up his name! I love to hear his name, or to have people tell me that I remind them of him, or when they say, "I was thinking of your dad the other day..." or "...remember that one basketball move he used to do?" So, even if it feels a little awkward, or you only had a passing thought about the person, or you think your one sentence isn't worth sharing, or you've already shared that tidbit before - share it anyways! Even years later, you never know how that memory could brighten their day. And that tear they shed? It might just be a happy one.

Looking back on that time with new perspective now, I'm sure our friends probably struggled through some internal battles of what to say / not say to us. I'm sure there were moments when they wondered if they were doing the right thing, or contemplated calling, or wondered if they should "give us some space", or if they'd done enough. It's hard to be a friend to someone who's grieving. And, although it's good to get advice on how to care for them better, you'll never really know exactly what to do. You'll always be wading through awkward, uncharted territories.

Being on the other side of things changes you. It makes you grateful for the friends that stuck by your side, even through the awkwardness. Even when you didn't know what you needed, or you babbled without making much sense, or you sat in silence after hearing the doctor say your loved one wouldn't recover, or you broke down years later while watching a movie that triggered a memory.

The most heroic friends are often just the ones that are willing to journey into that valley with you. The ones without all the answers, that are just ok with...well...being there. Because more than all the other words or deeds, that is probably what they'll remember the most. 

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The author, while pregnant with her first, at her father's grave site.

More great resources on this subject can be found HERE.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Birthday Season

Summer means birthday season for the Sieb fam. Birthdays in May, June, July, and August, oh my. This means our little one coming had better be born in April or September.

Here are some photos from Ava's and Isaiah's birthdays. They turned 3 and 11 respectively ("2 more years until I'm a teenager, Mom." Dear. Lord.)

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Classic Ava face...
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Plotting how to swipe some icing...
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Both birthdays had my grandma (called simply "Great" by my kiddos) as the special guest...
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Next week I'll share how we worked around our allergies to make yummy birthday cake.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Together Through Pain {childhood trauma}

As you know, we are working through a series dealing with how to walk helpfully with your friend who is wading through waters in which you have no experience. I am so touched that the following contributor was willing  to serve us by opening up about her painful past and ideas of how to love on the friend in your life who has gone through a difficult childhood. She will do this eloquently but anonymously. She grew up in a home that would be labeled "Christian" but looked vastly different when the doors were closed as her father used psychological and physical abuse to rule the home and to keep up appearances. But I'll stop now and let her tell the story and give the words of wisdom.

When Your Formative Years Are the Source of Pain
For the first two decades of my life, I thought I was from a typical Christian family. But terror was planted in my gut at two years old, and fear was used to control me throughout the rest of my childhood. Fear of my mom being killed. Fear of my mom killing herself. Fear of my brothers being beat beyond repair. Fear of the silence. Fear of being "in trouble" myself. Fear of unknowingly breaking a rule. Fear of losing my salvation. I don't ever remember one day of feeling light, free, or childlike. I remember feeling heavy, frightened, exhausted, and very very alone. Each time fear consumed me to the point of overwhelmment, I prayed that God would literally erase that memory from my mind, for it was more than I could bear. He did. All that trauma, terror, rejection, and pain got boxed up, and I thought, put away forever. During that time, I was taught that forgiveness was being able to not emotionally react to hurt, and also never bringing up what happened again for eternity. And so I took turmoil and trauma inside and didn't allow it to effect my countenance, and I buried each hurt without ever voicing the enormity of it. I stopped feeling. I simply coped. And I thought that all Christian families operated like that. 

It is a modern miracle I still like Jesus. Because His Name was used to control and manipulate us, and His Words were used to be some twisted bandage to our wounds. I remember being told to go to my room and "get right with God" because my standing with him was "on the rocks". Because I moved a pair of shoes. I was told that my intentions were always selfish, flawed, and corrupt. I was told that I was not capable of friendship, that I was a deep disappointment. And I believed them to my core.

I blocked out so much of those first two decades, but I do recall a few ways that God wove glimpses of His True Nature into my life. I remember two teachers who were veritable sanctuaries to me. I literally did not want to go home after school. I would have camped out in their classrooms for the love and acceptance and soft-shoulder they offered. I felt so safe with them. God also saved me through nature. I remember being surrounded by high hills draped in knee-high green grasses, and tromping through daisy fields, and knowing God was there, calling to me, and showing me a small piece of His vast goodness. And I remember being so alone and so disenchanted by surface-y Christians that I gave up on all youth groups and Bible studies and just did life alone. God was my sole best friend, and although I didn't know the faintest facet of the freedom He offered yet, I did know that His company was richer than any others. 

How can you help a child who is so desperate for acceptance, love and safety? Sit by her. Offer your home for dinner or a weekend of normalcy. Feed her with scripture. See the good in her, and speak of and to it. 

But God blew my world wide open when I went away to college. I saw other families that were gentle, tender-hearted, non-judgmental, gracious, and loving toward each other. I met others my age who didn't live life in tension and fear and unpredictability. Who weren't wound up tight in dysfunctional relationships. Who weren't carrying adult-sized burdens on child-sized hearts. And they were still Christians. Ever so slowly, the Lord began to unwind this lie that being a Christian mean fearfully following rules, presenting a perfect exterior, a life of carrying crushing weight, and never knowing when the rug of your salvation was about to be pulled out from under you. 

Fast-forward to my 20's and 30's ... 

I was growing in knowledge. I was married. Physically safe. Separate. It was this promised land I had panted for my whole life. But the emotional trauma had just begun. It was like I lived my entire childhood in "fight or flight" survival mode on pure adrenaline. When the promised land was set before me, and everything was seemingly peaceful and safe, I didn't know how to operate. My body caught up. I began having panic attacks. Chest pains would send me to the hospital, thinking I was having a heart attack. I would lay on heating pads and pray that the muscles that pulled my lungs tight would loosen. I began having night terrors, waking up defeated, exhausted, grieving, heart either racing or broken. All of those hundreds of moments I blocked out and wished to be erased were buried deep and now rising to the surface. 

How can you love an adult in that dark, desperate, confused, exhausted, bewildered, grieving place that follows a broken childhood, so many broken relationships, and a broken picture of God?

1) Understand that it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because the real trauma occurs in the aftermath ... Being struck and verbally slayed hurt in the moment, but the real pain comes when you begin wondering why you weren't worth sticking up for, questioning why you were made to feel like such a burden to your family, and trying to piece together how what they spoke of you doesn't feel like who you are, or is it who you are? 

2) Give us permission to grieve ... and maybe do it with us. Just when the weight of these ugly, life-draining relationships with my parents were literally sucking me dry, God intervened. Two couples - my parents' age - stepped into our lives. Not with "honor your mother and father" words of judgement, but with "honor them ... that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you" that helped us realize that there was no life, much less prolonged life, much less abundant life, trapped in this sick cycle of still trying to "honor" unpleaseable, unsafe, unhealthy, unpredictable parents. This dear couple woke at sunrise to pray with us, came over after dark to pray for us, skipped chemo treatments to cry with us, and most importantly, gave us a real picture of a gentle-man loving a tender-woman as Christ endears His Bride. They showed us what healthy fighting looked like, what healthy loving looked like, and how God can restore a beat-down spirit to the point of feeling free to laugh and feel again. They adopted us in every sense of the word, and so monumentally, pro-actively, and beautifully painted us a fresh picture of Christian family, working in harmony and gracefulness - not just publicly, but also behind closed doors. But perhaps most importantly, they wept for us. They validated our pain. Their eyes filled large with tears as we confided in them. They spoke Jesus' name over us again and again. I saw Jesus' tender compassion for me in their faces. I had never ever known anyone to see into my pain that way. That alone was so healing. They never chanted "He will never give you a burden bigger than you can bear," but breathed words of life into us. Validated our journey. Offered permission to grieve in the valley, and gave their soft shoulders to weep on. That was Jesus-love like I had never seen it before. 

3) Realize that God's classrooms happen in many places. What didn't help was "You can do it!" Scripture-quoting. Because you don't feel like you can do it, and you don't know how to do it, and sometimes, Jesus' timing isn't ready for you to do it. We learn wonderful things in the valleys. We see Jesus' face so clearly in valleys. Valleys are not always to be rushed through. They are dark, long, seemingly-endless, and sometimes that's ok. Come have coffee with me in the valley. Regard it as just as holy ground as the mountaintop you are on. Ask me to guest-blog about my journey (thanks, Alyssa) and trust that, though the surrounding scenery may look different, sanctification can also happen in that desert-place.

4) Probe gently. It also was difficult to answer questions. After two decades of silence, when my body began to break down and leak some of the pain out, well-meaning friends and family would press for details, trying to understand themselves how this on-the-outside perfect family could have instead been something so very different. I had blocked out so much, and being forced to recall and wade through and piece together those years and those instances was so vastly painful. God drew it out as I was ready, and being asked to recall things through the years before I was ready to process them usually sent me into a tailspin. 

5) Realize that sometimes forgiveness doesn't necessarily negate righteous anger. After being taught that forgiveness meant being hurt by someone and not showing even a hint of it in your countenance, not even flinching or wincing, and never speaking of it again ... I had a difficult time with forgiveness. In effect, I had over-forgiven my parents to the point of dysfunction and enablement at times. Having someone hear part of your story, and encourage you to "forgive" is just not helpful at all. You wouldn't walk into a crime scene in progress, and "encourage" someone who is being slowly murdered to step out in forgiveness because that is biblical, otherwise they will drown in anger. I had been taught the opposite. Never to stand up for myself. To just take pain, believe I deserved it, and move on. So having some righteous anger at outright injustice, misuse of God's name, and the cloaking the gospel in Outright Lies --- learning it is ok to be indignant about that has been part of my healing journey. I truly believe that if I had mindlessly forgiven as some told me to, it would have been ingenuine and shallow forgiveness. Instead, I was able to fully grasp the breadth of the damage done, fully feel the pain from it, and still choose to hand it over to the Lord, release that person from ever having to see what they had done to me, instead allowing the Lord's compassion for my ruins be my healing balm, and choosing to pray Godly blessings over their life and future instead. That is a whole-hearted forgiveness He has taught me, and one that I daily have to practice. You simply can't understand how huge forgiveness is until you get how much you are willfully choosing to hand over.

6) Practically love me. I know it sounds funny, but I was more overwhelmed, more desperate, more exhausted, and more needy when I was going through some of the toxic aftermath of these relationships than I ever was when I was sick, had a new baby, recovering from surgery, etc... A meal sent over would have brought me to my knees. Emotional pain was downright debilitating at times.

7) Don't pass on pithy quotes. "Depression is just hatred turned inward." A well meaning family member once told me this. It broke my heart. Instantly, I felt judged. I wasn't experiencing an inch of anger in that season, just pure all-encompassing grief. I felt so mis-understood. I tried so hard to reel-in any evidence of my state of soul to the outside world. In that dark, dark season where I was always exhausted, underslept and puffy-eyed, know that I was puffy-eyed not from crying for myself all day, but from being slain on my belly on the ground crying out "How long, Oh Lord?!" to the only One I knew to call on. I didn't hate them, I loved them and longed for love from them. I wasn't angry, I was alone. When you are tempted to label depression a disease of the soul, know that I stand in agreement with you - for the most part. But there is also a physical element. After twenty-two years of just coping and surviving and trying ... I had nothing left to give. Not one ounce of gumption or coping or trying or moving forward. It was like my body was filled with resources to stand up to life's drama at birth, and not only did I tap every single one of those before age five, I had over-withdrawn to the point of beyond empty. I couldn't cope with big things, much less little things. I spent years like this. Everything was overwhelming. Often, I didn't even have it within me to pray for myself. I remember my lips having so little energy to form words, that I would just fall flat down and weep, knowing that the Holy Spirit was groaning and interceeding on my behalf. Tell that to someone who is experiencing depression of the soul or mind. That the Holy Spirit is groaning on behalf of their broken body because they are so dearly beloved. That is healing. After nearly a decade of feeling judged over having this exhausting state of mind and soul, God breathed new life into me. But it wasn't until I had become so familiar with His face in that dark valley that I stopped wishing and praying that it would end. I began not caring if I walked a slow crawl forever - as long as His voice was pressed to my ears and His face continued to be in sight. He freed me from the guilt of depression by reminding me that David was an all-over-the-map weeping poet, terrified of enemies, exhausted from life, and as he screamed heaven-ward til his throat was raw for God to see, save, and spare him, God shouted back that grief-stricken-valley-dwelling David was "a man after His own heart." God's grace can come in the form of a change in circumstances, His intense nearness, a 300mg pill, a truth-speaking therapist, and everything in between. Don't limit God's grace, and remember that He called weeping Shepard-King nutcases friends of His Heart. And from that emotions-all-over-the-map bloodline, His Son was born.

8) Understand triggers. Sometimes they are words, sounds, places, or even people. They can be ordinary and neutral things - water, a smell, or phrase - that are powerful enough to thrust you back to that place of entrapment and terror. But praise Jesus for each trigger He allows to be exposed, so He can graciously deal with each one, and reveal the origin and show His presence even there. But PTSD triggers are real and cause breathless panic, dagger-through-your-heart grief, and surging-through-your-veins terror. For me, they are mostly places. Houses, rooms, even states. But as the Lord allowed my heart to become less hardened and more sensitive ... as He allowed me to feel again ... even little things would trigger me. I couldn't watch tv or read the news. Anything even remotely anxiety-provoking threw me into a tailspin. It was embarrassing. I felt like such a wimp. Yet God was softening my heart. He began to re-associate these painful moments with where-He-was-in-that-place. Some of my most severe triggers and places of trauma have become beautiful redeemed memories, because now I see where He was hovering, saving, protecting, and waiting for me instead. I know there are probably many more painful places that will be triggered to remembrance in the years to come, but I am also so lucky to have friends that recognize when withdrawing or avoiding is because there is a very too-painful-to-yet-endure place within whose nerve was touched on just then. They have slowly waded through these with me, and shown me that the presence of another to go "backward" into that scary territory with makes it just that much less scary. 

9) Don't leave me an orphan. This last year, I have spent guilt-ridden wondering why I could have this gaping wound in my heart for a mom, and not be satisfied with the Lord filling it with Himself. I prayed endlessly for Him to show me how He is my Father and my Mother ... how His heart is tender and accepting and open toward me, and He is sufficient as my Father and my Mother. To show me how He fiercely protects me, fights for me, claims me, and sees the good in me. And do you know what? I still ached and came up empty.

Meanwhile, over this past year, God has surrounded me with dozens of sweet little old ladies in a women's Bible Study at church who have welcomed me in with such open, eager arms, I would sob in the parking lot afterwards with how touched I was by their affection for me. 

And He continued to nourish my relationship with my mother-in-law .... both in understanding and deep love and devotion for each other.

And this past winter, a woman who I admire so much and has been so largely responsible for being the empty vessel that preached Good News of hope, healing, joy, and freedom to me ... who prepared a heavenly feast for me that I might taste and see how good the Lord is, and feel joy for the first time in my life ... this woman who is missionary to thousands and a warrior with her husband for the lost and broken, and champion of the Church as His Bride ...

She chose me. 

This winter she took me aside and asked me to be her daughter. I thanked her, told her how sweet her gesture was, and inwardly declined. I adore her to the ends of the earth, but not only did I not think I was worthy of her love, I had never received an invitation like that and didn't know what to do with it. It came with almost too much love to comprehend. And secretly --- I still wanted my mother.

A month ago, I was praying to the Lord once more to help me fill my yearning for a mother with only Himself. And He laughed at me, and told me He already had. He gave me a picture of this small girl with her hand outstretched begging for her mother's hand - empty, reaching, and crying out to nothingness - yet surrounded by 100 mothers with their arms outstretched toward her. 

I have found my 100 mothers that were there all along. God has filled my longing for a mother with more mothers than I can handle! I just couldn't see them because I was so busy wanting the one that may never love me the way I ache to be loved. That longing for someone to see the good in me, prounounce that, walk through joy and pain without judgement, and experience healthy relationship with ... He filled my cup to overflowing. His spilled out His Mother-Heart for me in the form of all of these sweet women right in front of my eyes, and I didn't even see it, because I was so busy wanting it my way, from my mother. His ways are not our ways ... If you want to show love to someone recovering from a very broken childhood, don't leave us wanting for mothers or fathers. Be our mothers or fathers. Because family trees look different on this side of the cross. We may not be blood family, but we can be blood-of-Jesus family to each other. And sometimes, that's even more needed.

10) Call me out. We learn from what we are modeled. When you see me parenting from a place of emotionless detachment or unhealthy attachment, when you see me controlling hearts instead of fertilizing hearts, when you see me trying to please man not God, when you see me forgiving on autopilot without first feeling, when you see me surviving not thriving, when you see me preaching a gospel of guilt to myself rather than freedom, when you see me treating play as frivolous and work as sacred, when you see me speaking to the worst within my children rather than calling them by their new names and natures ... Call me out. Correct me. Question me. Sharpen me. Soften me. God uses His people so mightily in this way, and I invite you in my life to continue this good work as His Spirit beckons you to. 

Most importantly, be the messy, broken, awkward, in-progress, beautiful Church. If we had gone to one single church where people were raw and real about their journey - if they were honest that their lives were in shambles and their hope was frayed and their faith was starving and that it was okay to share your story too because God loves broken, scared, reckless people and He is very good at kissing tears and drawing near to the brokenhearted ... I may have just shared my story before it ate me alive for two decades. I may have, at 8 or 9, felt safe enough to call out for help - something that could have also spared my mom and brothers decades of abuse. Throw your awkward sex life, your angry streak, your insecurities, your job-as-identity, your motherhood-fails, your gaping loneliness, your brink-of-despair, your financial stretched-ness, your nagging doubt, your short-breathed faith out there ... In prayer, in small groups, amongst friends, at the alter, in worship ... make it all fair game for God to heal and His Bride to minister to. Because sometimes we need to be carried to the Healer by the faith of our friends (Like 15:17) and we need to know that in God's house it's ok to expose our crippled places while we wait on His graces.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Little Trip to Africa

I'm about to tell you why I'm headed to Africa next month. I've put off writing this blog post because, to be honest, the words aren't flowing easily since I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it.

It started nearly two years ago at the beginning of what turned out to be a 9 month job loss for my husband. God started to doing something very distinct and unexpected in our hearts. He began gently pressing us to look outside of our own comfort zone and our own world. And He was specific. Over and over we were coming across articles, videos, and sermons that focused our vision on the orphan crisis going on over in Africa. That's not to say we hadn't cared before that point in time. We were planning to adopt from that part of the world, so obviously we thought we cared. But that light burden began to turn into a heavy one. The kind that keeps you up a night and has you sobbing and you kneel beside your bed. 

What amazed me the most was that what God was doing in Steven's heart was so in sync with mine. Date night after date night we would compare notes and be blown away that the very specific ways in which God was at work in my husband's heart were identical to how the Lord had privately been at work in mine. It felt like God was further confirming what He was up to by having us be so in step with one another.

Until one day.

Last spring after a quite few months being in this season, Steven called me over to come talk to him. From the tone in his voice, I could tell whatever he wanted to say was important to him: "I think we're supposed to go visit there next year."

Clueless, I asked: "Visit where?"


"Where in Africa?," I inquired, totally caught off guard.

"I dunno' know. I just think we need to go there next year and figure out what God wants us to do with this burden."

My response showed my extremely faith-filled heart: "Seriously? You want us in the middle of an expensive adoption process to up and go 'somewhere' in Africa? I thought we might do this someday, but next year?!"

Knowing my husband wouldn't say something like this lightly, I concluded, "Okay, can I just pray about it? I have no faith for something like that right now."

And so I prayed and he prayed. We talked to one of our pastors who thought we should go for it and I prayed some more. For my birthday, a friend of mine handed me the book Kisses from Katie. Knowing nothing about what the Lord had been up to in my heart she told me, "God told me to give you this."

I started reading; and at one distinct moment a few days into the book, the Lord told me to listen to my husband and take this trip. At that moment the real miracle happened, as I felt this prompting, faith filled my heart. I walked into the room where my husband was and uttered just two words: "I'll go."

In the next two months, as we checked into different options. The doors began to open to go with a wonderful ministry over to the country of Ethiopia. We were thrilled that God was directing us to the birthplace of our next daughter.

That fall was full of a move, the "paper pregnancy" of an adoption process, homeschooling, a busy photography season, and much more. My thoughts were not often on the trip. And by the time January rolled around, doubts resurfaced in my heart. This was crazy! We were trying to pull the money together for our dossier, and I knew I didn't want to touch the money people had donated to our adoption for this trip. None of this made sense. What were people going to think of us? In His Providence, the Spirit had me in Luke 9 one morning. I read in verse 3 how Jesus sent out his twelve disciples saying:

“Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics"

Well, that didn't seem to make too much human sense either. In fact sending people on a mission with no food, luggage, money, or extra clothes seemed downright stupid. But there was Jesus, the one I'm supposed to follow, doing just that.

A girlfriend encouraged me, "I think it would be a problem if your life made sense to the world." 

Bam. Unbelief exposed, faith renewed.

And God provided the money. All of it; without us having to touch our adoption savings. And then he just keeps confirming this trip in small ways. Like the couple we hardly knew who felt they were supposed to give us the big wad of Ethiopian money they had had sitting in their home for a couple years. 

So in mid-July we're jumping on an airplane, sitting tight for 14 hours, and landing in Addis Ababa. The group we're going with will be coming alongside different existing ministries in the area. We truly have no idea what God has in store or how He's going to use this trip to direct our future. But I rest in the fact that I didn't have this trip on my to-do list, but the Lord had it in His plans for us. So if He took care of getting us there, I'm sure He'll take care of the rest.

(And by the way, we'd really, really love your prayers. Please pray for God to show His glory to us and through us.)

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Together Through Pain {chronic pain}

I am nothing short of thrilled to start this series called "Together Through Pain".  I've read many articles written by people who have encounter major trials, but not so many on how to be a good friend to them in the midst of it all. You can read more about the premises for this set of posts HERE. My prayer is that you and I learning from the difficult experiences of these eloquent, godly women will be nothing short of powerful. 

We'll start this series hearing from Molly Mullery who has dealt with a chronic pain almost her entire life. She graduated from George Mason University with an English degree that concentrated on Creative Writing. Molly is currently a freelance writer and working on a series of young adult novels. She resides in Northern Virginia with her husband Colin and their pooch River. You can enjoy more of Molly's gift of writing on her personal blog HERE.

How To When Your Friend Can't
When I consider writing about chronic illness, I can come up with many different places to start. I could start with my own story, a sort of list of credentials I have to even write this in the first place. Then, I think maybe I ought to write a list of the do's and don't's of caring for the chronically ill, or maybe I should stuff the whole thing and just write a poem. But, when I finally sat down to write, all I could think about were days.

Today, it rained. I felt like curling under a blanket with a cup of tea and a book. I'm sure a lot of you feel the same way on rainy days. Those blankets and mugs  get even more enticing when you've got a cold, don't they? Your nose is stuffy, your head feels the size of Texas, your joints ache, and you just want to take a sick day. 

For those of us with chronic pain, every morning feels like a rainy one, our heads never seem to shrink down to normal head-sized heads, our noses run like faucets, and our joints never stop that awful throbbing. Replace those symptoms with those of arthritis, or fibromyalgia, or crohns disease and you get a picture of what chronic illness is like. That sick day, when you call your boss and say, "Sorry, I can't come in today", that's our everyday. 

It's monotonous. It's exhausting. Despite our best efforts it can determine our decisions, our activities, even dictate our interests to a certain extent. It can seem virtually impossible to avoid letting our health issues shape our identities. Other people inadvertently make it worse. When your defining characteristic is a chronic illness, people ask you about your knees, your head, or your stomach before they ask you about anything else. It can feel all-consuming.

So here you are, reader, friend to a person with chronic illness. You don't want to reinforce the life-consuming nature of health issues, but you also want to be a supportive friend. This is a difficult balance to achieve, and it looks different in each relationship. Each person and his pain need a different sort of support and a different face of love, yet there are a few guidelines that stretch nearly across the board.

1. Beware of pat answers. Many sick people have heard verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28 so many times they can see them coming up in a conversation a mile out. Ask questions. Find out what truths are helpful to your friend and which ones are salt in the wounds. This will be different for each person, so be sensitive to that.

2. Don't fixate on the problem. Ask your friend about work, about movies, about colors, about music. Focus on interests, dreams, and goals. Treat them as you would any healthy person, while leaving the door open for them to bring up their trials. 

3. Reach out. Sometimes it's all a chronically ill person can do to get up in the morning, let alone set up time for fellowship with friends. Be the one who goes to her house, the one who picks up Starbucks. Wash dishes if you see them in her sink, casually de-clutter his living room between rounds of video games, offer to swing by the store on your way over. Small gestures like these, given without fanfare, show your friend love without drawing attention to his weakness.

4. Remember your shared identity. You are not a "healthy person" reaching out to a poor "sick person." You are a brother in Christ, caring for a fellow Christian who would do the same for you were the tables turned. Focus on what makes you equal as children of God, not what makes you different in this temporary world. Pursue fellowship, find ways that your friend can return care to you through prayer or Bible study. Enjoy life in community together.

Chronic illness is isolating, life-defining, mind-consuming. It is exhausting, embittering, depressing. We fight every day to live well and fully in light of the Gospel, just like you do. Help us by not focusing on the difference, but rather rejoicing in our shared heritage in Christ.