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a series about hospitality.

I thought I’d write a series of posts on hospitality, because it’s something that gets me really excited these days.

Hospitality is not a gift I was born with. I’m an introvert. [I joke with my friends that I have a two-hour social limit. I love, love being with people for two hours, and then about one minute afterward it becomes a chore. The bigger the group of people, the more mountainous the chore]. I can be a perfectionist and also insecure. I like to protect my space and my alone time. I like quiet evenings buried in a book. I hate playing games.

None of these are characteristics that make for a good host.

But I’m writing is to tell you that people can change!

Hospitality isn’t a gift I was given; it’s a skill I learned, something I grew into over a long period of time. I’m still growing. But I’m happy to tell you that learning to be generous with my home and my food and my time has literally changed my life. And even though I’m still an introvert, I now love having folks over regularly.

Are you ready for the great secret of how I learned this skill?

I did it.

We invited people into our home. Over and over and over. Way before we knew what we were doing. Way before I wanted to. And certainly way before I delved into the exhilarating worlds of cooking and home design. So that goes to show: you do not need fancy meals or a nice home or even a clean home to be a good host.

Did you hear me? If there’s one thing you take away from this series, let that be it.

Here’s how I started out:

When David and I got married in 2004 I had a year left of college, so we moved into a 1980′s single-wide trailer in the CIU Village painted the exact shade of periwinkle blue as my bridesmaid dresses.

It was an interesting experience, one which involved floors that developed sudden and inexplicable sinkholes, and a master bedroom wall randomly covered with black ants one night (and I mean covered). Every time we left the trailer and then returned, I spent the 10-mile-an-hour drive down Second Street praying that our home would still be standing when we reached it.

[Side note: We recently heard the CIU VIllage is going to be disbanded (dismembered?), so this summer we drove Judah and Amelie by to see our first home. I'm happy to report that 10 years later that trailer has not fallen over, and also that it's still periwinkle blue. We parked so that David and I could pose for one last photo. While Judah was snapping a picture with the phone, he looked puzzled and asked, "Wait -- are you guys taller than that house?"]

Anyway, what better place to start practicing hospitality than a single-wide?

I was feeling very insecure and aren’t-we-supposed-to-spend-our-first-year-focusing-on-marriage?-ish, but David was insistent that we start having people over and soon. So we dove right in.

Once we crammed a group of my brother’s college friends around card tables in our living room for spaghetti and games (yup, I played games), and that’s how I had my first conversation with my future sister-in-law, way before they started dating.

Soon after, David started meeting with John, a brand-new CIU transfer student who was a new Christian, and he began coming to our church and hanging out at our trailer. Today they’re pastors together at Columbia Pres.

We started a prayer group at our trailer with John and our friend Josh for the college students at our church, reading and praying through a D.A. Carson book on prayer, and unknowingly learning what it looks like to build community within a church.

And that first year, in our single-wide, is where we began to develop a love for mercy ministry. More about that soon.

After the trailer, we moved way up in the world to a 900-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Lexington, and let me tell you: it was a palace. I loved my clean kitchen and walk-in bedroom closet. I loved the 9-foot ceilings and big sunny windows. I loved our tiny matchbox porch. It was a dream.

We moved there because David took a job as youth intern in our church, so of course we started having people over right away. And the rest you may say is history. I see now a way we were able to build genuine friendships and put down some roots even while moving throughout our marriage is because of hospitality — so many folks reaching out and inviting us into their homes and us disciplining ourselves to do the same. Even during seminary. Even during the infant years. Even when we were brand-new to a foreign country.

And it’s been very, very worth it. By pushing myself to do something I wouldn’t normally choose, I’ve come to enjoy it. Over the years, in every place we lived, David and I have identified people who do hospitality well and asked what we can learn from them. That part has been so fun.

I think one reason many American Christians feel isolated in their churches is because so many churches have traded in a priority of building relationships through hospitality for impersonal programs held in a building.

I’m not saying programs are bad, I just don’t think they reach down very deep. They can’t really get at the heart of who you are — which is how you act in your own home around your own family. An “outreach” is a good thing if it provides a hot meal to a hungry person. But how much more powerful would it be to invite that person over to your house for dinner?

I’m passionate about hospitality because I believe it’s a consistent theme throughout the whole Bible, and God knows how vital it is to our personal and spiritual growth — and how much it blesses a hurting, isolated world. I’m also passionate because of how it’s changed me and brought so much community, depth, and joy into my life.

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losing our pines.

Two weeks ago we had 8 pine trees removed from our backyard. David’s dad was in town for the Great Tree Chopping Adventure and got to experience some of the crazy. Our concrete patio is cracked, our raised beds decimated, but our roof and play house fully intact. Also no one was injured. Whew. Our yard still looks like the victim of a natural disaster, but it’s coming along, folks!

Good-bye endless layers of pine needles and pine cones! Hello blistering South Carolina sun!

Before:

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During:

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Can you understand why I was feeling a little stressed? (you have to look closely):

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After:

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I’m so bummed I never got a photo of the infamous stump grinder (it’s a tool, not a person). David rented it from Lowe’s on Friday and spent 9 hours out in the 101 degree heat grinding stumps and saved hundreds of dollars by doing it himself. Yesterday we shoveled wood shavings (which of course we’ll use for new garden beds), and filled in holes.

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David spent this year beating back dozens of bushes and small trees from the sides of our yard, and yes, he has poison ivy again. Now we’re starting to define new beds and I’m actually getting interested in yard work (if only it didn’t involve dirt and sweat…). We’re hoping a nice flowery Crepe Myrtle will thrive right here, where we can see it from our kitchen window.

Here’s the before shot again:

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And after:

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new school year.

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Monday was our first day of Classical Conversations (CC) co-op. It was such a wonderful morning: I was reminded why we chose to participate again this year. Judah is in the first grade class and Amie in the 4K/Kindergarten class and both love their teachers (who are called tutors).

In fact, they loved school so much that on Tuesday and Wednesday they asked, “Why can’t we do CC every day instead of home school?”

It’s a question I myself wrestled with all week as the three of us struggled to find our rhythm at home. It’s been way too long since we’ve had a regular routine and we all chafed against it. It felt like pulling teeth (even for myself) to sit down and get anything much done — even with new school books we’re excited about.

I feel completely out of my element now trying to home school two children instead of just Judah. How do I give them both one-on-one attention without one getting bored? Is it okay to let one of them run off and play? If so, how do I reign them back in? How do I review our CC material without Amie feeling dumb and bursting into tears because she doesn’t know the answers Judah does?

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Why don’t they go to school? Is the question that dogged me all week. This is hard and what if it’s not the best for my kids?

I’m sharing this with you to let you know what it’s like for a homeschooling mom. We aren’t super mom. We don’t have it all together. We don’t always love homeschooling. We get lonely when we drive by the school drop-off line and know other moms have the freedom to run grab a cup of coffee and a few minutes of alone time or have adult conversation where they work. We worry we’re doing our kids a disservice by keeping them home. We worry that people are judging us.

Friends say they’re intimidated by homeschooling moms, and I’m here begging you not to be.

We are so ordinary. We know homeschooling is not for everyone, and we don’t expect you to want to do it. We just want you to follow your heart — which is the same thing we’re trying to do. You alone know what’s best for your kids and your family, and so we want you to be free to pursue that and understand that there is no perfect mom out there.

I say we all just agree to halt the conversation about which school choice is best and instead start being a safe place for one another. I want to be a listener not a defender. Life is hard enough as it is without the comparison game. Besides, wouldn’t life be terribly boring if we were all clones? Ugh.

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Anyway. I digress.

So I wrestled and I realized anew that there are wonderful benefits of the schools available to us, and there are also challenges. Because, like homeschooling, no education option is perfect. None of them guarantees that our children will turn out happy and strong and pain-free and wise.

Deep down, I know we are supposed to home school Judah and Amie this year. I can’t explain it, I just know. It’s what’s best for them. It’s what’s best for our family. It’s not always easy, but there is peace and joy there. Even this week there were moments of joy as Judah said, “Mom! I figured out I want to be a scientist!”, as we read books about muscle tissues in the human body and Columbus’ voyages, as we started Judah’s year-long astronomy study, and as I listened to Amie sound out letters.

The kids are learning and being stretched and we have a terrific community of friends (several of whom I emailed in desperation this week and who all empathized). Next year, we’ll reevaluate our decision to home school. For now, I will accept that I’m not perfect and it’s not perfect. I will choose gratitude for the gift of my kids and for the moments we spend together. I will let go and trust God. I will choose joy.

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two-week dinner plan (warm weather).

Many of you have been asking for help with dinner ideas. It seems “What’s for dinner?” is the dreaded question we all share. Because I love you all, here’s a two-week rotating meal plan.

My family doesn’t mind eating the same dinner twice a month; I don’t think yours will either. Also, preparing five full meals each week is a bit ambitious, I know. Typically I plan and shop for four, which gives us two nights of leftovers and one for eating out/take-out. Click on the title for a link to recipe.

Please don’t let my added notes overwhelm you: just think of them as a boost if you need it. The best thing about meal plans is that you can list and shop for them at the beginning of the week, but then you’re free to switch dinners around night-by-night depending on how much time you’ve got or what you’re in the mood for. Virtually all these meals take under an hour to prepare. A glass of wine or an ice-cold La Croix turns dinner-prep into an event, even if you have little people running around.

One final thought: the most important lesson I’ve learned as a cook is to be free to make substitutions. I am a serious rule-follower, but living overseas forced me to learn a different way of relating to recipes. Ingredients my recipes called were regularly unavailable. This was so good for me, and has given me freedom not to panic when I’m missing a spice or herb. I nearly always reduce the amount of meat called for in a recipe and increase the veggies (the exception is burgers and steak!). It may taste a little different, but that’s the fun of cooking as opposed to baking: freedom. Please let me know if you have any questions! You know I love talking food. Happy cooking!

Week 1

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Day 1. Basil chicken curry and rice (I rotate with Cauliflower Chickpea Curry for a vegetarian version)
Chicken thighs are less expensive. Find Garam Masala in Whole Foods or an Indian supermarket and replace all of the spices listed with a good-sized tablespoon of it. I add 1 tsp. turmeric too. Or you can just use curry powder! I often cook, scramble eggs, and saute with ghee but you can use butter or oil. Throw in your family’s favorite veggies, we switch up them up often. I always make basmati rice and add a spoonful of ghee to make it silky.

Day 2. “Taco Tuesday”: Ground beef and black bean tacos, or black bean and corn burritos (I just wing it with a burrito recipe but I included a link for you if you want)
Have you seen The Lego Movie? If so, you understand the need for Taco Tuesday in our household. I use 1/2 lb. of ground beef and fill it out with black beans and mix in homemade taco seasoning.  Add sauteed onions and bell peppers, chopped tomatoes, cheese and sour cream if you want. Sometimes we’re craving a can of El Paso Traditional Refried beans topped with cheese (don’t read the ingredients). Yum.

Day 3. Quinoa veggie “fried rice” or Quinoa Bowl topped with an egg fried over-medium
The quinoa fried rice is awesome; I follow the recipe to the letter. Quinoa bowls are a great way to use up leftover veggies in the fridge, or our personal favorite toppings are carmelized onions, roasted broccoli (sometimes my garlic burns, so I sub garlic powder), and sauteed spinach, topped with freshly grated parmesan, salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon and drizzled with olive oil.

Note: if you’re intimidated by quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”), don’t be! It’s as easy as rice to cook and I love it so much more. I miss couscous from my gluten days, but this is a great substitute. I learned from Gwyneth Paltrow (as if we’re buddies, right?) to reduce the amount of water the recipe on the bag calls for, and after cooking, top saucepan with a paper towel and then the lid for 5 minutes to absorb steam and make the quinoa nice and fluffy.

Day 4. Chicken tenders on a lettuce salad
 I serve it deconstructed for the kids with the honey mustard dipping sauce and veggies on the side. You may remember from this post that in leiu of salad dressing, David and I now exclusively top our salads with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (we love the Tunisian olive oil from Trader Joe’s), lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Day 5. Grill: Burgers, corn on the cob, caprese salad (sub whatever veggie is in season), or sometimes we do steak and Pioneer Woman crash hot potatoes with roasted broccoli instead.

Week 2

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Day 1. Slow cooker roast chicken with roasted carrots, potatoes (or sweet potatoes), make broth with the bones afterwards

Day 2. Middle Eastern turkey burgers
This is a whole-family favorite and one of the reasons I love Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest cookbook, It’s All Good. I choose either ground turkey, lamb, or beef, depending on what’s on sale, and we make them indoors on our grill pan. Serve with side salad and her yogurt cucumber dipping sauce. We like these burgers bun-less — however, adding buns and topping with cucumber slices and yogurt sauce would be dreamy.

Day 3. Breakfast for dinner:
Option 1: Egg casserole and chocolate chip muffins
Option 2: Pancakes and bacon
Option 3: banana bread and scrambled eggs
Option 4: Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches on English muffins
The point is: there are tons of options! Sub GF versions if needed.

Day 4. Greek Quinoa Salad topped with sliced Grilled chicken
No need for sides: it’s a full meal!

Day 5. Bruschetta
A favorite, simple summer time meal. We pick up a crusty baguette or loaf of ciabatta from the supermarket, slice and put it under the broiler with olive oil and rubbed with garlic. Add a thick slab of mozzarella (the kind that you buy in a ball), and topped with chopped tomatoes mixed with salt and pepper, olive oil, and sliced fresh basil. This is one of the meals I most miss being gluten-free. GF bread just doesn’t have quite the same effect.

summer 2014.

These photos sum up the rhythm of our summer. Most afternoons have found us swimming and hanging out around Kenny and Shari’s pool. We head over around 3:30, after afternoon rest time, and usually stay ’til 5. (their house is a 7-minute drive from ours) An assortment of other friends come and go. David and Kenny join us when they can. It’s been absolutely perfect.

Judah and Amelie have become such strong swimmers this summer; Owen is swimming and diving; and even Oliver is swimming on his own without floaties now. We’re in a couple month stretch where these four are stair-step ages: 6, 5, 4, and 3. We’re so proud of our hard-working kids and the way they’ve pushed themselves this summer. A little positive peer pressure certainly hasn’t hurt.

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master bedroom progress.

A part of me doesn’t want to show you our master bedroom yet, because there’s so much more to do. I want it to look perfect first. But let’s face it: which of us has a room in our home that looks perfect? Right now I’m in the mode of learning to appreciate not-perfect.

Also at this very moment, our back yard looks like this:

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Both David and I are tense from hearing 100-foot pines felled just feet from our house all day long (in case you were wondering, the garden beds were crushed by lunch time), and I personally have been terrified someone would tumble to their death in our back yard. But we’re excited about finally getting trees removed and I’ll post photos when it’s all done. In the meantime, let’s look at something more soothing, shall we?

Like our new bedroom:

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And the reason I wanted to share it with you now is because even with lots of details to add it already makes us so very happy. The gold chair was given to us by our friends Lucas and Carrie and we fight over who gets to sit there with a cup of coffee and Bible early in the morning.

If you’re wondering about the string lights, David will tell you I have an obsession with string lights. I daydream of putting them in every room of the house and outside as well: they’re quirky and casual and homey. I like that you can see this little reading nook from our living room, and I think the gold chair and lights make it so welcoming.

We haven’t decided what to hang over our dresser, but it should be something colorful.

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Our house was listed as a two-bedroom because this additional room (maybe originally a porch?) doesn’t have a closet. So we’ve always know we’d add a wardrobe if it became a bedroom. We got these units from Ikea last month and they provide the perfect amount of storage, especially with the baskets. We wanted to go with something very neutral because eventually we plan to add a master suite onto our house and this room will become a kids’ room.

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The photos don’t do it justice, but even with darker walls, our new room feels so bright with its three windows. I discovered this shade of gray at our friend Weston’s house and we absolutely love it.

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We’ll eventually trim the edge of the brick wall and like I said, add a baseboard, but even now it feels so much more crisp and clean with white paint. One day I’ll re-paint the crown molding and window trim to match the wall color. Sigh. Baby steps.

I’ve wanted to get a duvet for our bed for years, and we finally did it. This one is from Ikea. Bed, side tables, lamps, basket, and rug are from India. For all the hassle it was, I’ll forever be grateful that we shipped our South Asia furniture back. It makes my heart happy to have it here in our Columbia home.

Full disclosure: here’s a shot of behind our bedroom door:

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We’ve talked about what to do with that external door (which is sealed shut) but haven’t come to any conclusions). And David is going to drill a hole in the back of my wardrobe to run the electric cables through to tuck them away. I’m using the two shelves in my wardrobe for office supplies and paperwork.

We’ve had a desk of some sort our whole married life, and I finally came to the conclusion this summer that we never, ever use it. I always bring my stack of papers and bills to the dining table and blog posts are written on the sofa (right now) or at a coffee shop and the desk just ends up gathering clutter. So this little corner of the bedroom is now our home office.

Here are a couple before shots of the room:

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And now . . .

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This is the first time we’ve actually invested in making our bedroom look inviting. We love it!

coming home.

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It’s a strange feeling, coming home. Our vacation was so magical and restful that we didn’t want to leave, but our plane landed at the Charlotte airport on Wednesday morning after less than three hours of sleep, and real life hit like the blinding South Carolina sun on the tarmac.

We took a bumpy shuttle bus to our car in long-term parking lot 4 and drove the hour-and-a-half to Columbia, and then David had a sermon to write and I found myself in a dirty house because I was sick when we left and we were all four in a fog of jet lag and sleep-deprivation.

I felt rested and happy all week long but then throughout the day on Wednesday as I unpacked and cleaned up and scrawled a grocery list my chest began to tighten and the walls closed in around me. I thought, I can’t do this. It’s too much. I felt like I was suffocating.

Life is busy and we managed to suspend time for eight beautiful days and then it hit with all its force and took my breath away.

By Wednesday night David and I were in a full-scale argument that involved tears on my part and exasperation on his part. The worst thing is that its an old argument, one we have all the time, and so even going through the motions felt cliche and boring. But I could hardly see that in the moment; all I saw were my hurt and anger and feelings of being sorely misunderstood. And I know he felt the exact same way.

The thoughts swirled inside: He’s so hardened toward me. He doesn’t even see me. And as soon as they were formed in my mind it was like a light switched on and God said, “No. You’re the hardened one. You’re sitting here fighting and fighting. Why don’t you stop and listen?”

So I stopped crying and I listened. And I knew it was my fault, the whole thing. It’s the same old argument because I’m choosing to have it. I’m choosing the fight.

We listened to each other and said we were sorry and we both really were. It was my fault and it was his fault. We had a sweet evening after all and fell into bed, bone-tired, at 8:30 pm.

And when I woke up on Thursday morning I pulled out an unused Moleskine notebook and sat with a cup of coffee and wrote the header, “Things I learned about myself from our argument last night.” Have you ever done that before? I sure haven’t. I’m usually too busy rehearsing my part of the argument, making sure it was drum-tight, making sure I got my point across.

I wrote a list of 21 things in that notebook, about me and also about us. Oh, it hurt my pride to do it, but once I started the words just kept coming.

Yes, life is hard. It’s busy. It involves some sacrifices. But it’s also good. Am I mostly choosing to see the hard or am I seeing the good?

Sitting there curled up by the window, I got this picture of the way I can be, the way I say to David and to myself, I know, I know, be patient. God is changing me.

And suddenly I’m realizing, that’s kind of a load of crap.

At the end of the day, am I going to fight for my marriage, or am I going to fight it? Am I going to listen to my husband, or listen to myself talk? Am I going to stand by him, to choose to believe the best of him when he makes decisions, or am I going to attack him? Am I going to come home from a beautiful vacation and get sucked into the whirlwind of stress, or am I going to be grateful for our new memories and take charge of my own well-being? Am I going to be grouchy about a dirty house or am I going to be thrilled that we have our own house after years of moving around?

I wrote out the top three things I’m most stressed about right now, and even as I identified them very specifically, their power over me lessened. They aren’t going away, but suddenly I could put them in their rightful place again, instead of letting them take over my head and grow larger than life.

And then, after all that writing and aching fingers because I never hand-write anything anymore, I opened my Bible to Psalm 94 and read, “Blessed is the man whom You discipline, O Lord.” I knew in that moment: That man is me. I am wrong and I need to change. And I’m blessed because God is showing me that right now. He’s opening my eyes, and He’s saying, “This is the path. Now walk in it. Be free from yourself.”

You know what I love about David? He doesn’t settle. He doesn’t back down to me. Always, always in our marriage he has pushed me. He’s challenged me. He’s asked the hard questions. It’s been the cause of many of our arguments and sometimes my resentment, but now I’m seeing more and more that this is a gift. I can appear very compliant on the outside but God only knows how stubborn and hard my heart is, how resistant I am to change.

And he brought me David. Who loves me exactly for who I am. But who also loves me enough to push me. He’s not content with a lifetime of the same old script, of us just gritting our teeth and enduring the frustrating parts of our marriage, of a fatalism that says, “I am who I am.”

No, he has way more hope and faith in God than that. He leads the way in our marriage by being humble and willing to change, and he knows the only way I’ll find freedom is being humble and willing to change too.

So on Wednesday night when all I wanted was for him to feel sorry for me, he said, “No Julie. I love you and I want more for you. I want more for us.” He was sorry but he wouldn’t pity me.

And his courage to stand strong is what opened my eyes.

I love him because he sees the woman I can become. And he won’t give up.

I’m learning that’s the way God loves me. He accepts me right here and right now. Jesus has paid for all my sins. But He has way too much hope and excitement and joy about the Julie he created to let me dig my heels in and refuse to change. He wants to give me everything.

You know what else I love about my husband? He knows me better than anyone else. And so he gave up his Saturday afternoon — the short two hours sandwiched between work and helping friends move that he had to relax — to help me work on our new master bedroom. He hung curtains. We organized. It’s starting to look cozy and inviting and restful.

Because David knows that when my life feels out of control, making a home brings me back to myself. It lets peace burrow a little deeper into my heart and keeps the walls from closing in and gives me space to breathe again. He could do anything with this knowledge — he could roll his eyes or tell me I’m shallow or simply just not acknowledge it. But instead he serves me in this very personal way. It may sound silly to someone else, but it means the world to me.

And that also shows me God’s love.

It’s Sunday afternoon and my heart feels lighter than it’s felt all week. I’m happy to be home.