my well-being.

Last time this summer our lives were crazy. David was working around-the-clock to raise funds and prepare for the church plant launch in September. The Sound Panel Project of 2013 was beginning. And oh yeah, and we were buying a house (what!?! we moved during last summer? who thought that was a good idea!?).

I know the church hasn’t even been meeting a full year — September 8th is when we began worship services — but in my mind summer, 2013 is really when it started. Though we’d been meeting as a core group all spring, summer is when our lives started careening full-force ahead toward this thing that was about to be birthed. Summer is when it got real.

I’m thinking back on the person I was this time last year and what I’ve learned from it all.

The most important lesson I’ve learned this year is that I am in charge of my own well-being.

Sounds kinda obvious, right?

Well, to me it wasn’t. I wrestled a whole lot last summer and fall with learning my place in a church plant, with expectations (mine and others’), with settling back into my hometown, with exhaustion, with trying to hang out with too many friends, with being married to a husband who is, shall we say, high energy.

My PCA mentor would tell me I was struggling with boundaries. And she was exactly right. So this year I’ve had to be a learner. I’ve had to sit through phone conversations and listen to the truth she speaks boldly into my life. I’ve had to talk with David and to ask for accountability.

I’ve had to learn that I and I alone am responsible for my well being.

Can I just tell you what a life changing lesson this is?

I’ve always struggled with being a victim. Feeling perpetually stressed, feeling like I never get enough rest. Feeling like I can’t possibly do everything. Feeling like David is pulling me along on this wild ride and I’m just hanging on for dear life.

I’ve blogged about this before. Because I didn’t have boundaries, I’d push myself to the limit, have too-high expectations of family vacations and afternoons out, and be eternally disappointed (and pretty miserable for my family to be around).

David said one day, “It’s so hard when I rearrange my schedule to give you an afternoon out alone, but you come back and you’re not rested.” That was hard to hear. But he was right.

The biggest revelation of this year is: That is my fault. Not David’s fault. Not the church plant’s fault. Not my kids’ fault.

I’m responsible for my own well-being. I’m not a victim to anyone.

This has been fleshed out in so many areas of my life. And the more I practice taking responsibility for my well-being, the happier I become.

A couple people have walked with me all year and helped me make my life simple and small. By that, I just mean, they’ve challenged me to realize I can’t do it all nor should I, and to thoughtfully decide what my priorities are in this season — what are the few things I want to focus on, and how do I let everything else go? And I mean everything. else.

Yes, it’s been a struggle. Did you know I really care about my image? Did you know I super-care about not disappointing people? Did you know I want to be a great friend and an awesome pastor’s wife? Did you know I want to be capable and successful?

When I write it out like that I see how much that paragraph was driving my daily choices rather than my passions and priorities. Living your life so that you look capable and try to disappoint as few people as possible is pretty exhausting.

Reading the book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being has totally changed my perspective of ministry. Zack Eswine points out that not only are we not created to “do it all” but we’re actually sinning when we try to. We’re becoming “god-like.” We’re building our own reputation and kingdom rather than humbly accepting our limits, accepting that we’re a very small part of a larger story.

One of my goals for the relationships in my life — and especially at Columbia Pres — is that people would see that God is their Shepherd, not me. I’m learning that if that’s my heart’s desire, I simply can’t meet every need. I have to have boundaries. I have to say “no” sometimes. I have to not pursue sometimes. I have to not carry out every great idea I have.

Otherwise I’m teaching the exact opposite of what I want. Otherwise people begin to admire me and depend on me. They aren’t pushed to see Jesus as their Shepherd and the way He uses many different means to provide for them, even when I can’t. I have to be at peace with that instead of endlessly apologizing and making excuses.

I’m learning to pause and consider before I say “yes” to something or plan something. Saying “yes” to one thing always means I’m saying “no” to something else. Am I willing to do that? What are my priorities?

Learning to take responsibility for my own well-being has helped my marriage tremendously. Suddenly I’m not blaming David and my kids or other circumstances when I’m stressed and tired. I’m stopping, evaluating my pace, asking, “What needs to change and how do I change it?”

I’ve learned this year that David and I have different capacities for work: and the most surprising thing is discovering that if I have boundaries in my own life, his busyness really doesn’t stress me out. And he in turn is learning to set boundaries for himself so that he’s rested and energized when we’re together. We aren’t depending on each other for well-being.

One practical way this works is I’ve learned to communicate better when I’m frustrated: instead of venting and crying, I tell David what’s wrong and what I need. Example: “I really need a break from the kids right now, when you get home from work can you take them out to Chick-Fil-A so I can have a couple hours to myself?” It feels so presumptuous, but 10 times out of 10 he’s thrilled to be able to help me. Sometimes he can’t fulfill the exact request, but he’s quick to offer an alternative.

And sometimes taking a break from my kids is just what I need in order to love them better. Taking time to pursue my own personal hobbies and have time alone is just what I need in order to love my church better. Taking a night out for yogurt with a girl friend is just what I need in order to be refreshed and love my husband better.

The flip side is that if I really love the people close to me, I set boundaries in order to make them a priority. How is it loving David, Judah, and Amelie for me to be stretched to the limit doing ministry and pleasing everyone around me, and then cranky or checked out when I’m home with them? How is it loving if my mood rises or falls on whether I’ve disappointed someone?

I’m still very much in this process. I mess up. I have to repent and receive grace and evaluate my next week. But it’s a process I’m committed to because I’ve seen so much fruit already — in my own sanity and enjoyment of life, and in my relationships.

I’m sure people are disappointed with me sometimes, but what’s most surprising is when someone stops and thank me for having a boundary, saying that they noticed and that it makes them feel free to set boundaries too.

It’s an irony that makes me laugh that my legacy to our church could be, “Julie doesn’t do it all or do it all well, and she’s okay with that, so the pressure’s off me too.” Who wants that legacy?

Actually, I do. I want our people to be free. I want them to be okay with being small — with loving simply and well and being grateful for the life God’s given them. And if God makes me small and average so they see that, well then I’m happy.

 

P.S. Later this week I’ll blog more practically about how PowerSheets are helping me with the process of priorities and boundaries.



the blog isn’t real life.

I’ve been scrolling back through our blog, grinning at glossy photos of my kids enjoying spring and our evolving backyard and peaceful family moments from Easter. And with my head full of all of these memories, I want to take the time to tell you something which you may forget: the blog isn’t real life.

Nope, this blog is edited life — just a small snapshot of the living, breathing, messy thing that is the Gentino family.

It may seem self-evident, but dig a bit deeper with me: most of us need to be reminded of this fact from time to time.

Lately I can tell I’m getting older because I’m ceasing to think other people’s lives are perfect. Let me tell you: I’ve been enough places, I’ve heard enough stories to know deep down: No one has it all together. Did you hear that? No one.

Not the stay-at-home mom you eye up at the park who wears flowing printed tops and bohemian accessories, whose child looks like a magazine cover. Not the missionary serving Jesus by raising a family and loving the poor in a loud, colorful, exotic country. Not the successful friend who seems to travel every month and is always throwing parties. Not the made-for-each-other couple whose marriage clearly must be more creative and easy and sexy than yours.

Nope. No one has it all together. I’ve talked to all those people and they certainly don’t feel like their life is perfectly together, no matter what they post on Facebook. They are just like you: with imperfect, sometimes painful lives, trying to celebrate moments of beauty and fun.

But that’s just the thing about the Internet. Most of what we see about other people is the beauty-and-fun snapshots. Or the rants-and-complaints snapshots. Both caricatures flood our newsfeeds day after day and leave us feeling exhausted and disillusioned after awhile. And neither are real life. You and I are more — so much more — than our selfies and our date nights and our political opinions.

I’m not saying that you should do away with the Internet. I’m saying, just keep the Internet in its proper place. Remember that it is never real life.

My desire for this blog is for it to be an honest space. As much as possible, I want to share our family’s everyday life and story with you — whether you’re a family member living in another state or a financial supporter or a friend who has begun to follow us along the way. I want to write about the highs and the lows, my wrestlings and my victories. I want to show you that life is hard and I’m a sinner and there is so, so much hope in Jesus.

I struggle to do all of this well — for lack of time, for lack of ability, and because by very nature of a blog, I most often feature things I’m good at or things I’ve learned how to do. You see the still-life photos of healthy, fresh-made food but not the frozen pizzas or the stack of homeschooling books yet to be opened at 3 pm or the tears over the hurtful words I barked at my child.

The other reason the blog isn’t real life is because this is a public space and there are things that aren’t shared in a public space. Think about your life: I’d wager that many of the experiences that most shape you — the private trials, the conversations, the secrets kept out of respect for another, the betrayals and the deep, intimate expressions of love — are probably things most people don’t know.

I’m all for transparency. I want everyone around me — including you, dear reader — to know I’m a very normal person with sins and limitations and struggles. I want to shout my story from the rooftops because God is making all things new in my tired, performance-driven mess of a life.

But many times it seems that the window into my real life and into some of the ways God shapes me the deepest overlaps with someone else’s story. This isn’t the space for that and true friends are those you trust to protect your story, who guard it like the treasure that it is, whether in conversation with others or online. In that way I’m glad blogs aren’t real life and hope they never become so.

The Internet is limited and that’s okay. Let’s use it to open up windows into our story and to tell of God’s goodness, but let’s not ever let it take the place of a good heart-to-heart on the phone or sitting and crying together in Life group or rejoicing over a cup of tea.

I want to keep working at this thing, this blog. I love it and I’m so grateful to you for stopping in, for using this opened window to read and rejoice and grieve with us, to send encouraging emails and texts, to ask me to write more. I’ll work on being real in this space and not just post endless polished photos and clutter-free anecdotes.

And so I ask one thing of you: will you remember that the blog isn’t real life?

Will you do that?

Will you trust that I’m a normal person, that my family is a normal family? God has created the members of the Gentino family special and unique, He has given us some gifts that we’re learning to embrace and use. He’s also allowed some weaknesses and challenges in all of us that we need help with. Lots and lots of help.

Few things have been more freeing for me as I grow older than to look at the people around me — on the Internet and in life — and believe — really believe — that they are real, just like me.

We’re each of us created by God, living, breathing, terribly messy and beautiful masterpieces.

Isn’t that how you want other people to see you?

A sure way not to love someone is to reduce them to a one-dimensional Facebook photo, “She’s perfect. Their family is perfect. Their marriage is perfect. Their job (house, car, children, church) is perfect.”

I urge you to remove those phrases from your vocabulary and instead to follow the path of life: to embrace the mystery, to embrace the truth that the Internet isn’t real life, to refuse to judge and start actually trying to get to know people.

As I’ve begun to follow this path of life, to trust this truth, I’ve found my need to compare myself to other women or compare the Gentinos to other families, to judge and criticize and correct, fade away. I’ve learned to live in the gray area of knowing that people aren’t black or white, good or bad. I’ve ceased to even need to hear their whole story, to expose their “dirt” in order to believe it (although I’ve invited their stories because they are real, complex people), I’ve learned to listen more instead of casting a glance and cramming someone into a tiny box. I’ve become a better friend. I’ve even become just a better acquaintance.

And so I challenge you to do the same: spend time on the Internet. Use it for the wonderful tool that it is — to connect with your friends and family, to share your beautiful moments and some of your struggles, to give glory to your Maker. Or don’t use certain aspects of it, if the temptation to covet and caricature others is too great.

But in the end remember — every day if you must — that the blog isn’t real life. Real life is deeper and harder and way, way better than the Internet. And I’ll remember it too.



the resurrection and fear.

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I love Easter. If Christmas is the celebration of “God with us,” then Easter is the celebration of “God rescuing us.” Christmas is special, yes. The God of the Universe humbled Himself to become a man so we could know him.

But without Easter, Christmas doesn’t really mean anything. Without a Savior who loved us enough to pay for our sin and a King powerful enough to raise from the dead, then Christmas is just about a nice guy.

And so for Christians, Easter is the biggest celebration of the year. Sin and death are defeated. Our King is alive. It’s time for a party. David and I love finding new ways to party each year at Easter time. We give extravagant gifts. We make mint juleps. We laugh more and play more and tell other people why we’re so excited.

Celebrating is lots of fun, but here on Monday morning, the Resurrection is still real. It touches my real life and my real problems.

I’ve been struggling for the past couple of months with fear. I’m walking through hard things with some people I love, and there are a lot of unknowns and it’s brought out all kinds of fear in my heart. I’m afraid of how things will turn out — or not turn out. I’m afraid of the future, of things I’m facing now happening again. I’m afraid of stories without happy endings.

Add to that the fact that we’re hoping to adopt a baby, and that brings more fear. A new person will join our family. Our lives will change. Our children’s lives will change. I’m afraid of not being in control.

When I start down this road my anxiety gets ahold of the thing and fear can become almost paralyzing. I find myself unable to enjoy my present life because I’m terrified of the future. And the fear gets bigger and bigger, like a monster in the night and now I’m not just afraid of my life but of the monster too.

Here’s the point of all of this: the Resurrection has something to say about my fear. Actually it has everything to say about it.

As I was sitting in a sun-bathed chair by the window one morning reading Galatians 4, God jolted me out of my fear-based trance by reminding me: “Fear has no power in your life.”

Those words were like waking up from a dream. And I knew, He’s right.

I can’t run away from fear. As a fallen person in a broken world who loves other people, fear is going to touch my life. From time to time I will feel its icy fingers until the day I die and go be with Jesus. But those fingers will never lay ahold of me.

Fear was paid for on the cross when Jesus died. And fear was defeated forever when He rose again on Easter Sunday.

I’m not a servant, cowering in uncertainty, waiting for the axe to drop. I’m a beloved daughter. I have a strong Father who is also King of the whole world, and because of the Resurrection, He’s on my side. I already know how this story is going to end.

I’m free from the powerful monster of fear, right here and now. The monster is a tiny trembling bug next to my King. And one day I won’t even remember that fear ever existed.

Long after the party stops, that’s something worth celebrating.

 

 

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 

Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mt. Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mt. Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free and she is our mother.

– Galatians 4.22-28



the birthday gift.

Remember how I told you I gave myself the birthday gift of a new hobby this year? (which I’m enjoying immensely by the way).

Well I wanted to tell you about the other birthday gift I decided to give myself now that I’m 32 and securely “in my thirties.” A conversation I had with some girl friends this weekend reminded me of it and it’s this:

I’m giving myself permission to stop worrying about what people think of me.

You may be chuckling right now. You may be thinking, Oh that’s all!? Well good luck with that one!

I know, I know. But here’s the thing:

I’ve felt this gradual shift in the last couple years. And an even bigger shift in the last few months. The new thought process goes something like this: I’m getting older. My life is full — not “crazy busy,” just very full. And either my energy level is waning or maybe I’m just becoming more realistic about my limitations.

But whatever the reason, I do not have extra energy to worry about what people think of me.

Or maybe a better way to say it is, I’m losing the desire to spend the energy I have worrying what people think.

Does it sound like I got this from some empowering mom blog? Nope. I actually got it from Jesus.

David said something in a sermon a couple weeks ago that I can’t get out of my head: he said, “Have you ever noticed how little time and energy Jesus gave to worrying about people’s opinions of Him? He was constantly being misunderstood and criticized, and often by the kinds of people you and I most want to please: His church leaders, His family, His best friends.”

But Jesus didn’t let those opinions govern His decisions. He just moved on with the mission God gave Him, and there was such a peace and a settled-ness about Him (not that He didn’t get hurt or emotional or angry). He didn’t get rattled to His core by what people thought. That wasn’t ever His motivation.

I’m a born people-pleaser. I’m sensitive. I’m empathetic. I’m a rule-follower. I can feel the moods of people around me. That can be a strength because it makes me a compassionate person who feels joy and pain with people.

It can also be my prison and my idol.

I find so many excuses to elevate other people’s feelings and their opinion of me over God.

I think us people-pleasers are always going to be tempted by this idol. But do you know who I think is tempted by it even more? Those of us who are people-pleasers in ministry.

We love God and love people. We feel honored to be apart of God’s work in the world. But it’s subtly tempting to think ministry equals pleasing people. We’re supposed to be serving them, right? We’re supposed to deny ourselves and pour out our lives for others.

So we excuse the obsessive people-pleasing and obsessive guarding of our image/reputation. We encourage it even — in our own lives and in the lives of others in ministry. We don’t say no. We don’t set boundaries. We say, “Be careful not to offend.” We let our day rise or fall on a comment someone makes. We do what it takes to not let that family down. Or if we do let them down, we feel like failures. We think, God is using me as an example to others, and let that govern our decision-making.

Well guess what? That’s not the ministry God is calling anyone to and certainly not the ministry Jesus had. He’s been showing me a different way, slowly but surely, these last few years. And this year, my thirty-second year, is still brand new, and I want to learn it even more.

A new friend asked on Friday night what my desire is for Columbia Presbyterian Church. And I told her the passion I’ve known for many months now, that my desire — especially for the women — is for our church to be a safe place. I want a group of people with differences on everything from parenting to education to diet to politics to income to spiritual gifts to be able to gather together and feel accepted and encouraged. I want to be a safe place both for people in our church and for people outside of it.

I don’t want other women to be like me, I want them to be exactly who God created them to be. I want them to learn a little more of who they are created to be as a result of being at Columbia Pres.

I want them to feel, “Here’s a group of people who have my back. Even if they don’t understand every decision I make, I don’t worry about what they say when I’m not in the room. They let me be free to be me. They’re cheering me on and cheering on the work God’s doing in my life.”

And I’m realizing more and more that this vision for the ladies of Columbia Pres will ring hollow inasmuch as I’m consumed with worry about my own image.

I’m learning that it’s inspiring for people around me to watch God freeing me from this worry, just as I’ve grown by watching that process in others. It lets them breathe a sigh of relief and think, Maybe I don’t have to worry either. It lets them understand that they’ll say “no” to some things so they can say “yes” to others, that people won’t understand all of their family’s decisions, that they’ll disappoint people (even perhaps David and me) and we will disappoint them and that’s okay.

God will use this to grow us all up together in Him and to bring us more freedom to love and worship Him rather than idolize each other. It lets us begin extending grace to others around us, to offer them permission not to worry about what we think either.

So this is the year I let go of the the endless questions:

. . . Do people stereotype me as a homeschooling mom?
. . . Are they offended that my kids don’t say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir?’
. . . What if they find out I don’t buy organic milk?
. . . Are they shocked that I only pray five minutes a day?
. . . Did I totally disappoint them by saying no to their invitation?
. . . Did I totally disappoint them by getting off Facebook?
. . . Do they think I have too much fun and should be doing more ministry?
. . . Do they think I’m a bad friend?
. . . Do they think I’m a bad mom?
. . . What will they think of this blog post?

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Enough already.

I don’t want to spend the energy I have asking those questions. I want to spend it loving hard and enjoying life and getting to know Jesus better, thinking about Him and not so much about myself.

You may need to remind me of my birthday gift. Because these things don’t happen overnight. But I’ve tasted enough to have great hopes for the next 32 years.

Want to join me?



SAD, sickness, and being busy.

We’re in the middle of January, friends. Winter is in full swing, and I find myself feeling a surge of inordinate happiness when the sun appears. Speaking of which, have you heard of S.A.D.: Seasonal Affective Disorder? It’s silly saying this since I live in the south, but I’m beginning to think I have a touch of it.

I don’t know if it was the time we spent in tropical South Asia or if it’s me getting older, but last winter and this winter are just plain tough. I thought it was just a contentment issue. As in, I need to learn to be content with cold weather. But I notice such a difference in my moods and energy during these short, gray days. No matter how early I go to bed it feels nearly impossible to get up early in the mornings. And I’m just generally sluggish.

I’m sure it doesn’t help that last week the kids and I were sick. I realized at the end of the week that aside from a quick run, I didn’t leave my house from Monday evening until Friday evening. No wonder I’ve been feeling low. David would like me to let you know that I read a 1,000 page book during those four days. But it was Gone With The Wind . . . not exactly heavy reading (and if you can believe it I had absolutely no idea how it ended so I was dying to know how things worked out between Scarlett and Rhett).

I’ve always been prejudiced against Gone With The Wind for a number of reasons including the fact that I’ve doubted it can be called “classic literature.” But I have to report that I loved the book and am much more interested in our state’s history as a result.

Life felt like it was in a time warp last week, but it certainly sped right back up afterward. The days are flying by again (way faster than in December somehow) and it’s hard to catch up. I’ve got several blog posts brewing in my head but no time to write them. I’m trying my best to make school a priority which means emails and phone calls are not getting returned and our house is decidedly not clean.

But, one thing at a time. Sigh.

I spent most of last year arguing with people who remarked about how busy our family is. I’d respond, “No we’re not! Well, David is, but I’m not!!!” I took it as a personal failure to be labeled “busy.” But a friend said it again Monday night, and I caught myself mid-argument and said, “Yes. Yes, we are very busy right now.” I guess it feels good to be honest.

You’re probably thinking, “What did you expect with church-planting?” and you’re right. It’s just that I want so very badly to not be that person. I don’t want to be the one who’s busy, who doesn’t have time for friends and play dates and leisurely chats on the phone.

But even though that’s more or less true right now, my heart still swells with appreciation for our busyness. It’s a good busy. It’s a busy that’s filled with people. People we love, people that we’re getting to know, people that challenge and stretch and make our lives rich.

And so even with the winter blues, sickness, and busyness, the plain truth of the matter is this: I love my life. This is the sweetest season of perhaps our entire marriage. I feel settled. I feel loved. I feel healthy. I feel incredibly grateful.



new year’s resolutions.

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I’ve been learning some more about depression and anxiety lately, and a symptom that resonates with me is the tendency toward “extremes.” For example, when you do one thing wrong you immediately begin thinking, “I’m a failure, I always let everyone down” or if you have a conflict in a relationship concluding, “This relationship is terrible.”

Because of these extreme responses, depression-sufferers are prone to feeling easily overwhelmed and helpless because problems in ourselves or in life seem to big to surmount. An all-encompassing feeling of failure just isn’t possible to beat. It’s too vague and big and powerful. It makes us paralyzed and can make us difficult to confront (the loved ones in our lives are scared of making us feel worse about ourselves), and procrastinators when it comes to life situations.

When I began learning about these symptoms of depression it was like a light came on. I suddenly began to see my responses to life in a new light. I honestly never thought it was a symptom of something or that other people may struggle with the same thing, because I literally believed how I felt about myself was true.

This knowledge helps me be a little more objective in my extreme responses — to be able to separate myself enough to say, “I’m feeling like a failure right now even though I really just did this one thing wrong,” and to be more open to correction. It’s helping me begin to focus on the issue at hand instead of slipping under the tide of helplessness.

I’ve found that setting and reaching small goals has been very helpful in keeping the helpless feelings at bay. And so I want to apply all of this to New Year’s resolutions. I decided to pick several areas of my life where I’m prone to feeling like a failure (or at least feeling like I’m not doing enough) and choose very practical goals to work towards.

Please don’t be overwhelmed or impressed when you see my list (yep, there’s 10 goals). Please don’t feel like my goals need to be your goals. I’m just tired of never setting any goals for myself because I don’t want to feel like a failure. 2014 isn’t going to be the year of “the new Julie.” It’s just going to hopefully be a year of me growing in small ways in a few areas of my life.

I know blogging about New Year’s resolutions isn’t going to help one bit in achieving them, so I made a plan. Here it is:

1. Make specific action points for my goals (since you want practical, I’ve included a few below)

2. Print out the list

3. Tape it in my notebook (notebook is pictured above, a scratch pad I sit with in my morning quiet time. I write the day’s date across the top and any thoughts swirling in my mind while I’m trying to read a Psalm. I also write a to-do list for that day and mark which items are priorities, write items for prayer, people I need to text, etc, etc). By sticking my resolutions in my notebook I can both remember them and work them into my daily to-do list.

4. Show a friend the list and see if we can sit (maybe every couple months?) and check in about how things are going (for me personally it’s helpful if this friend knows about my struggle with depression so she can speak truth to me when I’m reaching/not reaching my goals). [Side note: I’m choosing someone who’s not my spouse/family member in case you were wondering].

My 2014 goals, in no particular order.

1. Fitness:
Exercise 3-4 times a week.
– P90X-3 with David in the evenings

2. Health:
Go to bed earlier (by 10 pm) and wake up earlier (by 6 am).
– Take my anxiety/sleeping meds by 8:45 pm

3. Hobbies:
Take better photos.
– Post daily photo on the blog for January
Become a better cook.
– Make gluten-free all-purpose flour blend and learn to do more GF baking (pancakes, muffins, bread) that people actually want to eat

4. My kids:
Praise more times a day than I correct.
– List positive things/gifts/growth I see in my daily notebook, make a point to mention those things to the kids throughout the day

5. My husband and my friends:
Interrupt less. Listen well in conversation instead of trying to figure out what I’m going to say next.
– Ask David to tell me when I interrupt him
– Pray that I will be mindful of interrupting people, and when I’m not being a real listener

6. Finances:
Take ownership of our monthly budget so it’s not on David’s shoulders to remind me
– Consistently enter all expenses into our budget app (we use Goodbudget)
– Stick to budgeted amounts (especially in the areas of Groceries and Home!!!)

7. Church:
Start co-leading in our Life group
– Email John for study packet
Meet with a mentor/counselor
– I’m doing this by phone twice a month with a church-planting wife from our denomination

8. Home:
Spend more time outside.

9. Spiritual life:
Pray for five minutes each morning before the kids wake up
– Set iPhone timer for five minutes before my morning quiet time

10. Social media and screen time:
Spend less time on my phone and laptop.
– Check email twice a day and set a timer for internet time (keep laptop in the guest room)
– Keep my phone in my bedroom (don’t check messages while homeschooling)



wanting what i have (part two).

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One of my very favorite things is when speakers or writers are practical, so I’m going to give you a few straightforward, practical ways that I’m learning the habit of being content.

1. Be a good steward of my stuff.
It sounds silly but I’ve found that when I’m discontent about my house, just about the best possible solution in the moment is to stop and clean my house.

When there are piles everywhere and the kitchen floor is covered with crumbs and the laundry’s overflowing and none of the beds are made, I find myself beginning to complain more about my house in general: There isn’t enough space . . . Everything’s a mess . . . If I step on one more Lego . . . !!!  I make the mistake of thinking that what I need is a different house or better things to make me like it more.

But most often what my house needs is not more stuff. What it needs is a little TLC. Mess is stressful because things get lost and tripped over and surfaces aren’t free for sitting. Do I enjoy cleaning? Not particularly. Are there at all times a dozen things I’d rather do than straighten up my house? Usually. But regular organizing and purging and cleaning peels back the layers of chaos and helps me remember why we chose this house in the first place. It gives us a space to relax in. It’s being a good steward.

While writing this blog post, I got convicted and stopped to spend an afternoon purging and organizing the kids’ bedroom. I used to have a habit of storing half their toys in plastic bins in the attic and rotating them out every couple months. We slacked off after we moved and lately, even with a bedroom overflowing with toys, Judah and Amie have been complaining and bored and asking when Christmas is coming so they can have new things.

So the three of us made a room-cleaning date on Friday afternoon. We went through every single toy box and bin. We emptied out their closet and their dresser. We made a trash bag, a giveaway bag, and two bins for the attic (I also took the opportunity to pack away their summer clothes). Yes, at some points there were great protestations. But now it’s done; their room looks great and they’ve been playing more peacefully ever since (with less than half the toys).

Getting more stuff does not makes me content. Being a good steward of my stuff makes me content.

2. Practice gratitude.
Gratitude is a habit that must be learned and practiced or it will slip away and you can be sure ingratitude will fill the void. Recently, during a frustrating day, I gave myself a time out and began writing a list of all the answered prayers I’m currently experiencing. And it was humbling — both because God is caring for me, and because I’m so quick to forget.

I’ve noticed how often I speak complaining, negative words about my life in conversation with friends rather than grateful words. This is hard to realize because you know what? My words reveal what’s in my heart. And in my heart, I too often want people to feel sorry for me. Or feel awed by how much I accomplish and what ministry I can do. I worry, deep down, that if I’m too happy with my life then it won’t look like I’m sacrificing enough for God.

The way of gratitude is the way of humility. It’s saying, “Everything about my life is a gift. I don’t deserve any of it. But I sure as heck am enjoying it.”

3. Limit advertising exposure.
I’ve avoided this one for awhile now with the excuse that it’s just plain legalistic. But recently I’m realizing that what I fill my mind with does have an effect on me. It’s hard to say, “I won’t think about the things I want right now,” when all day long I’m seeing things I want. Advertising used to mainly happen in the form of going to the mall or catalogues or television.

Now all day long I’m inundated with images of what I don’t have every time I use the internet. Even my email account and Facebook and favorite blogs happen to know what stores I prefer and daily announce sales and new products.

So I’m trying to start the hard work of limiting this exposure. I’m taking a break from Facebook. I’ve unsubscribed to my design blogs. For now, I’m checking my regular blogs no more than twice a week. Yes, sometimes it kills me to feel “left out,” to wonder what I’m missing. But in just a couple of weeks I’m already feeling way more content with my life (and interestingly enough way less guilty too).

4. Be friends with people who have less.
I’ve found that it’s very easy to get in a bubble by surrounding myself only with people who are just like me and people who have more than I do. This bubble distorts my view of reality. It makes me think of everything I don’t have, or think that I’m the one with a smallest house, fewest clothes, etc.

It is always, always better for me to have a variety of friends from a variety of races and economic backgrounds, for many different reasons. It gives me a fuller, more realistic view of the world.  It also gives me a fresh appreciation for what God’s blessed me with (and oh my goodness, when you started befriending people from other countries you’ll really realize how much you have). It also gives me a greater desire to share what I have with people who don’t have as much, because they’re no longer “the poor;” they’re a name and a face and a family.

5. Live below our means.
Our entire married life we’ve lived below our means. I have my husband alone to thank for this. There were many times (especially when we were both working full-time) that I just plain thought he was crazy and completely disagreed with the habit of spending so much less than we make. In case you haven’t figured out, I’m the spender in this relationship.

But I’m so very grateful for it now. David got a job out of college and worked many hours over-time every week for a year to pay off his student loans. And when we both worked, he made us live on just one salary so that we’d be ready for me to stop working when we had kids. Because we’d been practicing frugal living since we got married, it helped us be able to live on very little while in seminary, raising support, and living overseas.

This summer, our first house purchase was significantly less than what our bank told us we could afford to spend. It was a decision we made together before we even started house-hunting, and I haven’t regretted it yet. We didn’t buy a house in our favorite neighborhood and it doesn’t have every feature we wanted.

And yet we are very, very happy with our neighborhood and with our home. When we discover something annoying (like the mildew problem in the bathroom that necessitates twice-weekly scrubbing and I’m still losing the battle . . .), there’s much less pressure because we knew from the beginning this wasn’t our dream house. We’re able to put money away each month for upkeep. And we have peace that comes from knowing we can afford it.

Just in case you were wondering, being in ministry does not mean you automatically live simply or live contentedly. David and I have to humble ourselves and keep learning just like everyone else.

Simple living is worth learning. It really does encourage contentment. Because we’ve intentionally chosen this lifestyle, when a desire comes up I can’t just say, “We can’t afford it,” and feel sorry for myself. Of course there are things we can’t afford, but often it’s a choice. In that way, we’re not victims; we’re living purposefully. We’ve said “no” to something so that we can say “yes” to something else. And that’s a good feeling.

6. Give generously.
I end this post by telling you probably the single biggest help for my contentment, and that is to give our money away.

After hearing a challenge from the pastor of one of our supporting churches a couple years ago, we committed to increase our giving percentage each year. Not because it will make us more righteous; because it will make us more happy.

Where I put my money is where my heart will find joy.

Support-raising for the mission field and for Columbia Presbyterian Church has truly changed our lives. Watching in awe the way friends and family and even perfect strangers have given — having an inside look into what God is doing — has had a profound influence on us.

Our supporters probably have no idea they’re not just giving to us; they’re teaching us. They’re living a life of generosity and that’s contagious. We don’t just see people giving generously — we see the way it fills them up with joy. We see God provide for them and stretch them. We see the way He uses them for His kingdom. We want the same thing for ourselves.

 

*** I want to say a quick word to those of you who may be struggling with debt and feel despair just reading my words. Don’t. We have friends who have been in large amounts of debt — including credit card debt — and who are now living debt-free. They would say that it’s humbling. It takes a lot of work. It takes being a learner. But you can do it. Here’s a great post at one of my favorite blogs that includes helpful links, including one to Dave Ramsey.



wanting what i have (part one).

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In the name of transparency, after my house progress post a couple weeks ago — and with the Christmas-shopping-season almost upon us — I want to share what I’m learning about contentment.

The joy of having our first very-own home is a perfect example of how my gifts and desires can be very good, but how they can also turn bad and have an unhealthy hold over me.

One of my desires is for beauty. I love beautiful things. I love color and texture and the way the light falls across surfaces. I love cozy, unique-yet-inviting spaces. I enjoy nice clothes and shoes too, but I’d choose to spend money on my house over my appearance any day.

I think it’s fine to love and appreciate beauty in this particular way. It’s fun to learn about design and how furniture and textiles and art can work together to create a mood in a space. I follow design blogs the way some people devour magazines. I desperately miss my favorite home stores in South Asia. I enjoy seeing people who are truly gifted in this area and how they can transform places — sometimes with lots of money and sometimes with almost none at all.

I think it’s great to want to create a home that’s a haven, that’s comfortable, that’s a place where my family and friends are eager to spend time.

But. I feel like the gift of enjoying our first house and my visions for the way I want it to look can at times cross over into the murky waters of greed. Sometimes I’m startled to realize the amount of energy I’ve expended in a given week dreaming of the next change I’m going to make instead of being grateful for what’s already right here.

And so I confess to you that I sometimes struggle with discontentment even in our new, beautiful house. There are so many more things I still want to do. There are just a few tweaks to make our living room truly complete. Our front yard is sandy and rocky and practically devoid of grass. We still have hardly anything hung on the walls. And so on and so on.

As I’m showing friends around, I’m tempted to make disclaimers, “Well this is what we plan to do with the back yard . . . I know we need a coffee table . . .etc., etc.” Which is just as selfish and awkward as apologizing for the food when people come over for dinner. It communicates, This is all about me and my insecurity; not about making you feel welcome.

Don’t get me wrong; I have certain friends I love brainstorming house ideas with. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating and enjoying the gifts of a new sofa or finally finishing a remodel. All good things are from God.

But lately I’ve crossed the line in my heart more often than not; I’ve spent more time and energy wanting what I don’t have rather than wanting what I do have.

David and I hold different views on money: on saving, on giving, and on spending. Even if we agree on an amount of money to spend we still often disagree on where exactly that money goes. Sometimes we just have to stop and laugh at how different our plans and expectations can be.

So our nine-and-a-half years of marriage have been a process of learning to have the difficult conversations, of repenting to God and each other, of praying that we’ll be less defensive and judgmental, of bringing our temptations toward greed and discontentment into the light together — and even bringing them into the light with friends — so that we can both grow in freedom and grow more like Jesus.

David has learned that being a “saver” (or a “hoarder,” as he calls it) can be just as much motivated by greed as being a “spender.” And I’m learning that my refusal to think about or openly discuss our budget and finances does not mean the issues go away: it just means I’m an avoider-of-problems (and there’s no freedom to be had in avoiding problems, in case you haven’t figured that out).

So we’ve pressed on. And I can tell you right now, just like with other areas in our marriage, that it’s been so, so worth it. I wouldn’t have told you this every year. Some years we’ve both held onto resentment. We’ve believed the lie that the other person will never change. We’ve succumbed to a fatalistic view of the Christian life that says, The way we are now is the way we’ll always be; we just have to suck it up and get through (which by the way is a lie straight from the devil).

So I’m writing here, in this space, I suppose partially as accountability. Also partially because it’s easy for me to see some of your homes, read some of your blogs, and think, How could _____ struggle with discontentment? Her house is awesome! But I’ve lived long enough and met enough people to know that having nice things does not guarantee contentment. It just doesn’t. And conversely, being poor does not mean you don’t struggle with greed. Because things don’t make us happy. So I guess I’m sharing because I want you to know I’m a real person and this is an ongoing struggle for me. I write as a learner.

And also I write to encourage you. Because over the years I have grown. I’ve been convicted and forgiven and refined. I’ve had desires shaped. And I’ve discovered that God’s rules are always given for my freedom — not to spoil my fun. I’m more happy and more relaxed and more fun to be around when I live life like He intended: when I want what I have.

(Part two of this post will give you a few practical ways I’m learning contentment right now)



a transparent life.

Yesterday morning I stood up in front of a group of women and publicly spoke about my journey with depression and anxiety. I spoke about that dark, dark summer last year after we returned from South Asia. I spoke of what it’s like to experience the suffocating weight of depression and a crippling anxiety disorder and my process of needing medical help to bring me to a place of stability. I described what life and ministry look like now on a daily basis living with my illness, how it still affects almost every decision I make.

And I also spoke about God’s personal care and love to me. About the way He’s never left my side — even when I felt the most alone. I spoke about the healing I’ve found, about the way God shows His strength through my weakness. I spoke about how He’s used suffering to root up idols deep in my heart and begin to bring me freedom.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

And last weekend, when I was a week away from speaking, I was so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t sleep at night or focus on simple tasks during the day. I was having panic attacks — even with greater doses of medication. I desperately needed help.

I told a friend this and she said, “Why don’t you ask for help?” So even though I typically like to keep my struggles private, I humbled myself and I asked. I texted and emailed several people and said, “God is asking me to do something really hard. I am terrified. Will you pray for me?” I even told a non-Christian how I felt and that I needed help.

And you know what? They helped. They walked with me through the darkness of last week — through the re-living some of my hardest times so I could share the hope I’ve found with others. They prayed for me and texted me and visited me to pray in person and prayed over the phone and even showed up on Sunday morning to support me.

Then I stood there yesterday in fear and trembling and a few tears and told my story in front of a group of ladies who’ve known me for a long time. I laid my heart bare before people I look up to and desperately want to think well of me.

And you know what?  In doing it I felt such an outpouring of love and comfort from them like I’ve almost never known before.

All of these people were the hands and feet and and tears and smiles and hugs of Jesus to me this week.

I’m sharing this story with you to illustrate what God’s been teaching me lately. He’s teaching me how to live a transparent life.

Now before you look at me and say, “Well it’s easy for you to be transparent, Julie — look at your personality. Look at all the friends you have. I could never do that.” Don’t. Because it’s not easy. I don’t think true transparency comes naturally for any human being, whether outgoing or shy, whether surrounded by people or living in isolation.

What comes naturally is to hide. To fiercely guard my heart. To be silent about my struggles. To defend my image and my reputation. To share just enough about my sin for a pat on the back but not enough to really be exposed. What comes naturally is to talk about other people’s problems and sins and overlook my own.

God is showing me that, counterintuitively, it’s those of us in full-time ministry who are most susceptible to hiding. We have so much at stake. So many people look up to us. We believe the lies of Satan that we’re here to minister to others and so we don’t share our own sins and struggles and dark places. We’re needed too much, we’re counted on to be the strong ones.

And so we wither up inside. We don’t live in freedom and joy; we live in fear and isolation.

I’ve spent most of my life hiding out of guilt and shame and insecurity. I’ve felt like I can’t possibly ever measure up. I’ve felt like I work as hard as I can but I’m still failing as a Christian. I’ve lived plenty of my thirty-one years in fear.

But now, by the grace of God, I’m learning a different way.

Yes, that’s right, I’m learning. Transparency is a learned behavior. The Holy Spirit teaches us, and you know what method He most often uses? People who are transparent.

We spend so much of our time looking up to those in ministry, but often the people I’m learning transparency from are not in full-time ministry. They are very simple, average, unassuming people who are so dependent on Jesus that they can risk hurt and ridicule by being honest with others.

This is incredibly humbling.

Can God still use me in ministry if I say “no” to transparency and say “yes” to hiding and guarding my image? Yes, of course He can. All ministry belongs to God and He can use any means He wants to bring people to Himself. He’s that big.

But you know what? He wants so much more for me.

He’s inviting me, beckoning, calling me deeper into this life of freedom. He knows that I will find nothing but fear and loneliness and striving in a life of hiding. Jesus didn’t come for that. He didn’t come for me to be the pastor’s wife who carries the weight of the world on my shoulders and plods forward each day tired and alone, just me and God.

No. He came that I may have life and have it abundantly.

Jesus knew that I didn’t need to minister to women by sharing my story on Sunday morning; He knew that I desperately needed to be ministered to. That even though I’ve come a long way in the last year, my heart always needs people to speak the truth of God’s love and my righteousness in Christ, to tell me they are cheering for me and they love me and that I’m not alone.

Today I challenge you to live a transparent life. Many of you, my friends, already do and you’ve taught me so much.

But if you’re like me, far too often you’re holding out, waiting for someone else to step forward and be transparent first. To put themselves out there. You’re gaging how deeply you’ll share in proportion to how others around you share. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve taken that risk and been burned — maybe you’ve been misunderstood, been gossiped about, been rejected.

Yes, it hurts bad. But I’m learning that there is freedom even in getting burned. Jesus doesn’t call me to live a safe, protected life. Read the Gospels: do you think He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood, to be gossiped about?

He longs to teach me that He’s enough. He’s not just enough when everyone thinks well of me. He’s not just enough when my reputation is un-tarnished and I’m popular and admired and safe. No, He’s enough, period. He’s the only truly safe Person in my whole life. The more safe I feel in Him, the bigger the risks I can take.

This life of honest, humble dependency — not only on God but on the people He’s put in my life — is bringing me more hope and joy than I’ve ever known. It’s giving me more of a freedom to be myself instead of despising myself and striving to be someone better. It’s giving me a sense of participating on a team as apart of God’s bigger story — rather than someone put here to minister to others. It’s giving me peace in the core of my being that says my life is hid with Christ on high and it’s okay if people don’t always think well of me. It’s giving me sweeter and deeper friendships.

It’s giving me rest.

If you pursue a transparent life, you are taking a big risk, yes. But this is the abundant life Jesus offers you. He will use you powerfully in the lives of people around you for His glory. He will be nearer than you ever imagined. I promise you won’t be disappointed.



words to a suffering me.

Lately I’ve been thinking back on where our family was a year ago.

We were living in the great In-Between. We had a calling, but the door to it was shut in our faces. We had a job, but it was stopped short, like running full force ahead and suddenly finding yourself reeling at the edge of a cliff. We had a home, but it was sitting empty, thousands of miles away.

And what stretched before us was a great blank.

 A year ago I was in the darkest season of my life. I was depressed. I was confused. I felt the silence of God bearing down on me like a thick cloud.

The days were long. The nights even longer, filled with questions. David and I were bone-weary of conversations about our “next step” but we didn’t know how to stop having them.

I’ve been thinking about all of it lately, giving thanks that the darkness has lifted, that the future is no longer a blank but is filled with people and color and a home and . . . hope.

And so now, while the experience is still fresh enough that I can feel the heart-heavy grief and taste the welling-up panic, I wanted to write a few words I’d say to that suffering me of a year ago.

1. God sees you.
He sees you. He hears your cries when you’re curled up in bed midday in a darkened room, when you’re driving in your car with tears flowing, when you’re applying a smile like make-up so people won’t see you cry in church. He seems silent, I know, but if you’re His child He will never, ever leave you.

Part of growing up in your faith is learning to embrace the mystery of God. He will not always do things like you think He should. He will not always explain Himself to you. Will You trust that He is big and strong and good and mysterious? Will you believe that he is making something beautiful of your life? Will you let Him be God?

2. It won’t always be this bad.
While we still lived overseas, struggling daily with my health and with the challenges of life so very far away, my pastor’s wife, Barb, said to me, “Julie, this isn’t going to last forever. You are going to look back on this season one day and be so thankful because it will be over.” Perhaps that sounds obvious, but her words gave me hope when I needed it. She was right. That season is over and so is the next one that in many ways was even worse. I’m sitting here, looking back, giving thanks for how far we’ve come. I’m giving thanks that it’s not so bad anymore.

3. God is giving you gifts every day.
When you’re neck-deep in the thick of it, all you have eyes for is the gift of deliverance. You spend your time hoping and praying and wrestling and trying with all your might to be rescued. But, as often as you can, stop. Stop wrestling. Stop waiting for the suffering to end so your real life can start.

Instead, open your eyes to the gifts that come before deliverance. God is taking care of you. His care takes many forms: a text from a friend, a sermon that speaks directly to your heart, a warm smile in the grocery store, an ability to respond in love instead of anger, an ability to admit you’re wrong, a cup of coffee with a loved one, a listening ear, a new pair of shoes, an exquisite sunset, movie night with your family.

If you keep your eyes open and take note, if you ask God, “Show me the gifts You’re giving me today,” He will answer. I promise.

4. One of the gifts, if you’re heart is open to receive it, is the gift of having to face the deep ugliness and the worst fears in your heart.
Warning: this is very difficult. There are the hard things that happen to you, and then there are the things pouring out of your heart as a result of the hard things. The anger, the self-pity, the bitterness. The burning questions you try to ignore: Is God punishing me? Am I a failure?, Am worth anything apart from what I do?, Will God keep loving me if I let everyone down? 

In the beginning, you don’t see this as a gift. In the beginning, being honest about the darkness and fear inside of you will cause more sleepless nights, not less. Being honest with your disappointment and anger with God will leave you feeling like the worst version of yourself. If you open your heart to the full depth of your pain it will hurt like hell.

But. If you go to these places, if you open the door to the Spirit’s gentle, insisting prodding, you will experience a healing that is deeper than you ever thought you needed. You will face your fears. You will learn that in Christ you have a quiet strength you never knew you possessed. You will be more free than you were before the suffering. And you will find great joy.

5.  This suffering is going to make you more like Jesus.
When a friend heard our story recently, he looked at us with compassion in his eyes and said, “You know what? The Lord disciplines those He loves.” Like a willful child after a spanking, I’ve always bucked against those words in the Bible. They sound so cold and harsh. Who wants to be disciplined? Not me. But as our friend spoke, like a light shining in a dark place, I saw that it’s true. God’s discipline wasn’t wasted. In love, it was used to humble us and free us and make us more dependent on Him. The Lord disciplines those He loves.

This is God’s promise to you over and over in the New Testament. There’s no short cut to sanctification. Even Jesus, who was without sin, had to suffer in order to learn obedience. And He’s true to His Word. There is something unique about hard times that do the messy work of maturing your faith.

In your suffering, you will learn that it’s okay to loosen your grasp, to let go a little more. You will learn that God stands by His promises. You’ll rejoice because you haven’t just heard that He is good — you’ve lived it.

And when the next season of suffering comes — because it will — you’ll find that you have a shred of hope that wasn’t there before. You’ll learn to not only ask, “Deliver me,” but to ask, “Make me free.” And when your friends face their own suffering, after you’ve listened and cried together, you will be able to look them in the eye with great compassion and say, with all the force of certainty in your voice, “God will take care of you. I know it. Let’s watch and see together.”

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