Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Do Not Despise the Small Things

            Something is happening online - maybe it’s been happening for years, and I’m just noticing it. I’ve seen the incredibly styled living rooms in blogs, the magazine-worthy kids’ rooms, and the trends for vintage kitchen collectables that cause bloggers to amass shelves-full, before moving on to the next thing. Have you, too, noticed the collections, the perfectly staged meals and gatherings – perhaps outdoors, perhaps featuring mason jars? I've only recently learned about the video - families promoting themselves and their children, sometimes on their own channels, sometimes noting fantastic accomplishments in cute song.

            Here’s the thing - the thing that’s made me increasingly uncomfortable with blogging and with what I read and see on many blogs. What we see here, online, isn’t real – at least not the whole story. It’s a snippet, taken with someone’s excellent camera, often edited, and framed in the most favorable light. I have worried, in the past, that someone might idealize the little bits I’ve share here, not seeing the sock-strewn kids’ rooms that will NEVER make it into blog-land, or the days without makeup or cleanup or much that looks productive from the outside. We see the shiny online, and by comparison, our lives look messy and unstylish and disorganized, and we can get the feeling that we’re the only ones who don’t have it all together.

            If your house isn’t perfect, and you and your children aren’t video stars and your dinner wasn’t organic last night, and you are a little bit discouraged, might you stop, and think about this verse with me?

“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’ …For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.” (Zech. 4:6-7,10)

            Zerubbabel, discouraged at being unable to complete the temple of God due to persecution by neighbors, is encouraged here. The hard work won’t be done by his own power or might, but through God’s spirit. The little things – those small beginnings Zerubbabel thought insufficient – were the start that God would use.

            I am surrounded by little things, small beginnings, things that feel half-done sometimes – schoolwork, housework, discipline and prayerfully helping children navigate through disagreements. Some things feel more formed than others. There are devotionals each morning, read, tea in hand, with my old-lady glasses perched on my nose. Sometimes boys contribute, but sometimes two elbow and mumble and need to be prodded along. It is a beginning, and there are glimmers when a quiet boy shares insight he’s stored in his young heart or an older one shares deep wisdom. There is music in the mornings, led by boys. This had a very small beginning, years ago, when one boy began taking guitar lessons and was encouraged to lead us in worship. Another boy joined in, the repertoire grew, and we are blessed with music as we open most days. There is negotiation over songs between two brothers, and sometimes frustration, but it is a beautiful beginning.

            There are countless meals and dishes and garments to fold – this seemingly endless service, this showing of love that is hopefully a lesson in nurture for young men (and young woman) who prepare to launch out into the world. There are glimmers when a boy serves his mama a bowl of soup, unsolicited, a daughter leads the troops in card-making and shopping for mom, and a son makes the dinner while we’re out at an appointment. There are children working out their own conflicts using skills they’ve learned, games by the fire, walks together through the snow, hearts shared. These are small things, small beginnings, little things not to be despised, adding up to a life worth living and worth loving, even if it isn’t video worthy.

            Look at your small things, mamas – look for them. They are many. You are sowing seeds and investing in lives – investing in eternity. Beware, because even these families we love and live for can become idols, if we forget why and for whom we’re doing this (this is not condemnation of anyone else, but my own, very real, experience). My living room will not win any blogging awards, I have no major accomplishments to report, and I don't think I’m video-worthy in my jammies. But I want to pause for a moment this Advent season, to ponder and give thanks for the little things, the small beginnings, as we ready to celebrate the coming of our great King Jesus as a little one Himself. Those small things - they are not to be despised.
Trusting in Him,

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Ten-Year-Old Treasure

     So it was your birthday yesterday, dear one - the 8th we've been blessed to share with you. You turned 10, and the night before, we discussed the fact that in Korea, it was already your birthday.

 There, you would be called 11-years-old, because that's how they do it there. In the morning, we talked about the day of your birth. I told you if I'd been there, I'd have taken your tiny little three pound, 9-week premature self in my arms, and held you, and sung to you, and cared for you until you were strong enough to leave the hospital. You interrupted to tell me, "I was restored," and we marveled together for a few moments at how God has indeed restored you. You thought of one of your older brothers, also born sick and early, and told me how he was restored as well. Indeed.

     You wish you knew how to speak Korean still, and reminded me that you had only lived there a short while, and have forgotten what you knew; you wondered aloud what it would be like to live there. I wonder with you, and I imagine you there, my boy who loves maps and roads and bridges and trains - I think of you in Seoul surrounded by city sights and sounds, and I imagine the drawings you'd make. We will go there together one day. For now, we honor the people and the place that gave you life and shared with us the privilege of parenting you. This mama's heart was wrapped around your small finger from the first moment I saw you - a tiny, teeny little two-and-a-half-year-old with beautiful eyes, hungry for love and eager to please.

     You are bigger now - so very much bigger! You grew six inches that first year home and you still love to look at the marks on the wall - that monument to what belonging can do. You know how to get everywhere you have ever been, and it was your voice, from the very back of the van, that got us home from brother's rowing race this weekend as you remembered the route Dad had taken the week before. You are gentle and kind, a patient guide to smaller children. We sit amazed as you play the piano pieces you've memorized, and we remember the tiny little boy who had no words all those years ago.

     You are a keeper of tradition, and were up at the crack of dawn yesterday, eagerly mapping out the day - this exciting birthday. At dinner time, dear friends, unexpectedly in town for a visit after a recent move to Kentucky, helped you celebrate with pizza and cake and song.

Happy Birthday, wonderful son! We are so privileged to share it, and all of life, with you.

Giving thanks for this precious gift, and
Trusting in Him,

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pumpkin Applesauce Bread (Gluten and Dairy Free)

          I’ve been meaning to share my recipe for for Pumpkin Applesauce Bread for some time, as it’s a staple here, is fairly foolproof, and is often requested. After three kind requests today when the bread was shared in Sunday school, I'll get moving and type it up now.

          It’s a variation on another old family favorite, with changes made to accommodate both gluten free and more healthy eating in general. The sugar called for in the original recipe has been decreased by half – feel free to add more, but I can’t imagine wanting it any sweeter. The oil content has also been halved, with applesauce taking up the slack there, adding a moistness that is welcomed in gluten free baking. Millet flour steps in as well, to contribute to a delicate, cake-like texture and take away some of the graininess that can occur with gluten free baking.

          All this, by the way, is one of the lovely things that begins to happen after you’ve been baking and cooking GF for a while. You will start to realize which of your old recipes might be nicely adapted, by substituting gluten free flours, and adding ½ t. of xanthan gum per cup of flour. Breads and cakes with fruits and vegetables adapt very nicely to GF baking, as they keep the end product nicely moist. You might decide that you don’t need things so sweet after all, and start to decrease the quantity of the sugar. You may taste generously as you go, deciding you really did need a bit more sugar, or another dash of some spice. Once you enter that realm, the new world of GF baking stops being so scary, and starts to actually seem like a lot of fun.

          I give a generous range in possible baking times for this recipe – from 45-60 minutes – because GF baking can vary based on the oven, the humidity, or the mood of either the baked good or the cook, it seems. I start checking at the beginning of the time range, and add minutes as I deem necessary. If you know what a finished bread or cake should look like, you can often tell just from “eyeballing” it in the oven whether it’s going to need at least 5 more minutes before you check it again. You’ll know it’s done when a toothpick inserted into the bread comes out clean.
        And as a footnote, if you're still reeling from last week's events, may I suggest you turn off the news now? You likely have enough difficult images in your brain, and can catch up quickly through newspaper or other, less constant media. A friend reminds me that with todays media, we relive traumatic events over and over, as we see the images time after time, and the world can feel quite out of control. My favorite therapy for times that are too heavy? Spend some time mixing and baking, with favorite praise or classical music in the background. Walk every day, if even around the block. The cardinals and goldfinch have returned here, along with the noisy pileated woodpecker; who has returned to your neck of the woods? Light a candle as you prepare dinner in the quiet, and make your work a prayer as lips offer both intercession for the hurting, and praise to our King, who is still in control. Sing with your children, snuggle and read a story.
"Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God." Psalm 90:1-2
Giving thanks, and trusting in Him,

Pumpkin Applesauce Bread, gluten and dairy free

2 ½ c. GF flour mix (made using either white or brown rice flour)
½ c. millet flour
3 t. cinnamon
1 t. ginger
½ t. allspice
½ t. nutmeg
¼ t. cloves
2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 t. xanthan gum

Wet Ingredients
4 large eggs
½ c. canola oil
½ c. applesauce (unsweetened) ***
½ c. orange juice
1 ½ c. granulated sugar
1(15-oz) can pure pumpkin
          Grease and flour (with GF mix) two 9x5 loaf pans or one Bundt pan. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. In another bowl, combine eggs, oil, applesauce, orange juice, sugar and pumpkin and mix well. Stir in dry ingredients and blend until thoroughly combined. Turn into prepared pan(s) and bake 45 minutes-1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on wire rack, and then remove from pans to fully cool. Bundt should be inverted directly from pan onto large plate and to finish cooling there. You may store the bread well wrapped or covered on the countertop for a few days, and if there is any left over at that point, pop it into the refrigerator to keep longer.

***I find homemade, slightly chunky applesauce works beautifully in this recipe. I often chop a few apples (1/2” chunks) into a bowl, add a tablespoon of water, and microwave, covered, for several minutes, or until the apple bits can be mashed down with a fork and blended into applesauce.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Under Construction

     We're in the 6th week of kitchen deconstruction/installation. The first few weeks were fun - like camping, with a makeshift kitchen installed in the family room, and lovely inventions like the electric frying pan, rice cooker, crockpot, microwave, and bread machine taking up the slack where our normal kitchen appliances were absent. We washed dishes in the laundry room's slop sink, and while the kids didn't enjoy trekking up and down the stairs with dishes, I actually found the time in that bright little blue room very reflective - how few steps I had to travel, to get to clean, fresh, clear water, compared to the task of most of the world's mothers. How quickly the water gets hot! I thought of mothers washing pots and fetching drinking water in running streams, muddy watering holes, or at village wells, after walking miles. I gave thanks.

     Then it got old - the dust, the contractor's sparse working hours, the leaks and things installed incorrectly, and hours of work my husband had to put in fixing things that were "fixed" wrong. We thought it might be nice to just run away, and come back when it was done. We had a week of lovely "vacation" at my parents' house (my childhood home), not far from away, while the wood floors were being refinished in our nearly-done kitchen and dining room. Their house has been lovingly restored, top-to-bottom, with my father's incredible craftsmanship and my mother's flair for Victorian decorating; it's a lovely, peaceful place to have some respite from remodeling, and I'm so thankful for the relationships we share.

     Recently, as I looked around at our four youngest boys, I realized that our kitchen isn't the only thing under construction at our house. These boys are huge - two of them each grew four inches taller and ten pounds heavier in the past year. There are three adolescents - two 12s, and one 15 - and the last voice of the three changed without warning, a week ago. I was upstairs and heard another man in the house, and went downstairs to see who'd come over - and there was my son, another deeper-voiced young man to confuse callers to our house, who find themselves suddenly unable to identify the boy who answers. Our grocery bill is more monthly than our mortgage, and we use at least a dozen eggs a day. And the shoes - the man-sized sneakers that line my foyer - when did their feet get so big? Three large boys to shuttle to and from rowing practice with their friends, lots of sweaty gym clothes to wash, and many, many meals and snacks to prepare and clean, with their help.

     The changes aren't only physical, I remind myself, as I see signs of other, deeper, changes. Skin seems thinner, finding offense where often none was intended, and needing desperately to be right. A normally compliant boy suddenly feels the need to argue about simple things - like whether it's ok to leave a wet washcloth on the new granite or whether the day is warm or what another person said or did; a sometimes exhausting litany of offense and disagreement from a usually very helpful and agreeable child. Happy, thick-skinned boys become fragile and sensitive; brooding becomes more common and feelings are hurt more easily. I find myself praying more, both for both these young people and for my own parenting, than I have before. Because the frequent little disagreements - they can wear a person down. The arguing, especially when it's with me - it's a struggle not to get offended, or hurt, and respond less like a parent and more like another adolescent; I need to respond prayerfully, teach problem-solving skills, and point them to Jesus. And their own hurt feelings - gosh, sometimes it would be easier to say, "ease up, stop worrying, get over it!" But the feelings run deep and they are real, and I'm reminded, too, that the brains are changing along with the bodies, causing all this disequilibrium and some mental chaos.
     Around the age of 13 and the beginning of puberty, the structural remodeling of the prefrontal cortex in the teen brain begins. The prefrontal cortex helps make possible the executive functioning skills of planning, reasoning, impulse control and weighing risks and rewards.  In a process called pruning, up to 40% of the neural branches are sloughed off in this region. Despite the elegant brain growth that occurs during the next decade (thanks to environmental experience and the wiring of neurons over time), the brutal truth is that until maturation is complete in the early twenties, cognition and decision making are compromised by this construction project. Furthermore, the role of emotions becomes critical in the understanding of teen behavior, since emotions often trump cognition in any of us—and even more so for teens.

In all humans, the limbic area, and specifically the amygdala, is activated by highly arousing emotional events that trigger fear and anxiety.  Emotional flooding and “fight and flight” reactions can happen even more readily for teens, because they lack the established inhibitory mechanisms which help reign in impulses. Along with sexual hormones and the teen’s super-sensitivity to dopamine, a lot of extra fuel can be added to the fire of teen emotions. The dominance of neuronal activity in the emotional region of the brain during high arousal situations has been called an “amygdala hijack.” -

     Who knew? The quick emotional responses, the emotional flooding, the "thinking" with emotions...it explains a lot and makes me wonder, too, how early life experiences play into this and muddy the waters - do feelings of fear or abandonment, long buried, become more intensified during these years when everything is felt so deeply? Might the child who pushed back for independence from the start push more now, and might feelings of unworthiness or fear of rejection just happen, in these years, to look like cocky indifference or a need to be right?

     Praying, I'm reminded that I want to be the mother who goes again. (Do read this blogger's post, please - what wisdom in these words!) Praying through an older child's struggles years ago, a truth became blindingly apparent: we are as unruly and difficult to love as our children can be sometimes, and yet we serve a God who goes again and again, to find us, to rescue us, to save us and redeem us. He was faithful even during my years of stubbornness and rebellion; faithful even in my business and lack of attention to Him and to prayer; faithful in the face of selfishness and anger and outbursts. We serve a God who loves us deeply enough that He sent His Son to the cross to retrieve us. It's this love - this crazy, sacrificial, impossible love - I'm called to imitate, and will never, ever, come close to achieving without the help of the one who modeled it. Because I'm under construction too:

     "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." Philippians 3:12
     The dishwasher will be installed soon, and it won't be long before we can start moving things back into the kitchen; life will look more normal again. But the rest of the construction? It will be years - for all of us.

    "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." Romans 8-22-28
     And so we pray for patience, for laughter, and give thanks for joy in the beautiful, everyday moments. We pray and trust these precious ones to One who loves them more than even we do, knowing that even when we are out of words, the Spirit knows our hearts  - and their needs - and intercedes for us. We give thanks for the music and the living room wrestling, the dirty dishes and grocery bills, the stinky socks and the pile of boys at the end of the night when we gather for prayers and devotions. Much is asked of parents; most likely far more than any of us imagined when we "signed on" as young and idealistic people whose own brains hadn't finished developing. We were going to do it "right," we were sure. I know, now, that the only "right" is in the keeping on trying, in turning to the One who holds us in His hands - who holds our kids in His hands. It is in the praying for wisdom, the giving of thanks, and being parents who keep on loving, and holding each other up in prayer.

So very thankful for this journey, construction and all.

Trusting in Him,