Saturday, May 25, 2013

remembering...

Memorial Day is Monday, and I've spent all week trying to figure out what to write. I've started and deleted this post multiple times now, a couple of times trying to just write and let the words come on their own.

That usually works for me--writing has always been cathartic and I've never really had to force it (with the exception of one chapter I skipped over in my story, but that's a bit different). I start writing and the words seem to flow on their own, usually leading me somewhere I didn't even realize I was trying to reach. For some reason, though, I just haven't been able to do that this time.

I guess I'm struggling with just how to put my feelings about Memorial Day into words. That never used to be a problem. Like most people, this holiday used to simply be the start of summer. It was the first long weekend that everyone could spend at the lake, despite the still somewhat chilly water. That was in Arkansas, mind you--the water up here would be a lot more than "somewhat chilly" right now.

Memorial Day became different in 2005, the first time I had a soldier to remember. At the same time, though, even then it didn't become what this holiday is supposed to be--Decoration Day, the day to place flags and flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers.

See, I've only been to Michael's grave twice since the funeral--that's been almost 9 years ago now.

I could go into the reason for that, but that leads to a dark and still extremely painful place. Suffice it to say, it's too hard for me to visit a headstone that says nothing of the remarkable man my brother was. Instead it solely gives him the title of husband, and my relationship with my former sister-in-law is definitely something I'm not going into right now!

Guess it's pretty obvious there are still some open wounds in my life, huh? I hold the tears back and swallow the lump in my throat and push them aside, but they're still there...waiting to be dealt with some day. In true Scarlett O"Hara form, though, I just say, "I can't think about that right now. If I do I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."

Since I won't be placing flowers on my brother's grave for Memorial Day, I'll do my remembering another way. Tucked into the pages of our family Bible is a sheet of notebook paper. There's no date, and I don't really remember how much time had passed before I wrote it, but the words on that paper give a tiny glimpse of the relationship I had with my big brother--and why I miss him so much. I'm not a poet by any means, but this is something I want to share with you...

You taught me to be strong
        when others saw me as weak.
You told me I could do anything
        if I set my heart on it.
You showed me how to stand
        when those around me crumble.
You encouraged me to follow my dreams
        even though it may be hard.
You pushed me to do my best
        even if it's not acknowledged.
You led me down the narrow road
        even though it was never popular.
You listened to me
        when no one else would.
You comforted me
        when no one else could.
you were my teacher,
               my confidant,
               my example,
               my encourager,
               my leader.
Because of you,
                           I know how to keep going.

~for my brother.
Love,
Mandy Jean

Sunday, May 19, 2013

my commitment

As a parent, I know I'm not alone in wanting the best for my children. And as a bit of a control freak, I wish I could plan everything out for them and lay life out before them as a road map with a neatly detailed route.

As my own parents can tell you, though, you can't lay life out nice and neat for your kids. No matter your plans for your  kids, life happens and things have a tendency to veer off track. We can plan all we want to, but really all our planning amounts to very little.

So what can we do for our kids? "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

I have. like so many other parents out there, huge dreams for my kids. If you ask me, nothing is out of reach for them and no dream is too incredible. I grew up being told I could do anything I put my mind to, no matter how crazy it may seem to others, and I have that same belief for my kids. They are already amazing, even at 6 and almost 4.

No matter what they accomplish, though, none of it will matter if they aren't following the Way.

And no matter what my plans are, my dreams are, for my kids, they can't even begin to compare to the plans God has for them.

So, as hard as it is for me to let go of anything I have plans or (a common theme, I know), I know I have to let go of my plans for my kids. Instead, I have to hand them over to God and admit that He loves them way more than I ever could. I have to admit that they are His--and just under my stewardship for a short while. My job is not to plan the future for them, or even to make sure life goes smoothly for them. My job is simply to teach them to follow the One to whom they belong.

Simple, but not easy.

I have dreams for my kids, but what outweighs those dreams is the desire for my kids to learn to follow God.

"Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths." (Proverbs 3:5&6)

"Show me Your ways, O LORD, teach me Your paths; guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are God my Savior, and my hope is in You all day long." (Psalm 25:4&5)

So to my kids, I say:
I love you more than you'll ever know, but you aren't truly mine--you belong to God, and He has simply blessed me with the chance to hold your hand for a while. With that, though, He has also charged me with the responsibility of setting you on the right path--His path.

So cling to Him, learn from Him, love Him, and follow Him. "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:37) Know, without a shadow of a doubt, that you belong to Him.

This may be hard for you to believe, but I'm letting go. I'm handing you back to the One who loaned you to me with this promise: "Now I commit you to God and to the Word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." (Acts 20:32)

I love you..."infinity times infinity!"

Thursday, May 16, 2013

life verses for my babies

We had a dedication service Sunday at church, and one of the things the parents of the babies being dedicated that Mother's Day morning were asked to do was pick out a verse for their kids. That made me think about the verses I would have picked for my kids.

Honestly, if I had been asked to choose verses for them when they were tiny I don't know what I would have come up with. Babies are amazing miracles, but you don't really know them until they get a little older and start developing all the quirks that make somebody unique.

Now, though, with my babies 6 and almost 4, I'm starting to get a good idea of the little people they are. And now I think I have a better grasp on the verses I would choose for each of them.

First there's Raiden.
My sweet, bossy, artsy, moody, insightful, cuddly, girly, sensitive, loving, growing up too fast little girl.

She loves music and is constantly making up songs. Because of her, the kids go to sleep with their CD player on every night. She loves listening to Faith Hill's Fireflies album. She's a dreamer and she's passionate and she revels in attention. She wants to please and can't stand it when someone is upset with her.

For Raiden I would pick Zephaniah 3:17. "The LORD your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing."



Then there's Conan.

My stubborn, loving, determined, energetic, competitive, emotional, funny, shy, protective, full of life little boy who is already comparing his height to sister's.

"Sister" is extremely important to this little guy. He wants to be by her side all the time, counting down the time until she gets home from school and asking to sleep with her every night (a request she surprisingly grants...most of the time). He can't stand to see people upset, and even at the ripe ol' age of almost 4 he steps in to make things better. He's big for his age and only getting bigger, and he takes pride in showing us how strong he is.

For Conan I would choose Proverbs 31:8-9 (and no, this doesn't come from the "Wife of Noble Character" passage, I promise!). "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."

 I can't wait to see the amazing people these two become. I know we are in for a crazy ride with both of them, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm excited for what's to come, and I'm thankful God has blessed us with two such amazing kids to raise for Him.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

a snow story

I want to tell you a story...

It seems Nathan and I have a thing for unexpected adventures, and I was reminded of one that I thought you might enjoy.

When Raiden was born, Nathan was still in the Coast Guard and we were living in Astoria, Oregon (if you've never been there, you should visit. I would love to go back some day!). We had gone back to Arkansas so she would be born there, though, so when she was about 2 or 3 weeks old we headed back across country in the Santa Fe--two brand new parents who had no idea what they were doing, one tiny baby girl who didn't know to be scared, and two giant dogs, one of whom was not cut out for travel.

My mom thinks you can never be too prepared, so before we headed out she made sure we had about a million baby blankets in the car with us. She wanted to send a candle because she had seen a show that talked about a family getting stuck in their car in a blizzard and apparently a single candle is enough to keep you warm in that situation. I laughed it off and hugged my parents bye, promising to call each night when we stopped.

We were quite a sight, I imagine:
Here's one of the giants, Thor. He spent the majority of the trip right there next to Raiden's car seat, usually with his chin resting on the side so he could look at her. Drizzt, the other giant, is in the very back of this picture. If you look hard enough you can get a glimpse of hips--he was the nervous traveler. Below is a picture of him with Raiden a few months later, just to give you an idea of the size of this puppy.

When I say nervous, I don't just mean that he was whimpering a little bit or anything like that. No, apparently car travel made him sick to his stomach. Yup, we had a Great Dane with diarrhea riding in the vehicle with us all the way from Arkansas to the Oregon coast.

Just about as fun as it sounds.

Still, even with all the chaos this suggests, we couldn't just take the shortest, most direct route. We're travelers and we wanted to take the back roads, to see the sites! We had driven straight through on our way down because for that trip I was 9 months pregnant and the dogs were in crates in the back of my pickup.

There were amazing things along the way, though our stop in Vegas made me incredibly nervous. I'm not one for big cities with lots of people, and Las Vegas was insanely full of people! I waited in the car in a parking garage while Nathan went into a couple of the casinos to get some playing cards just to show we'd been there, and I called my mom because the parking garage scared me...

We got to see places like this:



And it was pretty incredible. We weren't satisfied with that, though, and when we reached the Sierra Nevada mountains we decided to take a tiny little road that went up over the top.

Right after Christmas. In winter.
On a road clearly marked as a snowmobile route--that just happened to have not gotten closed off that year for some reason.

It was a beautiful road on the way up the mountain. But then we hit the top, and just as we reached the point where we would start back down the other side, we hit the snow.

LOTS of snow.

We were stuck, two new parents, one tiny baby girl, and two giant dogs.

Nobody lived on the road (probably due to the fact that they would have gotten stuck each winter), so there wasn't a house close by. And of course there was no cell phone reception there, so we had no way to call for help. Nathan decided to walk down to find help. I didn't want him going alone, so he said he would take one of the dogs. The Dane was all legs at the time and incredibly clumsy, so I could just see both of them tumbling down the mountain. Besides, if he was going to be walking at night--yes, it was already nearing sunset at the time--I wanted to know he had some sort of protection, so he took the Rottweiler. I was left with the newborn and the dog with the nervous stomach, sitting in a Santa Fe stuck in the snow on top of the mountain.

He was gone for hours, and it was cold and getting colder. I pulled Raiden up into the front with me, but I had to tuck her in and get out with the dog periodically so he could go to the bathroom. I just knew she was going to be too cold, so I piled a bunch of the blankets on top of us. When Raiden started fussing a little while later, I checked on her and the poor baby was sweating!

It was dark by the time Nathan got back to the car. He had waked down the mountain and found a man who came back to help, but they got stuck on their way back to the Santa Fe.

Yeah.

We ended up spending the night on the mountain, but the next morning finally got pulled out. On our way back down we checked the distance from where we had been stuck to where Nathan had walked--13 miles.

As soon as we got back into cell range my phone started beeping, telling me I had missed calls and voicemails. My mom had worried about us all night when she hadn't gotten a call saying we had stopped for the night. When I called her back that next morning, you can be sure she mentioned to me how good it had been for her to make us put all those blankets in the car!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

for when you don't see God

Psalm 124
"If the LORD had not been on our side--
let Israel say--
if the LORD had not been on our side
when men attacked us,
when their anger flared against us,
they would have swallowed us alive;
the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters
would have swept us away.
Praise be to the LORD,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler's snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth."

When things go wrong, it's easy to look around and ask, "Where is God?" I know that I've had lots of those moments in my life, times when everything was going wrong (or at least, not according to my plans) and I felt abandoned. In the middle of the bad stuff, it's hard to get a different perspective--kind of like only seeing the waves when you're in the middle of the raging storm at sea. Looking at the waves, you miss out on the fact that those waves--though terrible in their own right--may have beaten you up, but they pushed you away from the rocks on which you would have been dashed to pieces.

Looking back now, I can see God's protection in the midst of the storms. If Nathan had gone to flight school, we would have been two kids with no insurance when he started having kidney pain and most likely we wouldn't have gotten his diagnosis. Not to forget that he probably wouldn't have been able to pass the flight physical once he finally had a diagnosis...And when we were in the middle of the year it took the Coast Guard doctors to diagnose his LPHS and thin basement membrane disease
when so many were accusing him of "faking it" to get out of the military
when we were both in a dark place that threatened to overwhelm us with dipression
we found a place working with a youth group and were reminded that God takes care of His people.

When my brother was killed, it would have been easy--and understandable--for our family to fall apart. The common thought seems to be that if we just pray hard enough, truly believe, there's no way anything bad will happen to the person we are praying for. We are told to just have faith, with the implication of that statement being that if something bad happens we simply weren't
praying/believing/faithful enough. I come from a praying family, with lots of praying friends, and I know without a doubt that there wasn't a day that went by while Michael was in Iraq that he didn't have people praying for his safety. In fact, I know without a doubt that we prayed for him the day he was killed because we had a family birthday get together that day.

It would have been easy for his death to destroy the faith of all those who loved him and had been praying.

Instead, people from all over who had known Michael were strengthened. Our faith was shaken, without a doubt, but sometimes you don't realize the strength of your foundation until you're shaken and you see everything else crumble--except that foundation.

When I didn't make it into grad school in 2011, that could have been the end. Instead I got to teach for a year and met some wonderful people and amazing kids, then I came up to Ohio a year later to start grad school with a great group of people--some of whom I wouldn't have made it through this first year without (and seriously, can you believe my first year of grad school is done? I sure can't!).

There are more, but this is getting pretty long already. In the middle of those times, I know that it was really hard to see God's hands around me, protecting me. Now, though, i can honestly say with the psalmist:
"If the LORD had not been on our side...
the flood would have engulfed us, 
the torrent would have swept over us, 
the raging waters would have swept us away."

Friday, May 10, 2013

just like your mom...

"You look just like your mom!"

I've heard this my whole life--from family, friends, and strangers--and I'll admit that when I was a teenager it grated on me every time I heard it. Mom and I butted heads a lot.

Growing up it seemed we never saw eye to eye on anything; we were just too different, despite looking alike. Moma has always said that even though I look like her, I think like Pop and am turned like Aunt Brenda (of course, both of those are compliments, right?). We were so different in so many ways, but alike in a few that made our disagreements into battles quite often. We were both emotional and neither o us knew how to let things go, which led to more blowouts than I can count. We would argue, I would stomp to my room and slam the door, she would follow me and swing it open again.

As I've gotten older, while the similarities in our looks have grown more pronounced, our differences have as well. My mom has a decorator's eye; my pictures are still just leaning against walls. Mom stayed home with all three of her kids when we were little; I've been in school for as long as my kids have been alive (and believe me, that's been what's kept us all sane!). Mom knows everybody's story; I can barely remember names. She can grow anything; I've killed a cactus. She has the patience of a saint; I... let's just say I don't!

I am finding, though, that in a few ways i'm more like her than I realized:
I can't go to someone's house for dinner and walk in empty handed.
I like watching cooking shows.
I get fierce if I feel like my kids have been wronged.
The white walls in all the houses we've rented are driving me crazy and I can't wait to get a house of our own so I can put some color on the walls.

There's a quote (attributed to Mark Twain, but not actually said by him as far as I can tell) that says, "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years." Though it's about a father, it fits here pretty well. Mom and i still butt heads from time to time, but it's strange if more than a day goes by without us talking on the phone. She's been my port in a storm more times than I can count in this craziness that is life. When no one else understands, I know she'll be there to listen and speak words of peace.

I still see our differences, the things that make me growl when i was younger whenever people told me I was just like my mother, but now I see those things for what they are--the traits that make my mom who she is.
Her hands are always busy, usually doing things for others.
She charges about half what she should at her flower shop because her customers are "good people" and she wants to help them--they are her friends and family.
Her tears come readily because her heat breaks for the hurting.
Her smile comes just as quickly because she rejoices with people as easily as she cries with them.

I've watched my mom stay up late and get up early to make sure everything gets done. I've seen her add to a Sunday dinner that was already cooked because Pop invited someone home with us from church. I've watched her lose a son and love on grandbabies. I've seen her make her fingers bleed getting someone's flowers just right.

The physical similarities will always be there, and when people tell me I look like my mom now I just smile. I can only hope that every once in a while people see a small glimpse of her in my actions, too, because those are the traits that make my mom...my mom.

Friday, May 3, 2013

here and now

Sometimes I look around and wonder, "What in the world am I doing here? Surely this isn't the right place for me."

Am I the only one?
Didn't think so (although I'll admit that sometimes the thought that I am the only one who feels that way creeps into my mind and starts a pity party).

I stare at physics problems or I look at the big city we've found ourselves in or think about how we've been married for 9 years now and have 2 kids and still haven't gotten a place that's ours and I think maybe we've gotten a bit lost somehow.

But then, God uses half of one verse tucked in the middle of Paul's speech to a bunch of Greek philosophers 2 thousand years ago to tell me this: 
 
"...and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." (Acts 17:26b)

This "God who made the world and everything in it" (vs. 24) cares enough about each one of us to have hand-picked this exact moment and this exact place for us. Not only did He create every man on earth, He determined exactly when and where each one should live--nothing was left to chance.

How amazing is it that?

So, just like Esther was crowned queen by King Xerxes so that she could be in place to save the Jews in their hour of need (you can read her story in her book here), when you get overwhelmed by where you find yourself, remind yourself that God put you here, now, "for such a time as this". (Esther 4:14b)