Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2014 in review, Part Three

In this final part of my reflection of our past year, I will focus on our ministry.  The year started with little to no defined ministry roles: not only were we were new at our church, but we also needed some time to just catch our breath, and said no to a few things we were asked to do early on.  But once we felt like we had our footing established, we started to take on a few roles.  Here is a sampling of some of the ministry we took on in the second half of 2014.

*Teaching four-year-old Sunday school.  Together, we teach the four-year-olds during the Sunday school hour, which we both love.  The kiddos are a lot of fun.  Alex enjoys being "on" for the kids and easily gets their attention with his energy and humor.  The curriculum we are using is wonderful, very God-centered.  Alex usually does the teaching while I lead singing and scripture memory, and occasionally put together a craft.  Not only is four a fun age, but an added benefit is that we are learning how to teach and interact with the age that Esther will be soon.

*Community Garden. Through a number of different factors, God gave us the desire to propose a community garden to our church.  This will be on our church's property, and will serve not only as a benefit to members of the church, but it will also be open to members of our community.  Our projection is that we will have more non-church members than members, which we are hoping will lead to stronger ties into our community. Alex has been putting together plans for a while, and formally proposed the plans in December.  The elder board approved the plans, and we are hoping to have it up and running by April 15th of this year! A lot has to happen between now and then, so please be in prayer for us.  This is the biggest step of faith we have taken in a while, and I am excited to see God answer our prayers and glorify His name through this ministry.

*BloomingMoms greeter. At the start of this school year, I began help with our church's moms group.  I like being a greeter because it helps me get to know the moms who come that aren't a part of our church.  It has helped me to stay outward focused when our group meets, rather than talking to people I already know and to remember who to pray for.  This has also been a great way to meet all of the new women who come.

In addition to what I mentioned above, Alex was in charge of the men's retreat at our church a couple months ago and I have been helping with nursery scheduling (a BIG undertaking at a church with over 100 kiddos under the age of 5).

Monday, January 5, 2015

Raising the Bar for Your Children

Recently we have started teaching Esther catechism questions and answers.  I figured it was better to start sooner than later but I have been amazed at how quickly she has picked up on them.  It has made me think that we really should have started sooner, but glad that we have at least started now (she is three).

There are two things that have really been impressed on me in the past few years regarding teaching young children.  First of all, that they are really sponges for facts.  Since young kids can't think abstractly yet, their brain is like a huge filing cabinet where all day long they are filing away facts.  The more facts that you can help them to file away now, the better their abstract thinking will become in the future.

The second thing I have been learning is that most parents have way too low of expectations for their children in many areas (including especially behavior) but in this case academically/intellectually.  Esther may not understand all of these questions and answers, but she has the capability of memorizing them, which will help her in the future when she can think more deeply of questions about God and life.

I was looking on YouTube for recordings of these question and answers for us to listen to as another way of helping her to learn it.  This video of a two year old answering the first 12 catechism questions is a good reminder that even little children can be expected to learn much more than we usually expect of them.

This video of another two year old is even more impressive, as she does the first 20 questions with great clarity and annunciation.  I can't get the video to come up for some reason so I can only link to it.

Now, if it sounds like you would need to be some kind of drill sergeant to have your 2 or 3 year old memorize all of these questions, let me assure you that its not at all like that.  All it takes is lots of repetition.  We work on these questions for about 5 minutes per day, usually at lunch time.  I read the questions over and over, and then start leaving words blank for Esther to fill in.  After just over a week of this, Esther has about ten answers memorized.  Not only does she find it fun, but she often asks to practice at other times.  "Let's do questions, Mom!" I hear several times each day, and I'll ask her a few of the ones she knows.  Not only does she enjoy it but I can tell she feels a sense of accomplishment for what she has learned.  This is a satisfying feeling that I hope will spur her on to continue to challenge herself in many areas throughout her life.

Relatedly, small children are also sponges for scripture memory.  Just as with catechism questions, repetition is key.  I try to recite verses while doing menial tasks with the kiddos, like changing diapers and brushing teeth.  Esther can recite most of Psalm 1 because of this method.

Making scripture and spiritual teachings the topic of convesation throughout the day like this is one of the ways to be obedient to this command:
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul... You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied..." Deuteronomy 11:18-21
I love the promise at the end... that "the days of your children may be multiplied".  What good parent doesn't want that for their children?

So, where is the bar set for your children?  Maybe your New Year's resolution for this year should be to set higher goals for them and take the initiative as a parent to make it happen.

Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 in review, Part Three

Yesterday I mentioned how our lives have been developing spiritually this past year.  This has also been a great year for our family.  Here are some of the things God has been doing in our family in 2014.

*Moving. We're gearing up to move in 2 weeks.  This will be our third move in the past 13 months (and if we buy a house this year that will be yet another move!).  It was so nice living in the same house in California for over 3 years... it was the first time since the beginning of college that I hadn't moved on a yearly basis.  Well, this year has made up for that!  All I can say is that moving a lot is helpful to continually get rid of unwanted/unused items and to stay flexible.  That being said, I hope God settles us down for at least a few years (until we move again after Alex is done with classes!).  For the first time since we've been married I've had a desire to settle, decorate the house, cultivate a garden on our own soil and establish ourselves somewhere.  Also, moving a lot is entirely unhelpful for having a ministry among your neighbors.

*Hudson's birth.  He came 3 weeks early, at the end of March and has been a blessing and a joy ever since.  Esther took a few weeks to warm up to him but now she absolutely adores him and always asks to play with him as soon as he wakes from naps.  I'm glad for her sake she has a "permanent" sibling- she's had two foster siblings come and go since she was born (both of whom she also adored).  He's by far our worst sleeper so far, but I know its just a season of life and we need to be patient.  He's a very eager and active baby, not waiting any time at all to crawl (started at 5 months 5 days old!) and will very likely be walking before he turns one.  Everywhere we go he gets tons of compliments on his eyes, which are so dark brown that you can't even see his pupil.  He is also frequently called "pretty", which is Alex's least favorite "compliment" for him.

*Fostering. 2014 was the first year since 2010 that we haven't had any foster placements, but not entirely by our choice.  We started the re-certification process a few months ago but have been more or less ignored by overburdened social workers.  So it may take a few more months until it happens (moving is also one of the steps in the process that has to happen).  We are looking forward to getting placements again, but selfishly I am hoping for Hudson to start sleeping through the night (like solid 12 hours of sleep) before that happens... so please pray that his sleep improves.  There are two other families at church who are certified or in the process, and its nice to again have local friends who we can relate to in this area (a strong support system is crucial in fostering).

*Alex's work.  Our move, combined with a few other factors, has allowed Alex to start a business based off of his computer.  He runs this website with a friend and sells stuff on ebay, among other things.  This work is something he's wanted to pursue for a while and is a blessing as it allows a lot of flexibility to pursue ministry and take classes.  It will also provide income for us to go overseas in the future (Lord willing).  Its also the most enjoyable job he's had in years, which is a blessing to our whole family to see him doing something he enjoys.

*Parenting.  One of the strengths of our church, and one reason we wanted to move here is godly parenting.  Over our first full year here we have certainly grown in that area.  Two big ways I have grown in being better about disciplining our children (its always easy to make lots of excuses as to why you don't need to discipline, all at the expense of the child) and to show more affection.  Though these things may seem opposite, they are actually hand in hand, as they reflect the severity and kindness of the Lord.  I am also learning about training children in godliness and teaching them about God and the Bible.  Seeing how much progress we've made this year, I am excited to learn more in the coming years.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 in Review, Part One

2014 has been a breath of fresh air for us.  Its the first year since the beginning of our marriage that has not been trial after trial after trail.  Which is not to say that its been all easy, but compared to years past, much more so than we are used to.  So here is a peak at certain areas of our lives this past year and how God has been working in us, specifically in the area of our faith.

*Repenting of sin. As Martin Luther said, "The whole of a Christian's life is one of repentance".  So its not that repentance is new or different this year but that by God's grace, he's still convicting me of sin and I'm still repenting of sin.  Among other things, I have been convicted of a lot of fears this year, fears that keep me from taking steps of faith, especially in ministry.  I have been convicted of a lot of pride, especially since we are at a new church and in a new town and making new friends... I have spent way too much energy thinking about how I want people to think of me and how I want to be respected by others.  There are many more, but these are two that come to mind that God has been working on in me.

*Boldness.  God has been using some people in my life who are very bold about sharing the gospel to encourage me to be bolder in speaking up on spiritual matters (here is one example, and here is another).  The main thing that keeps me from being bold is fearing what people will think of me.  But God continues to press on me that life is short and eternity is long, and if I keep quiet I'm not changing anyone's eternity, just making my short life here on earth a bit easier.  And even if at times I err on the side of being too bold, I would rather fail in the right direction than fail in the wrong direction of constantly fearing people and never speaking up about what I believe.

*Humility.  Along with repentance, shouldn't this be a constant theme in every Christian's life?  By God's grace it is in mine, but especially this year.  I have been learning so much being surrounded by so many older, more mature Christians at our church, which has really been humbling, especially coming from different churches and groups in the past where I was usually more mature than the average person.  But its nice to just sit back and learn from others and not have to have all the answers to questions all of the time.  I think this is part of the reason I haven't been blogging as much of late... I feel like I'm just soaking a lot in and don't have so much to pour out at the moment.
Photo credit: Ryk Neethling on Flickr
*Bible reading.  Sigh.  I hate setting goals that I don't accomplish.  Its really humbling (see above).  This is the fourth year I have attempted the M'Cheyene bible in a year plan and the fourth time I have failed.  (Although in my defense for good reasons... each time I have failed its always been because of a new birth or foster placement gets me off track until I'm so far behind that I eventually give up).  This time I have decided to finish no matter how long it takes (I have about 1/3 of the OT left, so not really that much to go.  I decided to only read the NT once, though the M'Cheyene plan has two full readings of the NT) and I don't think I'm going to attempt the Bible in a year again, at least not for a long time.  Reading that much every day feels like a burden and doesn't play on my strengths: I much more prefer to read shorter passages and study them in depth.  I read the bible most days of the week (I love being up before the kids and getting to read and pray for a bit!) but 4 chapters per day is unrealistic, especially for how slow of a reader I am.  So I'm going to finish up the OT so that I can say I have read the whole Bible, but I plan to do a different kind of study after that this year.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Would you have spoken up?

It was such a typical conversation.  I wasn't surprised to hear it.  But my reaction did surprise me.

I was at the farmer's market today with Esther to buy some bulk honey for some Christmas presents I plan to make.  Now, the critical information that you need to know here is that Bloomington is a very liberal, crunchy, atheistic town.  And in our much beloved liberal, crunchy, atheistic town (and we really do love it here) the farmer's market is like the Sunday worship where all the like minded people meet on a weekly basis.  So being as such, it was no surprise that there was a table there to protest some deer killing going on at a local park that is apparently over-ridden with deer.

I happened to be by the table for a minute and overheard a very passionate conversation going on.  Two women and a man were going on about how pro-life people only care about babies inside the womb, but after they are born, they couldn't care less.  Their words oozed with pride at how much they clearly cared for children and how right their stereotype was.

Now, I have heard statements like this before, and I usually don't speak up, because I doubt that my opinion can change anything.  But as they went on and on, my blood began to boil as I though of the years of my life that I have spent in full time service to kids (out of the womb!!) in need through foster parenting.  In fact, I have met many foster parents over the years and know for a fact that there are many more pro-life foster parents than pro-choice.

I decided that living in the town that we do, their stereotype had probably never been challenged, so without much forethought of what I was going to say, I spoke up.  "Excuse me, I don't think that you can say that all pro-life people don't care about babies after they are born.  My husband and I are foster parents and have sacrificed a lot to serve children in need.  We care about children both in and outside of the womb."

Their response was to play this off, that I was the exception to the rule.  But I stood fast.  I wanted to ask them how many of their liberal friends had sacrificed years of their lives to serve foster children, but instead, I just said, "No.  Its not even most pro-life people who don't care about babies outside of the womb." To which they finally backed down to saying that some pro-life people don't care about babies outside of the womb, since "they wont vote to give more money to schools".

We ended the conversation cordially, they asked about Esther, she gave them her favorite line ("I'm free") and after a minute she and I walked away.

Some thoughts from this interaction:

1. Money is different than your time and your life.  It is one thing to vote to give a little more of your paycheck to kids in need (especially when the brunt of the money is going to come from someone else's paycheck and not your own.)  It is a vastly different thing to sacrifice your time and your life to serve kids in need.  Children in need usually come from broken homes.  They don't need money so much as positive relationships, true mother and father figures in their lives.  But most people would rather throw a little money at them and feel like they did a good thing to prevent these children from starving, when in reality the real starvation is for love, not food.

2. Evangelism - As I walked away from the conversation, the man followed me.  He stopped me and asked how many kids we have.  I told him that we have two biological children and have been able to serve six foster children.  He told me (this is pretty much an exact quote) "I am ok if you have two biological children as long as you don't have any more."

Um, excuse me, when did it become polite conversation to tell someone else how to run their family?  But I wasn't surprised to hear his opinion on this.  You see, in our culture, anyone but Christians are allowed to share (even push) the tenants of their religion.  For the man I talked to today, the gospel of his self-made religion is all about abortion, politics and family size.  But if I had turned around and tried to share the Biblical gospel with him?  I would have been seen as pushy and intolerant.  This is a double standard and Americans needs to wake up and see it as such.

3. Deer vs. Babies - The irony didn't phase me, but people, can we please all notice that they are giving their time to protest a few deer being killed, but celebrate babies being killed?

4. Did my speaking up make a difference?  Should I have even said anything?  This is a question I discussed with Alex after we got home.

In the end we came to the conclusion: yes, it was a good thing.  Honestly, I do think my words affected the two women.  They even thanked me for sharing my thoughts before I walked away and seemed to truly take in the things I said.  I probably didn't change their mind, but they might think twice before loudly sharing their opinion on this topic again.

But more than changing people's opinion about politics or even abortion, I want people to hear the true gospel, that Jesus Christ died to save sinners, including prideful baby-haters like them, and prideful rule-lovers like me.  And I didn't get to share that with them today, but we prayed for them that this conversation will prepare them to hear gospel and accept it in the future.  Who knows, maybe God will even allow me to be the person to share it with them.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Year Ago Today

A year ago today we arrived in Bloomington, having moved here from California.  We were a bit beat up and battered: our incredibly difficult 4.5 years was topped off by an even more stressful moving process.  The week of our move was one of the hardest weeks of my life.

But after that week we finally got here.  We didn't have a home yet, but God graciously provided one within a few days.  We were fortunate to already have a good, welcoming church, but didn't yet have any good friends.  We had hopes for our new town, new church and new life, but didn't exactly know what to expect. 

When I look back on this year, there is a verse that very clearly describes what God has done in our lives:
"And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen." 1 Peter 5:10-11
Our "little while" was our time in California.  Though painful for 4.5 years, it is but a blink in the light of eternity.  And God is gracious, because after our time of suffering, he has used this year to "restore, confirm, strengthen and establish" us.

A lot has happened in this past year.  We added another member to our family.  We moved twice (with a third move planned for next month).  We made friends, and will say a sad goodbye tomorrow to one of the families we have become closest to, who are making their own big cross country move.  We have grown in our love for God and holiness.  We have grown in our abilities as parents.

But most of all, I thank God for rest.  Not every moment has been easy, but much easier than it has been for a while.  I am thankful for a time of spiritual recovery, as we get ready to jump back into the battle.

Because, as John Piper says, "Life is war".  And times of rest are just preparation to get back into the fight.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

My Simplified Winter Meal Plan

I have been feeling a need of recent to simplify my meal planning and prep, and in effort to do so I decided to make a 4 week meal rotation that I am going to use for the next few months.  Having my meals for the week already selected makes life much easier.
Photo Credit: Janine on Flickr
I had a few main goals when making this rotation.  First (as usual), I wanted to pick meals that are healthy and loved by my family.  All of these are "made from scratch" as this is healthier and cheaper than boxed foods.  Esther is picky, so mostly I try to pick meals that Alex likes (it would be impossible to please her!).  Alex, like many men, isn't a big fan of soup, but I have soup every week in this rotation because these are all meaty, hearty, yummy hubby-approved soups (I asked!).  We like a lot of ethnic foods (Indian, Thai, Mexican, etc) and this meal plan reflects that.

Secondly, I wanted meals with easy prep, with a focus on crock pot meals.  The hours between nap time and dinner tend to be hard so I wanted to make this easier by picking meals I could at least start earlier in the day.  I find that soup can be made mid afternoon, and left on the stove to be heated up right at dinner time.  Some of these meals I will make 2 pans of and freeze one, or at least double the sauce, crust, etc and freeze it to make life easier next time I made it.  Along the same lines, most of these meals only require one or two pans/pots to be used, which also makes things simpler.  I just can't do a main dish with 3 side dishes... too much clean up, especially right now while we don't have a dish washer!  Lastly, I picked meals that are good winter meals: lots of soups/stews, casseroles, and other hot, hearty meals.

You might notice that I tend to rotate through meats: most weeks I have one dish with each beef, chicken, fish, sausage and one meatless.  I know I'm probably weird, but I just like including each of these in our various meals each week for variety.

A few notes.  First, we have dinner with our small group on Sundays, so I only planned 6 days worth of dinners each week.  At the bottom I did list some ideas for small group meals for when its my turn to make the main; meals that are easy to make in large batches, generally liked by most adults and kids and able to be transported.  Secondly, I linked recipes where I use them on line, but many of these are meals that I make often enough that I don't really use a recipe, I just know how to make it.  But you can always try google or pintrest for some recipe suggestions!  Third, whenever it says rolls, I use an ABi5 sourdough recipe which makes life so easy and seriously fresh baked bread is sooooooo yummy.  Once you go ABi5 you never go back.

So, here it is.  I hope it helps you to simplify your life or at least inspires you to try something new!

Week 1
1 Beef Enchilladas with guacamole (this recipe for the sauce)
2 Crockpot seafood paella
3 Pesto chicken pasta (frozen pesto from last summer's bounty- yum!)
4 Pumpkin Sausage soup with rolls
5 Greek Chicken Pizza (w/ sourdough pizza crust)
6 Spinach and Swiss quiche

Week 2
1 Beef Lasagna
2 Fettucine Alfredo with baked salmon (This recipe for the sauce.  Shh... don't tell bean haters it contains beans.  They will never know.)
3 Crockpot Coconut Indian Chicken (This recipe is so easy I wish I could do it weekly, but I am afraid we'd get burnt out)
4 Beef Chili with rolls or biscuits
5 Sausage, onion, mushroom and olive pizza (w/ sourdough pizza crust)
6 Black Bean Tostadas

Week 3
1 Crockpot Tex Mex Quinoa (with ground beef)
2 Brazillian Fish Stew over rice
3 Crockpot Tiki Masala Chicken
4 Sausage and Gnocchi soup with rolls
5 Pizza with Beef sausage (w/ sourdough pizza crust)
6 Broccoli and Cheddar Quiche

Week 4
1 Beef Burritos
2 Salmon Casserole (like tuna casserole but made with salmon instead)
3 Thai Green Chicken Curry
4 Hungarian Goulash with rolls
5 Sausage, onion, mushroom and olive pizza (w/ sourdough pizza crust)
6 Spaghetti Squash casserole (basically this recipe but with spaghetti squash instead of pasta)

Small group meals: Chicken Enchiladas (this recipe for the sauce but I made the enchiladas themselves differently), sausage breakfast casserole, lasagna or stuffed shells, chicken and dumplings.

What are some ways that you have found help to simplify your meal planning?