Mastering My Monkeys

You know how you hear something, and then you keep hearing it from different sources in different ways and then you realize it’s something you to which you should probably pay attention?

I’ve had that experience lately.

It all started with this Polish proverb:

Not my circus.  Not my monkeys.Of course this catchy little phrase is intended to remind the hearer that what they see might not be their problem.

If the circus master lets out his monkeys, he’s responsible to get them back under control and to make restitution for the damages.

If my toddler, child, tween, teen, husband, or co-worker loses their emotions, it is their responsibility to get them back under control.  It is not my responsibility, though I may be willing to serve by helping them round their monkeys up!

It is not anyone else’s responsibility to control or repair the damage I do by letting my emotions run wild either.

That’s where the drama mama in me needs to be careful.

It is a lot easier to blame my adult temper tantrum on my kids because they’ve been naughty all day and gotten me into this foul mood.

It is a lot easier to hold my husband responsible because he was 15 minutes late and in that time the toddler had a potty accident, three children were injured in a brawl, and I angrily ordered everyone to their corners until “Daddy gets home to deal with you!”

See, I live in a fantasy world where I like to think I am responsible for other people’s monkeys, and where I’d like not to take responsibility for my own.

My husband constantly has to remind me I am responsible for my own faithfulness in parenting/ministry/friendship, not for the results.

On the other hand, I resent being pulled into the drama of others.  I need equally frequent reminders to remain an objective third party… when I am, in fact, a third party.  🙂

So over the past few weeks, since I stumbled upon this Polish proverb, I’ve been reciting “Not my circus.  Not my monkeys.” when I am tempted to try to control others.  I’ve also had to recognize when I let my monkeys out and recite, “Master my monkeys!  This is my circus.”

Mostly, I’m learning to focus on my own holiness and learning to live like Christ regardless of who’s monkeys are on the loose.  I guess you could say I’m learning to walk in self-control and wisdom.

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

— 2 Timothy 1:7

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

— James 3:13-18

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Photo Credit:
By Steve from washington, dc, usa (golden lion tamarin family) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes She Whispers (Impressions from She Speaks)

Late at night, my little girl tiptoes into our bedroom, frightened by a scary dream. She waits a moment, and then quietly whispers, “Daddy?”

Why do we whisper when we are scared?

I have to admit I am terrified to write this post. Just like I was terrified to go to She Speaks.

The good news is, being brave starts with being afraid, so here I am, knees knocking, heart pounding… I’ve got all the necessary components to be brave. 🙂

Sometimes, when I’m afraid, like my daughter, I begin in a whisper.

She Speaks was an awesome weekend connecting with other writers and speakers and learning a lot about both crafts. A month later, my mind is still spinning!

I was fed spiritually, relationally, and practically. I was also given this awesome opportunity to link up with Courtney Defeo this week as we connect to talk about the things we learned at She Speaks.

There were three things God impressed on my heart through She Speaks.

  • It all begins with loving Jesus
  • I’ve got to study my audience as much as I study the scriptures
  • God’s grace is on display when I let my imperfection show

It all begins with loving Jesus

It all begins with Jesus

In one of her workshops, Sharon Glasgow quoted John Wesley, saying, “Catch on fire and others will love to come and watch you burn.”

My mind has been stuck on the burning bush every since. See, Moses was drawn to go see what was happening because the bush burned, but was not consumed. If I am going to love others into the kingdom, it starts with catching myself on fire. And that begins and ends with knowing and loving Jesus.

I’ve spent the last month digging into the word with renewed vigor. In God’s providence, before I went to She Speaks, I’d written enough posts for my blog to run on auto-pilot for three months. I haven’t written a word (until today!) since early July. I planned a break so that I could digest what I learned at the conference by going into and out of my little cocoon changed.

Spending all that “writing” time in the Word is already shaping the words I will begin writing next month. Now more than ever, I want His words to be in my heart, for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (or fingers type…) Luke 6:45.

Truly, it all begins with loving Jesus.

I’ve got to study my audience as much as I study the scriptures

Writing and speaking is a little bit like matchmaking. For years I’ve made a habit of understanding my audience before I led a conference, retreat, or devotional. I’ve worked to understand where their hearts are so that I can apply scripture in a meaningful way ~ which means I have to know scripture pretty well, too. So that I can make a good match, if you will.

Since I started writing, I’m not sure I’ve taken the time to study my “audience,” the very people to whom I write. At She Speaks, God convicted my heart of my failing in this area.

It’s not unlike my desire to learn to cook.

Some years ago, as a single gal, I decided to learn to cook. One night, I followed my grandmother’s recipe for chicken-n-dumplings to the letter. They were delicious! The aroma drew my roommate from her studies in the back of the house to the kitchen. And the best part is they were good for us! They smelled and tasted great ~ fed my body good things, but they looked… well, to be completely honest… they looked like somebody had thrown up in my bowl.

It took some work, but I make beautiful, tasty, and nutritious chicken-n-dumplings now.

Learning to blog has been a little bit like my Chicken-n-Dumplings experiment. I get lots of good feedback on my content… when people hear me speak, they are drawn to know Christ and to know him more deeply.

Those brave souls who have ventured onto my blog have (in their own words) understood God’s grace more fully and been built up and strengthened to do life with grace as a result.

I offer something that is tasty and good for the soul. But my website looks… well, to be completely honest… not quite like throw up, but…

So, I’ve also spent the last month working my tail off learning what my hoped-for readers value and need from me ~ visually and in content. I’ve been working on a complete redesign of my website. {Before you panic: this is not it. This is still the chicken-n-dumplings-experiment site.}

Which brings me to…

God’s grace is on display when I let my imperfection show

I really, really, really wanted to get my new site up and running before this link up.

I thought I’d be ready to come out shouting, but in God’s providence, I’m close, but not ready to “go live.”,

Something about it being 17 years since I wrote my last piece of code has set me back more than once. I’ve had people helping, praying, advising, and cheering me on… and I’m really excited about the whole new face of CultivateGrace.org. But at some point, I needed to spend time on the things I am primarily called to do… love my husband, love my kids, and be involved in our church.

So today, you get to see my imperfect face, because it’s either show up for the link up with tasty, nutritious food that looks not-so-good, or hide until I think I’ve got it all together.

And since the entirety of my blog is about resting in the grace of God, learning to apply grace to our own lives, and giving grace to others, it would be more than a little hypocritical to skip the link up because I can’t do it “perfect.”

Lord willing, by this time next week, CultivateGrace.org will have it’s new look. And a few weeks from now, when I begin writing again, it’ll have Jesus written all over it.

Until then I’ll whisper.

{{UPDATE:  This is the new site!  It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t look like… well… I hope you enjoy it anyway!}}

3 Steps to the Seasonal Swap in Hand-Me-Down Heaven

3-Steps to Seasonal Swap squareMy sister is five years older than I am.  When we were growing up, I got a lot of her clothes after she’d outgrown them.  Sometimes we had matching outfits, so I got to wear it over and over again.  I liked the matching part.  I didn’t like wearing it five years later all by myself.  I was over it by then.

My kids get a lot of hand-me-downs.  It is one of the joys of having seven kids.  Plus, Mike and I are the babies of our families, so we have siblings with older kids who hand things down, too.

But my kids actually enjoy hand-me-downs.

One year one of my older kids complained because s/he wasn’t getting to wear anything from the cousins and had to have all new clothes.

A different time the older kids were lamenting that boy pants get ruined before they get to the fifth or sixth boy (since they often start out of our family) and poor Nate wouldn’t get to wear the outfits everyone else did.

And they were serious.

Go figure.

My childhood experience led me to believe hand-me-downs were a curse.  My kids see them as a delight and a blessing.

What is not quite so delightful is sorting, storing, and swapping clothes every spring and fall.  See, we get clothes when people grow out of them, but we might not fit into them yet.

Honestly there have been some years I’ve wished we had enough money to buy everyone clothes AND that I could be frivolous enough to just get rid of the good clothes at the end of the season.  Since it is highly unlikely that both of those things will ever happen, never mind simultaneously, I have had to work out ways to deal with piles and piles of clothes.

It takes a bit of organization. I’ll admit there have been times when I missed a whole size for one child because I didn’t know we had clothes in that size.

We keep our out-of-season clothes in the attic of our guest/school room.  Not incredibly convenient, but on the other hand, I can pull everything down and take a few days to process it since it’s in a spare-ish room.  (We can do school around piles and bins of clothes if necessary.)

Still, I get a lot of questions about how I handle hand-me-downs and the Seasonal Swap for seven kids.

Organizing the Storage Area

  • We have rugged plastic bins with tight-fitting lids.
  • The bins are labeled either by size + gender or by child.
  • Sometimes we have clothes that won’t fit anyone next season.  These get a size + gender label.
  • But when we are putting away clothes from one season, I  think about who will need what size the next time we do this.  I fill the bin with the child’s name with clothes for the next season which will likely fit him/her.  Sometimes I draw from clothes a sibling is just growing out of, sometimes I drew from clothes in a size + gender-labeled bin in the attic.
  • On Swap Day all the child-labeled bins come down from the attic along with any size + gender-labeled bins that may be appropriate.
  • I keep all winter coats, hats, mittens in one combined bin.  I also have a combined bin for swimwear.  These things are occasionally needed off-season or have size ranges and it’s easier to deal with them as a group.
  • Any boxes/bags of hand-me-downs that arrive from the cousins get labeled and tossed into the attic as-is until the next clothes swap day.

“Shopping” from the Attic

  • On Swap Day, I try to get a couple of loads of laundry done so all the clothes they’ve been wearing are clean.
  • While that’s happening, all the potentially needed bins come down out of the attic, along with any clothes we’ve gotten from the cousins since the last swap day.
  • I pull two children (same gender) at a time into the guest/school room to try on clothes from bins or fresh meat from the cousins.
  • Clothes that fit (and we like) go into a laundry pile (they often smell like plastic when they come out of the bin).
  • Clothes that don’t fit (or we don’t like – I don’t see a need to “store” clothes in our limited closet space if the child is simply never going to pull it out to wear it) go into a pile.
  • Clothes we don’t like either go into a give-away pile or put up for a different child who may still grow into that size.
  • We try to find nine outfits plus one dress outfit per child.  This lets us do laundry once per week with a little allowance for being off schedule with laundry or occasionally needing to change clothes halfway through the day.  I might keep a couple more outfits for toddlers.  Especially during the potty-training season.
  • I make a list of any clothes we need to purchase to complete our desired quantity of outfits.  I also list the size of the child with their list, and what colors of shoes would go best with the outfits we’ve selected, if shoes are needed.  Theres nothing like finding adorable ruby slippers for a sweet girl only to get home and find all her outfits are actually pink and orange.
  • Then I move on to the next two kids, and so on, until we are through all the “new clothes” selections and list making.
  • Eventually I get done.
  • Sometimes we are really short on time (I know, like that ever happens in a homeschooling family of nine, right?).  On those occasions, when I’m really desperate because the kids are wearing shorts and it’s snowing outside, we just pull down the kid-name bins until we have time to work through it all properly.

Emptying the Closets

  • After we’ve selected the next season’s wardrobe, I am elated.  Then I remember the closets are still full…. and that’s when I am tempted to just give it all away.  Who cares if anyone has anything to wear next summer.  It’ll be hot anyway.  Aren’t clothes overrated?  And how expensive could it really be to clothe all seven kids with brand-new clothes?
  • Then reality sets in and I get working again.
  • So, given that all their clothes are clean, I have them pick two outfits which still fit very well or run a little big.  We pop those onto their shelves as “transition” clothes.  Inevitably we have a cold snap right after we get out spring/summer clothes or a warm spell when we’ve just loaded shelves with sweaters.  Plus, chances are good, the weather will change before I have time to swap wardrobes at the end of whatever season we are starting.  It’s helpful to have a couple of outfits to mix in.
  • Then we go through all their clothes.
  • Too small?  Put it in a bin for someone smaller.
  • Too big?  Keep it in their bin for next year.
  • Holey?  Stained?  Tattered?  Faded beyond recognition?  Elastic no longer stretches? Throw it away.
  • Smallest kid hates it?  Give it away.
  • Whatever is left, goes into a bin.  We cart the piles over to the guest/school room and pack them up by child, if they are likely to fit someone next season, or by size + gender if they are not likely to fit someone next season.  At this point I also mix in new things from the cousins that need to go into a size + gender bin.
  • After the Swap, I affix new labels where necessary and the bins go back into the attic.
  • Any sizes/genders we definitely won’t need get put on the bottom of piles or in the back of the storage area.
  • All the child-labeled bins go near the front.
  • Close up the attic, turn off the light, and start more laundry…
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Photo by Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I Can’t

My toddler has just learned a frustrating sentence.

“I can’t.”

I say, “Put on your shorts.”  He says, “I can’t.”

I say, “Drink your milk.”  He says, “I can’t.”

I say, “Put your books in the bin.” He says, “I can’t.”

It drives me crazy.

Most of the time he can.  So I am trying to teach him to say either,

“This is hard. I’ll keep trying.” or,

“I need help. Please help me.”

I cannot tell you how many times a day I say, “There is nothing wrong with saying it’s hard.  There is nothing wrong with trying again.  There is nothing wrong with asking for help.”

This is where God looks at you with a knowing wink and smiles as if to say, “I gave Julia this child because she needs to learn this lesson.”

You see, I need to know there is nothing wrong with admitting something is hard. I need to hear there is nothing wrong with not getting it right on the first try.  I need to believe there is nothing wrong with asking for help.

Trying Again & Asking for Help

But I don’t live as if I believe these things were true.  My actions, attitudes, and internal dialogue suggest a different belief altogether.

“I can’t” looks different for a mama than it does for a toddler.  “I can’t” for me often looks like, “I can’t let them see I’m not perfect.” Or, “I can’t say ‘no.'” Or, “I can’t do this whole ‘mama’ thing today.” Or, “I can’t manage what God has given me – kids, meals, laundry, cleaning, blog, ministry, homeschool, etc.  It’s too much.  It’s too hard.”

I often live in the “I can’t.”

And my Father is teaching me to say, “This is hard.  I will keep trying.” And, “I need help. Will you please help me?”

Wildflowers, Weeds, and Well-Intentioned Friends

Texas Bluebonnets

I love flowers.

Wildflower collageI was raised on the raw beauty of a Texas hillside covered in bluebonnets, indian paint brushes, indian blankets and black-eyed susans.  There is a majesty about scanning the landscape and seeing splashes of color in every direction extending farther than I can see.  It is matched by the clear blue sky reaching down to kiss the flowers.  Something in that expansive beauty stirs worship in my heart.

Flowers in my yard stir an echo of that beauty, so we have a lot of flower beds in our yard.

Texas WildflowersThe thing you don’t see when you stand in the midst of wild flowers and strain to see
beyond the horizon are the weeds.  But standing in my flower beds, you definitely see weeds.

We came home from a long trip this summer and found our flower beds completely overgrown with weeds.  My heart was so discouraged.  If an expanse of wild flowers inspires my heart to worship, the evil twin is flowerbeds overgrown with weeds.  I am tempted to despair.

Forget-me-notsThe quick fix would be to spray weed killer on the whole area, let it all die, and start over.  But there would be a lot of flowers destroyed in this method!  Part of the cultivated beauty of my own flower beds and my affection for them are the memories tied to what I’ve planted.  I have a small section of forget-me-nots given by a friend just weeks before she died.  Should I really obliterate those to get rid of my weeds?

Relationships can be a lot like flowerbeds and flower fields.  There are a host of ways this is true, but lets just think about one aspect today.

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  1 Thessalonians 5:14

This verse is such a beautiful picture of how relationships are supposed to work.  God is glorified when we speak truth and love into the lives of others exactly where they are.  But we have to  be careful, we really have to draw near enough to others to know what is needed before we act.  We need to get on our hands and knees, discern between weed and flower, and get dirty.

Before we can uproot anything in the life of another person, we have to be close enough to see what is needed.  We need to be steeped in scripture so we can recognize idleness vs. faintheartedness vs. weakness.  Does the heart of another require weeding, watering, or fertilizing?

It is a grace to admonish the idle.  (Psalm 117:71)

It is a grace to encourage the fainthearted; to speak courage into their hearts in that  moment when they might abandon their call.  (Proverbs 12:25)

It is a grace to offer help to someone with a load too heavy to bear, too weak to go on.  (Galatians 6:2)

But think for a moment about what happens when we mix up the remedies…  What happens when we help the idle, or admonish the fainthearted, or encourage the weak?

It is a curse to help the idle and foster idleness.  It does nothing to cure them.  It hinders their development and growth.  Rescuing people who are simply lazy does no one any favors.  (1 Thessalonians 3:10-11)

It is a curse to help the fainthearted.  Sometimes we rob others of victory by assuming their calling is a burden.  Maybe they need words of encouragement, their fears quieted by the truth of scripture, or the whisper of confidence to help them to succeed.  Sweeping away the difficulties stunts their growth.  It keeps them from using the gifts God has given them.  It steals their joy.  It robs them of victory.  (1 Peter 4:10, 19)

It is a curse to encourage or admonish the weak and leave them to bear their burden alone.  Whether it is physical, emotional, or spiritual lack, it is a sign of our faith (or lack thereof) when we offer the help required.  Someone who is broken under a load, incapable of continuing on does not need our words of encouragement or correction.  They need someone to lift the cart off their legs and restore them to health so that they can walk again.  We leave them dying under a crushing weight when we don’t shoulder the task and lift it from them.  (James 2:14-16)

The thing is, the only way we can know whether we should offer encouragement, admonishment, or aid is to be close enough to the person to share their heart.

I had a conversation with my husband the other night and I said words neither he nor I wanted to hear, but both of us needed to hear.  He said, more than half-joking, “If anyone but you said that to me I’d be tempted to punch them.”

Why?  Because he’s a violent man?  No!  Quite the contrary.  Mike is an incredibly gentle man with great self control.  He was simply expressing the idea that I am close enough to his heart on this issue to weigh in on the subject without inspiring defensiveness.

I can only offer this kind of grace if I am willing to take the time to share, at the heart level, in the experiences of others.

A quick, trite answer is a curse.

A response to someone offered without understanding is sinful.

An assessment of laziness, or weakness, or faintheartedness without digging down to the roots of the problem will only lead to brokenness, not growth.  Without commitment to stay the course, without care to know the ins-and-outs, I bring judgment and condemnation rather than grace and conviction.

So the question becomes, will I be an indiscriminate-spray-weed-killer-on-the-whole-area kind of friend?  Or will I take care to remove only the weeds so the flowers can grow and others are drawn to worship?

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Photo Credits:
Texas Bluebonnets by Jeffrey Pang from Berkeley, CA, USA (Texas Bluebonnets Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Texas Wildflowers are in the public domain.
Forget-me-nots are in the public domain.