ReBuild: Mexico 2017

One of the best things our church does fills one week with life-changing experience and takes the rest of the year to plan, then debrief, before planning the next trip: our spring break house building trip to Mexico with Amor Ministries. This year, as in most years, about 250 high school students and adults built hope, twelve new homes, and a classroom for a church in the community. In one week.

In addition to thirteen build teams the trip includes a tool team, a camp crew, a medical team, a camp therapist, and a media team. Layered throughout are the Catalyst student leaders, all seniors, who lead the build teams, and the adult coaches who play a supporting role to their Catalysts. It takes a lot of people putting in a lot of work to pull it all together, and that’s not stating it strongly enough.

Each trip has a theme, and this year’s theme was ReBuild. Guy chose the theme at the end of 2016 and, when he told me, I had to laugh: without consulting one another, he chose a “re” theme for this trip into which he invests so much love, energy, and leadership, while I chose a “re” theme (re:create) as my word of the year, the word that has and will motivate me to new investments of love, energy, and leadership.

The group returned last night, and today in worship we celebrated what God has done. In Mexico, through the buildings, the memories that will last a lifetime, and the hope for a new and better future as people have a safe, dry place to nurture their families. In participants, as so many spoke of new or renewed faith commitments, fresh insights into themselves and their place in the world, and deeper relationships across all the ‘usual’ social boundaries–adults and teens, kids in different grades and from different schools.

We also celebrate what God will do. In families, as this year more than ever I was struck by how many families or family groups participated together–siblings, parent-child, married couples, and whole families; and in families where some or most did not go on the trip, they, too, will be affected by the overflow of experience from those who did. In schools and workplaces, in our church and community, as participants continue to live out their experience over weeks and months and years to come, and as God’s love shines brightly, bringing glory to His name.

As story after story was shared, participants built for the listening congregation a vision of God at work through this week in Mexico. I’m no contractor, but clearly God is our foundation. He created us. He knew our names, He had good plans for us, all before we were yet born. This year, for perhaps the first time in the 27 years of this trip, all teams had solid concrete foundations poured by the end of the first build day. I hope they remember: a strong foundation is essential to a strong structure, and God is our firm foundation.

One after another spoke about the strength of relationships developed in such a short time. And as I reflected on the theme, ReBuild, it occurred to me that we have the power to build supporting walls in each other’s lives. Someone said, “As the walls of the houses went up, the walls in our hearts and lives came down.” That’s true: we build metaphorical walls to protect ourselves from judgment, from criticism, from rejection. And it’s also true that when we find safe people, we can dismantle our walls of protection even as we together build stronger walls of community and encouragement.

Life can be hard, and people can be mean. Too often we throw verbal stones or, for whatever reason (sometimes for no reason, at least no good reason), we tear each other down. No surprise we wall off our hearts! But encouragement and community, they rebuild us and make us stronger.

One young man said he had been seeking community for years. Something clicked this week and he found it, evidenced by a friend’s embrace as he returned to his seat. My Teen has been fortunate to know that community. A twice-monthly before-school boys’ Bible study started with a group of motivated 8th grade guys and has continued through their senior year. They were adult-led until they took up their own leadership, and they have carried it forward in ways that pleasantly surprised their parents and other adult leaders.

Teen got to be a Catalyst this year (achieving one more life goal!), as did many of the Bible study boys. Along with their female peers, they have forged a tight-knit group; their community had a “ripple effect” throughout camp, fostering community with each gentle wave. Teen stood up to thank his fellow Catalysts, and to thank his team. He said, “We became a family. By the end of the week our team was a family building a home for another family.”

I watched with awe as my son–surrounded by community–stood, arms raised, singing:

I’ll stand
With arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all
I’ll stand
My soul Lord to you surrendered
All I am is yours

Safe to say they are returning home having been rebuilt by God and His gift of community.

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From Letters with Candy: An Excerpt

Several years ago on a trip to DC I had the privilege of reconnecting with a childhood friend. We talked for hours, and he was even funnier than I remembered. In so many ways, our stories are the same: we grew up in the same neighborhoods, walked the same school hallways, we shared friends and teachers; we both went away to school and found our way to marriage and family and fulfilling work. And in so many ways our stories are different. To know someone you have to listen to their stories, and I’m grateful to still be listening to Brett as he weaves together the strands of this story about family.

re:create recess #4: Brett West

I was nearly 30 years old when I learned I was part Mexican. For years, I was the tan kid with the sun-bleached hair elbowing my parents in the ribs about being switched at birth. You see, the first photos of me portrayed a chubby infant with dark hair and eyes. “I’m so clearly a Mexican baby. Unless …unless these pictures are of some other baby,” I’d tease.

But here I was nearing 30, having accomplished next to nothing of all the things someone in their 20’s is supposed to own in the realm of experience. I hadn’t reached upper management, nor even middle management. I’d not yet scratched the surface on world domination. The foundation of a rock star career was built, but had no wheels or wings – had never even left the hangar. I’d spent years reading and writing material so other people could look wiser and more confident than they already were.

But I’d at least accomplished Mexican-ness.

How? Well, that’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. I’m adopted. My sister is adopted. There was always the possibility that we might be something other than the White Anglo Saxon Protestant progeny we were raised to be. And with my proficiency in wild emotion, which was – and often still is – so foreign to my parents and the way we were raised, certainly it made better sense that perhaps I was the apple from a tree in another orchard.

My birthmother’s name was Candy. She’d spent years and years trying to find me. And she made contact during the spring of 1999. It was a time when I’d spent the three previous years not speaking much with my parents, and not seeing them at all, resulting from my coming out as gay. Now the mythical creature from the past we’d always known of, but had never known, was in our present.

She assured me she wasn’t looking for her long-lost son, or even a spare kidney. Ah, we share a sense of humor. Her reason for finding me came from a sense of responsibility. She yearned to be convinced without a shadow of doubt that the advice had been sound that she’d received and had taken as an unwed teenaged girl with a biscuit in the oven in the early months of 1969. In her words, she’d lived her life wondering everyday if she’d done the right thing.

Being reached out of the blue had a profound effect on my sense of anonymity, and even incited a little paranoia. Had I met her before? Was the woman I’d recently met at the dog park who insisted on talking with me actually this person from another world trying for face time with me? Was a reality TV production crew suddenly going to ambush me on my way home from work to ask how it feels to be found?

And it also had a profound effect on my parents who felt betrayed that my genealogical past could somehow break the steel door on vaulted information.

But I could not imagine having to live with such a question, such a heaviness in my soul without more than a prayer for the answer. So, I accepted her invitation, and we began writing letters.

After assuring her that she’d made an excellent life decision for me worthy of no regrets, we waded slowly into a friendship. The mythical biomom – birth mother for the politically correct – was perfectly lovely. And not unlike me, her relationship with her parents had its challenges. We talked about her false starts in life, that it had taken her a long time to grow comfortable in her own skin to make wise decisions. After being a mediocre student, and failing at relationships, she’d taken root back in her home town, had become a teacher and school administrator of some acclaim at the school where she’d merely been a passing student. She had even fallen in love, was married and had kids. She’d learned to love her parents and overlook their expectations in contrast with her perceived shortcomings. In fact, she simply loved and accepted her parents in a manner that suggested to me she understood the fault may never have been with her, but with them. She loved them like one loves one’s child – without conditions. And it was a love she was capable of, that perhaps they were not.

And yes, she is where I get my Mexican heritage, which stretches back to when California was a Spanish colony. There are fascinating epics telling of the Duckworth’s who fled the Old World, and the Figueroa’s who settled in and defended places like Monterey and Sonoma. There are tales of orphans who were taken in by aunts and uncles, and even a famous governor of the State of California under Mexico.

And as we tip-toed into a friendship, we decided to meet face-to-face. Popular culture leads many to believe there is an instant bond between a child and his birth parents. Not true. The moment Candy walked off the plane, I recognized her from photos we’d traded. But there was nothing familiar about her. Don’t misread me – she was completely lovely. But we didn’t have much shared history aside from gestation. Bonds are created by shared moments. And before meeting, we didn’t share much – didn’t look much alike, either.

On the heels of my first meeting with Candy, I had dinner with my then-partner and our friends. It was a nice opportunity to sit down outside over a bottle of wine and recap all that I had experienced. I remember with clarity like it happened five minutes ago when my friend Mary Beth offering a sage insight. “The thing to remember is: family is not made up of where we come from or from big events, but all the bits and pieces of minutiae that are usually as inane as they are mundane. That’s where you find family.”

In the following months, I began taking on the responsibility of reaching my parents more frequently. I made plans to travel across the country to see them. And we, too, tip-toed back into familiar territory with one another. We needed to. There was much ground work to lay if there was to be a future for us that was as meaningful as the past.

Conversations in our journey back to familiarity started with big occasions or monumental road trips. “Remember the 1984 Olympics when we road tripped out to Minnesota instead of to LA in a cramped car where the air conditioning worked only when we were going uphill, and we watched each night from motel rooms along the way? And how about making the snowmen in Tehran? The heartache when Nannie passed away? Granddad rolling silver dollars down the hill for us to find?”

Once back on common ground, we found ourselves able to tackle the friction points between us. “Yes, I’m getting married and yes we’re both men. But we want you there, only if you want to be there. And if you choose not to be there, that’s a choice we must all respect and live with forever.” And “Yes, we’re going to be to fathers. And your granddaughter is going to love to bits without ever wondering why, but she might also think you’re weird if you’re not okay with us …and that’s something I’m not okay with.”

And in time, joy came back to our relationship and stiff formality disappeared. In a mysterious way, all the little dots of activity – these teeny-tiny pixels of color – started to assemble, illustrating the big picture of our life together.

With tremendous pride, I look back at how these conversations set the table for expectations, much in the same way my parents set the table for their expectations of me. My parents showed up to our church wedding and were the toast of all our friends. They were part of our daughter’s Baptism. We vacation together. But most importantly, we are woven tightly.

There is a joke in our family about how no one can change my father from the ways in which he is so deeply set. I disagree. I’ve seen both of my parents travel light years from their comfortable groove to where they stand today – right at my side.

Most of us go through life growing up in a family defined to us by law if not by tradition. I’m not saying that because I was adopted, I encountered fissures in my sense of belonging. But there have been a series of events surrounding my adoption that sewed shut any potential fissure. I experienced the perfect storm. When I felt my sense of family was threatened by the possibility that I may end up shunned for life or that I may somehow become disowned by my parents, my mythical biomom entered my life. And that threw my parents off balance, while also opening my eyes to what an adult relationship can be between child and parents. From letters with Candy, I learned to increase my capacity for loving my parents. And what resulted is that I recognize now that my family belongs to me as much as I belong to my family. Our experiences together can never be taken away – not by law, not by stroke of pen, not by anything else in the world. They are worth loving, and they are worth fighting for. And I am so glad I learned to.

 

With 22 years inside the corporate communications machine, Brett West created a career of rewriting the future of his clients through influence and persuasion. Domestic and international issues required breaking down into bits and pieces more easily digestible by news media and the American public. Throughout his career path, he began applying principles that guided him to professional success to bring about personal success and fulfillment. He has written largely unpublished works including And I Laugh a Little Too Much, Short Tall Tales of a Last Grandparent, and From Letters with Candy. In 2007, West made a mid-life career change aimed at creating a larger impact on the personal lives of his clients as a Realtor with McEnearney Associates. He lives in Washington, DC with his husband, daughter and two collies.

Meatless Monday – Ginger Stout Cake

I remember the first time I tasted real gingerbread: I was 20 years old, on a college study abroad program. Walking in the English Lake District, we stopped to warm ourselves in a bakery. Of course I’d had gingerbread before–gingerbread cookies, ginger snaps, even the bread–but I’d had nothing like this, so gingery-fierce it seemed to bite back.

I bought a postcard featuring the recipe, their specialty, and sent it to my grandma. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get the recipe to work, stumped by metric measurements and the different quality of flour available in England.

Fast forward many years to Guy and I deciding how we would combine family Christmas traditions to form new memories with our children. Thanks to my Norwegian heritage, Christmas for me has always been a two-day affair: big family dinner (fish and potatoes) on Christmas Eve + presents and more cookies than a child can dream, followed by a small family affair on Christmas morning to open more presents. Because of the tremendous effort that went into Christmas dinner, Christmas breakfast consisted of a big tin of popcorn, chocolates from family in Norway, and lots of coffee. Popcorn and chocolate weren’t gonna cut it for Guy, a breakfast traditionalist.

Cue the gingerbread memory. My kids like ginger almost as much as I do. Ginger snaps are both kids’ cookie of choice and Teen enjoys gingerbread pancakes for his December birthday breakfast. So, for most of my kids’ lifetimes, I have made gingerbread batter after they go to sleep on Christmas Eve and baked it as they wake up on Christmas Day.

All these years I’ve been making a good gingerbread, but it didn’t have that deep ginger bite that first took me by surprise. Until now. I found a recipe that looked like it might be closer to that Lake District specialty. I took a risk and tried it this Christmas, and the kids heartily agree that they prefer this version.gingerbread

Published in The New York Times, the original recipe comes from The Marrow, a NY West Village German restaurant. I have veganized, healthified, and simplified it some (do yourself a favor: use a stand mixer!). Not that it’s health food; of course it’s a treat. But instead of whipped cream I served it with homemade applesauce for a quick and delish Christmas breakfast. Guy also bought several flavors of popcorn and Christmas stockings were filled with chocolate, so we hold on to the old as we make way for the new.

Ginger Stout Cake
Serves 12

3 flax eggs (1 Tbsp flax meal & 3 Tbsp warm water per “egg”)
3 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 c stout
1 c molasses
1 ½ c white whole wheat flour
½ c whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp each ground cloves, nutmeg, allspice
¼ tsp each ground black pepper & fine sea salt
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c brown sugar, unpacked
½ c granulated sugar
¼ c agave syrup
¾ c safflower oil (or unsweetened applesauce)
¼ c candied ginger, chopped fine

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9×13 pan with cooking spray.

Prepare flax eggs and set aside. Grate fresh ginger (or use a veggie peeler to slice thin then rough chop).

Add the stout and molasses to a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat.

Sift together the flour, ground spices, pepper, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix the fresh ginger, flax eggs, vanilla, sugars, and agave on medium speed for five minutes.

Turn the mixer down to low speed and add the oil (or applesauce). Mix for another 5 minutes. Slowly add the stout mixture and mix for another 5 minutes.

Carefully add the dry ingredients in two parts, mixing well in between each addition.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with candied ginger (it will sink and bake into the cake). Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cake cool for 15 minutes. Serve with non-dairy whipped cream or homemade applesauce.

merry-cheer

Creating a Written History

For all the crazy social media hoists onto our lives, it can also create sweet connections. Today’s guest writer and I attended the same college for a couple of years before life took us in different directions. But Facebook, and then blogging, allowed us to reconnect as friends and mothers and women making sense of life through writing. Life gets hard and writing can be just as messy but we’re doing it–and we get to support each other along the journey.

Create Challenge #40: Donna Schweitzer

I never considered myself a particularly creative person. Right out of the gate, I felt myself to be rather ho-hum. I could color within the lines like a machine, but I couldn’t draw a stick figure to save my life. I played the clarinet and sang well, but couldn’t write my own tune if you begged. I can analyze a story, breaking down character, storylines, themes, and symbolism, but I find it near impossible to write my own Great American Novel. Most of our couples’ photos are the ones friends snap of us, so there’s no great photography skill there either. I can sew to a pattern but can’t design anything on my own. I suppose you would say my creativity lies in following the directions.

I became a mom the first time in September of 2000. Our oldest son entered the world in dramatic fashion, arriving over three months early. He weighed a mere two pounds, and was fifteen inches long. His life hung in the balance for weeks. I spent days by his plastic isolette, bargaining with God for my son’s life, watching my son battle with all his tiny might to learn to breathe on his own, eat and digest food before his body was ready, and endure more medical tests in three months than I have my entire life. Before he was even born, though, I’d begun a journal for him. I continued to write even when we didn’t know if he would survive. I wanted him to know how much we loved him, my experience of his life, what courage we saw on a daily basis, what each tiny milestone meant.baby-1681181__340

As mom of a micro-preemie, you don’t get to hold your baby whenever you want—your baby has to be stable enough that day, that hour, to handle the stimulation of being held. Those hours by his bedside I wasn’t able to hold him, I would write. It helped me in so many ways—it helped me focus on the positive things, it helped me gnash out my grief and fear, it helped me process, it helped me feel more like his mom. When he finally came home on Christmas Day 2000, that journal continued by my side, documenting his milestones, the setbacks, me growing into motherhood. We went on to have two more children—both full-term, normal, healthy pregnancies—a daughter in the middle, and our youngest, another son. We call them our Herd.

When our oldest was three years old, we discovered a particular foundation had played a vital role in his survival. Without the research this organization funded, he simply would not be here. That organization also has an online support community for NICU parents. That community began a blog-hosting forum for its members a year into its existence. By then a seasoned journal-writer, I jumped at the chance, especially as the site was small, close-knit, and felt safe. My writing took on a life of its own. Blogging helped me continue to heal from what we’d endured. It helped me reach out to others just beginning the prematurity journey. It gave me a voice. It helped me through new diagnosis for our oldest, some gut-wrenching parenting decisions, allowed me to share the funny side of parenting, and gave me a place to vent, because goodness knows, this parenting gig can be a struggle. More importantly, it gave me community—a safe place with people who understood completely what I was experiencing as they’d been through it too.

I moved my blog to a more-public site years ago. I kept it private in the beginning. It was more of an outlet for me, and a way to keep family and close friends in the loop on our family’s life. Then about four years ago, I decided to make it a public blog. It was terrifying clicking “Post” that first day, sending my words out into the world. What if no one read it? What if I didn’t ever have any followers? What if no one responded or commented? I’d decided I eventually want to write that book—not fiction, mind you, but a book of my experiences. More than that, I still hope my words, my stories of our family’s path, will help someone else, give hope to someone else, or at the very least make someone laugh. In addition, my children have my written take on their lives, our lives as a family, from before they were even born.

My writing isn’t always pretty. There have still been some medical repercussions for our oldest from his premature birth, although he is healthy and as normal as any other sixteen-year-old boy. Our youngest son was diagnosed autistic five years ago. I never gloss over what that journey is about. I feel the need to be brutally honest about what we deal with. Then there’s parenting in general, parenting teens, raising a ballerina, and still learning what this mom thing is all about.

I’m convinced God gave me this gift of journaling to reach out to those who will be helped by my words. Most of my ideas come in the middle of the night. Then I process them out while I’m running. Finally, I get to put them down on the screen. I don’t often think too much while I’m writing—I prefer it be more of an unconscious process. Often, I learn how I feel, what I’m afraid of or worried about, when I read back what I’ve written. Words that began often as bargaining prayers for my son’s life sixteen years ago have turned into thousands of posts, creating a written history for my children and our family. dschweitzer

 

Donna Schweitzer has been married to her husband, Michael, for eighteen years (on December 5th!). They reside in San Diego, CA. They have three children, ages 16, 15, and 12, who, along with three dogs and two cats, are affectionately known as The Herd. They travel, watch more sports than is probably healthy, laugh frequently, love much. You can find her blog at threesaherd.com.

Out of Whack

Note: This is Part 3 in a Sunday series on the life of Joseph.
Part 1: Messy Family
Part 2: Resisting Temptation

The other day a friend said, “It sounds like your life is out of whack.”

Out of whack…sounds about right.

My kids have this cool math toy, like a Rubik’s Cube but a ball, called a Ball of Whacks. It’s fun and kinesthetic and an appropriate analogy for our life—we’ve got a few pieces missing and others poking the wrong direction.ball-of-whacks-1

Two weeks ago Teen slipped on a wet pool deck and got a concussion. Last week Tween got a cold, and then began vomiting, and it can be darn near impossible to know the difference between the run-of-the-mill virus and a cold + cyclic vomiting. A week of rest for each and they’ve both recovered, thank God.

Long work hours and make-up school work means we haven’t eaten dinner together as a family in too long. The clean and folded laundry occupied prime dining table real estate until it was time to wash more laundry. Wash, rinse, repeat – bodies, dishes, clothes, days, life.

Individually and as a family, we have been out of whack. And when we get this way, it gets me down.

One of the fun things about a Ball of Whacks is that you can whack it apart, but when you hold them close, the pieces magnetically snap into place with a satisfying click. Effort pops the pieces apart but just a little effort draws them back into shape.ball-of-whacks-2

When we get out of whack, like everyone does from time to time, I hang on to gratitude. Gratitude helps me locate all the missing pieces and sort them as needed. Gratitude directs my attention to times I thought we’d lost the pieces for good and helps me remember that, since we came through that, we will get through this. Gratitude diverts my attention from feeling sorry for myself to appreciating the good things, even the very little things. Gratitude takes my focus off me and puts my sight on others.

No secret: life is hard. Injury and illness, job insecurity and financial struggles, relational conflict, long days and sleepless nights, the list goes on. Betrayed by his family and ripped from his home, Joseph dealt with understandable and significant disappointment. But he kept his sights on God and did his best in every situation.

I bet Joe felt more than a little out of whack, more like the missing piece. But his faithfulness—and God’s faithfulness to him—give me hope. God used a situation that looked like extreme injustice to bring about reconciliation and redemption. Of course, Joe couldn’t know that at the time, so he had to hold on.

So I hold on by giving thanks while I look for the pieces and hold them close so God can pop them into shape.

Connect
Think about a time when life got you down. How did you handle it?

Study
Read aloud Genesis 40.
What reasons do the chief cupbearer and chief baker have to feel dejected?
What reasons does Joseph have to feel dejected?
How do you think Joseph felt when his interpretations of the men’s dreams proved accurate? When the cupbearer forgot him to Pharaoh?
How does Joseph seem to deal with disappointment?
In Genesis 37:5-11 Joseph has dreams. In Genesis 40 Joseph interprets dreams because “interpretations belong to God.” How might the theme of dreams be evidence of God giving Joseph hope in disappointing circumstances?

Live
In your recent experience, have life’s disappointments tended to be predictable or surprising? Is one or the other easier to deal with? Explain.
When have you felt disappointed with God? What helps you to maintain trust?
How has serving others helped you feel better about your own circumstances?
How might you, individually or with family/friends, help others dealing with disappointment?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Spirit will help you trust God during disappointment.

Messy Family

problems-of-a-dreamer

How would you describe your family? My description might go like this: Dramatic. Quirky and Creative. Outdoorsy and Eco-friendly. Open books. Welcoming. (I have to laugh as Teen adds: “Zookeepers!” With twelve pets and four people living in approximately 1600 square feet, our home often feels like a small zoo).

Same question, different audience: How do you describe your family in the secret regions of your heart and head? What might you say if you could shake the shame, if you were free to share the sins holding hostage the generations of your family? Everything you said before would still be true, but typically there is so much more to the story than we speak out loud.

Fortunately we can turn to stories to see families just as bad—and often so much worse—than our own. The Bible depicts Joseph’s family as a flat-out mess. His grandfather Isaac (Genesis 26) and great-grandfather Abraham (Genesis 12) were prone to lying. His father Jacob (encouraged by his grandmother Rebekah) was a dirty cheater (Genesis 27).

Each had redeeming qualities, of course. They were faithful and unfaithful, saints and sinners. Their sins were their own and they got played by others, at least wrapped up in the complicated family-dynamic mess.

Joseph’s father Jacob fell head-over-heels in love with Rachel, so much so that he worked hard labor for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. He got cheated, however, and found himself married to Rachel’s older (and less attractive) sister, Leah. He married the girl of his dreams within days, but had to work yet another seven years before he could leave with his brides.

Next came baby problems: Leah had four babies before Rachel had one, so Rachel gave Jacob her handmaiden (repeating the family drama of Sarai giving maidservant Hagar to Abraham, resulting in Ishmael’s birth—Genesis 16), who had some babies. Leah couldn’t be outdone, so she gave Jacob her handmaiden as well: more babies. Finally Rachel has one baby (Joseph) and then another (Benjamin), and she died in childbirth with Benjamin. [I have one husband and two sons (see “dramatic” in my family description) and cannot begin to imagine three “extra wives” + all their strong-willed sons… Egads! Oh, and yes, there were at least two daughters: Dinah gets a name (and a terrible story—Genesis 34); and Genesis 37:35 mentions “all (Jacob’s) sons and daughters.” These poor women living in an unabashedly patriarchal society…].

Jacob’s beloved Rachel has died, and Joseph is Rachel’s firstborn son. So Jacob plays favorites, symbolized by the coat of many colors he gave his newly beloved, setting Joe apart as favorite and as white-versus-blue collar labor. Joe plays right into the family drama by snitching on his brothers’ bad behavior and naively sharing his (prophetic) dreams about his family bowing down to him.

Joe’s brothers retaliate by conniving against and betraying their brother; profiting on his “death” (would you sell your brother into slavery?) while lying to one another—Reuben would have rescued Joe from the cistern had he had the chance, and then what?—before they feign to comfort their father, grieving his son’s bloody death by animal. Aren’t those brothers animals? And can’t you sympathize with their feelings a smidge, if not with their actions?

Hard stop: Genesis 37 doesn’t explicitly mention “GOD.” Joseph’s dreams point to God—dreams in the Bible always signal prophetic interruption—and yet, no mention of God Himself. And doesn’t that also feel true? Sometimes our families are so down-right messy and we feel like God has absented Himself.

I believe it was St. John of the Cross who coined the phrase “dark night of the soul,” when it feels like God stops answering, has turned His phone to silent, maybe not just busy but uncaring. Individuals feel it—faithful and faithless—and so can families. I can point to several periods during which my family experienced God’s silence. Where did He go? Doesn’t He care?

Joseph’s crazy mixed-up family gives me hope. It may seem God was absent, the circumstances definitely seemed overwhelming, and yet God was at work. God orchestrated bad events to bring about good outcomes, in Joe’s case, salvation for not only Egypt but Israel as well. Those who betrayed became those who were saved.

Today our church family observed communion. After I have prayerfully received the elements, one of my favorite times of each month happens when I prayerfully watch as my church family receives the elements. Today I reflected on family. After ten years in this church, I know so many family stories: parents who’ve lost children, children who’ve lost parents, spouses separated by divorce or death.

So many heartaches of so many varieties. And yet these people have been–not perfectly, but still–faithful. As a church family, we have an extra level of support for our nuclear and extended families. We offer one another God’s grace and love and strength in the good times and the hard. God’s family is a gift to our families, one of the ways God cares for our families. He cares for the individuals in families. He works, despite our mess, to produce salvation and receive glory. God is good—all the time!

Connect
Share briefly about your siblings and where you fall in the family order.

Study
Read Genesis 37.
Describe Joseph’s family and its dynamics (where Joe fell in his family, his relationship with father/brothers, etc).
What do you learn about Joseph from these stories?
Where do you see God in Joseph’s early stories?
How do you think Joseph felt when his brothers turned on him? Do you imagine his dreams gave him hope as his life took a dramatic turn?

Live
Have you endured a messy family situation during which it felt like God was absent? How did you handle it?
What helps you to hope in God when life is hard?
Why do you think God allows families to be so complicated?
Share something you think you have done well in your family, whether family of origin or current family.
What role does God play in your current family?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray for your family and for families you know, that we will hope in God at all times.

Ritual: Cation House

One of my favorite weeks of the year is coming right up: our annual trip to the Cation House. I originally wrote this post for my friend Cara Meredith‘s blog during her 2015 guest post series on rituals (please go check out her blog – great stuff happening over there!). I can’t wait for another week of beach-y rest, relaxation, and walking down Memory Lane even as we create new memories.Cation House

Writ large on the walls of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pablo Neruda’s words strike a chord in my soul: “I spin on the circle of wave upon wave of the sea.”

My life has felt like constant spinning, waves of joy and laughter, wash of chaos and drama, waves of peaceful beauty. My parents’ lives spun on disorder and turmoil until they spun into each other and, quickly, marriage. They attempted to overcome the tidal pull of established patterns; they did their best to remain upright in swirling waters. Still, my Airline Captain father flew in and out of our lives on air currents rather than water.

While I attended college my parents purchased a Time Share blocks from a NorCal beach (we lived a short drive from SoCal beaches). Recently I asked my mom, “Why?”

“To create family memories, to have a place we could come back to year after year.”

My parents, siblings and I never spent a week there as a family. My family, however–my mom and nephew, my husband and sons–has spent a week there every summer since Teen was two years old. We call it the “Cation House.”

We look forward to the Cation House all year, one of our most significant shared family rituals. The three kids have each created school essays and projects about the Cation House. Each generation swimming against currents of the past, I asked my boys which traditions, rituals, have meant the most to them in our family life: Cation House!, their unequivocal shared response.

When we all lived in SoCal, we rented a minivan and made the ten-hour journey a road trip. Now that four of us live in NorCal, the others fly up and extend their stay on either end for a longer vacation.

Each vacation is the same. We go to the same beaches (Lovers’ Point, Asilomar). We walk the same streets (Lighthouse Ave and Ocean View Blvd). We take the same pictures (kids in wet suits, holding sea stars). We do the same things (“journal pages” before dinner, hiking at Point Lobos, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Farmers’ Market, beach, beach and More Beach!).

Each vacation is different. The kids grow (drat that, both blessing and curse). The toys change–Thomas the Tank Engine has been replaced by an inflatable kayak. Some years we paddle boat, others we maneuver a surrey-bike. Scheduling has gotten harder as kids get older, with more demands competing for their time. We have had to drive/fly the older two in late, allowing them to miss days without missing the whole experience (always a cost to us and to them, but the week is a priority and so we flex). Last year, surprisingly?, the boys could not only tolerate but enjoy a lecture on sea turtles by the American Cetacean Society, held at the Stanford Marine Research Center. How can we possibly have gotten here?

Rituals help us remember and reflect. Each year we remember years previous: the first trip when Teen and Nephew laughed “diapo” back and forth for the whole drive, their 2-year-old diaper “dirty joke”; the many times enthusiastic boys stripped naked and charged lapping waters before adults could grab suits and towels; the time boys slipped behind the bakery counter and helped themselves to cookies; the year boys felt sufficiently confident for Guy to take them kayaking.

Each year we reflect on who we have been, where we have been, how we have changed and where we are going. Kids have grown, demonstrating God-given gifts, strengths, aptitudes. So have adults. Several years Guy and I walked late at night, wondering if God would grant us only one child; other years we pondered job responsibilities and changes. During the years we’ve visited the Cation House, my dear dad and precious grandma have passed; siblings have married, cousins have been born; my family moved most of a long state away. Mom has cheered family in different directions while her big once-family-filled house has emptied, filled, emptied again.

Fifteen years ago, realizing my frazzled Mom needed a vacation, I queried: “Don’t you have a Time Share? Could we take the babies and go?” So we did, and It Was Good. We moved at kid-speed. We walked and played at beaches and play grounds. We prepared easy food. We relaxed and read and talked, good for our souls. We pondered, “Why don’t we do this again next year?”

Next Year became Every Year. What began as a vacation became a ritual. With The Kids we have created family memories, a place they can come back to year after year. These kids plan to come back, again and again, year after year, together and, eventually, with their own families. Undoubtedly, they will go to the same beaches, walk the same streets, take the same pictures, do the same things. Each year it will be the Same and Different. They will Remember and Reflect. They will spin on the circle of wave upon wave of the sea…and of family ritual.