Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Composting for Lazy People

You might think that composting is difficult. Or that you need specialized equipment. Or that you need to perform all kinds of math calculations to get the ratios right. You might think that it's something that only weirdo hippies do.

But you would be wrong. 

I'm going to let you in on a secret: You don't actually have to do anything to make composting happen. It just happens. All living things turn to compost eventually. 

Do you have a pile of yard waste somewhere in your yard? Something that looks a bit like this?

Well, guess what? That's composting. If you move the big stuff off the top, and dig to the bottom of the pile, you will probably discover a nice layer of beautiful compost, just sitting there, waiting to be used.

I "compost" my yard waste simply by moving my brush pile by a few feet each year, and using the lovely soil that accumulated at the bottom of the pile at the previous location.

You might even have a couple of these yard waste bags languishing in a forgotten corner of your yard. I left these ones out in the rain, and when I tried to take them to the curb, the bottoms had gotten too soggy, and they fell right off. Oops.

But, that's okay. Falling apart is part of the composting process. I'm just going to leave these bags here and pretend I meant to do it. In a year or two, the leaves inside will have decomposed and I will have some nice compost to add to my garden.

You could buy a fancy compost bin. I'm saving up for a fancy one, myself. But you don't really need one. This is our compost bin. It's just a big trash can with holes drilled in the bottom and around the bottom edge. (The holes let the microbes in and the excess water out.)

If you get one with a locking lid, you can turn/stir your compost simply by rolling it down the driveway.

Make sure the lid actually locks on, though.

So, what goes in compost? Anything that used to be growing. If you want to use an open system, like the brush pile or the soggy paper bags, you should only add yard waste. If you want to add food scraps, you should have something with a lid, to keep the wildlife out. For normal backyard composting, you should probably stick to fruit and vegetable scraps (and leave meat and dairy composting to the professionals).

How do you compost? Honestly, just put your compostable materials into your compost bin. Don't worry about perfect ratios. Your compost might take a bit longer if you don't get the mix right, but it will still get there eventually. Ideally, you want to balance "greens" (food scraps and fresh plant clippings) with "browns" (dried leaves and twigs). I like to keep a pile of browns beside my compost bin and cover the greens whenever I add them.

Stir or turn your compost once in a while. Then, when your bin is full, set it aside for a few months and start another one to use while the first one finishes the composting process. Your compost is done and ready to use when it smells like soil.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Minimalist Road Trip

A few weeks into my Minimalist Conversion, I took my three kids on a month-long road trip.

I had, at this point, begun to find other Minimalist Heroes to learn from. A few of my favorites were The Minimalists, Joshua Becker, and The Practical Minimalists. I knew that, in order to change my mindset so completely, I needed to surround myself with people that had already changed theirs. I didn't know any minimalists in real life, so I started listening to a lot of podcasts. I'm not normally a podcast person, and I have since abandoned all of the podcasts that got me through this mindset-changing phase, but it was exactly what I needed at this period in my mental transition.

Joshua Fields Millburn, one half of The Minimalists, often talks about doing "experiments" along his minimalist journey. Things like living without a phone for two months, or waking up at 3:30 every day. Experiments are a great way to see what the extreme is like without having to completely commit to the extreme forever and ever. I decided that this road trip could be an excellent experiment in extreme minimalist living.

The Experiment: Live for one month with three kids and only what I can fit into a Toyota Prius.

I made a lot of lists. What do I think I will need? Okay, can I pare that down? Can I pare it down again? It's amazing how many things you can live without for a month if you really put your mind to it. It's also pretty amazing what you can fit into a Prius if you're really good at Tetris.

It wasn't just "needs," either. We wanted to enjoy this road trip. This meant that things like books and games and toys and craft supplies made it onto the packing list. The first camp we were going to was a co-op style camp, where we would each come prepared to run a certain number of activities. Which meant that I would need to bring supplies for those activities, too. I pared the "fun" stuff down to the things that I knew would pack up small and offer the most entertainment for the most people. I was deliberate about every item I chose to bring, and I packed all the "fun" stuff in the sub-trunk. It all fit.

(The supplies for these bendy dolls took up very little space. We ran out of felt for clothes after the first camp, but guess what? We were able to buy more felt at the next location.)

(When you don't bring a ton of toys with you, you find other things to play with. Like rocks!)

I gave each kid a backpack and told them that all of their personal "fun" stuff needed to fit into that backpack. My kids are big readers, so I encouraged them to download lots of books onto their Kindles for the trip. (You can say whatever you want about the feel of real paper between your fingers, but nothing beats being able to fit a whole library into the space of one paperback.)

Other than the first aid kit, we didn't pack any "just in case" items. We weren't leaving civilization completely behind us, and I knew that we would be able to go to a store if we needed something. We didn't pack any fans, and then the weather ended up being hotter than we were expecting, so we bought ourselves a box fan. We left it behind at our last destination, because we didn't need another one at home. Was that a waste of $16? No, I don't think so. When I think about all of the other "just in case" things I could also have packed to save $16, they would never have all fit into the car. Once you start down the "just in case" path, it widens very quickly. And a $16 fan was several times cheaper than the car-top carrier I would have had to purchase to fit all those extras. (Should I have analyzed the weather patterns better and KNOWN that we would need a box fan? Maybe. But I didn't. And hindsight is always 20/20.)

I packed two towels for each person. A designated indoor towel, and a designated outdoor towel. That might seem like overkill when you're packing for a minimalist road trip, but I can tell you right now that it saved me a lot of extra laundry. We went to the beach or the river every day at camp, and to the spray park almost every day at my mom's house. Having a second towel that stayed clean while the outdoor towel got dragged around in the sand and dirt meant that you could actually take a shower and have something clean to dry off with afterwards.

Each person had a clear plastic tote to pack their clothes in. These totes kept their clothes visible and organized at our destinations, while also keeping them clean and together while traveling between locations.

(Full disclosure: This photo is actually from Girl Scout camp last summer, but the bin and the packing style were basically the same for this trip.)

We only packed enough clothes for about a week. And once a week, I found somewhere to do laundry, and repacked the bins fresh with clean clothes. Fun fact: Clean, folded clothes take up less space than dirty laundry. Doing the laundry and re-packing the bins before leaving each destination saved me a lot of space.

The verdict: We loved living minimally on our road trip! Doing a week's worth of laundry every week was so much less stressful than letting it pile up. Tidying up our rooms was so much easier when we hadn't dragged tons of extra stuff along with us. And we actually kept our rooms tidy because it wasn't too hard, and we had started to really enjoy having a clean space.

(Our room at the first camp - maintainably clean!)

I started to get stressed out at the last camp, and I started to let the room go. We started getting on each other's nerves more, and the peace began to break. Then it hit me - it's because the room is messy! I took some time that afternoon tidying up while the kids were at an activity. The difference afterwards was tangible. Clean spaces breed peace.

Coming home was the hardest part. Home, where bad habits are deeply entrenched, and the mess can't be fixed in an afternoon. Home, where there are enough spare clothes than I could put off the road trip laundry for another day or two or ten. If I hadn't been convinced before, I would have been convinced then, when the weight of clutter washed back over me, and I felt like I was drowning again. It's hard to see progress when you're picking away at decades of clutter a little at a time. The road trip experiment was like a glimpse at the end of the book: Yes, it's possible. You can do this, and it's so worth it. There are a lot of chapters between here and there, but at least I know that I will like the way this book turns out.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The "See You Later" Porch

This is the second post in a series of posts about my journey to minimalism. You can read the first post here: Stumbling Towards Minimalism

I was starting to figure what I wanted and why. Less stuff. Less to clean. But I had no idea where to even start. My house was like one of those square slide puzzles. I can't move this square until I move that square, and I can't move that square until I move that other square, and I know I want this square over there, but I'm not sure how to get through those other two squares. I was never any good at those puzzles as a kid, but I do know one thing for sure: You can't move any squares unless there is an open space for sliding through.

So, that's what I decided my first project should be: Creating an open space. I decided that my side porch was a good location to clear out. It had been full of stuff since the day we moved in, five years earlier. On many occasions, it had been so full of stuff that you couldn't even walk into it, let alone through it. It tended to house two kinds of things: Actual trash (I would literally just toss my recyclables out the kitchen door onto the side porch, and box them up for the recycle truck later) and stuff that belonged other places, but I had been too lazy to put away.

So, I got to work clearing out the side porch. It actually didn't take that long, in the end. 90% of the stuff there went to the curb. Lots of actual trash and recyclables. Baby stuff that my now-five-year-old no longer needed. (I put the baby things to the curb a few days before trash day with a "free" sign, and a decent number of them went to better homes than the landfill.) Broken things I knew I was never actually going to fix.

I put away the things that belonged other places in the house. When I was left with a small collection of things I thought I might want to keep, I moved them into the kitchen temporarily so I could do a good scrub-down of the porch. I always forget to take "before" photos, but here's an "after" photo. If you want to imagine a "before" photo, just fill the "after" photo all the way up to the bottom of the windows with junk.

Then I ran out of steam.

Have you ever heard the term "decision fatigue"? Basically, every decision you make, no matter how small, takes decision-making energy. Decision-making energy is a limited resource. It's renewable, but it takes time, rest, and a milkshake to refill your stores of decision-making energy.
Source: NY Times

Okay, so maybe it doesn't have to be a milkshake. A healthy dinner will do. But you do need to give your brain a break from decision-making. And minimalizing* requires a lot of decision-making.

*A lot of people say "minimizing" but I'm not making anything smaller; I am making it more minimalist. So I'm calling it "minimalizing".

Even dealing with the actual trash, which really just required putting known trash into bags and known recyclables into bins, took decision-making energy. And I had run out.

Minimalizing Lesson Two: You are not going to finish today.

In his book, Goodbye, Things, Fumio Sasaki suggests that, for things that you aren't quite ready to say "goodbye" to yet, you can say "see you later" instead. Especially at the end of a long day, when my decision-making energy stores are depleted, the "see you later" concept has been extremely helpful for me. If you can't decide whether you want to keep or discard something right now, you can delay making that decision by boxing it up and setting it aside for now. You can come back to the SYL items later, when you have had the chance to think a bit more about it, and to experience life with them out of the way. If you change your mind, they are still there, waiting for you to reclaim them. More often than not, though, taking a break from an item helps you realize that you don't really need it after all.

I dubbed my empty side porch the "See You Later" Porch. And I started putting stuff back on the porch. It wasn't easy. I finally had this nice, clear, empty space. I just wanted to move an armchair onto the porch and live there instead of in my cluttered house. But I knew this was only one, small step in what would be a very long process. And I needed that empty slot to start sliding the pieces of my house where I wanted them.

Some things that I moved to the SYL Porch:

1. Three pairs of ice skates that I had bought for myself and the girls the previous winter when we traveled to Ottawa, Canada for Winterlude. It had been cheaper to buy secondhand skates than to rent them every time we wanted to go skating on our trip. I thought we might use them again. There is an ice rink only a few towns over, and skating is fun, and good exercise. Plus, we might go to Canada again next year!
Their fate: After they had spent a few months on the SYL porch, I got rid of the skates. I thought we might use them again. But we didn't. And, if we ever do go to Winterlude again, the girls' skates aren't going to fit anymore anyhow. I guess I could have kept mine, but I decided that there were ultimately too many "ifs" involved. If we go again. If I can find them when it's time to go. If I have room in the car to pack them.

2. The sleds. We don't get a ton of snow in Southeastern Pennsylvania. But when it does snow, going sledding is practically a mandatory childhood activity. Plus, the local sledding hill was literally in our backyard. And when it does snow, the stores all sell out of their small stock of sleds so quickly that you miss out if you don't already own one.
Their fate: I kept the sleds. One of the questions I like to ask myself, when deciding whether to keep something or not, is "What would I do if I didn't have it?" If it's something that I don't use very often that is easily/cheaply replaceable, I can safely get rid of it. Sleds are relatively cheap, but since not having one on hand when it snows usually means missing out on one of the two good sledding days of the winter, I decided it was worth keeping them.

On the surface, the skates and the sleds had a lot in common. My ultimate decision to keep one and not the other was extremely subjective, and I wasn't ready to make those decisions yet when I put them on the SYL Porch. You may have decided differently, and that's okay. That's why I shared these two examples. I don't regret getting rid of the skates. If we go to Winterlude again, I might even buy secondhand skates for us all again, because it was cheaper, although I would probably donate or re-sell them at the end of our trip this time. I might still change my mind and get rid of the sleds. Deciding to keep something is never permanent. Deciding to get rid of something replaceable isn't actually permanent, either.

Minimalizing Lesson Three: You're allowed to change your mind.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Stumbling Towards Minimalism

I've always been a collector of things. Cool things, memorable things, useful things. I prided myself on being the person who could produce on demand whatever random craft item, costume element, or useful bauble the situation required.

But my house was always a mess. Always. I thought it was just me. A sign of a creative mind. Of someone who wasn't bothered by external appearances.

But it did bother me. I didn't want it to, but it did. And nothing I tried worked. No cleaning system could keep me focused for more than a few days. And I felt constantly disappointed in myself.

About nine months ago, I was complaining about my inability to keep my house clean, and someone said something to me that changed my life. He said, "Maybe you just need less stuff. You know how diabetics can't have too much sugar? Maybe you're like that with stuff."

The person who said this to me wasn't a minimalist, but he started me on the path to minimalism. Why had I never put those two things together before? The fact that I collect things isn't unrelated to the fact that I can't keep my house clean. In fact, it could be the VERY REASON I can't keep my house clean.

The only problem now was that I had absolutely no idea where to begin. Maybe Marie Kondo? She's a minimalist, right? I went into my Overdrive account and downloaded the audio book for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. While I was there, I searched for other books about minimalism, and I downloaded a second book for good measure, a book called Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki.

I started listening to Marie Kondo's book first. She had a lot of things to say that I really liked. But something about her method didn't feel right for my situation. It felt like it was, ultimately, just another cleaning/organizing system that I wouldn't be able to keep up with. Don't get me wrong - I love Marie Kondo, and I have adopted many of her strategies. But I couldn't get 100% on board with her method, and I couldn't figure out why. I didn't figure it out until the chapter about handbags. She has a system for storing handbags of similar size inside each other so they take up less space and hold their shape better. A system for storing handbags. That's when it clicked for me. It wasn't that the KonMari method was too extreme for me. It's that it wasn't extreme enough. The solution I wanted from minimalism wasn't "how to store your handbags." I was looking for something more like "how to get by with only one handbag."

So I started listening to Fumio Sasaki's book. HERE was the minimalism I was looking for. The simple "less stuff, more joy" minimalism I wanted for myself. I especially loved that he explored the underlying philosophy. Why stuff isn't making us happy. Why minimalism makes sense. Why keeping extra stuff lying around is costing you money in the long run. And the principle of "less stuff = less to clean" really came into focus. I called my kids into the kitchen to do a little experiment. I set up three trays: One with just one thing to clean around, one with a few, organized things to clean around, and one with our normal life's clutter to clean around. The moral of the story, which should be obvious, but is still important to realize: It's a lot easier to clean around less stuff. (I posted the video of our cleaning experiment on YouTube here: Our Minimalism Cleaning Experiment.)

Lesson one: Less stuff = Less stuff to clean.

This is the first post in a series of posts about my journey to minimalism. You can read the second post here: The "See You Later" Porch

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Jule Ann’s Advent Meditation, Week 3: The Candle of Joy

Today, we light the third candle on the Advent wreath. Three purple candles represent the penitent season of preparation for Christmas. But today’s candle is pink. Today we get to take a break from penitence, and focus on JOY.

In Liturgical churches, today is known as “Gaudete” (Gow-DEH-teh) Sunday, or the Sunday of Joy. The First Reading on Gaudete Sunday begins with Philippians 4:4,

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

Rejoice ALWAYS? Is that even possible? Everyone gets sad sometimes, right? Even Jesus wept on occasion. Is sadness a sin?

Absolutely not! The ability to mourn is a sign of a compassionate heart. It’s a good thing for Christians to do.

But joy isn’t the absence of sadness. Joy is something more. Something deeper.

I grew up in Ottawa, Canada. The snowiest capital city in the world. In general, it’s usually about 10 degrees colder in Ottawa than it is here in southeastern Pennsylvania. But Ottawa still has seasons, and in the summer, it gets hot enough to swim. And every once in a while, I look at the weather reports, and I see that it’s actually warmer in Ottawa than it is here.

That’s the difference between climate and weather. Weather changes from day to day, and sometimes from hour to hour. Climate doesn’t change so easily. It is the basic, underlying conditions of a place. Climate influences the daily weather, but the weather isn’t always average.

Weather responds to outside forces. A storm, a change in wind direction, a drop in pressure. Climate doesn’t mind outside forces too much, because they all average out in the end.

What climate can do, however, is influence how the weather might respond to those forces. The same pressure system might become a hurricane over Florida, or a blizzard over Buffalo.

Happiness and sadness are like the weather. They respond to outside forces, and change from day to day, or even minute to minute. They are only as permanent as the situations that brought them about.

But joy isn’t like the weather. It doesn’t go away when something makes you sad. It’s something that lives at your core, and influences how you respond to the world. Joy is a climate of the heart.

The opposite of joy isn’t sadness. It’s bitterness. Sadness comes and goes, but bitterness lives in the heart. It colors a person’s reaction to everything. Like a desert climate, where it might rain occasionally, but nothing lasting can grow. A bitter heart causes joy to wither, and die.

The good news is that heart climates are easier to change than local climates. You know who is really good at changing hearts? I’ll give you a hint: we’re getting ready to celebrate his birth.

Jesus is the antidote to a bitter heart. Remember the wise man who built his house on a rock? And the storms came, and the floods rose, but his house stood firm, while those same storms and floods flattened the foolish man’s house. If you want a heart of joy, you need a firm foundation. And that foundation is Christ.

A heart climate of joy won’t stop the storms from coming. It won’t stop the tears from falling. But it will give you the strength to face every situation with courage and peace. It will color your view of the world, and help you to see God’s hand at work in even the dark places. As Nehemiah encouraged his people, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Be strong. Rejoice!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Jule Ann’s Advent Meditation, Week 2: The Candle of Love

God knows everything. Everything that ever was, is, and will be.

But he still made us. He knew that we would give in to temptation, but he still gave us free will. He knew that we would break his laws, but he still wrote them down for us on tablets of stone. Twice.

Why? Because he loves us. With a perfect, unwavering love.

The Law demands sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” God wrote that law. He knew what it meant. He knew better than anyone what it would cost.

The concept of infinity frustrates my kids. They want infinity to be a really huge number that they can add to or subtract from like any other number. But infinity isn’t a number, and no matter what you add to it or take away from it, it’s still infinity. It’s a bit hard to wrap your mind around for child. Honestly, it’s not easy for an adult, either.

God has infinite strength. Infinite resources. Infinite time. No matter what gifts he gives, he still remains infinite. There is no sacrifice in those gifts.

How then can God, the infinite, give anything sacrificially? How can he satisfy the Law that he wrote? There is literally only one thing he can give that would cost him anything, and that is to give up his infinity itself.

Good Friday and Easter get most of the “sacrifice” sermons. But I think Christmas deserves a few, too. True, Jesus suffered and died on the cross, but the sacrifice began over 30 years earlier, when he gave up his infinity. And he became human. Not just any human, but a baby. A completely helpless baby. He gave up his strength, and had to learn to walk on chubby little legs. He gave up his eloquence, and had to depend on cries to communicate his needs. He gave up his throne in heaven for a feeding trough.

He became human, even though he knew what was coming next. He knew he would be despised, rejected, and killed. But he came anyhow, because even in his finite human body, he retained his infinite love.

We human beings are slow learners. I get frustrated waiting for my children to put on their shoes, but God waited, patiently, century after century, for us to finally recognize his love. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that “Love is patient.” And God’s love for us is the perfect embodiment of patience.

Advent reminds us to wait. Let it also remind us that we are loved. That our loving God is waiting for us, patiently, arms open wide, ready to give anything, and everything, for us.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Jule Ann’s Advent Meditation, Week One: The Candle of Hope



Waiting is hard. It’s awkward. Uncomfortable. Boring.

In this fast-paced modern age, we don’t have to wait very long for anything. We can communicate instantly with anyone on the planet. But still, we get impatient if we have to stare at those three little dots that tell us that they are typing a response for more than a few seconds.

But Christianity is counter-cultural. Twice a year, for Advent and Lent, we deliberately slow down.

And wait.

God’s people waited a long time for the Messiah. They waited in bondage. They waited in the wilderness. They waited in exile. They waited while the prophets railed against the evils of the day. They waited in the empty silence when God seemed to have left them alone.

But we don’t wait in darkness. We wait in hope. We know how the story ends. And it ends triumphantly! With victory over sin and death!

“We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.” (Psalm 33:20-21)

Hope is a great motivator. A bride-to-be, in anticipation of her wedding day, calls florists, interviews D.J.s, and samples cakes, working hard to make sure everything will be just right. Expectant parents, eager to meet their baby, build nursery furniture, wash and fold tiny clothing, and make their home ready for their new family member. Many of you may hope to see distant family members over the holidays, and you will soon be making travel plans or furiously cleaning the guest room in anticipation of that precious time together.

When you wait in hope, you don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs. You get up and work!

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'” (Isaiah 40:3)

That’s not a passive verse. It’s not a verse for sitting around, mourning the state of the world, and waiting passively for Christ to return and fix everything. No! It’s a call to action. It’s a command to get up and work. Prepare the way for the Lord!
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
“’Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
1 Corinthians 15:54-58

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Save our Sewing Circle

When Pearl invited me to the church sewing circle, my brain scrambled quickly for ways to turn her down politely.

“I don’t really sew,” I tried. She assured me that it didn’t matter. Many of the members didn’t sew. I could help knot comforters, and they could teach me if I wanted to learn to hand-quilt.

“I don’t have anyone to watch my son.” That didn’t matter either. He could play while we worked, and I could tend to him as needed. The members all brought their kids when they were younger, too.

Out of excuses, I told her maybe, and went on my way.

I really didn’t think sewing circle was the place for me. There’s a pretty good chance that you think the same thing.

But one week, I found myself going a bit stir-crazy at home, and I looked at the calendar and saw that it was sewing circle day. Sure, why not? I thought to myself. At least it will get me out of the house.

Fast forward a few months, and I now count myself as a regular member.

It’s hard to describe sewing circle to an outsider. It’s not a club for people who like to sew, as I thought it would be. Half the ladies there don’t even sew. Sewing is a means to an end, rather than the end itself. These ladies do nothing for themselves. Everything they work on together is for someone else. Their comforters go to families in need. Their quilts go to the Mennonite Central Committee so they can be auctioned off, and the proceeds can be used to send the comforters overseas. It’s a mission and a ministry.

Sewing Circle is not just a social club for the older ladies in the church, although that element is present. While their hands are stitching and knotting, their mouths are talking, and their hearts are sharing. Once upon a time, they shared their parenting struggles, and gave loving advice to one another. As their families grew, their stories changed, but they continued to be there for one another. They held each other up as they became widows, prayed for each other as they received bad news from their doctors, comforted each other as they watched their friends go home to be with the Lord.

Our sewing circle is dying. Both literally and figuratively. Every year, there are fewer members and fewer finished projects. This is the 62nd year of the sewing circle at our church, and it may very well be the last. Our president has terminal cancer, and when the Lord takes her home, there is no one to take her place.

Maybe sewing circles are a thing of the past. Maybe their time has come and gone. Maybe today’s women just don’t have time to sit around making quilts. And if that’s all that was going on at sewing circle, maybe we should just end this chapter and close the book.

But sewing circle isn’t just a social club. It has a heart that beats with love for people in need, near and far. And if no one takes up the torch, that heart will stop beating.

I’m asking for a favor: Help me save the sewing circle. Come to a meeting. It doesn’t matter if you know how to sew. Sewing is just a means to an end, remember. And if you care about that end, we can work together on the means.

I don’t know what sewing circle will look like in 20 years. Maybe it will look exactly the same as it did 20 years ago, with ladies sitting around the quilting frames, chatting and sharing, while their children play together off in the corner. Or, maybe we won’t even be making quilts anymore. That would be okay, though. Because the quilts are nice, but the quilts aren’t the heart of the sewing circle. The people are.

The Sandy Hill Sewing Circle meets on the first Tuesday of every month in the Fellowship Hall. Come any time after 8:30, and stay as long as you can. We stop to discuss business and have brief devotional time around 11, and we break to eat lunch at some point after that. Bring a bagged lunch if you’d like to stay longer. If you need directions, they are available on the church website.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Message of Babel

I had a crisis of faith during my first year of college. It was triggered in, of all unlikely places, a Bible class. We were reading the book of Genesis, and we came to the story of The Tower of Babel. You probably know the story, too: Everyone in the world used to speak the same language, but they tried to build a tower to Heaven, and God punished them by scrambling their speech.

Except, that's not the story. They weren't trying to build a tower to Heaven, they were just trying to build a really tall tower. "Reaches to the heavens" was just poetic language for "really, really tall."

And God wasn't punishing them, per se. Nowhere in the passage does it explicitly mention any sin on the part of the humans. In fact, it seems like they were doing pretty well for themselves. So well, in fact, that God stopped by to check on their progress.
"But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building." (Genesis 11:5)
And he seemed to be impressed by their tower. He never said anything bad about the tower. Instead, he seemed worried that they were doing a bit too well.
"The Lord said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.'" (Genesis 11:6)
That's why he scrambled their speech. Because he thought people were doing a bit too well for themselves, and needed to be taken down a peg.

This was a faith-rattling revelation for me. I had already spent years reconciling the image of a vengeful God with one of a merciful God (that's another post for another day), but this wasn't vengeance. It seems almost vindictive. "Hey, you guys are doing too well, I'm going to make the game harder on you!"

It took me a long time to accept this "new" version of the Babel story. I wanted to call up all of my Sunday School teachers and yell at them for lying to me. I really, really didn't like this picture of a God who trips people up just because they are doing well.

But one day, as I was wrestling with the Babel story, something finally clicked, and the story fell into place. God was worried, yes. But he wasn't worried about the things that people could accomplish. He was worried about what they would accomplish without him. If the entire Old Testament is pointing us towards salvation in Jesus, then letting people do too well on their own strength is setting them up for failure in the end. Human beings are pretty awesome, and we can accomplish a lot of things. But no matter how well we do, there is one thing we can't do: We can't earn our salvation.

I believe that is the real reason God scrambled the languages at Babel. It was a reminder. "Hey. You guys need me."

I have many moderate talents. God has given me a wide range of gifts and abilities. Sometimes, I wish he had just poured all that talent into one thing, so that my calling would be obvious. I'm an okay singer, but I'm no soloist. I can act, but I'm never going to get a part in a movie. I'm a pretty good public speaker, though, maybe I could be a pastor? I love traveling and meeting new people, maybe a missionary? I know! I love talking to people and helping them, maybe I could be a counselor!

And then, one day, I acidentally became the church drummer. We were just hanging out after church one day, and a friend was playing some improv on the piano, and I picked up a little hand drum to accompany him. The next thing I knew, I was playing my hand drum, and later, my djembe, almost every Sunday morning in church.

I'm not a great drummer. I'm barely an okay drummer. But an okay drummer was better than no drummer at all.

It was humbling to do something for God that I wasn't really good at. I wanted to be the best, to give him the best! But I knew it was a need that I could fill, so I did my mediocre best to fill it. And whenever I felt myself feeling inadequate, I heard a quiet whisper reminding me, "Not your strength. My strength."

Eventually, we moved away, and started attending a new church in a new town. And my drumming had improved quite a bit at this point, so I joined the worship team at our new church. I played my djembe for a long time, until the church acquired some nice congas, and I moved to them. I found my groove, and things were going pretty well. Then our senior pastor retired, leaving several empty roles to be filled. I wondered how God might use me, now. Maybe I could preach occasionally? Help with the youth group?

Then, one evening at worship team rehearsal, the pastor mentioned that he really wished someone could play on the drum kit for this one song. I glanced warily over at the kit, wondering how much I would remember from a few months of lessons over 20 years ago. And I heard a little voice in my head. "Not your strength. My strength." And I played the kit. Poorly, for sure. But willingly.

A few weeks later, the pastor approached me about co-leading a worship team with another young woman in our church. And every part of me screamed, "Why me? This isn't my talent!" I can only sorta sing, and I know nothing about accompaniment or instrumental arrangements. I have tried to learn to play guitar several times, but every time I started to make any progress, my tendonitis flared up in my wrist again, and I was forced to quit. If only I could play the guitar. Maybe that would be enough. But this was the need I was being asked to fill. And again, I heard that little voice whispering, "Not your strength. My strength."

And that, I think, is the lesson of Babel. If they had built that tower, and succeeded in everything they tried to do, it would have been entirely on their own strength. And thinking that we can do it on our own is one of the biggest barriers to salvation I have ever seen. We (and by "we" I mean "I") need to be reminded daily, "Hey, you still need me. Not your strength. My strength."

So, if you come to my church this Sunday, you'll see me up front. I will be fumbling through the first song on the drum kit, after which I will don my microphone, and do my best to sing on key and cue the singers at the right times. And I am not good enough on my own strength. But that's okay, because it isn't about me.

Sometimes, I think the greatest kindness God has ever done for me is forcing me to do things I am not good at. Because then I know, for sure, that it's not my strength. It's his.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hour-a-Day April 2016: Days 12-22

Sorry for disappearing, there. My mom came to visit, and I dropped out of "HADA" mode and into "AMAPADWIHAEAH" mode ("As much as possible-a-day while I have an extra adult helping"). I got a lot done. My mom got me caught up on dishes, and between us, we did a bunch of deep cleaning, de-cluttering, and organizing. We also did some fun things, like a trip to Longwood Gardens and seeing Samson at Sight & Sound Theatres.

I also got my raised beds built, filled, and mostly planted (I just need to get more lettuce seeds, because my kids apparently needed two whole packets of seeds for the 1' by 3' patch of garden I gave them to plant).

By the time my mom left yesterday morning, I was feeling pretty decent about my prospects for keeping up with the house. For months, I have been saying that, if I could just get over the backlog, the day-to-day wouldn't be quite so bad. So, here I was, with no backlog (well, no kitchen backlog - my general to-do list is endless), feeling ready to conquer the world. Okay, maybe not the world, but I could conquer Dinner! I dragged the kids to the store to get some ingredients I was missing, and I assembled one of their favorite casseroles (au gratin potatoes and sweet potatoes with ham). I even washed my prep dishes as I went along!

Then I got a phone call.

In the next three minutes, my kids managed to undo a whole week's work with a bin of flour and a box fan. Yes, I am serious. My kids are like those horrible kids in the movies that are totally implausible, because who does idiotic stuff like that in real life? My kids, that's who.
"Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing, and life doesn't." -Neil Gaiman
While I was screaming into a pillow, I received a text message from my husband telling me he would be late getting home. I looked at the clock, and realized that dinner wouldn't be done in time for us to eat it, so I turned the oven off, gave the kids some crackers and cheese, then piled all three kids into the car, and dragged them all to my Girl Scout meeting, because, oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I had a Girl Scout meeting, which Jeremy was supposed to be home in time for so that he could watch the younger kids while Valerie and I went to Girl Scouts. I sent him a message telling him to walk over and get the younger kids when he got home from work. But he didn't get home from work until the meeting was over. Yay.

There's always something, isn't there? I actually felt hopeful for the first time in a long time, and then bam, nope. Goodbye hope. I knew it would happen eventually. Someone would get sick, something would break, something unexpected would come up. But I kinda thought I might have a whole day, first. Nope.

It's going to take everything I have to get back on the horse again this time. I got most of the flour cleaned up, and the first of many floury loads of laundry started. And, fortunately, dinner was a no-brainer tonight, because there was a barely-touched casserole from last night's debacle. And it is the weekend, which means I should have a few kid-free hours while Jeremy entertains the hooligans. But I'm having a really hard time feeling optimistic. Ever since the flour incident last night, I have felt completely defeated. I look around the house, and it's like everything has a big, neon sign on it, blazing the words, "Why bother?"

I hope a good night's sleep gives me back a shred of hope in the morning.

Sorry for the downer ending. Here, have some pretty pictures from Longwood Gardens.