From Eden's Dirt

Hope through despair. Faith through fear.

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Essentials of Self Care: Rule of Life

This is the fourth post in my Essentials of Self Care series. To read more on this topic, choose one of the following posts:

Sleep

Breathe

Own Your Time

If I had to choose an adjective to describe what life feels like in 2019, I might pick busy, or hurried, or even instant. I’ve been a legal adult for twenty years now, and in that time I’ve observed a steady and alarming progression in the average person’s expectations about how long something should take. For example, twenty years ago my mom had to start her Christmas shopping in October. She had to start that early because the approach of Christmas meant squeezing in shopping trips to the mall or the outlet center, and she already had a busy schedule. If she didn’t want to make the time for one more shopping trip, her other (and sometimes favorite) option was catalog shopping. But to do that she needed to find the type of catalog she needed, find an appropriate gift within it, and then either fill out and mail an order form to the company or call a customer sales phone number and wait on hold for a live person to take her order. And no matter which option she chose, she had to wait for the item she’d order to be prepared, packaged, and shipped, which usually took several weeks.

In contrast from the 90s, I start my Christmas shopping on Black Friday. I rarely buy anything that I need to leave the house for. Most of my shopping happens in one huge Amazon Prime order. I get gifts for everyone that way, because Amazon has pretty much everything, and I don’t have to fix myself up, leave the house, or drive anywhere to get it. I even order most of the stocking stuffers I buy. On Black Friday, or shortly after, I put in one huge Amazon Prime order, click on which of the saved credit cards I want to use for the entire order, and I’m done. I order photo Christmas cards the same way every year from photo storage and gift sites, who often have an option that could allow me to input all the addresses of my Christmas card recipients, so that the company itself will print, address, stamp, and mail all of my cards for me, without me ever even having to touch one on paper.

Amazon, and similar sites that strive to challenge Amazon’s online shopping empire, have taken over so much of our shopping business that small business owners, or even franchised brick-and-mortar store owners, are struggling to survive. The fact that we even have that term, brick-and-mortar stores, speaks to our growing need for instant retail gratification. Interestingly, even though we don’t yet have our hands on the new prize, we get that instant gratification at the point that we order it. “Add to cart” is therapeutic, and when that package shows up on my front porch, its like a shopping orgasm.

Believe me, I’m not about to preach at you about buying local or supporting small businesses. I mean, you should, and so should I, but obviously I fall into the instant gratification trap too, and not just with retail therapy. Five years ago I was obese, a result of several years of bingeing on sugary, fatty, and salty foods. King-size candy bars worked better and faster than antidepressants.

As important as all these things are, I’m not going to write an entire post about things you shouldn’t do, at least not this time. If I’ve learned anything from parenting autistic kids and being a former binge eater, it’s that people eliminate unhealthy behaviors a lot more easily when they can focus on adding healthy ones. That’s where the concept of a Rule of Life comes in.

I first encountered the idea of a Rule of Life in Ruth Haley Barton’s book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, but Barton didn’t invent the term. A Rule of Life originally referred to a set of guidelines for monastic life. The C.S. Lewis institute describes Rule of Life as “an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.” In other words, it’s a commitment to engage regularly in a routine of spiritual disciplines with the goal of growing closer and closer to God.

In a previous post in my Essentials of Self Care series I suggested that we can better ensure that we are living according to our personal values and priorities by analyzing our day-to-day schedules and routines and then adjusting them until the things we spend the most time on are a reflection of those values. It’s a simple concept, but it isn’t easy to achieve because there are countless sources of stimulation that fight for our attention all day long. A Rule of Life can be one way to adapt our lives toward our values, or more specifically, toward a continually deepening relationship with our Creator God. No matter how much we do to practice Christian values, no matter how many ministries we volunteer for, no matter how many times we talk to someone about Jesus, if we don’t build a deeply personal connection with God, our faith is at risk. So yes, I’m talking about reading your Bible, about praying, about your “quiet time”. You can go to Bible studies and prayer meetings (please do!), but no group event or ministry can serve as a substitute for a daily personal connection with our Lord.

There are roughly a bajillion Bible verses that describe the importance of a personal relationship with God. (For starters, try John 1:10-13, Jeremiah 29:11, Revelation 3:20, and Hebrews 11:6.) Believers tend to throw around that term, “a personal relationship with God,” without clearly defining it, but you can get a better idea of what a personal relationship with God looks like if you replace “God” with a flesh and blood person’s name. For example, I know for sure that I want to have a personal relationship with my husband. Although Eric definitely isn’t God, I love him, I want to continue loving him, and I want to do things that build up our love for each other and the relationship we’ve built for the last twenty years. That describes, vaguely anyway, what I see as the goal of a continually deepening personal relationship with Eric. The next question I can ask myself is “What can I do on a regular basis to make our love for each other last and to continually grow in closeness and love with each other?”

The answers to that question would depend on Eric’s individual characteristics, along with my own, and actions and words that I know from our past together can bring us closer together. The things on this list, and the commitment to practice them on a regular and frequent basis, would be a “rule of life” for my marriage.

Just as my list of practices that deepen my relationship with my husband are likely different than yours, our Rules of Life that guide our committed daily connection with God will differ as well. But there are some essential qualities that define a rule of life, as well as essential practices that God teaches us to use as we walk with Him everyday.

To begin with, the concept of a Rule of Life implies a commitment to practice a set of spiritual disciplines, or to do certain relationship-building things, on a daily basis. In her book Barton provides her own Rule of Life as an example, but not an exact model. Barton’s Rule of Life consists of a daily routine of “quiet time” with God, but also includes weekly and monthly commitments for longer periods of focused time alone with God. So, while your daily Rule of Life practice might consist of Bible reading, devotional reading, and prayer every morning, it’s also a good idea to include actions like Sabbath practice, personal retreats, and periods of quiet, that can connect you more deeply and for longer periods of time with our Father.

My Rule of Life includes daily Bible reading, both in the context of a topical study and a Bible-in-a-year reading plan.  The Bible isn’t a history textbook, a poetry collection, or a good novel, and God never intended us to read it once and put it back on the shelf. Unlike any other book, the Bible is God’s revelation to us of who He is. Just as you wouldn’t expect to remain close to a friend without listening to his words, you can’t stop reading God’s Word to you. No matter how many times you’ve read it, even every word, spending time reading your Bible everyday will never be a waste (Isaiah 55:11). So make daily Bible reading not just a goal, but a unwavering commitment.

I do take advantage of daily devotional books, and for the last years I have found that reading through certain devotional writings by calendar day every year helps to connect me with God’s story in my own life. I’ve been reading Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening every year for about ten years now, and I continue to gain insight and awe from his reflections. If you want to use a devotional but don’t know what to pick, I would suggest starting with a well-loved classic like Spurgeon’s or My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers. Then, in addition to a classic devotion book, find a newer book that appeals to you by its topic, intended audience, goal, or writing style.

Prayer, meditation, and writing are also essentials for me, because they engage not just my eyes on the page and my knowledge of God’s character, but my own response to what He has shown me, both by His Word and by my relentless daily connection with Him. Both prayer and meditation open my heart and mind to God, and just as significantly, close my mind to outside distractions. That’s easier said than done, of course. There are many days when my daily time with God is interrupted by children, pets, a to-do list, an oven timer, or a phone notification. Eliminate and reduce distractions as much as you can – turn off your phone, close the door, find something to keep the kids busy, and let the people around you know that this part of your time is for God alone. But know also that God recognizes that you aren’t in control of what is going on around you, and in this too there is forgiveness. The more often you practice this time of quiet, mindful prayer the more those around you will see its value in your life, and the better you’ll get at reducing any interference.

For now anyway, I’m not going to attempt to tell you how to pray, how to meditate, or how and what to write during your time with God. These practices are deeply personal, deeply emotional, and deeply individual. Who am I to say that what I get out of prayer journaling is any better than what you get out of, say, praying the rosary? I can’t, because God knows us so well that not only does He listen to any type of dedicated prayer, but I believe He actually wants you to pray in the way that is most meaningful and connected for you. God isn’t limited to only certain types of communication.

If you’re at a loss and simply can’t find a method of prayer that connects you to God, know that I’ve been there too, more than once. There have been periods of dryness in my connection with God when prayer feels like talking to the ceiling. In hindsight I’ve realized that this often happens when I am withholding something about myself that God wants to change, but that may not be the case for you. So if you need me to tell you what to do, try this: silence. Schedule your prayer time for a time when you can be completely alone, with as little noise and distraction as possible. Get up at 2AM, pray, and go back to sleep if that’s all that works for you. Find your silence, set yourself up to stay both comfortable and alert, and then close your eyes, asking God to speak to you. Breathe deep and wait for a while. See what happens. It’s not easy.

Above all, a Rule of Life is a commitment to learn and grow with intentional action and thought. If you’ve ever learned a skill by hand – playing an instrument, running a marathon, riding a bike, or fixing a car – you know that commitment, attention, and routine can come together to give you a deeper understanding and a closer relationship, even with an action or object. A Rule of Life connects us with God in a similar way, but unlike a bike or a trail or a violin, God is waiting to connect with us in a love relationship that can grow infinitely deeper and more beautiful.

Photos by Clark Young, Jan Kolar, Luisa Scheting, Ben White, Heather Mount, Samantha Sofia, and Aaron Burde via Unsplash.

Just Before Dawn

(a poem)

How good it is when people praise

with grasses green and sunny days,

when all is calm and all is bright

there is no fear of darker nights.

But when heaven’s comforts are on earth

what value has the Savior’s birth?

If from earthly burdens freed

what more of heaven would we need?

How good it is when people groan

longing for a joy unknown,

when life is pain and bodies weak,

the present dark, the future bleak.

For without hurt and fear and loss

what value is the Savior’s cross?

If there were no reason for His death

singing praise would be a waste of breath.

Perhaps the darkness on this earth

can show us what the light is worth.

Hatred, poverty, disease, and sin

can mark the spot where the light begins.

When pain is constant and grief profound,

when our feet are tired, and we hit the ground,

then on our knees, we look up and find

Love excelling, Love divine.

  • May 1, 2019

Photos by Ryan Hutton and Solaiman Hossen via Unsplash

A Calling to Stewardship: We’ve paved paradise and filled it with trash.

As a kid, I took for granted the idea that our food, in some way or another, came from the land. I grew up on a farm that my family owned for three generations, so food, and the land that produced it, was literally all around me. It was a long time before I really thought about the fact that not everyone could pick a peach off a tree and eat it in August, or an apple in September, or a pumpkin in October. That was everyday reality for me.

I also learned pretty quickly that just because my dad knew how to coax a plant or tree to produce berries or fruit didn’t mean he had complete control. Peach trees would blossom in the early spring, but a shift to colder weather could bring frost in April, killing the blossoms and the fruit that would have grown from them.

God created the earth and its fruit for our use (Gen. 2:15), and mankind’s very first sin was to abuse that gift through disobedience. But instead of taking back the land He’d created from nothing, God instead put it into our hands to care for and toil over. The land is still our food, whether we grow a tomato ourselves or buy sauce in a can at the grocery store. Yet, with each generation and advancement in agriculture, food production and packaging, distribution, and availability we’ve become more physically separated from the land itself. We haven’t just stopped visiting farms. Most of the time we don’t even know where to find one.

It’s the same with the untamed land around us. Wilderness is hard to even imagine sometimes. As our population grows, so does our need for homes, schools, stores, and businesses. We’ve set nature aside so that what land we have that isn’t consumed by the needs of people is segregated into public parks and preserves, many of which are tamed to meet our needs as well. We take out the nature to add parking lots, bathrooms, souvenir shops. We pave walking trails so that they’re easier on our feet.

None of this is wrong, but it is unsustainable.

When I give one of my kids a gift, particularly one that costs me valuable time and money, I’m hurt when they don’t treat it as a valuable possession. My youngest son loves stuffed animals and values them more than his other toys. He wakes up with back or neck pain some mornings because he sleeps with so many that he runs out of room to lay down comfortably. So when I find one of his stuffies dirty, left out in the rain, or lost altogether, it hurts my feelings a bit. He says he loves it, he plays with it, and he uses it, but despite that he has failed to properly care for it and protect it.

In recent years God has opened my eyes to see that, like my son and his stuffed animals, we tend to use His gifts to us to satisfy our own desires without also taking responsibility to ensure that they are properly cared for. I am annoyed when I go to an amusement park or outdoor eating area and find the trash can overflowing, spilling dirty paper cups and plastic spoons onto the ground, but I don’t take the time to connect that thought to where all this trash will go after someone cleans it up — to a landfill that covers acres of ground, and is itself overflowing.

When I finish eating I go to a big box store. I buy myself a t-shirt because it’s cute and only costs $5. I don’t think about the other 20 cute t-shirts I already own, how easily the thin fabric will tear, leading me to throw this t-shirt in the trash bin, then the garbage truck, then the landfill. I don’t consider whether or not this t-shirt may have been sewn by a child younger than my own, working in a sweatshop, who may never be able to afford the $5 t-shirt that I’ll only wear twice.

It’s big, this problem. It’s everywhere. It hurts to think about it. It makes me want to plug my ears, close my eyes, and pretend I don’t know it’s there.

Which is exactly what we’ve been doing for about the last six generations.

It’s time to stop.

*This is the first post of my new series, A Calling to Stewardship. I invite you to help me treasure the world God created for use and commanded us to work (Gen. 3:19). Let me open your eyes so that you too can see the love of your Creator in every rock, every tree, every animal, and every person.*

Art based on The Lion King produced by tigon at DeviantArt, with my words added.

In Dreams I Rise

(a poem)

In dreams I rise.

Not fly. Not soar.

Just rise.

Suddenly, magically,

By no effort of my own,

I am taken up. Weightless.

But I can still see the ground.

I float out of a busy church,

Then down a city street, three stories up.

No one sees. No one cares.

Their lives continue on the ground,

But I am free.

In the sky I am never weary.

I don’t need to analyze every thought or feeling.

There is no need to think of sorrows,

Of imperfect relationships,

Of pain.

When I float I have no fear of dementia,

Or addiction, or mental illness.

I am alone in the sky; there is no expectation of sanity.

In rising my muscles will never grow sore,

My head won’t ache, I won’t grow dizzy.

I will never wake up in the dark, scared and upset,

Coated in sweat like paint, yet frozen in a coldness that comes from fear.

There’s no need for sleep in the sky.

On earth I am heavy, hurt, weak, and afraid.

When I rise I am carried in graceful hands.

On the ground I toil, carrying my burdens in my mind and body.

I carry rocks for people who can’t carry their own,

And the fight, and the weight of expectations and responsibility grind me slowly and painfully into the ground.

Gravity itself is my sorrow.

The sky, you see, is where I belong,

And my cells are homesick.

Someday I will rise and never come down.

Until then I will walk.

Written by Melanie Makovsky

Photos by Bryan Minear, Ankush Minda, Palash Jain, and Alessio Lin.

My Snowy Day

Have you ever read The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats? It’s a beautiful picture book that I loved reading to my children when they were younger. In all of Keats’ books, both the art and the story reflect the joy and wonder of childhood in their simplicity, while also showing the struggle that a child must navigate as he begins to encounter his own need to adjust emotionally to the world’s imperfections.

In The Snowy Day, a little boy named Peter is overjoyed to wake up to find a deep covering of snow blanketing his urban neighborhood. As you might suspect, he is immediately drawn to the magic of the snow, running out into its depths in his little red snowsuit. He plays alone, performing the little scientific experiments that young children use so openly as they explore their world. He whacks a snow-covered tree with a stick until a pile of snow falls onto his head. He makes footprints in patterns. And, of course, he rolls snowballs.

Yet, after some time, Peter grows tired of his games and uncomfortable in the cold, and wants to go back to his warm home. Yet the snow is precious and new and fun, and he doesn’t want to leave it either. In his dilemma, he decides to roll a small snowball, just big enough to fit in his coat pocket, and then he goes inside. After a warm bath, however, Peter is dismayed to find that his snowball has disappeared, leaving only a wet coat pocket behind.

This weekend, by the grace of God and my husband, Eric, I am spending time alone at a retreat center located near the beach in San Diego. (I’m not going to tell you where exactly. This place is my secret piece of heaven, and I don’t want to share.) I’m here to rest, read, pray, and recharge my batteries, and I get to be here all the way until Monday. This, to me, is the ultimate measure of selfcare, not quite a vacation, but an indulgence in my own inner world, with time to fill only with the things that feed my soul. But the hard part, the damper on my private party, is that, on Monday, I will, in fact, go home.

I came here once before not quite two years ago, and it was one of the best things I’d ever done for myself. Solo retreats are an amazing way to get in touch with God and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the idea is that, after my God-and-me honeymoon, I can return home with a fresh outlook and a cleansed spirit. And, after my last visit here, that did happen. But my launch back into reality didn’t feel too good after my return home. I pulled in the driveway with an indescribable peace in my heart, and I was anxious to embrace my kids and my husband, to give them the new, best self that I’d uncovered. Then I opened the front door.

All three kids and my husband were home, and all 3 were in full, energetic swing. My elder son had an appointment that day to tour a meterological station in partial fulfillment of a Boy Scout merit badge. When I walked in, he needed to be there in ten minutes, and the station was twenty minutes away. Eric was trying to help him focus on what he needed to wear and bring along, as well as the types of questions he should ask, and in the midst of this my younger son was playing, chattering, and requesting attention. My daughter, who attended an online middle school at the time, was using her school-issued computer, struggling to complete her work in all the commotion. I was dismayed to say the least. All of this was (is) just a typical day in our crazy family life, but after my three days in solitude, the impact of this uproar on my sensory systems was overwhelming. I was able to greet everyone with hugs and kisses and listen to their reports of events that happened while I was gone, but within a few hours, my mind and body shut down. I ended up in bed with a multi-day migraine.

As I sit here again now, the discomfort of that reunion and the frustration I felt toward myself and toward my normal life sits in my mind, and I know I want to avoid that shock on Monday. But I don’t know how to translate the peace and tranquility I experience in this environment into the everyday life I lead. My precious snowball of solitude and quiet can only survive under the right conditions. When I take it out of its natural environment, it will melt. Like Peter, all I’ll have left is a wet pocket.

Learning to balance caring for others, caring for myself, growing my relationship with God and allowing Him to determine the values I will live out, and trying to enjoy the whole process is a never-ending balancing act. I am constantly questioning where and when one of these priorities should stop and another should begin. Ultimately I should be living them all out simultaneously, and certainly I am, but the time factor eludes me. When I need to practice my care for others, should I be sitting down, playing a game or having a talk with my kids? Going on a date with my husband? Keeping my house clean? Cooking a favorite meal? Planning and executing a family outing? Am I really caring for them if I’m cooking a meal and they’re in the other room? Since I’m pretty much the only one in the house who likes things clean and organized, is sweeping the floor an act of caring for my family, or caring for myself? When I’m feeling tired, sick, or resentful, should I continue sweeping the floor because I love them, or should I take a break? Is it too self-indulgent to take a 3 hour nap on Sunday afternoon? Is Eric out there in the living room thinking I’m lazy and growing resentful because I’m napping and he’s not? I definitely see the wisdom in putting on my own self care oxygen mask first before helping others, but I never seem to get enough air. Perhaps if I stopped overthinking it all I could breathe more deeply.

Like Peter, I want to keep my snowball. Having just the snowball isn’t quite as great as having all the snow, but keeping it means that I have a piece of that joy to hold onto any time I want. But, just as Peter wasn’t able to keep the snowball from melting in the warmth of his house, I can’t seem to carry the warmth and peace that I receive in solitude into my active life and my relationships. It disintegrates.

I want to know the secret to keeping the snowball. I want my self care practices to enhance and give depth and meaning to my work and my relationships. Instead I feel like the busyness of life too quickly drains my supply of inner peace.

For now, though, I will stop worrying about how to hang onto the snowball. For the next three days, I’ll just enjoy the snow.

Photo by Aaron Burden. Pictures by Ezra Jack Keats.

Essentials of Self Care: Own Your Time

This is the third installment in my Essentials of Self Care series. To view the earlier installments, choose a link:

Essentials of Self Care: Sleep

Essentials of Self Care: Breathe

Essentials of Self Care: Rule of Life.

I’ve written a lot about self care in the past. It’s important to me because I want others to know what I didn’t. I believe that one of the reasons I now suffer from chronic illnesses, mental and physical, is that I didn’t make time for self care in my earlier years as an adult, and especially after I became a mother. It wasn’t until I developed chronic migraines and other pain that anyone told me that self care needed to be more than remembering to eat right, brush my teeth, and take a shower once in a while.

In the fall of 2016, after several months of extreme anxiety, constant head and muscle pain, dizziness, and nausea, I saw my current primary care doctor for the first time. She asked me about my life, and the first thing I told her was that I was the at-home mother of two teens with autism. I didn’t get to tell her any more. She stopped me, saying, “No wonder you have migraines. I think all of this is happening because of constant stress and anxiety. Your body can’t manage it anymore.” I don’t tell you this here to make the claim that all chronic illness and pain is a result of stress. But stress is a big complicating factor, and it seems like so many people, myself included, feel stressed, but don’t feel like they have the time to relieve it. It’s not that I don’t want stress relief, it’s that any time that I spend caring for myself is time that I don’t spend doing something else that’s important. Like so many other women, I put my own needs last.

Self Portrait

I made changes after that, but I’ve come to the conclusion that, while self care allows me to cope with and enjoy my life, it’s too late for me to be completely healthy again. God may work a miracle for me, and I pray for one often. I am not discounting His desire and ability to make me well. But accepting that my body is tired helps me feel like my self care is worthwhile.

I don’t want others to get to this point where I am. I’m 37 right now, but I often joke that it feels like 87. I’m tired to the point of exhaustion almost all the time; in fact, if I don’t feel tired I tend to worry about what might be wrong. I take 10 pills every morning. While many other women are in much worse condition, I can emphatically tell you that I regret not allowing myself the time for proper self care, especially the kind that provides a release from tension and anxiety.

Here’s What I Wish I’d Known:

You own your time. Every hour of every day in this comparably short life is yours to invest. God has entrusted us with years of life here, and those years are made up of hours. I may be stating the obvious here, but this is something I didn’t know, or chose to ignore, for most of my adult life, and especially after I had children. But I chose that. Or it could be said that I chose not to own my time, allowing all the things around me to own it instead, and in my mind, I had no choice but to be dragged along behind the flow of my own life.

But there are 3 things you can accept and act on if you’re going to make the minutes of your life purposeful and healthy.

Time will pass whether you’re mindfully living your life by faith or allowing the flow to sweep you where it will. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes, “All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.” Don’t get caught in the cycle of the tides. Instead, try this:

1. Know your values.

If you can’t clearly define what you value, chances are you aren’t valuing those things. Our values are what shape us, and without them, our efforts are futile, or at least misplaced (Ecclesiastes 2:21).

Spend time in thought, prayer, and meditation, asking God to show you what is most valuable to you and what putting these things first would look like in your life. Give this time. I suggest several days of thought and prayer. When you feel like you know your answer, write down 3-5 values that God is calling you to live your life by. It may help to post this list somewhere where you will see it often.

2. Examine your current investments.

Take out your planner, datebook, Google Calendar, or whatever you use to keep track of your personal schedule. Page backwards. What did you spend most of your time on over the last days, weeks, and months? What values do these things convey? Think about the things you don’t write down as well — sleep, meals and meal preparation, self care, child care, carpools, and commutes. Where is your time going? Do most of your activities accurately reflect your values, or does your calendar represent your preoccupations?

Come up with a way to ensure that the majority of your time is used doing things that contribute to and build upon your values and the things you most love.



3. Leave a margin.

Even when you’ve adjusted your schedule and your lifestyle to properly invest in what you most value, it’s essential to plan for down time. It sounds a bit paradoxical, but if you fill every hour of your time and don’t leave plenty of blank space in your life, you’ll burn out. Leaving margin in your schedule allows a space for the unexpected, whether that ends up being taking your kids out for pizza or sitting in unexpected traffic. Down time is also a great way to ensure that you can invest in self care when you need it most.

God calls us all to intentionally live in a way that reflects His love to others, and also to ourselves. You may believe that certain actions are valuable, and are what God intends for your life, but if your day-to-day activities don’t reflect that, it means that you’re putting other things ahead of them. Just as important, if you’re spending all of your time chasing after what you value, and none of it caring for yourself and enjoying what you already have, you’ve missed the point.

Allow God to show you where He wants you to invest your precious energy, and when He wants you to rest and recharge. He doesn’t call us to a life of endless toil and striving. He calls us to a life of peace.

Photos by Kristopher Roller, Daoudi Aissa, Mikito Tateisi, and Milada Vigerova via Unsplash.

Faith is a Verb.

I’m a control freak. I’m 37 years old, and I should know better by now, but in my heart I still believe that if I work hard enough everything will work out exactly the way I want it to. If I scold the kids the right way, take away the video games one more time, spend the right amount of quality time instilling in them my infinite wisdom, and pray really hard, they’ll start to show more respect, do all their homework, and go to bed on time all on their own. And if I see the right doctors, get the right tests, take the right pills, and do the right self care , I’ll be healthy and vibrant and happy, right? Yeah, I know.

I am way too old to believe this crap, but I’m out here hustling like it’s true anyway. Maybe that’s because what I really believe, and what I really fear, is that the opposite is true too. If I don’t use the right kind of discipline, don’t take the right pills, and don’t have the right kind of faith, my life, and I, will fall apart. And that’s when the really scary shit will happen.

Faith in Christ is about believing, not doing. But faith is this nebulous thing I can’t pin down. Telling me to “have faith” when I’m struggling is worse than telling me to just love my kids while they are literally trying to kill each other. What does it even mean?

I can show love, I can feel love, but how do I show or feel faith in a way that actually changes anything? It’s so easy to tell someone to pray, to take one day at a time, and to trust that God will work it all out when you’re not the one taking a suicidal child to the ER. When you are, one day at a time isn’t fast enough.

I’ve been an avid reader of She Reads Truth for about seven years now, almost from the beginning of the ministry. I follow along with their series of Bible passages and daily devotional readings as a matter of course now; they are the key component of my private devotions and quiet time each day. Right now they are featuring a study of Hebrews, and yesterday we arrived at Hebrews 11, the famous “hall of faith” passage. If you’re not familiar with this passage, in it the writer calls faith “the assurance of what is hoped for, the conviction or what is not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Pretty strong words, and a pretty high calling. But the writer then goes on to offer us proof —

By faith, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did, and he was approved” (11:4).

“By faith, Noah built an ark,” saving his family, and mankind (11:7).

“By faith, Abraham set out for a place that was his inheritance,” without actually knowing where that place was (11:8).

And it goes on. Fourteen men and two women make it into God’s list of legends. They’re impressive and awe-inspiring. But yesterday writer Claire Gibson drew my attention beyond the list of names to the verbs:

Abel offered.

Noah built.

Sarah received.

Moses refused.

Rahab welcomed.

I’m a huge fan of verbs. They’re often little words, but they pack a lot of meaning and information. As a writing tutor I often find myself encouraging students to choose active and specific verbs that concisely express the action they’re describing. “Instead of saying, ‘It was a sunny day,'” I tell them, “try saying, ‘The sunshine warmed my skin.'” After all, anyone can say how something was, but when I tell you that the sun warmed my skin, you can feel it too.

Verbs are action. These people in Hebrews, in the “hall of faith,” were people, and they’re not on this list because they have something I don’t. I have faith. But what am I doing with it?

I’m saved by faith (Luke 7:50), but what am I doing about that?

Actually, I’m doing a lot about it.

I’m getting my kids up and taking them to school, because I want them to have wisdom (Proverbs 3:13). I’m teaching them about Jesus, because He’s the light of the world (John 8:12). I’m loving my imperfect husband , because we are one flesh (Mark 10:6-9). I’m studying the Bible, because it’s God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), and sharing my faith, because Christ called me to (Matthew 28:19-20). I’m caring for my mind and body, because it is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). I’m worshipping, because He is worthy of my praise (1 Chronicles 6:23-25).

Don’t make the same mistake I did when I read Hebrews 11. I looked at that list, all those people and what they did because they had faith, and I assumed I just wasn’t among them. They had so much faith, and they risked so much, because they trusted God.

But I do too, and chances are, so do you. I know that I’m doing my best to do the things He calls me to do. I know He calls me to these things because He says so in His Word, and because He encourages me when I pray. And I know I’m doing my best because I’m asking Him to work through me, and it’s His work, not mine, that performs miracles. I don’t need to be intimidated by the “hall of faith” because I’ve been inducted into it too.

By faith, Melanie lives her life as an act of worship. 

If you do too, smile. Relax. Be thankful. You’re doing life God’s way.

What are you doing “by faith”? Comment on this post by filling in the blank below.

By faith, _________________.

Essentials of Self Care: Breathe

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This is the second post in my blog series Essentials of Self Care. To build your self care tool box even more, read my first post in this series, Essentials of Self Care: Sleep, 

or my later posts, Own Your Time

and Rule of Life.

There are some things in life that I find to be both exquisitely simple and deeply profound. Breath is one of those things. Within minutes or even seconds of our birth we are able to take air into our lungs and then exhale it, an act akin to a beating heart as a sign of life itself. We don’t think about breathing; we simply breathe because we are alive and are alive because we breathe.

Yet breathing is at once an involuntary impulse and a spiritual act of worship. Genesis 2:7 says that God formed Adam from the dust, but that he didn’t become a living being until the moment God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Life could not exist in Adam’s body until Adam received this breath directly from God.

Every inhalation is really an act of receiving, and what we are receiving is God’s gift of life.

Even as we work and think and love we are constantly receiving God’s life-giving breath, not just by a mere intake of oxygen, but by the gift of our need for it.

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Though my children have tried it a few times in the midst of temper tantrums, it is physically impossible to voluntarily hold your breath until you die. In an article that originally appeared on his blog, evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains that while science has yet to fully explain why we can’t willingly resist the urge to breathe, it is carbon dioxide, the naturally-occurring gas that we exhale, that necessitates the next inhalation. When I hold my breath my metabolic processes use the oxygen I take in, thereby reducing oxygen while increasing the pressure of the carbon dioxide in my body, and this pressure increase eventually induces the act of inhalation.

Our Creator has instilled in us a constant and undeniable need for Him. By the act of taking air into our lungs we acknowledge our need for God. We cannot continue to live without continuous supply of the omnipresent and eternal breath of life. And yet we rarely acknowledge this gift, this assurance of our health and God’s will for us to serve Him here, unless it is somehow interrupted.

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How is breath self care? Because we are continuously breathing we can use this involuntary action as a reminder of who God is to us, how He loves us, has a plan for us, and how He sustains us. The act of focused breathing and drawing attention to our respirations is widely recognized as an effective way to refocus our thoughts. Think of your breath as a self care tool that is always available in any moment. The sheer act of noticing and giving attention to your breathing has a powerful and calming effect on our thoughts and emotions.

Here is my Mindful Breathing Exercise to help you use breathing as a way to care for your body and mind:

  1. Limit external stimuli.

Take a moment to stop what you’re doing and take your focus off the things going on around you. If you can, sit down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a minute to make a deliberate choice to take your mind off what you were doing or what you need to do.

2.  Clear your mind.

This is difficult because it’s impossible for us to stop thinking. Our brains generate both thoughts and internal bodily processes one hundred percent of the time. But while you can’t stop thinking, you do have some control over what you think about. Gently tell yourself that whatever occupied your mind a minute ago is gone for now, and that it is good and safe to take this moment for yourself.

3.  Pay attention to your breath.

Ask yourself, for this moment, to only pay attention to your breath. Notice the air around you as a physical presence in the room, invisible yet infused with life and meaning. Inhale slowly, gently, and deeply through your nose. Try to relax your body and think of the air going slowly into your abdomen, not just your lungs and chest. For some people it helps to imagine a balloon that sits just below their lungs, with its open end pointing up toward the mouth. As you inhale imagine the balloon slowly filling with air, beginning at the lowest end and expanding. Then, as you exhale, imagine the air flowing gently but fully out through the opening at the top of the balloon. Another option to help you visualize deep restorative breathing is to picture your breath as water filling a tall vase, beginning at the bottom of the vase near your stomach and slowly filling to the top, then slowly pouring out from the top as you exhale.

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Stay in this meditative state and repeat these deep breathing steps for as long as you’d like or as long as you need. Open your eyes slowly and restart your thoughts and activities slowly when you’re done. Take notice of how this deep breathing changed your physical body, your emotions, and your state of mind. This exercise can be shortened or modified as needed during moments of fear, anger, or stress to help you manage emotions and reactions in a more mindful and graceful way. It also works well and can lead to long term stress reduction when practiced on a regular basis.

In the midst of his vision in Ezekiel 37 God tells him to prophecy over a valley of dry bones, saying:

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The act of breathing offers us an opportunity to experience God’s power and provision for us in light of our most basic needs. My Mindful Breathing practice helps me refocus my thoughts and my energy and reminds me that my heavenly Father is as close to me as the air I breathe.
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Photos by Fabian Moller, Ian Dooley, Havilah Galaxy, Stefan Kunze with text from Word Swag, and Natalia Figueredo

From Eden’s Dirt

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My dear followers,

I’m sure you may have noticed the change in the header for the blog, and if you follow me on Facebook you may have noticed that my page there is called Organic Compost. I’ve been praying about a title for my blog for several months now, bouncing around ideas in my mind and questioning if this site needs a title beyond my own name. The truth is, though, that I’m a big fan of names, even for inanimate things. Names give meaning and help me associate a concept with the concrete.

The journey I’m on is one of self discovery and God-discovery. I find life difficult; in fact, lately I am weary. I’m not just tired, and I’m not just busy. When someone asks, “How are you?” weary is the word that comes to mind. I have led and am leading a full life, and that fullness has included the good, the bad, and the ugly. But I’ve made enough trips around the sun now that I’ve noticed something — God doesn’t just let bad things happen to me. God uses those things to show me more of Himself, more of who I am in Christ, and to grow me closer to the unique person He designed me to be.

God uses the bad things to grow me. 

Besides names, I’m also a fan of analogy. Yes, those things we studied to boost our SAT scores. Similes, metaphors. By comparing the unknown to the known, or the conceptual to the concrete, I’m able to understand ideas more clearly and associate those ideas with something I can see and touch. That’s what happens for me in nature. By helping me see my worst moments as opportunities to grow in faith, God reminds me that He grows faith from pain just as He grows apples, zucchinis, and lilies from dirt. He shows me that even as organic matter disintegrates into the ground to provide nutrients that help new plants to grow and flourish, He can take my hurts, my mistakes, my pain, and my sin, and make it new again in a way that blesses me and others.

God can take the dust of Eden and use it to make dry bones rise, deserts bloom, and lions lay down with lambs. He can lead my dirty feet beside still waters, through the valley death, and onto streets of gold. 

I hope you’ll forgive my experimentation with not just the blog title, but with it’s content and with my voice as a writer. If you have any feedback please know that I welcome it wholeheartedly.

I pray that your Sabbath Sunday will bring you a grateful heart and dusty feet.

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Photos by Kyle Ellefson and Juja Han.

3 Ways that Back to School season is Different in an Autism Family

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Sometimes it seems like back to school season is an extended and complicated version of New Year’s Eve. All that changes on New Year’s Eve is the date, but back to school season means new clothes, new shoes, lots of notebooks and pencils, and about 85 glue sticks to donate to the classroom supply.

It’s not quite the same in my family, though. As a mom of two teens with autism I have to think differently, shop differently, and set goals differently. And that’s just the beginning. While my teens deal with many of the same issues that other teens do there are a good number of common teen concerns that don’t come up in our house, and a whole host of others that are pretty unique. Our family’s back to school experience is different in a lot of ways. Here are three examples.

1. “Back to School Fashion” isn’t a thing.

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As a neurotypical teen in the 1990s I anticipated my annual back to school clothes shopping trip like a second Christmas. I couldn’t wait to go to the mall with my grandmother to update my wardrobe with the newest styles. (Jnco jeans, anyone?) But as a mom of teens with autism buying new clothes looks very different. My son and daughter aren’t interested in trendy clothes because for the most part they aren’t concerned with trends. In many ways this makes things easier for me as a parent because I can shop for my kids’ clothing based on need instead of want. While I may take advantage of clothing sales this season to stock up on jeans in the next size up, my kids don’t care what time of year they get them, nor do they want to go along to the store. In our house back to school shopping is a one-woman job, and when I bring home the new jeans I toss them on their beds and remind them to put them away in their closets.

In other ways, though, buying clothes for my teens is a challenge. When I buy new jeans for my thirteen year old son I also need to be sure to remove the old jeans and pants from his room because often he doesn’t realize that they’re two sizes too small and barely long enough to cover his knees, let alone his ankles. Because he also has ADHD he may forget that he has new jeans if he still has a drawer full of the old ones. With my fourteen year old daughter clothes are more complicated. Since women are unfortunately held to a higher standard of appearance than men I have to balance cultural expectations for how a teen girl should look with her own sensory needs, her ability to dress herself, and the kinds of things she likes. Like her brother she isn’t always aware of it when her clothes are too small. Having kids with autism has shown me that much of the language we use as neurotypicals is very vague. Pants that one young woman might think are too small might be perfect to another woman, even if they both wear the same size and have similar body shapes. My daughter might notice that her underwear are uncomfortable, but she may not be able to recognize that it’s because they’ve grown too small. Or she may know they’re too small but not remember to tell me until I see her unabashedly fixing a wedgie in public. I have to remember that she likes cotton pants but not leggings and has trouble fastening back-closing bras. This gets more confusing around the holiday season when well-meaning relatives want to buy my kids clothes as gifts.

2. We don’t always know what school they’re going back to.

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Between my teens’ special needs and my husband’s Navy career my kids change schools a lot. My daughter, who starts high school this year, has attended nine different public schools already, but only two of those changes were due to a physical move for our family. While all kids have their own unique educational needs, the needs of children with autism are often harder for schools to accommodate. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was signed into law in 1990, was designed to ensure that American students with disabilities can still receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). But since a diagnosis of autism can cover a wide range of needs and abilities, parents of students with autism and school staff need to work together to evaluate each student’s needs and design an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to communicate educational goals and methods used to achieve them to all schools staff. Of course a student’s IEP needs to be adjusted regularly as she or he achieves some goals and needs change, and this is where things get complicated.

When a school doesn’t have the right materials or staff to address a student’s changing needs, or when parents and school staff disagree about what those needs are, something needs to change. While parents do have the option to legally contest a school’s decision regarding a child’s needs these appeals can mean a lengthy and potentially costly battle with an uncertain outcome. As a family we’ve found it faster and simpler to move our special needs students to a more accommodating school. For the last two school years we chose to have our autistic teens enrolled in an online school, where they were able to follow a public school curriculum and meet with teachers and classmates online from inside our home. While my son has thrived in this environment we found that for my daughter this specialized school setting widened an already existing gap between her academic and social/emotional abilities. Her ways of interacting with other teens and adults became problematic for her. So this year, at least to start, she may choose to attend our local “brick and mortar” public high school, where the special education services she receives can happen in person. So, yes, that will bring the count up to ten different schools for her in eleven years.

3. We pay more attention to our kids’ social lives at school than their academic lives.

 

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With little exception my teens with autism have generally been able to get good grades and understand the material their teachers present at school. While this isn’t true for all autistic teens, my kids tend to have more difficulty interacting with other students than they do with teachers and textbooks. As a result I pay more attention to when, where, and how my teens interact with peers than I do their grades. Because, unfortunately, my teens have a lot of peers, but few friends. Bullying has been an on-and-off problem throughout their school careers, but a lack of supportive friendships has been a consistent theme, especially once they started middle school. It’s not that I want them to be popular social butterflies, but I can’t be their main source of support forever. I want to know that they can find and maintain good relationships and know whether or not a new friend is a safe, reliable person to spend time with. Right now they’re with me and each other more than anyone else, and I have no need to kick them out of our house when they turn 18. But someday I’ll be gone and they won’t.

In all respects parenting these two amazingly unique people has been a joyful and humbling challenge. There was a time when we thought that all we had to do was find the right combination of school services, doctors, therapists, and parenting methods and then we could simply maintain the course while they figured the rest out on their own. In reality their needs are perpetually moving targets, and while consistency is important in parenting, it’s just as important for us to know when we need to make a change. So every year when back to school season arrives we take the time to mindfully observe how our autistic teens are really doing. While academics and social skills are things we look at with their input, whether or not they’re happy and comfortable is usually the barometer that tells us when change is in the air. So this year as they try on new jeans, new schools, and new friends, my job is to help them find the right fit.

Photos by Steve Harvey, Ben Weber, Austin Pache, and Melissa Askvew via Unsplash.

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