The Most Important Thing?

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I’ve gotten hooked on this new TV show called, “Chasing Life.” It’s about a girl in her twenties with leukemia. {I’m pretty sure we can thank John Green for this kid-cancer story trend.} Last week’s episode included a conversation between another young guy with cancer and the main character, who hasn’t yet told her family or co-workers that she’s sick.

When she hushes him, he sarcastically says, “Oh yeah, we wouldn’t want to mention THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOU.”

That’s kind of the crux of the show so far. Still in shock from the diagnosis, this woman doesn’t want to admit that her illness is now more important than her career, her family or her love life. In her case choosing what defines her has been taken out of her hands. The choice of what’s most important is no longer hers.

I’m thankful that’s not the case for me, though I’ve certainly gone through seasons when life’s circumstances took that choice away – at least for a while.

Since I watched that episode last week, the phrase “most important thing about you” has been playing in my head in a loop. And I’ve wondered – What is the most important thing about me?

And then I wondered if those who know me would answer that question the same way I would.

And then I started thinking about how “the most important thing” changes as our seasons change.

Sometimes my brain just won’t quit.

Since Adrienne was born I’ve realized that for the last six years, the most important thing about me (according to me) is that I had a preemie. That was especially true the first year after Annalyn was born (seven weeks early) and during my pregnancy last year.

But that isn’t the only thing I’ve declared most important about me. For a long time, though I didn’t admit it to many people, the most important thing about me was that I’d helped plant a church, a church that failed.

Before that the most important thing was that I’d almost been fired.
Oh, and then there was the season when being laid off was the most important.
And for a long time it was my job as a fundraiser that was most important.

During college it was my major.
Or that I went to the Baptist Student Union.
Or that I was friends with that girl who died.
Or that I was from Kansas City.

And earlier than that the most important thing was my class rank…
…or my musical abilities…
…or that I was captain of the academic team…
…or that I dated a senior…

Today if you ask me about the most important thing about me, I’m not sure how I could answer in one word. Maybe I could do it in three:

Christian
Mom
Blogger

But I’m also a writer, and I work part-time from home, and I love reading, and I’m a cat person.

I’m kidding. Nobody cares if I like cats.

Maybe my reluctance to pick just one thing to be the most important is why I have such a hard time writing bios. It’s also likely behind my tendency to have too much on my plate at all times – and why, throughout my life, I’ve found myself with many friends but very few I’d call best.

Of course, boiling my entire being down to a word or two is never going to work. It won’t work for anyone, really. We’re too complex for that, most of us. (All of us? I think so.) Still, all this thinking about THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT ME reminded me of two necklaces I love.

One is four-sided and each side is engraved with a word: created, chosen, celebrated, cherished. The other one says, “I am His,” on the back.

Even though bios and profiles always seem to need writing, I don’t think it would hurt to let go of all those other labels and definitions. After all, you can’t sum up a person with a game of Mad Libs. But if I have to answer the question, perhaps the engravings on those necklaces would be a good place to start – and a good place to stop.

This will all probably keep rattling around my head for a while. It’s an intriguing question with lots of layers. What’s the most important thing? According to who? For how long? Which answers change and which stay the same? What do I WANT to be the most important thing about me – and is it? SO MUCH THINKING TO DO.

How would you answer the question today?
What’s the most important thing about YOU?

Photo source

Tough Conversations with Middle School Students

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On the Friday morning of the Orange Conference, Reggie Joiner sat down with Andy Stanley on the big stage for an interview-style presentation. Reggie is the head of Orange, and Andy is the pastor of North Point, a megachurch there in Atlanta (and where the Orange curriculum was born).

Six thousand people settled into the arena to hear these men speak – but I’m not sure any one of us expected to hear what they came to say.

The topic of the presentation was how to handle conversations with middle school students who say they have same-sex attraction. As you can probably imagine, that very big room full of all those people got VERY quiet as Andy and Reggie began speaking. And for the first several minutes, even Twitter was silent. [That may have been the only time that was the case during the whole conference!]

I work with middle school students. And I have feelings about homosexuality and all the many questions and debates surrounding the topic. But that’s not the point of this post.

What Andy shared with Reggie (and the rest of us) was fantastic counsel for anyone who works with students. No matter what issue or situation a student is facing, Andy’s advice is sound. It’s relevant and compassionate and smart. It’s good, and I’m going to share it with you.

Maybe you don’t work with middle school students at your church. Maybe you teach middle school. Or high school. Or maybe your kids are tweens or teens. Maybe you chat with the neighbor kid or your babysitter, maybe you coach or mentor or tutor or otherwise build relationships with the awkward, fragile, confused, amazing kids in your community.

If you do – or if you ever might do any of all of the above in the future? You want to read these tips.

Keep in mind: Andy was talking about how to respond to kids with same-sex attraction, but his advice is relevant for any situation they might face.

When your student comes to you, remember…

  1. You are The Church. When they tell the story about this part of their lives, your response will be how they define the Church’s response. And they won’t remember what you say. They’ll remember how you make them feel.
  2. You are not a counselor. You are a navigator, guiding them through assumptions, misinformation, and unhealthy relationships.
  3. This isn’t The Talk. This is the beginning of an ongoing conversation.

Some responses to practice (and use!)

  • I’m so glad you told me.
  • Telling me took a lot of courage.
  • Do your parents know? How do you think they’ll respond? When do you think you should tell them? How can I help?
  • Since you brought this up, it is okay if I check in with you about this?

No matter what the topic, but especially with same-sex attraction or related situations, students are likely to ask, “Did God make me this way?” Andy had what I believe is the perfect response (and, again, I truly think this works for a lot of situations): “I don’t know, but He loves you this way.”

I don’t know. But He loves you. I think those are good words for any and all situations, with any and all age groups. Right?

Finally, one of the most important things he said was that, no matter the topic of conversation, avoid labels when talking with students. Granted, he was talking about what to say when a student talks about same-sex attraction. (Rather than answering, “Am I gay?” with a yes or no, he suggests replying with, “What do you think it means to be gay?”) But I really think this would be helpful in so many situations.

Am I a dork?
Am I cool?
Am I a loser?
Am I smart?
Am I stupid?
Am I gifted?
Am I a slut?
Am I an artist?
Am I weak?
Am I strong?

No matter what a child labels him- or herself, it’s a name and definition that might stick around longer than is healthy or accurate or both. When I think back to my own tween and teen years – and remember the names I was called (and called myself) – I think avoiding labels could have made a huge difference in the self image and identity I formed.

I know this isn’t what I normally write about here. But just like I love telling you about the latest book or movie I discovered, or the Jimmy Fallon video of the week, or the inspiring or challenging or hilarious post I read, I had to share this advice with you, too.

Do you have any middle school students in your life?

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I heard Andy and Reggie speak at The Orange Conference, an annual conference held each spring in Atlanta for volunteers and ministry leaders in family ministry. It’s a great conference for anyone involved in children’s ministry, whether your church uses Orange curriculum or not. (My church does, and I attended with my team. We had a great time, and I hope we make this an annual trip!) For the record, I also attended as an Orange blogger. But though I received free attendance to the conference, all opinions are my own!

{Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

The Difference Orange Makes

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We got to church early that summer morning, though not quite as early as we wanted to. As usual. We parked and speed-walked through the parking lot, snapping at Annalyn to HURRY UP. As soon as we walked into the building, we all headed to Kids City – Mark to serve as security, me to lead the student volunteers in Praise Parkway, and Annalyn to bounce between the two of us.

At one point Mark sent Annalyn to me so he could take attendance of all the classrooms and tally the total number of kids attending first service. She didn’t want to. She wanted to stay with her dad.

As I tried to finish setting up the room and talk with my students, make a few last-minute changes to our slides and run a quick sound check, my sweet, strong-willed daughter was climbing on chairs, complaining about my instructions to be quiet and sit still, and begging to go find her dad. No amount of explanation or reasoning calmed her down – neither did threats or bribery, in case you’re wondering. Her whining escalated alarmingly fast into a full-blown meltdown.

The whole thing reached its peak when I picked her up – not an easy task for a pregnant mom to do with her tall and oh-so-angry five-year-old – and dragged her down the hall into the bathroom. Where her screams – and my own yelling – proceeded to echo off the cinderblock walls.

Awesome. I was HOPING everyone in the church could hear this absolute MESS of a situation.

Because it WAS a mess. My daughter was a disobedient, irrational, out-of-control mess. I was an angry, frustrated, short-tempered mess. After yelling, threatening and lecturing, after totally losing my cool and any control I still had left, I caught my reflection in the mirror. Immediately, I looked away, pretending not to see how ugly my own behavior was, and I marched my still-crying daughter out of the bathroom.

As we headed back toward the classrooms, we ran into my friend and the director of Kids City. I looked at her helplessly and admitted, “I don’t know what to do.” She offered to talk with Annalyn, and I said, “Have at it.”

My friend talked to my daughter – and miraculously, my baby girl finally calmed down. She even went to her classroom without much of a fuss, standing stubbornly at the door only until her teachers noticed her and shouted, “Come in, Annalyn! We’re playing a game! Do you want to play?”

Feeling heavy and exhausted – and extremely embarrassed – I walked back to Praise Parkway. As I was wiping tears of my own and preparing for second service, my friend Erich walked in the room.

“Hey, are you going to the baptism service after church?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was going to, but this has been a terrible morning,” I said. “Probably not.”

“Oh. Well, okay. I was just going to tell you that Parker is being baptized . . . and he mentions you in his testimony.”

What?!

Parker is Erich’s son and one of my student volunteers, and I had no idea he was planning to be baptized that day. I certainly didn’t realize he would want to talk about me when he did it!

Even after sitting through church, I felt lousy. And that’s saying a lot, since worship and a sermon almost always makes me feel better, no matter what baggage I carry into service. But this morning had been one of the very worst in my parenting career, and I was just So. Very. Tired.

Still, I couldn’t very well let Parker down. We’d only been serving together in Kids City for about six months, but like all the kids I worked with, he was important to me. I wanted to be there for him, so I picked up Annalyn from her classroom and headed outside. (This baptism service was part of our summer picnic and held beside the playground of the elementary school we met in.)

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Parker was the first one to climb into the round tub of water, along with his parents. I was still chewing my [third] hot dog when our pastor began reading a statement Parker had written. He talked about how he loved Jesus and fully believed because of the influence and example of several people. Of course he listed his parents, small group leaders and family friends, but then he said my name.

He said my name.

Until that moment I had not thought I was doing anything special at all. Sure, I got to church a little bit early and hung out with the kids serving in Praise Parkway. We hooked up the speakers and fiddled with the cords connecting the laptop to the sound board. Sometimes they told me about their week, what was going on at school or at home. Sometimes we just joked about how many peppermints they could snitch from the snack table up front and whose turn it was to get drinks for the team.

But I never once imagined I was making any kind of eternal impact on those kids. I just thought I was filling a need, completing a task. If anything, I thought my service was making a difference for the younger kids who came into Praise Parkway to sing songs and hear a story. But the middle schoolers I worked beside? Sure, I was leading them, but I had no idea I was serving them, too.

Until the moment I watched Parker climb in the water, and he said my name.

That Sunday was one of the worst days of my parenting life – and one of the best days of my ministry life.

It was also the perfect illustration of parents and church working together for the good of the children.

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My church uses Orange curriculum for our children’s ministry, and its main strategy is to create a partnership between parents and the church to influence the hearts and lives and children. Orange refutes the idea that spiritual formation is the “job” of the church and encourages parents to be active in teaching their kids about God’s love.

On that Sunday morning last summer, the truth of Orange’s philosophy could not have been clearer to me. When I failed my own kiddo, my friend and her teachers were there to help out. And even though I didn’t realize it, I was making the same kind of difference in my friend’s son just by showing up every week and serving with him in Praise Parkway.

I’m incredibly grateful for our church family – both for the privilege of serving and leading, and for being served and led. And when it comes to my work in Kids City and my daughter’s experience of church, it’s strongly influenced by Orange. Which is why I’m super excited to attend the Orange Conference in Atlanta later this month!

[The chance to see the Sisterchicks doesn't hurt either, but that's a completely separate post!]

If you serve in children’s ministry at your church (or at home), I highly recommend the Orange Conference. It’s not too late to register, and it will be well worth your investment. For more information about Orange, visit the website here.

Disclosure: I have received a ticket to the Orange Conference, but all opinions here are my own. Photo sources here.

The Best Defense

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You know how they say the best defense is a good offense?

Of course, I’m not sure who “they” are. I was never much of an athlete. Truth be told, I was more of a trip-over-my-own-two-feet-during-the-game type of girl. (Oh, how I wish that wasn’t a real story!) Still, the advice seems to be common enough that both the sporty and not-so-sporty types can understand it.

It’s better to land the first punch. We’re safer if we hit them before they hit us. Right? I suppose this strategy works in a lot of circumstances. Boxing. Basketball. Facebooking.

Oh, wait. Maybe not that last one.

See, I’ve noticed that a lot of the icky comparison games so many of us find ourselves playing – that I find myself playing – are motivated by fear. We’re afraid others will hurt us, so we strike first. On those days we feel insecure or unhappy about our less-than-perfect lives, we lash out rather than waiting for someone to notice our humanness and point it out for the world to see.

We walk around, convinced we’re not enough. Not good enough, not smart enough or crafty enough, not organized enough or successful enough. And in an effort to hide those fears – and protect ourselves from the insults and injuries we’re certain are inevitable, we put up our defenses.

And those defenses look a whole lot like offenses.

Join me at (in)courage to read the rest of this post.

Weekend Links {the Lent version}

A Sense of the Resurrection

My friend Amanda (the author of Truth in the Tinsel, an Advent experience for families) has released a new ebook. This one is a Lent experience for families called A Sense of Resurrection, and it is fantastic.

While the Christmas book leads families through 25 days of craft projects – something that has, at least so far, proven to be a bit MUCH for me despite how much I love it and want to do it – A Sense of Resurrection is both less and more intense. It includes printables, Scriptures and specific conversation and starting points so you and your kids can get a sense of the resurrection. Parents and children will make memories as they use their five senses to discover the real story celebrated on Easter.

You guys, it’s really cool.

Annalyn and I have started doing a special activity every Thursday afternoon, just the two of us. We’ve made cupcakes and practiced tying shoes so far, but I believe we’ll do activities from this book for the next several weeks.

You can buy your copy of A Sense of the Resurrection here.

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And here are a couple more Lent links for you:

Finally, I wanted to let you know of a great Easter gift idea. What’s in the Bible has released the final DVD of the series: Hebrews to Revelation. To celebrate, Buck Denver and friends are offering 20% off orders over $75 (plus free shipping in the U.S.) with the code 20OFF.

That means if you wanted to buy the entire 13 video series, it would be just $135. Or go with the four videos that make up the New Testament for just $42.

[I know those prices might seem hefty for an Easter gift, but do what I did. Buy the whole bundle, then use it for holidays throughout the year. That's what I did a couple years ago - gave Annalyn videos for Easter, her birthday and Christmas. She loved it!]

This discount is only good through TODAY (Sunday, March 9), so if you love hilarious puppets singing catchy songs and teaching the Bible in a way that’s both comprehensive and easy to understand . . . take advantage of it now!

[And now I have those catchy songs in my head. Do you know what's in the Bible? ... I don't think your hair is pliable. ... What's that have to doooooo with the Bible?]

This post includes affiliate links. Tulip photo by Kıvanç Niş.