Sunday, December 30, 2018

Christmas Letter 2018

Dear Family and Friends,

I hope you enjoyed a merry Christmas with your loved ones. Today, December 26th, I’m finally stealing time from children, chores, and ministry to reflect on 2018.

For our own family and for some of our relatives, there was loss and grief. My husband’s father passed away in January. He was 95 and lived a life that was hard, grief-filled, but faithful to the God he met as a young man. He suffered mental illness but despite that, I heard him quote a line from Scripture he obviously took to heart. Philippians 4:11 “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” His wife died 44 years ago, and their first child, a baby daughter, died at 8 months old. His mother and sister suffered mental illness and he lost them to a mental institution a very long time ago, so his was a lonely life. Though he was not a perfect father, he did his best with the tools a broken world handed him; he improved on the previous generation, securing for my husband and his sister more stability and faith, and even more love, than he had in his own youth. In death he left behind my husband and our children, my husband's sister and her son.

My aunt E, my dad’s sister, lost her husband, D, 76, in September, after 58 years of marriage. My aunt Dorothy, my mom’s sister, lost her husband, R, in later fall, at age 83, after 63 years of marriage. Both men had large families and their lives touched many; both suffered painful deaths from cancer and fought courageously, thinking of the families they were leaving, and the legacies they wanted to bless them with. Their long marriages, their faithfulness to their children and families spoke volumes to the present and coming generations. Please pray for my aunts as they grieve and find strength for new routines, new inspirations. Incidentally, they are good friends, having met in the early 90’s because their mothers were roommates in the same nursing home. Their mothers died a couple days apart, and their husbands two months apart--once again, they are a comfort to each other.

My husband and the kids took trips twice to Pennsylvania to see his Aunt D and Uncle B and Cousin Shawna and her family, meeting up with his sister also, and staying with good friends Jim and his wife in Allentown, PA. A great time was had by all. Peter has struggled psychologically for most of the year and I needed a break from that, so I stayed behind to deal with home repairs and homeschooling paperwork. Peter started a new, safe medicine last month which is for bipolar (though he may or may not have that). The med has been a game changer and an answer to prayer. He still has bad days, just fewer of them.

My house full of children is changing. All are in adolescence and becoming their own people; my job is now about guiding while staying out of God’s way, as he molds them into who He wants them to be, and as He prepares them for the work he has for them. Our church’s high school youth group is offering the teens a week-long mission trip to Costa Rica, encompassing a few hours of morning construction work, followed by running a daily Vacation Bible School for an inner-city church. The emphasis is on the teens running it all, not merely helping the adults. It’s about learning to be leaders, as well as expressing God’s love and mercy.

Imagine the flags that went off in our parental heads at the mention of a Central American country, though Costa Rica is not one of the most dangerous. The mission organization employs armed guards to protect the teens while they work, but nevertheless as a mother I fought hard to come to yes regarding this trip. Something Peter said finally decided it; while I was Googling San Jose, Costa Rica for as much information as I could gather, he commented, “Well, those kids have to live there, so it has to be safe enough for us to visit.” Oh. I can’t tell you how those words hit me. Immediately, I imagined another Christian mother, sitting in Costa Rica, praying. If God saw fit for another mother’s children to live in those conditions, and for her to pray with faith every day for His protection and blessing, I could certainly go out of my comfort zone to share my children’s love and talents, and my prayers, with that faithful mother and her children. I tell other people and my children how big of a God we serve--how powerful and faithful he is--all the time. So how could I say no to an opportunity for God to demonstrate that power in a tangible way? God willing, they are both going.

The drug lords are winning in Central America, corrupting the politicians, the police, crippling the countries, causing significant migration. I know it’s only God’s power that can eclipse the evil. Addiction and trafficking threaten to steal our worth. The message of both is that we are worthless--God’s message is that we are priceless. Our Creator gives us our worth. He, who knit us in the womb and knew us before we were born. He, who thought we were so priceless and beautiful He was willing to give it all for us. I want my children to be part of His message of love and worth. Some problems require a spiritual lead first, not a political one. Without the one, the other will fail.

There were changes in ministry this year. I helped in middle school AWANA for three years, and while that wasn’t my area of giftedness, I did learn to love those kids, after discovering you need to connect one on one. In their mob, they’re less than pleasant, but the true person comes through when you get them away from their peers. 

After the AWANA year closed in May, I asked the AWANA commander for younger kids, and ended up taking a co-director position for the 3rd-5th grade AWANA club in Sept. It was a more ambitious position than I really had time for (the other co-director is burned-out after many decades of ministry), but I didn’t want another year in middle school. I teach most weeks and send out weekly newsletters to parents and volunteers, work individually with kids, and plan reviews. It’s a bit like a part-time job and the books we use change every year for a three-year cycle. But it’s so fulfilling! The kids look up at you with eager faces and hearts, hungry for the teachings of God. Beth is in my club, Mary is in the middle school club, Paul is a verse leader/occasional teacher in my club, and Peter is in his third year as a leader in the preschool club. He loves it. Paul and I both think the 3rd-5th kids are such a blessing. I hope we pour as much love into them as they pour into us.

There have been changes with our Compassion International children; we now have two--one young girl in Uganda and a teen boy in Columbia. We used to have more, but a few moved into areas that Compassion doesn’t serve, one moved out of the program because her family was doing better, and one, sadly, (our first-ever Compassion child, Divya) became a victim of India’s new leader, Modi, who cracked down on Christian ministry in India. In March 2017, Compassion International was forced to pull out of India entirely after 48 years, closing 589 Child Development Centers serving 145,000 of the country’s poorest children. India has since moved to number 11 on the Open Doors World Watch List (annual list of top 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to follow Jesus). In 2017 they were number 15 on the list, and in 2018 they moved to number 11, so it’s very alarming. 

It used to be that outside of North Korea--number 1 on the list for 18 years--that the worst areas for persecution and violence against Christians, and particularly Christian women, were Islamist extremist areas, but now Hindu/ethnic extremists, like Modi, are also a major problem. Please pray for Divya and her family, who we and Compassion no longer have any contact with. She has our personally-written letters, which all Compassion children treat like gold because of the hope and love they contain. She participated not only in vocational, health, and tutoring classes, but in Bible studies before Compassion shut down. Her personal letters to us indicated a relationship with God. Whatever they might do, they can’t take Him.

Now for the kids here at home. Mary is a soulful, passionate child and music is her spiritual language. She loves a lot of Christian music, but the Australian-American band For King and Country produces great content that she adores--and they’re not too bad on the eyes to a 12-year-old girl, either. They sing, do lots of concerts (not near us this year), write their own music, do music videos, and the song/book/movie Priceless, about trafficked women. She hasn’t seen the movie due to mature/emotional content, but when she’s older she will. It’s outstanding. She likes to hear the stories behind every song they’ve written. Each story is compelling. I hope her love for music will inspire her to manage her storm phobia, which is still a very serious problem in her life. Overcoming fear is a common theme in Christian music.

Mary also loves to read--I can’t keep enough literature in the house for her! Missionary stories are favorites, as well as adventure novels with inspiring, courageous characters. She still reads a lot of historical literature as part of our curriculum, too. She loves the power of story and I believe someday she’ll harness the power of story to charge hearts and lives. I bought her Katie Davis Major's two books for Christmas, which are really impacting her (Kisses for Katie, and Daring to Hope).

She loves fishing, and card and board games with her siblings. She loves her middle school church class and gets along well with boys, since her two brothers were her first companions. She usually has one girl she likes in each class. If you asked her what she wants to do with her life, she’d probably say, “Go on adventures.” She has prayed about becoming a missionary to China or another land. More recently China is cracking down on the underground house-churches, which have been very successful in growing a very large Christian population.

Paul is 15 and a hardworking student, blessed to have many things come easily to him. He excels at writing--essays, narrative and expository, and occasionally poetry, while still finding math second nature. He wavers between career choices, sometimes wondering about journalism, or being a pollster or statistician, or an engineer. He enjoys politics in a Carl Rove way, but he doesn’t engage in an emotional way. He read a large volume of articles and checked the stats every day of the midterm election season and could tell you who was running in each toss-up state for what race and what their chances were, and what scandals were brewing. He gauged the day to day chances of a Senate or House takeover and would tell me all about it; I majored in political science and, thankfully, although I never used the degree, I never lost interest. 

As a teacher does, I considered that a future president or other major leader might be in my class, so I shared bits of wisdom to shape the journey forward. Mainly, that politics shouldn’t be taken over by a we’re right/they’re wrong dynamic, but be a civic practice aimed at achieving balance in our republic, with the respective branches of government staying true to their charters. I told my future voters to read every quote from candidates before voting, looking for the one who serves God--not a faith borrowed in time for the election, but a true faith, because a leader needs strength most of all, and true strength doesn’t come from man, but from God. Man’s strength is borrowed, begged, or stolen, and always withers with enough pressure, but God’s strength is bestowed and then managed by God. And then, look for humility, because with that comes gratitude, and together they’re the foundation for a lot of other virtues. Also, that in the political process there is no room for bitterness, because ultimately, God is sovereign, and he gives and takes away power from man for purposes not known to us.

Paul still enjoys chess, gardening, baking, cooking, board games and card games with his sisters, going to local college football and basketball games with his dad and sometimes his brother, going to high school youth group, playing Christmas Carols and a few other songs on the piano, practicing basketball outside with a friend or his brother, but more often making baskets by himself to blow off steam. Paul is the quickest to offer help and sympathy when my day has been difficult; in short, he’s a giver, while still being able to compartmentalize stress and get necessary things done. He relies on the Lord for strength and hope.

Peter will be 17 in a couple weeks. He enjoys nature, many types of Christian music, fishing, and chess. His favorite school subject is history. In fact, he’s always detailing for me what he’s reading in history, expressing amazement at something from the past. He says he was born in the wrong era, except for the advancement of antibiotics and the abolishment of slavery (though we still have trafficking, he knows). A gentler time, when people honored God more, is his desire. His is a tender, very old soul.

Peter is unsure what he wants to be. Missionary work fits his gifting, as demonstrated by his work with his friends and at church, and he hasn’t given up on that idea, but his OCD obsessions obscure his real desires and he hasn’t taken control of his illness. I can’t help him beyond praying for him (we’ve done therapy). It’s harder for him to concentrate on his studies due to obsessions, but he’s a capable student and could do well in college, otherwise. Right now, he’s considering vocational work, which keeps his mind clearer. Entering a vocational high school might be a good idea for him next fall, so he can be employable right out of high school, while he matures and hopefully finds the inspiration to take control of his illness. Your prayers for him would be appreciated. Mental illness is heartbreaking and takes acceptance of/responsibility for the burden first, and then courage for the way forward.

Beth just turned 10 and had a rough year with her arthritis. She was doing so well in February that her doctor gradually took away one medicine at a time to see if she had grown out of her autoimmune disease (JIA). In June, the disease came back worse than before. She’s on three immunosuppressants right now. We’ll drop the prednisone in about five weeks, but the Orencia and methotrexate she’ll be on indefinitely.

Beth, like Paul, works very hard in school. She’s serious, but tenderhearted, always ready with a smile and hug. She loves writing and is always working on a story. The sentences come together naturally for her and she’s a good storyteller, even researching her settings online. She dreams of seeing her name on the cover of a book someday. She loves reading as well. It gets stressful around here, and Beth’s escape is to go outside, enjoying fresh air and God’s creation, which is a reminder of His presence and love. She loves studying different animals and learning about conservation, and enjoys hiking with Daddy in the summer, while the other children fish.

My husband and I will reach 20 years of marriage next July. We got married July 3, which means we almost always forget our anniversary. I will try to dissuade my children from getting married near a national holiday! The days have been long, but the years have passed by so quickly. I’m excited for my kids because they’re excited about becoming adults, but there are tears, too, when I remember all the little-kid times that have passed away. My husband, for his part, just wants his wife back. He’s still at his same two jobs working 55-60 hours and he keeps very busy as a father, taking the children individually on outings to speak love and value into their hearts. He’s a keeper! We are both growing old and not finding it easy, but God’s loving message of our worth helps, especially in our youth-obsessed culture. May God’s strength and blessing be with you all in 2019. Happy New Year!