When You Vacation in a Town That’s Rebuilding

GulfportI felt like college students. One day before our spring break began last March, my husband asked, “Do you want to get out of town? To the beach?” Of course, I did.

Spring break has always meant creating space at home for sleeping in, extra cups of coffee, visits to new restaurants, and conversing with our kids. Sometimes it’s great to have nowhere to be for a week. But times have changed — there are new summer jobs and extra summer sports commitments and cool things like songwriting camps. And with our summer flexibility fading away, wanderlust seemed especially strong this past March.

We hit VRBO and searched for beach condos as close to St. Louis as we could find. We started with the Florida panhandle but then kept expanding our search west. When it was all said and done, we chose a cute, dog-friendly place in a town we had never heard of along the Gulf Coast — Gulfport, Mississippi. Our plan was to hang at the beach and venture over toward New Orleans. It would be our first time in Mississippi or Louisiana.

The night before we left, I went online and discovered Google Earth describes Gulfport as “… a town still recovering from Katrina…” Oh, wow. The cottage was already booked and paid for.

I thought quite a bit about hurricanes this past year. Fifth graders at my school raised money for a community ransacked by Harvey. And my brother’s job sent him to Puerto Rico to do hurricane-relief — also Harvey. These headlines always remind me of two seasons in my own life: When I was six years-old, thousands slept inside our mega-church until Hurricane David passed through Florida. And, almost twenty years later, Hurricane Bertha hit North Carolina and rolled up the coast to New Jersey on my wedding day.

But Katrina?! That was 2005… and Gulfport, Mississippi is still recovering? I’m quick to hurt for a community when it makes the headlines but my empathy sadly fades as the days progress. And with Katrina, we’re talking 13 years later. I remember we donated a mattress when someone was hauling supplies of used goods down to Louisiana. But I haven’t ached for those victims since then. I had two preschool-aged kids back in 2005, and my life was embarrassingly all about us.

As dawn broke, we drove south and settled into an adorable brick home that had been repurposed into a beach cottage. We noted the closest Starbucks and donut shops on our phones, unpacked, and walked to the beach.

Two things struck me about Gulfport: 1) Yes, Katrina’s footprints were all over, and 2) This was a working town. I’ve never vacationed at the beach while rubbing shoulders with as many locals as I did tourists. Gulfport is home to the Mississippi State Port, and its horizon is punctured with the most industrial complex ever. Rentals were sprinkled among real neighborhoods where people got up early and drove to work instead of packing up their beach bags for yet another day of play and rest. It was an experience like none other. I navigated guilt and pity and pride and privilege — all in a few days.

It’s quite fascinating to watch a community thrive and intersect with one another … especially a community that has suffered. I fell in love, really. I felt redemption pulsing through its streets and beaches and even through its coffee shop. I read numerous tourist magazines highlighting locals who rose above the odds while opening new businesses and restaurants to replace those that were destroyed.

Our first meal was artisan pizza at Tony’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, a place mentioned on the Food Network.
Tony's

Oven

Shaggy’s welcomed us the next night.

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And Coast Roast stole my heart with its industrial vibes, open air counter, and rich, deep coffee. I went there every day to order an Americano while my daughter, a bit more adventurous, tried something new each time. We saw a dog peering in from the outdoor counter with its owners sipping away. I loved this place so much I asked for a Coast Roast shirt for my birthday and asked my husband to paint our house the same color. (He said yes.)

Coast Roast Outdoors

Cocast Roast Indoors 2

Each of these restaurants’ websites told more than their business hours and menu items. Like many Gulfport establishments, their About Us pages referenced Katrina. When you’ve been hit hard, you view your story in two chapters: pre- and post-trauma. And while trials don’t define us, they impact our worldview. They deepen our understanding of ourselves, our faith, those around us — everything, really.

While we were in Gulfport, I happened to be reading Culture Making by Andy Crouch. He referenced how creatives and cultivators of culture adopt a posture of purposeful effort… how they do the painstaking work of preserving the best that those before them have done… how they dare to think and create something that’s never been thought of before… and how they steward culture, guarding what’s best in a neighborhood or field of practice. It’s a lot to navigate, really. I find it often easier to design something completely new than to rebuild what’s broken.

But restoration, it’s the heartbeat of the gospel. It’s about a God who pursues those whom sin has fractured, relentlessly drawing us near as He holds us with one hand and points back to the cross with the other. It allows us to understand — and believe — how much our Maker loves us. The gospel impacts everything — allowing us to risk, speak honestly, ask for forgiveness. It gives us the courage to redeem friendships and keep finding our voice instead of withdrawing in shame. All the while, we’re pointing back to that cross, too, with our own fingers.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, keep rejoicing and repair whatever is broken. Encourage each other, think as one, and live at peace; and God, the Author of love and peace, will remain with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11

I think of my own brokenness that needs repairing everyday. I grow weary at my constant need for restoration, and I’m sure those around me tire of my fractured state, too. I think of the communities that I intersect with — and those I avoid — and how rebuilding and restoring is in my DNA as a Christ-follower. And that call to love people and be others-centered — it’s how we help tell the story of the Author of love and peace.

As Gulfport’s residents exercise persistence and resilience over a span of years, as they rise up stronger than before, we can’t ignore the call on our own lives to do the same. Where will we be in 13 years? Ignoring brokenness? Still stumbling over the rubble? Or building something beautiful and empowering others to do the same?


“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

When Looking Ahead Is Actually Wrong

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There have been just a few times God has spoken directly to me in almost an audible way. His voice is quiet — so quiet I hear him with my heart instead of my ears, but his words echo through my whole chest and head. In that moment, I feel seen and known, and those reoccurring feelings that I’m alone get swallowed up.

There was that time in college I was thinking (again) about a boy, and He told me, “Yes, he’s great, but I am God. Focus on me.” I still remember the sidewalk under my feet, and my dorm ahead of me, and the darkness all around because it was night. And that moment truly recalibrated my focus for the rest of my years at the university. Truth was impressed upon my heart so deeply I carried it into my marriage with a different guy and have revisited it over and over.

I’m sure some of you hear that still, small Voice whispering from time to time — that same Voice that spoke the world into existence but still articulates into your tiny life.  Continue reading

When You Have to Get to Know Your Kids Again

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As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in New York City while my family is still asleep. I just noticed the last time I published a post on Repurposed was March 20 — almost three months ago. When I grow up, I’d like to blog for a living. But I do believe living a purposeful life sometimes involves pressing “pause” on dreams, rolling up your sleeves, and living the life in front of you.

dreams
(J.K. Rowling)

We’ve been going hard for the past three months, and while I’d like to attribute my silence to our busy work/play/sports schedules, in reality my quiet season is due to something deeper than a crazy calendar. You see, we came up for breath the week of Spring Break, and I realized I hardly knew my kids anymore.

“The days are long, but the years are short,” my friend Jennifer cautions. Indeed. Where has the time gone? I felt like I was keeping up, soaking in every new stage of their childhood. I actually enjoy entering new stages, and I don’t grieve the passing of time. But somehow, this school year swept my son and daughter away and brought back a teen and almost-teen that hardly resemble the kids I’ve been raising the past several years.

It’s rather humbling. If you like control, this experience can really rock you. And if being the most amazing parent has been one of your goals, you have to wrestle with some deeply buried idols. You wake up in the midst of your kids’ middle school years and discover parenting is not about you at all.

Gone are the days when choosing your kids’ outfits tells the world what your sense of style is. Gone is the season when you plan a fun day of activity and everyone goes along with enthusiasm. (And the affirmation you give yourself vanishes, too.) Gone are the moments when you can predict what your child’s response will be. (This might be the hardest one to let go of, for when they surprise you with unforeseen preferences, you feel like you don’t know your kids as well as you used to. And that’s kind of scary. And sad.)

Back to the blogging silence… When you’re humbled and realize how little you know, you sort of don’t have much to say. We’ve all heard how listening is usually better than talking, and these new identities have given me reason to be quiet. I have way more listening to do because I’m getting to know my children again.

I recently attended my school’s Arts Extravaganza, and the choir sang the sweetest poem:
A wise old owl lived in an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard:
Why can’t we all be like that bird?
– Henry Hersey Richards

Um, yes. The more he saw the less he spoke; the less he spoke the more he heard. Their little voices sang this phrase over and over and this middle-aged mommy was quite convicted.

When you bring your kids through the elementary years, you talk a lot. At least I did. When I carry on this tradition with my middle schoolers, they don’t sit there like sponges anymore, waiting for my next insight. Instead, my words are met with stiffened backs and faces that silently say, “You’re not hearing me. You’re not even trying to listen.”

And they’re right.

“Train up a child in the way he should go;
    even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6 esv

I used to read this verse through a me-centered lens, almost as a guarantee to cling to when the going gets rough. I wanted it to say: Train up your child in the way that will help her make respectable choices (spiritually and morally), and when she’s old, she’ll still be living that dream of yours for her life, making you look good.

But slowly, and sometimes reluctantly, I’m choosing to read it through another lens: Parent your child, accepting the way God designed him and helping him discover the story God has written for his life. And when he’s older, he’ll still be living a life of purpose, in sync with God’s plan from the beginning of time.

This refreshed interpretation, well, it’s a lot harder because I don’t get to work hard when I’m frustrated or irritated or down right angry. (Have you noticed we don’t sit idle when we’re angry?) It’s a difficult interpretation to swallow, for it calls me to trust and not do.

What would it look like if we listened more… not just to be polite or to avoid looking overbearing? What would it look like if we listened with the intention of learning and discovering and understanding?

Are you with me? As I parent a middle schooler and rising high schooler, I need to learn God’s story for my children’s lives. I must discover what they would have told me the past several months if I would’ve just stopped talking. And I absolutely have to understand what passions are there beyond those teenage faces staring back at me.

What about you? Who do you need to listen to more? What topics do you need to hold your tongue on for a while, with the intent of learning and discovering and understanding more? You might not be parenting teenagers, but I know you’re wrestling, too. It’s the world we live in — whether you’re trying to be intricately engaged with your local community, or you’re yearning to be a global citizen, or you’re somewhere in the middle.

Your active listening might need to take place in your workplace, or your yoga class, or as you research and write a book. For me, I’m simply going to start at home as I get reacquainted with my kids.

Trust.

IMG_2848There’s heaps of awesomeness about raising teenagers, too, like snapping this selfie at the top of the Empire State Building at 10:44pm.  🙂

Series on Suffering: Parenting A Disabled Child (Update)

 

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Welcome to Day 2 of *Matthew’s story. Yesterday you met him, the dad who bravely exposed his heart by giving us a glimpse into family life with a severely disabled child. His daughter can’t walk or talk, yet her personality is one who that would dance and converse all day long if she could. Throughout this Series on Suffering, our guests will not only be giving updates four years after their original interview, but they’ll be getting real about some specific aspects:

  • How has your situation changed in the past four years?
  • How have YOU changed in the past four years?
  • What are you still wrestling with?
  • How have you seen redemption come from your suffering?

May we be people who live reflectively. May we always acknowledge how we’ve changed at the core by interacting with our world and the people in it. May we recognize the light of redemption instead of being swallowed up by the shadow.

*All names have been changed.


How has your situation changed in the past four years, Matthew?

In the last four years, we have not had a major life change of any sort. However, there are definitely some significant shifts. First, our daughter has grown physically. She now weighs over 100 pounds and is over 5 feet tall, so it is no longer easy to move her, even with two people. It takes more time, equipment, skill, and people to do the basic tasks, such as getting dressed, bathed, positioned, toileted, and active. And the danger is greater for her or her caretakers to be injured in the process, especially if she is not cooperating. It can be a wrestling match at times, and it can be upsetting to everyone involved. And that leads to the second shift.

Second, Claire is far more emotional now that she is in the midst of puberty. Her emotions swing wildly, quickly. Much of this is related to her high need for a social life. She is a true extrovert who loves people, and she can’t get enough of people, which is a tall order to fill daily.

Another shift is that we can’t travel with Claire any more. It is just too difficult for everybody, and the upsides are so small and so few. So we take very short trips without Claire, and we do some “staycationing. ” Travel is something we look forward to doing someday in the distant future. Claire loves routine. She wishes every day could be a school day with all the people and the routine and the safety and the fun. So, we do the best we can to create an action-packed daily routine, anticipating problems to solve before they happen.

Our life with our son has changed a lot in the last four years. Jonathan is now 17 and very independent. We have had to let go of controlling so much, and we have to dance around his emotions, his needs, and his opinions. In just 18 months, he will be off at college somewhere. That’s a huge change coming soon that we are not looking forward to, but we trust that it will be fine when the time comes. We are starting to think about life without him in the house. It’s a sad reality of a future of caring long term for one disabled adult, rather than two teens.

I think things will feel different if Claire’s mood swings settle down, around the time Jonathan goes to college. We hope that things get better as she matures into adulthood, but our experience so far is that things don’t get easier. Normal just shifts.

Another thing we think about more often now is Claire’s adult life. We don’t have a clue how long she will live, and I’m not sure which is more overwhelming: losing Claire or living with her for the rest of our lives. We try to trust God for that, but it’s a new challenge.

How have YOU changed in the past four years?

I think we are tougher. We can handle some really big problems with relative ease. Sometimes we listen to our peers talk about their troubles with their kids or spouse or mother-in-law, and we can’t relate. Their troubles seem so petty, so easy to deal with. It’s hard to empathize, and we can get resentful or just disengage from them. We’ve lost quite a few friends over the years due to the vast differences in our problems.

Kelly and I have to be allies. Our marriage must have unity and love. We must care for each other. It’s a do or die situation. In reality, our marriage has gotten stronger in the last four years. We have learned that our spouse is not the enemy. We go after problems, instead of each other. It’s not that we don’t argue, but those arguments usually end in unity, as we face our problems side by side.

Another change is that my wife and I have had our fair share of medical problems in the last four years. Our health is essential to the family, so we are getting the medical care and taking care of ourselves better. It’s all related to sustained stress and exhaustion. Again, it’s a do or die situation. Neither one of us can afford to be sick or diseased or die. It’s a team issue.

What are you still wrestling with?

Our condition is chronic. We are still dealing with the relentlessness of caring for someone with so many needs. Maintaining life requires both of us working hard and being super responsible. We don’t get much free time. We don’t have much of a social life, not many friends who we do fun things with. We sometimes feel like we are not individuals with hobbies, dreams, choices, etc.

My wife is running two small businesses: The larger one is the busyness of caring for Claire’s physical, intellectual, and emotional needs. It’s a full-time job. In addition, she runs a part-time business (15 hours per week) tutoring kids, who also have special needs academically.

In addition to the daily hard work of meeting our daughter’s needs (as well as the rest of the family’s needs), there is always the weight of responsibility for Claire. Her physical survival, her emotional wellness, her intellectual stimulation, and her overall development are each heavy and relentless. So, even on our occasional weekend getaways, there is always a heavy sense of responsibility that never leaves. We know that someone must always be looking out for every need (seen and unseen) in Claire’s body, mind, and spirit. And each year that goes by, Claire is more and more aware of what she needs and how much she depends on others to help her. If she is not cared for well all the time, she can get very scared, very sad, very sick, or all of the above in a really short period of time. She is fragile in one way or another, especially now in the middle of puberty.

How have you seen redemption come from your suffering?

Claire touches people in deep ways everyday. She brings great joy to people each day, That alone is a whole lot of redemption.

In addition, Claire’s special needs have created a need for selflessness in our family. Any small amount of selfishness is glaring. That has caused trouble, but it has also created character. Our son is a kid who has grown up around people caring for another person. It’s the norm. He has seen dozens of PTs, OTs, PCAs, RNs, and babysitters who care selflessly for his sister. His parents require him to pitch in and help around the house because it’s what we all must do. He has been raised in a house where prayer is essential to get through the normal days, as well as the really rough times during surgery recovery and other times of sickness. He has character beyond his years because of it all.

All these young women who come to help Claire are learning about family life. So many of them — young women in their 20’s who are often engaged to be married — get to witness up close what a strong marriage and family looks like. They see the reality, and they see that we all love each other and work together most of the time and pray and somehow make it work. Many of them tell us how valuable that is because they come from broken homes and have never seen a family eat meals together, cook and clean together, play games together, and tease each other and still like each other. Kelly mentors them in an informal but powerful way.

We know that God provides in times of great need. We know that things always get better because God redeems the hard times. So when Claire had a full spinal fusion surgery two and a half years ago, we knew that God would sustain us in the difficult recovery that was so difficult for so long. It got better. Good things happened both physically and relationally because of the tough times.

We believe that Claire’s life, no matter how long it lasts, is bringing love to many people and building the character of many. All of that honors God.


My goodness. I’m reading Matthew’s update, and I have a range of emotions. Do you, too? How does his story challenge you? What steps does it motivate you to take? How are you challenged to love others, pursue community, and sacrifice more? We have a lot to process already, and our series has just begun.

Join me next Monday as we peek into another type of heartache… the all-too-quiet suffering of miscarriage. Do you know someone who has lost a baby before her child’s lifetime even started? Do you have a friend who tried to move on, but the grief won’t loosen its grip? Yeah, me too. Together we’ll come to listen. We’ll come to learn. 

Choosing Substance: Going Global (Day 11)

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After I heard about these who would be sealed, I looked and saw a huge crowd of people, which no one could even begin to count, representing every nation and tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Revelation 7:9

A person of substance is a global citizen. She knows there’s a world beyond her own backyard.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in my own story that I forget I’m a mere line in a novel that’s much, much bigger. Have you been there?

I mean, trust me, you have significance. You are known, and cherished, and loved, but you are one of billions. And with over 7 billion people come a myriad of cultures and worldviews and perspectives.

There’s comfort in knowing how big the world is. Last summer I drove through beauty and stood at the edge of greatness and remembered how small I was. In a good way. It’s freeing to know how teeny tiny your drama is… you don’t feel quite as captive to it.

If you’re reading this today, and you’re of the dominant race represented in your community, you understand how easy it is to forget this. Until we believe we’re looking at society and headlines and relationships and our faith and even God through cultural lenses, our world stays very, very small. Even our view of the Gospel is impacted by our cultural perspective. How easy it is to intertwine our cultural norms and Christianity, weaving together our comforts and our faith.

But God is bigger than culture and customs. He’s more significant than what our corner of the world values. He’s larger than our way of doing church. Thank goodness.

He descended into the mess to reconcile us to Himself… He came for those who are bound by oppression and poverty and those enslaved to consumerism. He came for those who can’t find food for today and for those who are on another diet. He came for beggars and workaholics. He came for those who don’t have shoes and for fashionistas. He really did. He came for us all.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my True Love gave to me an awareness of how big His world is… how big He is… and how worthy He is of worship.

I know you’re busy. I know you’re doing last-minute Christmas preparations — there’s shopping, cooking, cleaning, and wrapping (and more wrapping!). But give yourself just a couple of minutes of solitude and reminded yourself how small you are. And how big He is.

…*That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind hath bought…


photo source | Avel Chuklanov

*song excerpt | The First Noel