Gratitude My world last week was debilitating neck pain.  It was peripheral awareness of ebola spreading and ISIS advancing.  It was sadness for a friend's profound loss.

It was a long, heavy week, the kind of week you survive by allowing the laundry piles to spill onto the floor, the dust bunnies to remain untouched.

On Saturday, we woke up to the laundry piles and the dust bunnies, to children who once again needed to eat and be entertained.  CJ and I snapped at each other, tired and frustrated, burdened with the responsibility of it all.

But somehow, some way, grace broke in.  We ate chocolate chip pancakes.  We listened to our little girl giggle with one of her good buddies.  We invited friends over for a spontaneous lunch, and all four kids played quietly for fifteen blessed minutes. Other friends made us dinner and brought it over, allergy-free dessert and all.  It was a sweet day, and we went to bed feeling gratitude for the palpable fullness of it.

And then there was Sunday and Monday and Tuesday - days marked by the deep suffering of another good friend, by a fussy baby and a napless toddler, by my vain efforts to keep up with the piles and the dust bunnies.

At one point in my life, I would have gotten stuck here, frustrated by these very real days, certain that I was entitled to a week's worth of Saturdays.

But I think motherhood has taught me a particular gratitude for the sweet moments - for the little miracles of both kids sleeping in until 7:45, of children playing in peace, of conversations (and friendships) sustained in the chaos.

Life is hard.  It just is.  Sometimes, it's unbelievably, unbearably hard.  Often, it's simply exhausting.

But every now and then, in the laughter of children, in the swirling leaves of a perfect fall afternoon, in the companionship of seasoned friends, we get a little taste of what we were made for.

And when those precious, holy moments come, I am learning, we don't grab on tight and try to figure out how to recreate them.  We hold them loosely, and we simply whisper, Thank You.  

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #27: Liz

On my first day as a middle school teacher, new to Northern Virginia and to teaching, nervous and tentative about establishing my authority, making a positive impression on my students, my outfit, and pretty much everything, I joined a group of teachers I was beginning to know for lunch. 

One of them, an outgoing young woman I'd been introduced to as Liz, mentioned in passing that she had gone to Bucknell University.  Trying to make conversation, I told her that my brother was currently a student there.  She asked what his name was, and I told her, knowing that he had to be at least three years younger than her, knowing there was no way that she would know him.  Her response:  "I have a picture of him in my classroom!"

It was then that I learned my first lesson about Miss Liz Woo.  She knows everyone.  With Kevin Bacon, there are six degrees of seperation; with Liz Woo, there are maybe two. 

As it turns out, she did know my brother Joel as they had participated in the same campus ministry, and the picture in her classroom was not as creepy as it originally sounded.  It was a group shot of a bunch of friends together.

And so began my friendship with Liz, a friendship that will turn ten years old this fall, a friendship that is deep and tested and rich.  We have taught the same students with classrooms a few doors apart, worked on the same teaching team, participated in the same small group, and carpooled to work together.  We've walked with each other through years of unintentional singleness, through relational conflict, through the deaths of both of Liz's parents, through infertility, and through other trials and pains, big and small.  Liz has taught me how to cook Korean food and acquainted me with insider DCisms such as the dueling Christmas light displays in Annandale and bubble tea, to name just a few.  I introduced Liz to her husband, a friend of mine from college.  She and Colin got married a little over a year before CJ and I.  We had our first children, daughters, less than three months apart.

To me, knowing Liz and living in DC are one and the same.  I do not know one without the other.  That's why I can't make the thought of Liz, Colin, and their adorable daughter moving away this summer stick, no matter how many times she tells me that it really will be so.  I cannot imagine living here without Liz. 

Or perhaps it is not true that I cannot imagine it; it's rather that I don't want to.  I don't want to imagine the many dinner parties and gatherings with friends that won't happen because Liz will not be there to plan them.  I don't want to imagine months going by without the taste of Liz's amazing cooking.  I don't want to imagine not being able to meet at Connally's for lunch or for a walk in Old Town.  I don't want to imagine our daughters not growing up together.  I don't want to imagine our lives being lived in different places.

I will miss you friend.  You love faithfully and generously.  You make strangers friends.  You are still walking with God when it would have been so easy to let go.  Your friendship has been a sweet, sweet gift, and I count it one of the greatest treasures of my thirty years.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #13: Small Groups

College Small Group

Career Corps Small Group

Church Singles Small Group

I was talking to a friend today (over Starbucks of course) about small groups and about how my ideas about them and expectations of them have changed over the years...and then a little bit later, I thought - what a perfect topic for my 30 pieces series! I mean, I've been a member of some sort of small group or another for almost 12 years now. If you figure an average of 2-3 small group meetings a month, that's something like 360 small group meetings in the past 12 years (yes, I did need to use my calculator for that one).

As you can see from some of the pictures above, I've been in all girls groups, co-ed singles groups, a faculty group, and young married couples groups (sorry, no pictures of those - maybe that's because everyone's too busy running around after their kids!). I've been in groups that intensively studied a particular book of the Bible, groups that discussed the sermon from church, groups with a particular focus like missions, and yes, a group or two, that wondered somewhat aimlessly from time to time (after all, what group doesn't wonder aimlessly from time to time?). I've been in small groups connected to churches, campus ministry groups, and other Christian organizations. All this to say, I've experienced many different kinds of small groups.

Until recently though, I kind of had this small group ideal I was always looking for and never finding - the group like my freshman Bible study where everyone is best friends and hangs out all the time and does everything together. I was convinced that this is what every worthwhile small group was supposed to be like, a happy little bubble of relational connectedness. The problem was that no small group I joined was ever like that; jobs and commutes and marriages and babies (not to mention sin and brokenness!) all seemed to get in the way.

But in the past few years, I've grown (thanks in part to my much more realistic husband) to finally stop expecting small groups to be these idyllic commune-like experiences (minus the actual commune of course, but with all the warm fuzzies and group love) and to appreciate small groups for what they are - crazy, always transitioning bunches of imperfect, generally messed-up people who sometimes hurt, offend, and disappoint one another but grow together and are used in one another's lives, especially as they work through the hurt, offenses, and disappointments. NOTE: If you are currently or ever have been in a small group with me, this is not a oh-so-subtle hint that I think you are personally messed up; it's just a growing realization that all of us are not so shiny when we get beneath the surface (and that starts with Captain Imperfection a.k.a. me!).

So at 30, I am grateful for the many small groups of people who have walked with me through the ups and downs of the past twelve years, who have encouraged me, prayed for me, challenged me, and provided many laughs and lots of wonderful memories. I look forward too to the many different small group experiences I hope I'll have in the next 30 years, knowing that they too will shape my life and help me grow. I think I'll enjoy them even more now that I've released them from being perfect - and simply expect them to be used by the Lord for good.