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 #26: Church

Ok, it's getting ridiculous, I know.  I've stopped and started this series too many times!  But my husband keeps asking me to finish it, and I'd really like to...even though I'm now well into my thirties!  So here we go one more time...hopefully this will be the final run.

My current church, Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax.

Church, for me, has always been.  I wrote earlier about how I've been in school for twenty-five of my thirty years.  Well, I've been in church for thirty of my thirty years.

I am a pastor's daughter.  I remember dancing to worship music when I couldn't have been more than four years old.  I remember the children's classes I attended when I was too young to sit through the sermon, remember in particular that I once got my entire class to laugh by announcing how funny it would have been if my name were Gertrude.  I am pretty sure I learned many very important things in those classes, but that is what I remember.

I've written extensively about my relationship to church, an entire master's thesis, in fact, so the idea of crafting a blog post that describes how church has impacted the first thirty years of my life feels, well, daunting to say the least. 

If I had to sum it up in a sentences though, it would go something like this: 

Because of church, I've always known that life is meant to be lived in community, not only with your immediate family, but with a broader group of people who both know and love you. 

Because of church, I've known that as rich as this community can be, it is also tenuous and fragile.  I've known that, as with all things that offer great gain, there is also the potential for great loss.

Because of church, I've encountered the presence of a living God, known what it is like to feel holiness brush against my shoulder. 

Because of church, I've not been able to sustain any illusions about my own holiness or the holiness of Christians in general; real people rubbing real shoulders equals a real mess (and real, genuine good too).

Because of church, I met my husband.

Because of church, I don't expect to sleep in on Sundays.

Because of church, with all its warts and wrinkles, I know God more.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #25: In Laws

Ok, so I know I'm 31 now, but I'm determined to finish this series...

For most of my life (24 years in fact), family was a relatively static entity, existing in its narrowest form with my mom, dad, and two younger brothers.

There was comfort in this, in the known contours of the five of us, in our defined roles and rhythms, even in our repeated fights and annoyances.

Things were simple, just the five of us. When we went somewhere, we could all fit in one car. We all came home for every holiday.

And then, in the span of three years, I gained two sisters-in-law, a niece, a nephew, a daughter, and a second family, consisting of a mother-in-law, a father-in-law and a brother-in law.

Family is no longer simple. Planning for the holidays involves weeks of e-mails, schedule juggling, and phone calls. A simple dinner out requires car seats, booster seats, and several vehicles.

We are still trying to figure it out, these new family rhythms, trying to learn what we are as a whole and how we fit together, piece by piece. It takes more work than it used to, this figuring out. It takes time. In some ways, we are still getting to know each other. We are family, but we are becoming friends.

There are times when I miss the long, leisurely, intimate conversations, just the five of us. I miss the simplicity, the knownness.

But I have also gained much in these new additions to my family.

I have gained another example of deep faith and of love and lifelong commitment. I have gained two more people who delight in blessing me and serving me.

I have gained a partner in keeping my husband humble and a worthy Settlers of Catan opponent.

I have gained the two sisters I prayed for as a little girl, sisters to shop with and bake with and raise babies with.

I have gained sweet cuddles and baby laughs and the endless joys of new life.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #24: Lancaster

I was born in Lancaster, in a hospital just a few blocks from the city rowhouse where my parents live now.

I lived the first six years of my life in Lancaster, thinking that horse and buggies, women with head coverings, and two-dollar-a-dozen fresh corn at roadside stands were normal realities of everyday life.

I left Lancaster, trading the odor of cow manure on freshly plowed fields for the scent of Hershey's chocolate infusing summer breezes.

I visited Lancaster, on Easters and Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves, for birthday parties and to see grandparents and cousins and to visit the friends we'd left behind.

I met people from Lancaster even as I moved furthur away, finding my way back yet again to visit college friends over semester breaks, downing giant pancakes at Jenny's Diner with Josh and Anne.

I came to see Lancaster as home again, when my parents moved back there a few years ago and when four couples and one single girl, all good friends of mine from college, settled down in close proximity.

I started to like my husband in Lancaster, over fireworks and a long walk at Lititz Springs Park. I started dating my husband in Lancaster, at a non-descript Panera off of Route 30. And I got married in Lancaster, at a beautiful church on the same street as my parents' house, on the same street as the hospital where I was born.

While I have only actually lived in Lancaster for six years, it, in many ways, feels like my truest earthly home.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #23: Nate

Nathan means "gift from God." My parents named him that because he was a "surprise," a baby they hadn't been expecting. Over the years, I've often commented about how grateful I am that God surprised our family with Nate.

There are many reasons I am thankful for this youngest brother of mine. For one, our family would be incredibly boring without him. Let's face it - Joel and I are both pretty standard, play-by-the-rules, overachiever types. Sure, we both like to laugh and can be funny from time to time, but Nate has that special spark (what an old man in the K-Mart parking lot was probably referring to when he said, "That kid has a lot of juice!"). He's the one who brings out the silly in the rest of us and has often made us laugh until we cried - like with his "pillow dance" on our family road trip out West and his "Circle Up" interpretive dance on a rainy beach day. What a gift those memories and laughs and countless others like them have been to our family.

Nate is not only full of life and humor, but he ia also the one in the family with the strongest artistic genes. He's the kid who basically taught himself to play the piano and the guitar, who takes beautiful photographs, and who can decorate a space with the best of them. He's a pretty amazing writer too. Some of my fondest family memories involve Nate at the guitar and the rest of us joining him (with far less rhythm and pitch) in singing worship songs.

Another thing I love about Nate is that he has good taste, and he knows what is "in" before most people catch on. This means he is not only fun to shop with, but also that he is the one who has introduced me to some of my favorite music (everything from John Mayer to Joshua Radin to Glen Hansard).

When I think of Nate and his impact on my life and on our family, the word "richness" comes to mind. Before him, we were a family, and this was a good thing. But in His abundance, God wanted to give us more - more life, more color, more beauty, more music, and more energy. He wanted to give us Nate. And I am so, so glad that He did.

Thirty Pieces Series, The Finale

So, that Thirty Pieces series I started last July, the one I originally intended to finish that month, the one that got stretched into a year-long project by pregnancy and childbirth and caring for a newborn, well I've only got a few days to finish it. Because I turn 31 on Friday! Yikes! So buckle your seat belts because I'm going to try to crank out the last 9 posts in the next few days. Enjoy!

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #22: Homeschooling

Depending on your background, the word "homeschooling" might conjure up images of prairie dresses, nerdy spelling bee champions, and cultural disconnectedness -- or perhaps more positive pictures of cozy family educational moments around the dining room table, beaming children completely enthralled by their math problems and history projects. While reality includes a little bit of each of these pictures, it is also a lot more complex.

In my experience as a homeschooled child, homeschooling was both normal - in the church culture in which I grew up - and bizarre - to our neighbors and to the friends I met in my ballet class, not to mention the well-meaning strangers who were perplexed to see school-age children walking around the grocery store at noon on a weekday.

Even today, when I happen to mention that I was homeschooled for the majority of my elementary school career, I get varied responses: everything from "But you're so normal!" to "Me too!" to "I always wondered what that would be like." I've grown accustomed to the fact that my homeschooling background makes me somewhat of an oddity in most settings, and I actually rather enjoy the chance to describe my experience to those who are curious and even skeptical.

I tell them about the most commonly-described benefits of homeschooling, about how in contrast to a classroom of 20-30 students, homeschooled students receive the benefit of truly individualized instruction and are able to learn at their own pace. I tell them about how homeschooling allows students space to pursue their own interests and passions, how my "homework" was done by 1 or 2 p.m at the latest, allowing me plenty of time to read for pleasure, write in my journal, and run around outside in the fresh air. I also tell them that homeschooling is definitely not for everyone, how as an educator myself I would never recommend it for every family or every kid.

What I talk about less frequently though - and find more difficult to even notice - is how much my eight years of homeschooling shaped me as a person in so many little ways, mostly for the better, but sometimes making me, well, just a little different :)

Because I was homeschooled,

*I spent thousands more hours with my family than I ever would have otherwise.

*I sometimes felt/feel left out when people talk about elementary school experiences like recess, snow days, field trips, and school lunches. For example, I never got to bring cupcakes to class for my birthday, though I guess I wouldn't have anyway since my birthday is in July.

*I didn't write my name on my school papers until I started attending public school in middle school. I just expected to be known.

*I entered middle school not really knowing how I compared academically to other students. I got to enjoy 7 years of learning without seeing it as a competition or worrying about where I fit in the rankings. Though I would later find a great deal of identity in my scholastic achievements, my early years focused on learning for the sake of learning, a gift for which I am very grateful. I can only imagine how much more achievement-oriented I might be were it not for those years.

*I find it difficult to read novels unless I have the time and space to read them from cover to cover. When I was homeschooled, I read an entire book (usually Nancy Drew or Boxcar Children or the like) each afternoon, and I never really learned how to read a few chapters each day over the course of several weeks. As a result, I still tend to read fiction primarily when I am on vacation or when I can otherwise step away from my responsibilities for at least a few uninterrupted hours. I sometimes wish I had developed a habit of reading a few chapters before bedtime, as I would be able to read a lot more that way.

*Learning with and from my family feels normal to me. They are the first people I call when I have a question about something - be it domestic, theological, practical, scientific, or literary. When we are all together, we love to talk books and ideas.

*I'm comfortable working with and befriending people of lots of different ages. Since I didn't spend my early years surrounded by a large group of my peers, I value being around people both older and younger than me.

*My expectation of life tends to include freedom to pursue my various interests and to spend time with people. Since homeschooling took up such a relatively small portion of my day, I grew up accustomed to lots of "free" time; during busy seasons of life, I have often struggled that "work" takes up so much of my day. Homeschooling spoiled me a bit in that regard.

I am sure there are many more effects I could list; any other homeschooled folks care to add some?

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #21: Bethany Beach

On the East Coast, or at least in the mid-Atlantic region where I grew up, going on a family beach vacation is a summer ritual right up there with baseball games, ice cream cones, and flip-flops. In Pennsylvania, where I spent my childhood, most families favor Ocean City, Maryland or the Jersey and Delaware shores. In Virginia, where I live now, the Outer Banks seems to be the favored destination.

For our family though, "the beach" has always meant one place - Bethany Beach, Delaware. For years, we rented a place there for a week each summer, and then when I was in high school, my grandparents bought a bayside cottage that I've visited at least once almost every year since, with family, and with friends from college, church small groups, and work.

While I've been to beaches in Maryland, New Jersey, Canada, California, Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, it's hard for me to think of visits to those places, as amazingly beautiful as most of them are, as a true beach vacation. For in the same way that home, with its familiar, well-worn rhythms and rituals, is uniquely comforting, thirty years of trips to Bethany Beach has made it feel like vacation in a way that no other place does.

Part of that is its steadiness throughout the many changes in my own life. Sure, as my dad is quick to lament, dunes now prevent beachgoers from sitting under the boardwalk, and new, trendier restaurants like Five Guys and Baja Beach House have sprung up in recent years. But it is still a small beach, a family beach, and today, like twenty years ago, there are still the quaint, book-lined shelves of Bethany Beach Bookstore, the greasy comfort of Grotto's Pizza, and salt and vinegar laden DB Fries in their signature yellow paper tub.

But perhaps even more important to my conception of Bethany Beach as my vacation spot, it is a place that holds a lifetime of my memories, beginning with childhood visits to the rental house with the spiral staircase. Our family friends the Mellingers often joined us there, all six of us children crammed in the back seat of a station wagon at the end of each long beach day, sun-kissed and sandy, surrounded by piles of towels, beach pails, and boogie boards. When we weren't on the beach, there were bike rides on the boardwalk, endless games of pool and the card game War, and half-hearted attempts to fish and crab in the brown canal waters behind the house. And more often than not, my birthday happened that week, simple homemade chocolate sheetcake and candles, perhaps a present or two, surrounded by family and the closest of family friends. Pure happiness.

My teen memories of the beach are more introverted ones, long, lazy days of reading for pleasure, naps in the sunshine, shopping at the outlets on rainy days, people watching on the boardwalk. A welcome respite from honors classes, track practice, and college applications.

Then, for several years in college, my friends and I descended on my grandparents' beach house the week after exams for what at the time felt like the ultimate experience of community life: Techmo Bowl tournaments, National Geographic puzzle marathons that lasted until 2 a.m., puppy chow making sessions, football and frisbee on the still empty spring beach, laughter, and long conversations about life, love, the ever-looming future. Sweet moments of friendship, of life on the exciting cusp between adolescence and adulthood.

In recent years, the beach has become a place to both retreat from and explore the complexities of an ever-changing life. It is a place where CJ and my sister-in-laws have become, in a deeper sense, family. It is a place where I've gathered with friends to retreat, to pray, to fellowship, and in one case, to grieve. It is the place where I cuddled my baby niece while pondering the early days of the small life growing inside of me, the place where morning sickness first made me run to the toilet. Rich times, painful times, deepening times.

The future, as always, is uncertain. My grandparents are aging, and what might become of the beach house remains unclear. CJ and I are starting a family, and what sort of family vacation traditions we might institute with our own children are yet to be decided. I don't know if I'll spend as much time at Bethany Beach in the next 30 years as I have in the past 30. But I do know that I'm grateful for the gift of a home away from home, a place that has been the backdrop for so many scenes in so many seasons of my life, a place that will always be the storehouse for so many special memories.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #20: Dad

My mom will often say that she "lost out" when it comes to the temperments of my brothers and I. In contrast to her steady and generally upbeat personality, the three of us, while certainly different in many ways, tend to be more like our dad - emotional, contemplative, deep thinkers who are sometimes downright moody.

When I think of the influence my dad has had on my life, I keep coming back to how much I am like him, the ways in which our brains and hearts work similarly. Some of that may be explained by genetic contributions neither of us had much control over, but I believe that, perhaps because of our many similarities, my dad, more than anyone else, has taught me how to live as the person God made me to be - how to use my strengths, how to rely on God in my weaknesses.

He has shown me that it is okay to cry at the end of Hallmark commercials and in the middle of a small group meeting, that a soft and easily affected heart is a great gift to others - the suffering, the broken, even those for whom tears simply do not come easily.

He has modeled for me what it is like to think big thoughts about God's kingdom and dream big dreams about advancing the gospel, and he has also modeled how to walk in faith and obedience as a visionary who is sometimes misunderstood and often asked by God to wait on His timing and to trust Him when the gaps between vision and reality are overwhelming.

Even though he would never describe himself as "artsy," he has passed on to me his love of books and music and writing. It was his voice through which I first encountered the Adentures of Maxi and Mini, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Bible. It was he who encouraged me to write, who first made me feel like God had given me a gift in that area. And even though he can't carry a tune, he was the one who danced around the living room with me as a toddler, record player at full blast, and who, ignoring my teenage complaints about the country music he often played in the car, taught me to love the sound of a raw acoustic guitar and the rhythms of bluegrass.

Most important of all, he has both modeled and taught me to love Jesus above all else. Morning after morning, I came downstairs to find him already up and in his study, reading his Bible and spending time in prayer. I watched him at church, singing with passion and joy to a person He knew intimately. I listened as he talked to and around my brothers and I about how God influenced his thoughts, actions, and decisions. And time after time, when life has been hard, I have gone to him for counsel and received compassion, hope, and guidance from someone who knows what it means to wrestle with God in deep places and to be pulled up from the pit.

I am blessed to have a dad who knows God and knows me and who, in knowing me, helps me know God.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #19: Washington DC

When I first moved to the metro DC area the summer after graduating from Penn State, I lived in perpetual awe of the importance and fame of my new hometown. My roommate Rachel and I, both fresh to the city, would often drive down Constitution Avenue at night on our way to visit friends, staring transfixed at the glowing orb that is the Capitol Building dome. In small Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, I knew this view as the backdrop for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, but now, I lived within miles of the very place where so much world news actually transpired.

In many ways, living in the shadow of power suited me. Unlike my husband, I have never been particularly politically oriented, but I am driven and goal-oriented, qualities I soon found describe the personality of the average Washingtonian. People in DC expect to succeed, and they're willing to sacrifice a lot to that end, something I quickly noticed at my new job teaching middle school English. In Pennsylvania, when I was student teaching, most of the teachers I worked with would line up at the door of the school, waiting for their contract hours to end at 3 p.m. so they could go home. At my new school in Fairfax, most teachers voluntarily stayed and worked in their classrooms until 5, 6, or 7 p.m., sometimes later. As a lifelong overachiever, all of this felt comforting in a way, like I'd found a place where I fit, where I was surrounded by people who were like me.

But in other ways, I struggled. DC is a hard place to find community, which thrives on time, relational energy, and proximity, all of which are lacking in a city characterized by sixty-plus hour work weeks, lengthy commutes, and over-committed people. I made friends, both at work and through religious organizations, but they were scattered and fragmented, often living so far away that even if I had energy to visit them on a weeknight, I would have spent half of my evening driving there and back. I missed my small college town, where no one lived more than ten minutes away, where grabbing a meal or watching a weekly TV show with friends was simple and easy. I often felt tired of trying so hard to connect with people and lonely because I wasn't. There were many times I wanted out - out where the lanes were fewer, the parking lots emptier, the groceries cheaper.

Eight and a half years later though, I am still here. I often wonder why. It's not that I haven't tried to leave. In fact, there have been several times when I've developed an exit strategy (grad school, new job, etc.) only to find doors closing and myself still here in DC. Sure, there have been changes. I've moved a few times within Fairfax County. I've lived with twelve different roommates, including a now-permanent one. I've even tried to make my world smaller by living, working, and going to church within one small Fairfax County community.

But the reality is that I am still here in a place I never really planned to stay. I met my husband here. I own a home here. I am about to have a baby here. I very well may spend most of my life here.

And I'm okay with that, even though I am still not sure I'd choose it out of a catalog of "dream places to live." But having invested almost nine years of my life here, DC is now, for better and for worse, part of me. Were I to leave for smaller, greener country, I'd miss being able to walk to Egyptian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, not to mention Chipotle and my favorite little local bakery. I'd miss shopping at Trader Joe's and walking around Old Town Alexandria on a warm, spring evening.

But most of all I'd miss the many people, who as I realized at my local baby shower last week, have gradually become a community that, while still fragmented and scattered, has walked with me through the real joys and trials of my post-college years. They've come from scattered places - colleagues at both Frost Middle School and George Mason University, old roommates, friends from Navigators and from church, even friends I met while studying abroad in Cambridge. They don't all know each other, and some of them live further away than I'd like. But in God's kindness, they have made my experience of DC much less about being successful and much more about walking through life with people, even when it's hard.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #18: Discipleship

Discipleship can be defined simply as following Jesus, living life in obedience to His commands and out of a desire to serve Him. In some Christian circles, the word discipleship is also used to describe the one-on-one relationship between a more mature Christian and a younger Christian, where the more mature believer tries to help the younger Christian grow in his or her faith.
I owe much of my spiritual growth to several women who, over my thirty years, have walked alongside me in this kind of discipleship relationship. I think first, and primarily, of my mom, a joyful, steady homemaker who I know began teaching me to know Jesus before I can remember it. Our's was not a formal discipleship relationship with a regular weekly meeting time or topic, but it was discipleship all the same, eighteen years of living life together in our home and as we interacted with our shared community. The things she taught me were often more by example than by word, but they were rich, important lessons about what it means to be a woman of God. Time after time, I saw her patiently and joyfully lay down her life for her family and friends, wrestle honestly with God through hard things, and humbly admit her weaknesses. And as I watched, God showed me a picture of the kind of woman I want to be some day.
In the first weeks of my freshmen year of college, suddenly on my own and feeling very alone, I met a woman who would disciple me in my pivotal undergraduate years. Karly, a blonde Iowan, was a recent college graduate herself, but in my eyes, she was old and wise and oh-so-grown-up. She did, after all, have a car and a real apartment and a college degree. She also led the freshmen Bible study I ended up joining with the Navigators campus ministry, and she took an interest in getting to know me. We did fun things together - going out for ice cream, playing pranks on some of the guys in our ministry, working out at the campus gym - but we also talked. A lot. We talked about boys and about school and about sharing our faith on campus. Karly had an awesome laugh, one that came deep from her throat and made her nose crinkle, but she was also willing to cry with me about my struggles. During the three years I met with Karly, I learned the importance of talking about my spiritual journey with others on a regular basis, and I caught a vision for investing in other girls, like she had invested herself in me.
The summer before my junior year, I moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado for the summer to participate in what the Navigators called a Summer Training Program (STP). Imagine 50-60 college students living on the grounds of a Christian conference center, working on housekeeping, grounds, and kitchen crews, sharing cramped living quarters, and doing Bible studies and attending services together. Throw in some hikes up Colorado's many fourteeners, some midnight runs to Sonic, and lots of crushes and ultimate frisbee, and you've got the basic idea. That summer, I met with my team leader, an older, married woman named Carol, for regular discipleship times. I liked Carol immediately because she was taller than me, a rare and always delightful occurence in my world, and because she was a natural visionary and leader. I can't remember many of the specific things we talked about that summer, in various Colorado Springs coffee shops and on hikes up red-rocked ridges, but I do remember that Carol saw God-given potential in me, that she encouraged me to use my gifts for God's glory and to dream dreams as big as the Colorado sky.
My senior year of college, after Karly had moved on to pursue other ministry opportunities, I began meeting with the senior staff member of our campus ministry, Cathy. Cathy, who is perhaps the most sincere and caring person I know, wanted to help prepare me for life after college. In her living room and over Cokes at the Arby's in downtown State College, we talked our way through a five-part study on Biblical womanhood. But we also talked about life and about the Bible study I was leading for younger girls on campus, and I think in the end it was those conversations that most prepared me for life after college. Many of the girls in my study were dealing with deep issues like past abuses and depression, and Cathy wisely helped me learn how to help them and who to point them to when I couldn't help. In many ways, it was my first deep taste of the harsh realities of a fallen world, and Cathy's counsel prepared me to care for broken, hurting people - both in my Bible study and for the rest of my life.
After college, I moved from quiet, insulated, central Pennsylvania college town to the sprawling bustle of metropolitan DC. And God sent me Connally, a former English teacher turned Navigator staff member, whose ministry focused on twenty-somethings making the transition from college to career. That, thankfully, included me, and oh what a transition it was. Connally patiently listened to my desperate tales of a life that wasn't turning out the way it was "supposed to" and graciously drew me out about my unfulfilled desires for marriage and community and church. Time after time, God used her ability to understand me better than I understood myself to gently point me toward eternal truths that stood firm in the midst of the internal chaos I was feeling. And she also helped me to realize that I approached life as not only a thinker, but also an artist, a term I never would have applied to myself previously but now embrace as part of God's calling for my life.
I can't think of five more different women. In fact, the only thing they all have in common is that each of them loves Jesus and has committed her life to following Him. But God brought each one to me at the right time and used their particular strengths and gifts that I might grow to know Him more. Through each of them, I have been blessed.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #17: Teaching

One of my favorite 8th grade classes.

This week marks the start of spring classes at George Mason University. I read my colleagues' messages on Facebook, identifying with the first day jitters and excitement they are reporting, but for the first time in almost 9 years, I'm not headed back to teaching after winter break. Instead of managing a room full of squirrely eighth graders or trying to engage some lethargic second semester freshman in the wonders of Shakepeare, I'm here at home, sipping hot cocoa, blasting my space heater, and getting ready to have a baby.

I'm not sure the reality has really sunk in yet. So far, I just feel like I am on some sort of extended winter break. I'm relishing the time I have to organize our house, set up the nursery, read marriage and parenting books, and write. This time is a real gift to me.

But at some point, I expect, I will wake up one day and realize that I miss teaching. It might come in a few weeks, when the nursery is ready and waiting, when I am left with only the daunting uncertainties of motherhood stretching before me. Or it may come this spring, when my days are consumed with diapers and feedings and the absence of sleep, when even a pile of essays to grade or a classroom full of eighth graders after lunch in the springtime would be a welcome relief. Or perhaps it will take until the fall, when I always feel an almost magical excitement about a new school year, fresh, unmarred, waiting to be unfurled.

The reality is that I've been in school for 25 of my 30 years, either being taught or teaching. My only "real" jobs have been teaching jobs - five years of teaching English at a public middle school, three and a half years teaching composition and literature at George Mason.

And though it has often been very hard, I have loved much about teaching. I have loved putting good books into the hands of my students, loved seeing reluctant readers get hooked on a series and avid readers discovering a new favorite. I have loved the challenge of educating, the impossible task of connecting material with hundreds of different learners and personalities, of making a skill that seems abstract and impossible into one that students see as concrete and possible. I have loved the creative and energetic and sometimes downright goofy part of me that comes out when I am standing in front of a classroom, loved making my students laugh and have fun learning, sometimes in spite of themselves. I have loved the many colleagues who have become friends, loved collaborating with them and laughing and venting and sometimes even crying with them over the ups and downs of the teaching life.

And I have loved my students. Their faces flash before me now, so many of them - Jamie, Mike, Hilary, Cecilia, those whose names I can't remember but whose stories I will never forget. They have inspired me, challenged me, impressed me, and taught me. Because of them, I am more appreciative of God's creativity in making each person unique. Because of them, I am more aware of my impatience and self-righteousness and the ways I will be challenged as a parent. Because of them, I am more conscious of how very blessed I have been and of how very hard life can sometimes be. I could go on and on.

In truth, teaching has been so much a part of my life and my identity as an adult that in some ways, it is hard for me to imagine myself apart from it. When I meet people now and they ask me what I do, I still sometimes say that I am a teacher. It's the answer I've been giving the past eight and a half years, and since I don't really feel like a mother yet, it somehow seems like the most accurate thing to say.

I don't know when I might return to teaching in some sort of official capacity. I may teach a class or two on a part-time basis as soon as the fall; I may teach again when our children are in school themselves. And I may not ever again write the word teacher on my income tax return. The future holds many unknowns. But I do hope that whether I am being paid to stand in front of a classroom or not, I will carry with me the lessons from my teaching years and always be a teacher in the truest sense of the word, helping others to learn and grow and reach their full, God-given potential.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #16: Lists

These days, I feel distracted, my mind filled with to-do lists, to-research lists, to-buy lists, and to-read lists - all with a looming deadline: 10 more weeks. My brain is constantly spinning, usually bouncing back and forth between several baby-related issues and questions: birthing classes, stroller options, pregnancy exercises, house projects to finish before our little one arrives. I'm not teaching, so I have plenty of time to get things done. And yet, each days seems to slip by so quickly, leaving me frustrated at how many things still haven't been crossed off on all those lists.

I'd like to blame this phenomenon on my maternal nesting impulse, but if you ask my husband and my family, they'll tell you that I am a born list-maker and organizer and that I tend to have more projects on my lists than I will ever be able to complete. In fact, even as a young girl, I distinctly remember daydreaming about how great it would be to one day complete every single task on my list and to just be able to sit back and enjoy having everything done. Now, I realize that a ten year-old making lists and dreaming about completing them is slightly (or perhaps majorly) neurotic, but I'm not making it up. I really thought that way even then.

What's worse is that I haven't stopped. Never mind that I never once in my 30 years have been able to get everything done. Never mind that I feel frustrated by my lists as many days as I feel satisfied by completing things on them. I keep trying. And I keep falling short of my own goals and expectations.

Only in the past few years have I realized how much of my identity and security is wrapped up in lists. If I complete an appropriate number of items on my list, I feel like I've had a good day, like I am sharp and smart and on top of things. If I don't, I feel like a lazy, no-good failure. On a grander scale, I've also realized that I see lists as a sort of safety net. If I think of everything and do everything, I will be prepared for anything, and life will be okay.

The problem is that nowhere in this philosophy is there space for God, the One in whom I should find my identity, the One whose goodness and sovereignty I should trust in the face of reality that no amount of list-completing can ensure that life will be "okay."

His list is a short one: repentance and faith. This is what He asks of me each day. I'm definitely not there yet, but I hope that over the next thirty years, my list will grow to look more like His.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #15: Baking

Laiko Bahrs once said, "When baking, follow directions. When cooking, follow your own taste."

I prefer baking. Perhaps it is because, as Bahrs and many of my friends have suggested, baking appeals to my sense of order, my love of following directions, my need to do things right.

But I think there is more to it than that. Baking to me is about so much more than exactitude. It is about warmth, comfort, home, sweetness, love, and celebration. Is is about the heat of an open oven in your face and about the smells of yeast and cinnamon and chocolate. Unlike cooking, it is not something that needs to be done (most of us would survive without cookies, bread, pies); it is something we do special occasions: for birthdays, anniversarys, holidays and for when we want to make the everyday a little more special.

When I was a little girl, the women in my mother's family would gather every December for a day of Christmas cookie baking. In my grandmother's farmhouse kitchen, my mother, aunt, great-aunt, grandmother, and cousins would prepare batter for our family favorites: chocolate crinkles, Russian tea cakes, pecan sandies, Dissingers, sand tarts, and peanut blossoms. We'd bake all day, rotating worn cookie sheets in and out of the oven with practiced precision, filling the brown paper lined table with rows and piles of cookies. For my cousins and I, there were plenty of samples to enjoy, but what I loved most was the atmosphere of it all: family gathered in a cozy kitchen, news and stories exchanged while cookies were mixed, rolled, baked, and decorated.

The actual cookies were and continue to be a beloved family Christmas tradition, but I look for them every year not simply because I love their tastes, but because of what they represent to me. Even today, years since the last family baking day, a peanut blossom is more than the perfect blend of peanut butter cookie and chocolate kiss; it is also the taste of family, of my grandmother's kitchen, of love.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years, Continued

Originally I intended to finish this series in July, the month I actually turned 30. Ha. Enter pregnancy, all-day nausea, a nasty month-long cold, end of the semester grading, Christmas, and a New Year's trip to CA. It seems that every time I start writing on this blog, something unexpected happens, and before I know it, months have gone by without a post.

I have about 2.5 months until my duedate, during which time I will not be teaching. One of my goals for this time of rest and preparation is to get in a good routine with writing before the little one arrives. I plan to finish my Thirty Pieces series and mix in some other posts as addition to working on several non-blog projects. I hope some of you are still around and will keep reading!!

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #14: CJ

A post for my husband - on our second anniversary.

Before we married, I grew to love you for many reasons. I loved you for not being afraid of difficult questions - both as a care group leader and as a person. I loved you for the generosity I saw you display toward me and toward friends and fellow church members. I loved you for relating to my roommates when you were hanging out at our house and for making them feel comfortable being around us. I loved you for the way you fit into my family - making my mom laugh, going hunting with my dad, talking politics, theology, and sports with my brothers. I loved you for making an effort to get to know the many people who are part of my life, how at ease they all seemed to be around you. I loved you for the way your whole face lights up with your smile and for the way you laugh deeply. I loved you for the story you wrote me on our first Valentine's Day, for the creativity and tenderness that showed up in it. I loved you for your steadiness and for all that offers to crazy, up-and-down, emotional me. I loved you for bearing with me through a particularly hard period in my life, for your patience and care for me in the midst of my fears and doubts and yes, lots of tears.

Now, two years later, I love you for all of these reasons and for so many more. I love you for the ways I see God shaping your heart - increasing your vision for ministry, helping you to grow in patience and leadership. I love you for the way you love children, for the way you pursue them until they like you, for the tears in your eyes when you met our baby niece. I love you for the risks I see you taking as you prepare to lead a care group, for your willingness to follow God even when the way forward is not always clear. I love you for your ability to take an idea and make it a reality, even if you've never done it before - for the planters you built in our backyard, for the electrical outlets you've replaced, for the drywall you've patched. I love you for talking to me late at night even when you wanted to go to sleep. I love you for challenging me in areas of my sin that I didn't see - or want to see. I love you for bringing me a glass of water before bed every night and for holding me before we go to sleep. I love you for doing life with me - from exploring the CA coast to making cranberry orange scones to sketching ideas for built-in bookshelves to dreaming about the future. I love you for blessing me with an amazing thirtieth birthday and a whole series of thirtieth birthday celebrations. I love you for knowing me better than anyone ever has, for seeing all of my strengths and weaknesses, and for loving me anyway. I love you for showing me what the love of God is like. I love you for being you.

I loved you then, and I love you more now. I am so grateful for all that God has given me in you, and I look forward to watching our love grow and deepen in the years to come. Happy anniversary, love!

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.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #12: Rachel

Rachel and I with friends in DC (Rudy, Bethany, and Dave)

Visiting Rachel in Arizona (with our good friend Brynne)

When I first met Miss Rachel Kraines, I wasn't so sure we'd be friends. It was the first month of freshmen year, perhaps even the first week. Through a welcome week table, I'd made contact with a Navigator staff woman named Karly, who told me about a freshmen women's Bible study she was leading. I agreed to meet her and some of the other girls who were interested for a trip to a local dairy for ice cream.

As it turned out, the other girls had all met before and were already telling inside jokes about freshmen adventures like making macaroni and cheese in a coffeepot and randomly deciding to try out for the rugby team. Everyone was loud and energetic and full of laughter, and I wasn't sure I fit.

Little did I know at the time that through this very freshmen Bible study, Rachel would quickly grow to become one of my best friends. We were never roommates in college, but we (and our friends Becky and Eva, also from that Bible study) were inseparable throughout our freshmen year, meeting daily in the cafeteria for meals, spending our weekends watching movies, ordering pizza at midnight, and just hanging out. Rachel and I remained close throughout college and ended up deciding to move to DC together after graduation. We were roommates there for a year and a half before Rachel's job moved her to her current hometown of Phoenix, AZ.

Remember how I said in a previous post that I have a lot of friends who are NOT like me? Well Rachel is one of those friends. We share a similar heart and passion for ministry and come from similar families, but our personalities are almost total opposites. Rachel is an off-the-charts extrovert; I love people, but need my space. Rachel loves to be spontaneous; I am a master planner. Rachel's not afraid to try new things or meet new people; it takes effort for me to step out of my comfort zone.

Because Rachel is so different than me, her friendship has challenged me in so many good ways. It's thanks to Rachel that I:

*Engaged in such crazy college activities as "duck hunting" - which involved her, Becky, and I running around a farm we were visiting for a campus ministry retreat to try to catch a duck to put in the guys' cabin. Honestly, I have no idea why that ever sounded like a good idea, but Rachel is the kind of person who can convince you that almost anything will be fun. If it weren't for her, my college career would have certainly been a lot more boring. Rachel taught me that every day could be an adventure and that taking risks could be fun - even if you never did catch a duck.

*Survived my first years in DC. The transition from college to working world wasn't easy for either Rachel or I, but I know that it was so much easier than it might have been thanks to her energy and partnership as we explored our new home and season of life. I'll never forget driving the wrong way down one-way streets in DC, grocery shopping together, putting together boxed furniture on the kitchen floor, and of course, lots and lots of conversations about church, ministry, boys, and work. I learned a lot from Rachel in those years - how to cook with garlic and olive oil, how to decide what meals to make based on what is on sale at the grocery store, how to paint a house, and how to train for a race.

*Ask good questions. When Rachel and I lived together, I watched her with the endless stream of friends and co-workers who showed up at our house. I listened to how she talked with them and how she drew them out about what they were thinking and feeling. And I learned to follow her example. I think this is the most enduring way that Rachel has shaped my life - knowing her taught me to be a good friend, to ask genuine, open-ended questions that invited other to respond.

Thank you Rachel for the many ways you have shaped my life for the better and for the joyful, others-focused way you live your life.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #11: "Classvictorian"

Me at my high school graduation

Part of me doesn't want to write this post. I'm afraid you'll all think I'm arrogant to include my title as valedictorian of my high school class as one of my thirty pieces. I'm afraid that maybe I am arrogant to call attention to it.

But I can't help but think that if this series is really about the 30 most defining experiences and people in my life, being the valedictorian has to be up there somewhere.

Of course, now that I am thirty and have been out of high school for twelve years (yikes!), no one really cares that I was a valedictorian. It's not on my resume anymore, and I rarely talk about it. If I do, it's to tell the story of the drunken classmate who ran into me on the boardwalk during senior week and gushed with enthusiasm, "It's Abby Martin...the freaking classvictorian."

All that to say I'm not writing this post to convince you that I'm super cool and important because I happened to have the highest GPA of the 200 or so students graduating in 1998 in my small Pennsylvania town. If I ever had delusions that being valedictorian was cool, they pretty much vanished with the "classvictorian" comment. And I'm certain that if I'd gone to school in my current home of Fairfax County, where the schools are bigger and academic programs are stronger, I'd have been lucky to graduate in the top ten or twenty percent of the class.

What I do want to say though is that being the valedictorian did shape me, for better and for worse. Allow me to explain by going back to the beginning of my educational career.

I was home schooled throughout elementary school and only began attending public school full time in the eighth grade, a transition that just happened to coincide with my family's leaving the church we'd been part of my whole life. Though I wouldn't fully realize or be able to name it until years later, these two major changes, along with the all the normal unhappy realities of adolescence, ended up making my teen years a particularly difficult period for me.

You wouldn't have known it from the outside though. I was a straight-A, honor roll student, newspaper editor, Fellowship of Christian Athletes president, and yes, eventually, valedictorian. And in many ways, I was happy in these roles, relished the recognition, the constant reinforcement of awards, praise from teachers, and high grades.

I think though that I used these roles and titles to fend off the emotions I didn't know what to do with - the loneliness of being a newcomer and missing my old friends, the constant confusion about how to fit in and be cool, even the spiritual doubts that I didn't yet know I had.

Being an overachiever game me an identity. I might not have been the prom queen or the basketball star, but I was someone. I mattered. People noticed me (even if it was only to ask if they could copy my homework or be in my group for a project).

In some ways, I see this as God's kindness to me. I didn't know when I started going to public school that I'd do as well academically as I did, but He allowed me to discover gifts that would make a way for me in an unfamiliar place. This was a real kindness to me.

In other ways though, as I suppose is often true of gifts we've been given, I think I clung too tightly to my academic gifts. I allowed them to define me in a way that only God should have. I didn't know who I was apart from busyness and success, a mentality God's been gracious enough to spend much of my twenties undoing (or at least beginning to undo).

From my vantage point now, I am very, very grateful for the many academic gifts God has bestowed on me, gifts I am deeply aware that I do not deserve. I want to use them well. But I am also less and less interested in being defined by them, by measuring success according to titles and accomplishments. I want to be known and to know myself first and foremost as a beloved daughter of the giver of all good gifts and to rest in His acceptance of me apart from what I do.

When I get to heaven, what I hope to hear is not Abby, Valedictorian, but rather Abby, Good and Faithful Servant.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #10: Ballet

With Joel, Nate, and my Grandpa and Grandma Martin
after one of my dance recitals.

If, at age eight, you'd asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you that I wanted to be a ballerina. Never mind that I would grow up to be far too tall. Never mind that I would turn out to be the least flexible person in my high school gym class (boys included). Never I mind that I have weak ankles. I loved to dance.
I'm not sure if my parents signed me up for ballet classes before or after I started spinning around the house, but I remember that in those days, I often danced my way across the living room and through the kitchen, loving the fluidity and gracefulness of swirls, bends, and arches.

I looked forward to my weekly ballet classes at McCann School of Dance, found joy in learning and practicing my pirouette and frappe, in watching our choreographed recital piece come together week by week. But even then I was an achiever, aware of how I compared to others, wanting to perform well and to please. In the classroom setting, it was hard for me to let go and simply dance.

Church, however, was different. On Sunday mornings in the fire hall where our congregation met at the time, I usually slipped away from the front row where my family sat and headed to an empty space at the back of the “sanctuary,” behind the rows of folding chairs and near a Coke machine and the doors to the firehouse kitchen. This was my space to be with God, close enough to taste the energy of the crowd, yet out of their sight. Sometimes a few other girls joined me, but when they did, I danced beside them, not with them. It was just me and God, me dancing for God, Him smiling down, delighting in me.

During the fast songs, I skipped, and I twirled. With outstretched arms, I grand-jetéd across the floor, leaping into a spin that left me both breathless and light-headed at its conclusion. I don’t know if I had seen The Sound of Music at this age, but when I recall the moment now, I see myself as Maria, frolicking through the hills of Austria, tasting freedom in every step and turn of my body.

My favorites though were the slower songs. With the first strummed chords of a song called “Give Me One Pure and Holy Passion,” I felt as though I were a beautiful ballerina, delicate and tender, passionate yet controlled, the steps I had learned in my classes providing language to express the depths of my soul. I bowed before God in plea, moved toward Him through tendu, and then spun into His arms with a pirouette. Always, I reached for Him with my puny arms, grasped for Him with my gently curved fingertips. And while I danced, I sang:

Give me one pure and holy passion
Give me one magnificent obsession
Jesus, give me one glorious ambition for my life
To know and follow hard after You.

In those moments, though my faith was young and untested, I think I grasped something of the delight that can be found in knowing God, of the freedom that comes from His love. When I danced with God, I did not worry about making a mistake or trying to impress Him. I simply knew what it is often so hard for me to grasp now - that God delighted in me just as I was and that in His love, I could dance.

Note: Part of this essay was excerpted from my thesis project.