Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jonah's Baptism

I found out I was pregnant for the first time ever during a trip to Vienna, Austria thirteen years ago. John and I had been married and Christians for five years, and we were visiting the family that hosted me as an exchange student when I was just sixteen. I was overjoyed and very nauseous, which made for an interesting trip. John took the lead in praying daily for the baby to "have a heart for Jesus" and continued until he was born. Sometimes we overlooked praying for health or prosperity, but we always prayed that he would love God.

Something told me I was carrying a boy, though we never officially found out. At that point, neither of us could read a sonogram any more than we could read Chinese, so we stayed blissfully ignorant and kept praying for him--or her--to love God. The majority of my pregnancy was spent in training for the mission field in Abilene, Texas where we were enrolled in church planting and Portuguese classes. I spent a great deal of that time asleep in the library while John and the rest of the team faithfully prepared. We watched the infamous destruction of the World Trade Center on the classroom television just one month before my due date, and I wondered what kind of world we were bringing our child into. During the eighth month we had an accident which totalled our car but left us unscathed. Tests showed a healthy baby.

Finally, the due date for the first grandchild on my side of the family was just around the corner. I was induced a bit early for edema--and hugeness in general. The labor was relatively long and unfruitful for the majority of the day and there were positions which caused the baby to lose oxygen, so they elevated my feet and kept me in one position. It was the closest thing to torture I have ever experienced, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I spent Jonah's first couple of weeks of life in a bout of postpartum depression. Jonah cried and cried and cried. I cried and cried and cried. I loved him and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. God's creation is funny like that.

We moved to Brazil when Jonah was eight months old and he continued expressing his dissatisfaction on a daily basis. We weren't sure how much of it was normal baby stuff and kept trying to figure out what we were doing wrong, with little success. Eventually one of the girls on our mission team, who happened to be a speech pathologist, recommended that we have him evaluated during an upcoming furlough. We did and ended up staying in the States for the next three years, in and out of treatment and therapy. We never got an official diagnosis, (although there was a lot of talk about autism) but we watched God effectively heal our son. He began to really talk at about five and even read quite well shortly after that. He became very affectionate and funny. He was a pleasure to be around. I didn't love him any more than before, and I realized how amazing God is to make it possible to love a child deeply, regardless of behavior.

It's been a long and difficult journey with equally larger amounts of pain and reward than anything else I've ever put my heart into. Jonah turned twelve last October and has grown and matured in ways that have far surpassed our expectations, one of which is his ability to understand spiritual concepts. He tends to discern the precepts behind Bible stories that many adults I know cannot find. We take that to be our answer to those many prayers we prayed while God was still forming him in the womb.

Last week, during a trip to visit our church family in Tennessee, Jonah decided to be baptized into Christ. It wasn't the first time he asked to be, but it was the first time we felt he was ready. He and Andy used to play "baptism" in the bathtub together, and we wanted to be absolutely sure it wasn't still a game for him. I trust the Holy Spirit to begin to reveal to him things we can't teach him on our own. I'm not sure I have ever felt prouder of anyone or anything, and again I marvel at God's grace.

Congratulations, My Beautiful Boy! I am so hopeful for your future and look forward to an eternity with you. Dad and I have only helped you reach the starting line. We are especially thankful to these wonderful families who have been an integral part of your life, witnessed your baptism in Nashville, and have pledged to help you finish the race strong.

Thanks, also, to those of you who have been there along the way in one of the ten--if I haven't lost count--places he has lived. We're planning a local celebration to honor this very special milestone in our family's journey. It's been an action-packed twelve years and we want to pause in thanks to God and ask for many more.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"I Found Christ Here!"

The last you heard from me was in November, which is shameful, not because I think you have nothing better to do than read my blog, but because God has been working in ways that really should be shared. As you know, John became the director at The Gem, a family fitness center, in November. He has worked tirelessly to organize and streamline a confusingly multi-faceted business. The facets seemed more like tentacles at times, and we've been wrapped up in them more than we've liked. That being said, all the hard work and sacrifice has been worth it, because the place has changed a great deal for the better. There is a new mission statement identifying Jesus Christ as the center, a new staff who seem more like a family to each other and to us, and a renovated building, as well as completely reorganized programming. Everything feels new and alive and purposeful, and our membership has quadrupled! We're still recovering from sizable financial issues which almost closed the place down last year, so we're not yet in the clear but hope to be very soon.

All of that is well and good, and we envision The Gem becoming a booming business and a household name to the surrounding communities. But those of you who know us know that's not exactly what feeds our souls. We want to see people come to know Jesus Christ, either for the first time or more fully. That's why, of all the exciting stories I could tell you about these past few months, I want to share this one first:

Of all the mountains John faced when he stepped into the leadership role at The Gem, there was an undeniable spirit of dissension among some of the group class instructors and members. It was a web of gossip and backbiting that had gone unchecked between the time the previous administration left and John stepped in. We prayed that God would clear out the negativity, then John confronted it head on. There was a tangible reaction, and a few instructors quit while some of the members even cancelled their contracts. God is faithful and soon enough there was a new peace that settled over the place. John and I began to pray about what would fill the hole that was created by the percentage of withdrawal we experienced in the aftermath.

Before long, as quickly as some had gone, others who left because of the dissension came back--instructors and members alike. LaRae was a favorite Zumba instructor who quit The Gem last fall to manage a restaurant. When she heard about the changes taking place at The Gem, she came to check it out for herself and asked for her job back. John informed her of the new mission and our vision to make it a more family friendly environment. She was inspired on her own accord to put together a playlist of Christian music to incorporate into her dance routines and presented the songs to John. She took a pay cut but said it was worth it to do what she loved and to be in a good family environment.

During a recent staff meeting, John asked the question, "How are we going to convince people who came and left before November to give us another try? What is different about this place now?" LaRae was quick to answer that it was very different and much better. He pressed for details that might be shared with a skeptic. She searched for words and finally and articulately exclaimed, "I found Christ here!" We visited her family's local church weeks later to see her baptized.
That was just last month and we've already seen the Holy Spirit work in her to make her more into the image of Christ. LaRae has even been moved to share her faith with others at The Gem by doing devotionals with her students.

We're excited to work alongside LaRae and to get to know her better. We also want her to know you, her new Christian family, better so please feel free to comment and let her see a glimpse of the faithful support she has worldwide.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Birthday, Brother!

I grew up the middle of five kids, but I haven't enjoyed that status for a very long time. My oldest brother, Steve, has been in a mental hospital since I was eleven, and my older sister has been impossibly angry as long as I can remember. Then there was me. The brother born after me, Andy, drowned when he was three, and Michael is the youngest. This story is about him.

He was born when I was seven, just thirteen months after Andy, and just before our dad went to prison, robbing Michael of even one decent father-son memory. His childhood, like mine, can be summed up in tragedy and loss and, though he was too young to remember most of it, I know it greatly shaped his life. The year following Andy's death, as my mom began to surface from her grieving, she asked my sister and me who in the world had been taking care of Michael. Though my sister deserves a lot of credit for standing in the gap, the answer was that Mom had been. So, though she was taking care of his physical needs, Michael was without the emotional presence of our mother for quite some time. It was a hard time for all of us.

Michael adapted and he and I became good friends--except when he played in my makeup and wrote on the mirror with my Bonne Bell lip gloss. He and I would look through my yearbooks as he told me which of the girls from my class were foxes and which were hounds. I put him in ridiculous poses and used Mom's Polaroid to snap pictures--some of which I'm now finding in Mom's old attic boxes. He was a good kid, very sweet and smart as a whip. Mom enrolled him in a Montessori school and he passed all the other kids up, which challenged the teachers to keep him occupied. He and I always got along but I moved away for a foreign exchange program in high school, and we started to grow apart after that.

Our whole family went their separate ways to some extent. Mom remarried (which ended in divorce) while Michael was the last one living at home. Later, Mom met the love of her life and tried to make a long distance relationship work. Michael was coming of age and was doing the types of things any young man left alone to rule the roost on weekends would do. As a result, my Christian lifestyle wasn't appealing to him in the least and, though he graciously listened to the simple presentation of the gospel John and I gave him during our first year as Christians, he clearly had a lot more fun to attend to than we could offer. I didn't see much of him but prayed for him often.

Since we moved to Texas, the stress of my mother's situation and the thread of dysfunction already running through our family have taxed my relationship with Michael. We hadn't seen each other for almost a year when he called John earlier this month for a meeting where he expressed his desire to be reunited with our family. He said he and his new wife had been going to church for the past six months, and he wanted John to baptize him. Monday night we went to the pool at the rec center where John works, and God gave my brother back to me. He said he was sorry for losing a year, and so am I, but I prefer to look at what I gained--a brother, a sister-in-law, and two and a half cousins. (They are expecting their third child.)

I've used words to convey this story to you, but words cannot express the joy in my heart, knowing my brother and I will spend an eternity together in the presence of God. I love you, Michael. Happy birthday for turning thirty-five today, and happy birthday for being born again last week.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mom's Best Decision Ever

October 2012
April 2013
November 2013

Life in Texas has finally become something more than just taking care of my mother with Alzheimer's, but her needs are still a primary focus and, ultimately, the reason we are here. I don't blog about her much, but people do often ask how she's doing. It's not a pleasant question to ask or answer, which is why I greatly appreciate anyone who goes out on that limb. The harsh reality is that my mother is dying and will never again be well in this life. What I've come to realize is that the best way to answer inquiries about my mom is with how my family is doing. That seems to be what most people are really asking anyway.

I realize this is a difficult discussion not many people enjoy. It's also quite painful for me, though I deal with it on some level every day, whether it be paying her bills, communicating with her doctor, making sure she has comfortable clothes as her weight fluctuates, or painstakingly sifting through every piece of paper and all of her personal belongings that remain in boxes. Then there's the grim task of funeral arrangements and other necessary evils that make life less than palatable. That's not to mention the visits which become more and more difficult as we debrief the kids on "what's happening to Grandma." They have witnessed more than their share of tears and don't enjoy the visits like they used to when Grandma would play or dance with them. Last week was the first time she didn't recognize me right away and had difficulty getting up from her chair. She had already forgotten the children, as Alzheimer's tends to erase the most recent memories first. I asked Mom last week what my name is and she answered with a smile, "Elizabeth Jane Rayson" (her maiden name).

During this sad time, I try to dwell on pleasant memories--and there are many--like her famous spaghetti sauce, the slumber parties she hosted for my birthday each year, her dependable goodnight kiss and hug, and the fact that she made it a point to visit me everywhere I have ever lived--and that's a lot of places. She was also one of the nicest, most forgiving people I have ever known. She was very adventurous and had a wonderful sense of humor. I'm also learning to appreciate her patience in parenting five kids more and more as my three grow, as well as the fact that her financial prudence now makes it possible for me to take care of her affairs without going into debt. She was a great mom and a wonderful friend. I say "was" because my beautiful mother is gone and there is only a shell of a person in her place. That's one thing that makes these last years, months, or weeks (as the case may be) so very difficult.

Another is that, though I'm living in my hometown, I have little to no contact with any of my family members. I'll spare you the details, as I'm sure you understand dysfunction. That has been one of the most painful aspects of this chapter of my life. Lest you think I lament, I have not given up hope in God's ability to change people, and there is a silver lining here. You see, my husband recently had an epiphany. He said the pain and suffering that this chapter has caused me--losing my mother and finally letting my family go--has greatly changed who I am for the better. He feels I have transformed as a wife and mother and, the way he looks at it, God is using our current situation to bring about those changes. John has always had a great relationship with my mom, but has a new-found appreciation for the way God has chosen to use her life to bless his. He baptized her about four years ago because, as she put it, "I've been listening to you and watching what you do all these years, and I want to be a Christian." Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and we didn't have much time to grow with her in Christ, but John feels the transformation in my life is God's gift to him. Right now, I feel more beat up than transformed, but I am deeply moved by his perspective and once again awed by God's ability to work all things together for the good of those who love Him.

Recent developments had us thinking we would be handling Mom's affairs long distance, but God has graciously given us a local ministry for the time being and I hope to be here for her last day on this earth. The rest of my family has not made the decision to follow Christ that my mom made. They've chosen different paths, but I'm not going to beat them up. I get it. I was there when my dad went to prison, when my younger brother drowned, and when my oldest brother was admitted into the mental institution. I've seen what drugs, alcohol, and anger can do. I know pain and I know it's impossible to handle well without God, and I choose not to live that way any more. I also know what it's like to turn it all over to Him and gain a new family--one that will be together forever--and I choose that. Knowing my mother made that decision also and is part of my eternal family has made this, otherwise unbearable part of the journey, endurable.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

New Job - New Mission Field

We attended a staff meeting on Monday for that recreation center I told you about. The board of directors announced to the employees that John is now their executive director. That means quite a bit more busyness than we are used to for a time, but the fact that he's not the manager also means the potential to hire one in the near future to relieve some of the workload.

A sizable group of volunteers has come forth to offer their services and help us in the restructuring of The Gem. We are hopeful that God has big plans for this place in the realm of missions and ministry. The previous administration created a friendly and engaging environment for the public to enjoy. We hope to advance that effort while reorganizing the business model to streamline the programs and services. We value your input and especially your continued prayers.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hmmm, I Wonder Where This is Going?

In April we were close to wrapping up the first season of the kids' sports program we started called JAWS. We wanted to be proactive in planning for the fall season, so John and I discussed it and decided not to continue developing it this year. Though the kids loved it and we were being blessed through it, a solid income was not one of its perks. As we were in a season of prayer over whether to continue or put it on hold, John got a phone call from an old friend--more accurately, an old friend's son. His mother is the one who told us about Jesus eighteen years ago, and he called to tell John about a job opportunity at his church.

The congregation of about five hundred people was looking for a transformation minister. If you don't know what that is, you're not alone. They were aware of their need for transformation--as we all should be--and left it up to each candidate for the position to define the term according to his unique interpretation. Quite clever, don't you think? John threw his hat in the ring in April, and, over the course of about seven months, they narrowed down the search from fifteen candidates to three, one of which was my husband. I must admit, we went back and forth between wanting the position and wanting to believe we were destined for the foreign mission field yet again, so we prayed daily--and sometimes hourly--that God would make the decision for us. In the meantime, we visited the church and grew to love them and their passion for the spiritual transformation of their members and for the lost.

Days ago, John got another phone call, this time from an elder informing him that they gave the job to another candidate. It was deflating on one, obvious level but liberating on another. We took a day to process and debrief, then, feeling God had made it clear we were to raise funds to be full-time missionaries, we set our sights toward that end. When we heard through the grapevine that the position had been filled in a manner reminiscent of casting lots, we were even more affirmed. But we're not packing up just yet, because there is another phone call involved in this story.

Remember the recreation center where John has been working and where we launched JAWS? Well, they have been transitioning to new management, because the previous administration is moving on to other things. The phone call was from one of the owners wanting to talk to John about possibly taking on more responsibility--basically managing the facility. Moving your family overseas and managing a small town recreation center are two completely different animals, so it took a moment for us to switch gears and consider the offer. However, we have always been aware of the ministry potential at a place like this, so perhaps it's not really switching gears at all. We don't want to presume that our plans are God's plans, so we're listening for guidance on this one. We are in the middle of discussions with the leadership and we ask you to join us in this.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Double Family Reunion

If you've been following us for any time, you know we spent three years in southern Florida where God blessed us with six new Christians and a thriving house church. We took a road trip last month to visit after being gone for over a year. God has been faithful to work in and among them to raise up stronger marriages, healthier lifestyles, and deeper understanding of Scripture. The kids picked right up where they had left off and we felt like we were home. It was a beautiful time of fellowship and we were sad to say goodbye. 

John's family from Colorado flew down to meet us and we had a family reunion with them as well. After seventeen years of being part of this family, I can't remember what life was like without them. The boys never get enough of their cousins and I grow to love them all more and more each year. (Friends of ours can see those pictures on Facebook.)

"For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
Matthew 12:50