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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Crossed Wires?

I left you in June with the question of whether we were being called to Africa. The answer at this point is that we're still not sure, but some other answers have come to light. For instance, our friends--the ones that prayed and fasted with us over our next mission field assignment--heard the Africa call loud and clear and took it as their own. He is a physician's assistant and she has always dreamed of being a missionary to Africa. They have already been there and back. Here's what they did:

And here's what we did while they were gone:

Did I mention they have five kids? After spending twelve days with this clan we decided we would like to keep them. Secretly--or not so secretly since I'm posting this on the internet--I hope we go with them. I love this family, and our kids are the best of friends. We just aren't sure the call is for us.

We recently met with a wonderful couple from the States who have lived in Malawi for many years. They were very insightful and offered us a lot to think and pray about. I will tell you that they do need workers there, so if you feel a tug in that direction, get in touch so I can fill  you in on the details. I also ask you to join us in prayer over whether we are being called or if our wires got crossed with our friends' as we all prayed together. I will keep you up to date on the details as God reveals them.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Is It a Call?

We came to Texas to care for my mother who has Alzheimer's. As the situation has become less of a transition and more a way of life (my mother is in a nursing home, receiving around-the-clock care, as her condition has advanced rapidly), John and I have asked God for an update on our status--in other words, are we still right where He wants us? (If you've ever asked this of God, you know to be prepared for change. He's not a cobwebs-on-the-Samsonite kind of God.) We have been amazed at how well He's orchestrated our travels from Natal to Texas via Florida just in time to be here when Mom needed us. But we've been wondering lately if this is still God's best use of our family. We are burdened by the fact that we have one lifetime to make the biggest impact possible on this earth and have been struggling to find the time necessary to evangelize and disciple--something we are both drawn to--and make a living at the same time. So, we began a prayer and fasting campaign, asking God if He might want to take us back to Brazil. We spent almost five years doing mission work there and had two of our children during that time. It's our home away from home.

Halfway through the fast it occurred to us to remove the parameters of "Brazil" we had placed on our request and to instead open it up to wherever God could "best use our family". That prayer seemed more of a necessary factor in the process of elimination than an honest appeal, because we assumed if we were to ever go back to a mission field it would be to Brazil. And, we had talked a lot about working with orphans or doing some other kind of humanitarian work in conjunction with sharing the gospel the next time around. On the last day of our fast, a friend of ours who's a medical professional told us about an African man who came to his clinic that day to get a physical before going overseas to his homeland for a short-term mission trip. During the checkup, the African shared with our friend the great need for humanitarian workers and missionaries in Africa, specifically Malawi.   

Though we had to admit God might be speaking to us, we were a bit surprised and none too happy that it wasn't about Brazil. To put it plainly, Africa represented an inconvenience at this point. We know Brazil, we don't know Africa. We looked into Malawi--where it is and what it's like--only to discover that it's almost surrounded by Mozambique, a country that speaks Portuguese. Interesting. We also remembered that we met missionaries from there at a conference back in November of 2007. We contacted them and found that they agree Malawi does need more workers. (This may seem like a no brainer but we have found that it's not always the case. In 2006 we considered moving to a city in Brazil that we expected would welcome the help. They did not, and we learned a valuable lesson--not every established mission point needs or wants more missionaries.) But need doesn't, in and of itself, constitute a calling so we asked God for clarification. 

John and I arranged for child care and went to a local organization to talk with some seasoned evangelists who have dedicated themselves to equipping would-be missionaries and their sponsors for effective ministry together. We sat and chatted with the very pleasant man who has spent the better part of his life serving in Africa and now heads up the Africa branch of that organization. He told us about a young family who recently moved to Malawi--that they've been praying for help on the field. We were intrigued. But the answer to someone's prayer doesn't, in and of itself, constitute a calling so we asked God for more clarification. 

We were affirmed during a recent visit to a church we chose for convenience of schedule. The preacher quoted James 1:27, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Having read that many times over, it was the first time anyone had pointed out that the "and" (that I have put in italics) is not part of the original Greek text. That changes the meaning a great deal and, as John noted, was a word from God for our situation. It answers how to remain unstained by the world and, at the same time, scratches our itch to work on a more tangible level, addressing the world's ever-increasing humanitarian need. We were convicted. But a well-crafted, poignant sermon doesn't, in and of itself, constitute a calling so, again, we asked God for clarification.

I'll spare you the details of every dream and coincidence (that we think are more than simply dreams and coincidences, by-the-way.) I wonder, based on what I have shared so far, what you think. Are we being called to Africa?

For now we visit with my mom regularly and mourn her loss as she gradually slips away. We facilitate Bible studies when we find people who are interested. The kids' sports program we started in the spring just came to a close and Samantha is studying the Bible with two of the moms from that. John is working at the local community center which is a modest paycheck but a great ministry potential. I home school the kids and together we manage my mom's estate. It's a lot to do and we stay busy, all the while, waiting for a little more clarification.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

JAWS End of Season

We started the Jewell Athletic WorkShop (JAWS) in January, but the idea was around for some time before that. The homeschool sports program in Florida that the kids participated in, and for which John worked part time for two years, inspired JAWS. After moving to Texas and realizing the hole it left in our family to leave that part of our routine behind, we sought to reproduce the experience on a small scale in our area. Not only did we see it as a great opportunity for recreation and friendship building, but we also believed it had the potential to be a perfect outreach ministry--something that is a consideration in most of our undertakings. We made T-shirts, invested in basic sports equipment, and printed flyers welcoming the community at large--not just the homeschoolers. The local community center allowed us to put up a sign and use their property for the kickoff session.

We charged the minimum to cover our expenses if a certain number of families registered. Just enough families signed up but even the small amount we charged (just $5 an hour, or less for more kids in the same family) was too much for some of them, so we raised several scholarships by word of mouth. We had enough of a turnout that we needed help coaching, so we hired a few like-minded individuals who were willing to work for peanuts to help get JAWS off the ground. In the end, we broke even financially. But there is much more to the first semester of JAWS than a financial report.

Because we quickly outgrew the community center within the first few weeks, we moved to the public park. An elderly man who was there every weekend was especially glad to meet us. His granddaughter lived with him most of the time because, as he puts it, "her parents are always fighting." I helped him fill out the registration form because he doesn't read or write. Even though JAWS is a three-hour, drop-off program, he stayed the whole time and helped out by carrying equipment and being available for odd jobs. Another mom told us her daughter with Down's Syndrome has no other opportunities for structured group play that are affordable or within driving distance. The kids were very encouraging and helpful to her, an attitude we stress above competition. Though we had a couple families sneer at the idea of sportsmanship and community above competition and winning, the motto on our sign "Like Sports, Love Kids" was widely embraced. It was a place for the kids who fall somewhere between athlete and special olympics. Although we did have some of each.

Our last session for this school year was in May. We wrapped it up with a barbecue at the park.

I can't say JAWS was wildly successful in terms of popularity or profit, but the kids and parents who were involved on a weekly basis would, I think, defend its success in other terms. Some moms had a little time to themselves while others were happy to see their children make some friends. There were kids who needed a positive male role model and a few who just needed the exercise. John and I are thankful that our kids had sports and playtime with their peers each week and that we had several opportunities to present the gospel and minister to families in general. I have a Bible study going right now with two of the moms from JAWS.

I don't know if we'll start JAWS up in the fall. I suppose if there's enough interest we will. As it stands now, we consider it a blessing that we will never forget. We are thankful to those of you who donated your time and resources in coaching, scholarships, equipment, moral support and prayers. Most of all, thank you to those of you who entrusted your children to our care.

"My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here." 
Jim Henson
American Puppeteer

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Easter Camping

We camped with some friends for Easter this year. More specifically, we went to Yogi Bear's Jellystone campground. 

The last time John and I camped was before we had kids. We didn't have any gear so we bought a tent and borrowed everything else. Our friends really knew what they were doing. They set up this condo:

While we popped this little number up across the tracks:

It's probably a great tent if you don't put it in a low spot just before a major storm. (Yes, we did that and it filled with water and collapsed on us.)

There was fishing,


campfire fun,

and even relays.

But this may have been the all time favorite among the kids.

Oh sure, Ben looks a bit concerned, but with good reason. Safety didn't seem to be the driver's top priority.

Here's the only proof that I was there:

And the best proof that the kids had a great time:

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the egg hunt. It was Easter, after all. Between the egg hunt that the campground hosted and the one we did the next morning, there was plenty of ooey gooey goodness to go around.

The best part of the weekend was the blessing of spending Easter among spiritual family--enjoying God's creation and our friendship together. How wonderful it is to have children who understand that Easter is truly about the gift God has given us in His Son's sacrifice!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Gardening Class

Spring is here and I wanted to, not only take advantage of the nice weather and longer days, but also help others to do the same, so I held a gardening class at the local community center. John and I picked up the materials for a raised bed and I talked this group of women through the whole process of building and planting a square foot garden. 
They truly did almost all of the work and it turned out beautifully.
It was a lot of fun and beautified the property at the same time. There was talk of getting together again to build some more raised beds, among other projects, and to turn this into a garden club. I would like that because dirt makes me happy. This nice lady agrees.

Let me know if you're local and want to participate.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Ben's Fourth Birthday

We thought long and hard about how to celebrate Ben's birthday. Then we asked him what he wanted to do and he made it easy. He just wanted to play with the JAWS kids.  
So that's what he did.

Of course, it's always great when the siblings have as much fun as the birthday boy. Here's Andy with one of his new friends after I asked them to pause for a picture:
And Jonah with his new friend (they weren't quite as chummy for the photo shoot):

Ben got some great presents, and the "chicken candy machine" was his favorite.
The other thing Ben said he wanted was a watermelon and spiky hair. He got both.
When your dad runs a sports program, this is your party hat:
 And then there were hot dogs and cupcakes.

Ben was about as exhausted as I've ever seen him on the way home. He said, "I really had a great time and I like all my presents." Then he was out. 

Happy birthday, my little firecracker!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lizards, Lizards Everywhere!

Last December Jonah got two bearded dragon lizards for Christmas. When we moved to Texas, we had them shipped to meet us when we arrived. They've been very good pets for over a year now so we decided to see if we could make more and share the joy. Well, it worked and we've been watching eggs hatch all week long. Who knew one female lizard could lay over 50 eggs? And what a great homeschool science project!
They're very small.

 And quite pretty.

 We have high hopes for all of them because their father is very smart.

By-the-way, if you're interested in buying one, please let us know. I'll be posting an ad on Craigslist soon. As much as we would like to, we simply can't keep them all. Like I said, we want to share the joy.