Tuesday, February 18, 2014

family vision, meetings, Q & A

fam meetings
Over the past several years we have started a tradition that will stay with our family. We have family meetings and intentionally share our lives with each other.  And I can truly say these times have been life giving for us, a place where we center, refocus and re-frame, remind each other of our purpose, and encourage each other in our journey.  Now before you think these are times that begin and end with everyone singing kumbaya in perfect harmony while holding hands let me be clear: we are no experts and honestly some many days this has felt like an uphill battle.  But here is why we do it: it is so worth the investment and we have seen God work in small and huge ways in these times.  I wanted to share some of what we do but not so that you can compare or feel bad (or feel better than us...easy too as we are anything but perfect) but so that if you want to have these special family times we can encourage each other in the trenches of real life when kids don't get along, when no one wants to listen, when you you are so irritated with your spouse the last thing you want to do is sit down and talk. I feel very vulnerable in opening up about this and our family because these times are intimate so please understand we share to encourage and love and have no judgement about how other families do life.  We just want to share how we do because over the last almost 13 years of being married I have realized that family is worth fighting for and that closeness and community does not just happen by accident or because of great intentions.  It is always a journey, one fought hard through the daily, difficult, and mundane because walking that road with intention is what ultimately leads to the extraordinary. 

This might be way more than you want to or need to know so please use what is helpful and ignore the rest.  We first started with a family mission statement.  When we did this our girls were very small so it was mostly Jason and I that came up with the mission.  It was a really important process for us too.  We found ourselves in Africa away from family, our culture, and everything "comfortable" and we realized that in the chaos we needed to make our home a centering place for us.  But I think this is true anywhere. This world demands a lot from us and our kids and our home needs to be a place where we can process it all, be known and loved, and feel secure.

We realized that we really had not discussed in specifics what we wanted for our family since we got married and wrote a marriage mission statement (and those youngin's had no idea what life with kids would really be like..let's be honest!)  It was years since we had taken the time to really pray and write down "how are we doing?" what do we want for our family? How do we keep God at the center of this all?"  It can be daunting starting from nothing so we used some of these questions to start our thinking on this:

* what 3 words do we want to be used to describe our family?
*how has God blessed and uniquely made our family?
*what makes us feel alive?
*what drains us as a family? what derails us?
*how can we serve each other and our community and world?
*what can we do better as a family?
*what are our top priorities as a family?
*what do we want for our family in 5 years? 10? 20? 50?
We also loved the resources here and here.

This took at least 3 "date nights" to discuss and was a lot of work.  Again, don't be discouraged! It is worth it! It was so awesome to see how we visioned our family and honestly made me love my husband even more as we sought these answers together and were both willing to compromise too for the sake of the whole.  It really was a great process. This also empowered us to say "no"to many 'good' things in favor of the 'best' things so we can keep our values as a family.  In a world where there is so much to do it can help you answer questions that arise.  This might sound bizarre but it helps our kids understand why we say 'no' to certain things and focus on other things.  For example because we value time together we make the decision that each child can only do one after school activity at this stage of life because we really want to protect our limited time.  The girls' have also asked for something new and we asked them if they really thought we needed that thing because we want to "live simply."  Because we desire for us all to be "thinkers and learners" we prioritize cultural events that allow us to learn from others in the world.  It has helped guide our decision making but as a family not just Mama or Papa saying 'no.'.  So even though it is saying "no" it is really saying "yes" top our priorities.  Here is what we came up with for our family vision and mission......

So there it is...not perfect, probably too verbose but ours.  It is framed in our dining room and we begin each meeting with our oldest; Annikah reading it and the rest of us repeating each line.  The girls have most of it memorized at this point! So fun! 

So after the mission statement we wanted to have a focused time to meet together and focus on developing these character traits and practice listening to and loving each other. To be honest family meetings started as a huge challenge! I think anything you do to build a strong foundation for your family will be met with challenge from the enemy.   I'm not trying to get crazy spiritual on you but seriously I think the people who can impact this world the most are those that know they are loved.  They can then reach out in that love to embrace others and anything you do to build that will be met with opposition.  Expect it! I wish someone would have told me that years ago because it seemed like every time we sat down to have a meeting I would get annoyed at Jason, the girls would be fighting, and honestly we would all rather be doing something else.  The temptation to just give up was strong but as any parent knows the first reaction to change is often resistance and if we stick to it we will see fruit. Over the past few years we have tweaked and added questions and the following are the current questions we ask each other every week:

1. What was the best part of your week? We practice listening to each other before sharing and sometimes if we think someone is only focused on what they will share we ask them questions about what someone else shared. We try to celebrate with them and ask more questions about why this time was "the best." And with small kids this can be particularly hilarious as they really have no sense of "the last week."  Seriously! Evy answered "horsey rides at camp" for at least 6 months after summer camp (note to self: GO to summer camp again).  But it is a time to celebrate together and encourage each other.  For example if Anni shared that the best time was getting her citizenship award we practiced saying congrats and telling her why we think she got it "I think you got that because you think of others so often" etc.  This takes time! Don't be discouraged if the kids seem to not know how to encourage each other.  This is a learned skill in our world of put downs and "hatin" we really try to help our kids learn to be genuinely happy for each other but to learn that they have to see it modeled.   
2. What was the hardest or most challenging part of your week? This is a time we can listen to each other and not necessarily "solve" the problems but learn to empathize with each other.  Sometimes the kids report that the hardest thing in the week was "not getting extra cookies" (major first world problems :) but sometimes they share something they are struggling with and we can talk through it.  It also helps Jason and I communicate about what has been hard for us and how we can help each other more.
3. Can anyone here help you in anything going on? We give everyone an opportunity to think of ways they can bless other people by helping in practical ways.  I love that this creates a sense that if one of us has a problem we can all help; from praying to doing something to impact another person. We also can ask for help if we need to and give each other a chance to respond. This lets us build team work! 
4. Do I need forgiveness or reconciliation from anyone here?
This one has really been important for us because this time is about asking for forgiveness not demanding it from someone else.  It is about examining your own heart and seeing if you need to say sorry.  We realized that often our kids saw us argue or speak harshly to each other in a stressful moment of the day and they never saw us make up and forgive each other (although we would resolve it after they went to bed or when we were alone).  We want them to see healthy conflict resolution and know that we make mistakes, we sin against each other but we can make it right too!  We want them to know failure is not defeat.  We started asking forgiveness of each other (when appropriate obviously) in front of them and it has made a huge difference!  They are more able to ask each other and others for forgiveness because we often reinforce that strong people (not weak) are able to say "I'm sorry."  
5. What is going on in God's world right now? We talk about a country or people or world news event and then pray.  We have used books in the past, internet news stories, videos, and really anything that is relevant.  Sometimes this is a hard time as we talk through difficult stuff happening in age appropriate ways (for example the collapse of the building in Bangladesh, the school shooting in America,etc) and sometimes we talk about exciting things (for example the Olympics and building of schools in Africa).  It is important to us that our kids know the world is a difficult place but that we can go to God for everything and that prayer makes a difference.  It is important to us that our kids see themselves as global citizens in a world that while broken is also a beautiful place where God is building His kingdom.  Some great ideas to impact the world have come out of this time.  It really goes a long way in teaching kids to be more empathetic and aware of the amazing world around us.  
6. What is God teaching me right now? Sometimes this is a hard one but we try to think of what our circumstances, people in our life, God's word, and the Spirit is teaching us. Sometimes we have also used this time to pause and have a few minutes of silent prayer and medication to think about what He wants to teach us and then we share (obviously depends on the ages of kids but even small kids are capable of listening to and hearing from God!!)
7. What will I do this week to love God and love people more? Sometimes this is based on the previous question or #5 but many times it is just a simple, "I will not fight for toys" or "I will let other kids play on the swing longer" or "I will give my money to World Relief to help refugees."  It is an opportunity to say out loud something we want to try to do in response to God's word and the blessings in our lives. They get to see us modeling this and my kids have inspired me many times to love people more through this time!
8. Is there anything anyone wants to share with our family? This time is just for the kids or us to share about anything that was not covered in other areas.  We can bring up any big changes or issues going on in our family. Last week Anni said she wanted to share the things in her Africa keepsake box and why they were special to her and we all loved remembering the amazing times we had there. This time can also be for any "family business" or things written on the board we need to discuss. 

None of these questions are magical or brilliant but they do help us really share and almost every time we have family meeting someone (and sometimes all of us) tear up.  I think it is because connecting and really hearing each other out is easy to never do and taking the time to do it makes me realize how blessed I am and how amazing my kids and husband are and who doesn't need those reminders when the laundry piles up, the kids are fighting, and you are exhausted?  We crafted these questions based on a spiritual community building model we were introduced to overseas that can be relevant in just about any social context. We have a little journal book (pictured above) that we write all the answers down in each week and it is so amazing to look back at the meetings of past years and see how clearly God has provided and been faithful to us.  It is also a great place to record the hilarious things kids say (and they WILL say some crazy awesome stuff).  During discussion we often pause to look up a story, research something on the internet, read a passage of scripture, etc.  We just go with the flow.  We also usually have some special treat we enjoy together during meetings which also serves as an incentive bribe to listen and participate. I asked if you all had any questions and want to take time to answer them: 
  • What do you discuss? How often do you have them? What do you require as far as participation form Evy? We discuss anything and everything! We always tell our kids they can tell us anything and that we have family meetings because we want to always get to know each other better so we can love each better.  We originally tried to have them once a week but it was too much so we aim for bi-weekly but if we are going through a lot of changes we try to have them more often just to check in.  For Evy (who is 4) we want her to fully participate but also understand age appropriate behavior (sometimes she is sharing while hanging backwards off the couch).  She did go through a period where she had a nasty attitude,  "i hate family meeting humph!" and we just gently (tried) to remind her by saying "we love you and want you to be a part of this." It was really hard, no lie, but as we stuck with it she now loves it!  We also stop and "reset" (everyone take a 5 minute break or pray) whenever there is crazy disruption and I'll say it again if you start these THERE WILL BE.  The enemy hates families to be close and practice loving each other.  Fight the good fight Mama! It gets better I promise (and then it gets harder again) but I can say after doing these for a few years now it is always worth it! 
  • Do you address/acknowledge eye rolling? Do you set an agenda? We do deal with eye rolling or disrespectful behavior because you cannot listen to someone else if you are rolling your eyes or doing somersaults (not that that has happened except that it totally has).  But we really try not to freak out and make it a battle.   This is also where having a fun treat comes in handy.  I'm all for a little "incentive" as needed for the younger set (heck for flourless chocolate cake I'll listen too!). If you make it worthwhile your kids will want to do it!  We are not super strict in demanding the kids sit completely still but it is the overall attitude of their hearts that matters.  We treat them with respect when they share and we expect the same from them. We don't set an agenda for each time and honestly I am such a procrastinator that even the thought makes me shutter in fear!  As mentioned, we have a chalkboard under our framed mission statement in our dining room and if the kids want to discuss anything at the meeting they write it on the chalkboard that week so we won't forget to bring it up during our time (recent examples include: 'can we have a pet?' and 'go to the beach' (this one cracked me up as it polar vortex up in here right now).  I'm sure some much more well organized mamas do agendas and they are rockstars but I know that would make me crazy! We do write everything down in our family journal though and sometimes go back and look at what we discussed earlier (this is really awesome as last year when we encountered some difficulty in trusting what was next for us Annikah brought up a meeting where we prayed for a place to live as we were leaving Africa and she exclaimed "God answered that so quickly!!" Yeah, I wanted to cry)   
  • Is there a time limit? Are they scheduled or as needed? I recall Anni's request to be baptized as the subject of a meeting. Do you have a suggestion board? Or a need to get off my chest type of board?  We usually do them every other Sunday afternoon and have had to make time in saying no to a lot of weekend stuff in order to make sure we have the space for them.  Sometimes they take 30 minutes and sometimes we have talked for well over an hour.  It just depends on the kids and what we are discussing.  Yes, Anni did request to be baptized through our suggestion board and you can read more about it here. The board helps me make sure if they have something important (or even just silly or little) we honor them and discuss it later. The key is you need to make this a priority and that means making time.  Even if you have weekly activities that you feel are very important, it's worth evaluating the health of your family and what is the most valuable way you can spend time together. For us that has meant skipping a party or church once in a while so we could have family meeting.    
Thanks for everyone that asked questions! I hope I answered them in helpful ways and please contact me if you want to have coffee and chat more.  I really pray that this will be empowering and encouraging and not make anyone feel like they are not doing enough.  Believe me we mamas need a whole lot less of that! And I promise you I struggle with so much.   I guess that is why I wanted to share this because we really have seen such awesome things for our family through this simple process and we pray we will for years to come, even when teenagers sit around the table and roll their eyes at us, we know this fight for our family is worth every moment.  
Please let me know if this is helpful and if you have any questions or comments.  Do you have a family vision? What do you do for family time? How do you stay connected? Please share because we Mamas are all in this together. Two Swahili proverbs come to mind: 
Penzi la Mama tamu, haliishi hamu (a mother's love is sweet, you can never have enough) and 
Dua ya Mama ni baraka kwa mtoto (a mother's prayer is a blessing to her child)
I pray our family meetings and time together are small ways that communicate that my children are treasured by us and their Creator and that they know we pray together and for them because we all need more of God's love and grace manifest in our lives. This role of Mama is the important work of helping our kids live this life to it's fullest. Peace to you on your journey,  

Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentine's Day celebration

IMG_0210 The girls and I joined in to help with a party at a local senior center this past weekend. It was such a blessing to see the young kids helping by setting up, doing a talent show, serving food, and dancing with the seniors. The girls did a hip hop dance to one of their favorite Toby Mac songs "Unstoppable" and I was admittedly beaming because they really went for it (even though they were nervous) and got many cheers from the folks there. We enjoyed lunch, a talent show, jig saw puzzle competition, and the party ended with a hula lesson and dancing.  I was hopping around to capture images of the day and loved hearing so many different languages and meeting folks that truly blessed me and the girls.
The day started with visiting some folks that could not make it down to the party and I thought one of our names was very apropos.
 IMG_0324 IMG_0478 IMG_0362
gotta love the cheetoh hands
passing out the home made valentines
the dance party was pretty fabulous
this one...
And thanks to Del grabbing my camera for a second.....proof I was actually there...
You can see more portraits of the amazing folks there here.

Every time we "volunteer" our time I am consistently amazed at how God blesses US.  This day was one of those days for sure. Happy Valentine's Day to you and wishing you God's love and blessings every day.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


This winter. What can I say? Since my mother taught me to remain silent if you have nothing nice to share I think I will say notta. It has been rough to say the least... what with polar vortex nonsense and FEET of snow. We did make a 'winter fun checklist' with the girls and in an attempt to honor that even when us parental units are not feeling the winter love we had to go sledding last week when it snowed yet again. We took Evy's bestie from school and her Mom since they are from India and have never been before! I must say it was a blast!!! Photographic evidence.

first timers

Seriously. Most adorable snow bunny ever.
And  a ridiculous iphone video:

We had a great time but admittedly spent as much time getting dressed for sledding as we did actually sledding! And I agree with Miss Evy's sentiments when she said "now that we went sledding can winter be over Mama?" We can only hope and wait dear one.
Stay warm friends,

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I'm not a big resolution gal. Mostly because I have little no self control but also because I think too often resolutions add to a sickness I already struggle with; namely the sin of self reliance.  As if I muster enough strength I can make sweeping changes and better myself.  I know better.  Pursuing goals in my own strength formulated in my own selfishness will come to nothing. I'm about a month too late but I do love that January (and being stuck inside due to polar vortex nonsense) means plenty of time to think and taking a look at life right now. If I was going to write a list the following would make the short list: lose the baby weight (although that is not happening with my current latte-a-day coping strategy), finally unpack and declutter the rest of the stuff in storage (yes, we still have junk left untouched since our Africa days), complete a triathlon, less TV and more quiet, prayer, reading, spend more purposeful time with the kids (versus surviving some days and being distracted), improve my photography skills, decrease my busyness and increase my investment in people, be more organized and less last minute.  It is easy for me to think of all the things I want to be different this year but if I am honest some of these come from horizontal influences; comparison, jealously, and vanity. I don't think it is bad to recalibrate life and make adjustments but I want to make sure I am visioning and dreaming keeping the knowledge that my life is not my own at the center.  This means living in a difficult and constant tension because I want to lay my life down and never waste it.  Nothing matters much if I am not following where God leads. As I sat and listened to an amazing speaker at Perspectives this week I was reminded that all I really want is to be where and doing what God asks of me.  But this ONE thing is also incredibly difficult in the age of constant input, busyness, and so much competing for my loyalty.  So in praying and thinking through 2014 some of the above will probably stay as priorities but I pray those things that are from Him stick and those things not meant for my good and His kingdom would fall away and that I would have the courage to not hold on when I need to let go. I know for sure I want to experience more of Jesus, live more full of gratefulness in every moment, and, I pray, bless others. The biggest challenge for me is living not in the past or the future but in the right now.  And believing the promise that His kingdom is breaking into every area of my life and this world He loves.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

India & IGVP

I am so excited to have an amazing opportunity to travel to India with some folks from the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers in March.  Leaving my babies and hubby will be hard but I also think I need this time and I'm so grateful to Bibis who are coming to help and J who is so supportive and really sacrificing to enable me to go!  Many of you have asked about this trip and I thought I would post this video that beautifully explains what IGVP is all about.

Since starting to study images and pursue photography I am really passionate about creating images that speak to people about time, place, and people.  Capturing images makes me appreciate even more the beauty of all of God's creation.  But simply documenting is not enough.  I want to stay sensitive to what is different, even to what is unjust, but to not allow that to become the only story my images tell.  Living in another culture made me realize how easy it is to tell one story of a people and I so badly wanted people to see the beauty and pain intermingled in the culture of Zanzibar (and everywhere).  People and cultures are complex but at the core we are all similar, people created in God's image searching for meaning and feeling our way through this life.

One of the cofounders of IGVP; Mario Mattei shared what a visual peacemaker is in saying, "They do not stop at wishing they could make a difference. They pick up their cameras and take action. Amidst shocking news and images that fuel mistrust and misunderstanding, Visual Peacemakers seek to illuminate beauty and hope through visual media that speaks of our common humanity." I am now a IGVP member and you can see my photo stories and galleries here.

I feel so blessed to get to travel to such a beautiful place with talented photographers and attempt to create images that fit in this vision of sharing our common humanity.  Watch Hawa Images for more coming soon and thank you to everyone who is supporting and encouraging me to pursue this passion.
EEK! India y'all!!!

Monday, February 3, 2014

celebrating the year of the year of the horse in Chinatown

The girls and I and a friend and her daughter hopped on the red line and headed down to Chinatown yesterday to celebrate Chinese New Year. It was cold but sunny and we had a blast.  Seriously one of the best days in Chicago I've had in a while (maybe cuz we have been hold up inside surviving this polar vortex nonsense). We arrived a few minutes after the start of the parade but we quickly and stealthily squeezed through the crowd and got some spots near the Chinese gate. I just loved the bold, bright colors after the grays of this winter.  It was crowded, chaotic, and full of vibrant life.  Just what I love!!
The parade was cool but by far the highlight of the day was when we went into a small bakery for some rice, soup, and cake and just to warm up.  While we ate were heard drumming and pretty soon the dancers and dragons came INTO our restaurant.  The girls were squealing (umm, me too) because it was pretty awesome. They got to touch the costumes and see them up close.  They were speaking in Chinese so we missed most of what they said but they did translate blessings for health this year. My favorite part was watching the kids take it all in.  I love that this experience was a short train ride away and that we are blessed with friends who are egaer to explore the city with us.
"look they are coming!"
IN the restaurant.  Note: there was screams of glee.
The excitement did not end in Chinatown! We took the El home and all piled into our van that we parked near the red line stop only to discover the car would not move AT ALL (note to self THAT is why you got such a good parking spot). Under our car was solid ice and snow!! When I tried to go forward or reverse there was only the smell of burning rubber.  The kids were delighted with the situation since it meant general merriment making and fujo in the van while we adults tried to dig us out.  Soon strangers passing by stopped to help.  People pushed our car, went to their apartments and brought back shovels and kitty litter (thanks Allstate commercial), and dug us out.  What could have been a stressful situation actually become fun! Fellow long suffering Chicagoans helped us until we were out of the spot and drove away to cheers. We thanked everyone and blessed them for helping us and I must say a love for fellow urban dwellers grew.  In a city that can often feel huge and isolating this was a small town moment when everyone took their time to bless us.  It was actually a fabulous end to a great day!  This winter is pretty horrible but days like this remind me why I love Chicago so much. Friends, food, culture, and kind strangers.  This is my kind of town (April-November mostly). You can check out more on hawa images here. And happy year of the horse,