Sunday, March 4, 2018

Experimenting with Mardi Gras

And now, a break from the Should Be's for a bit of Lenten humor.  Joke's on us. 

We aren't doing a traditional Lent this year.  Seth was going to give up alcohol, and I resolved to journal more.  So far, general success. 

But then Seth's gym announced that they were going to sponsor a Whole 30 support group during the month of March in an effort to encourage healthy eating, and we signed up.  For those of you not familiar with Whole 30, it takes all the grains, sugars, legumes, dairy products, and preservatives out of your diet for 30 days (no cheating).  More meat and vegetables, clarified butter (whatever that is), nuts, coconuts, olives (ew!).  It's going to be an adventure. 

So over the past week, we've been having a mini-carnival of sorts to clear out our kitchen.  We are not big into sugars, but we love our dairy products.  We also had a fair amount of grains in the snack cupboard (but only the best kinds of grains, you understand).  And sugar hides in the strangest places.  And it all had to go, either into a big bag which is going to get buried in the storage room downstairs or into a giveaway box or into the garbage can. 

Now I didn't live through the Great Depression, but I was raised by people who appreciate the value of a dollar.  I don't throw food away.  Doesn't happen.  So I looked at the bread in the cupboard and the big bag of chocolate chips above the stove and the coffee creamer in the fridge, and I thought, "These are all open.  We can't give them away.  We've got to eat them."  From there, this attitude kicked in where we realized that there were going to be a whole bunch of things that we can't have for a month -- pizza, pancakes, lattes, french toast.  In addition to that, today is Boogaloo's 10th birthday, so I made her the most decadent chocolate peanut butter cake I could to use up our sugar supplies (didn't succeed).  I daresay these last three days have been the least healthy food-wise of the entire year.  And I don't feel so good. 

In fact, I think I'm going to be sick.  Literally.  This isn't healthy. 

Usually, we are pretty conscientious about how we eat.  A salad every night and the leftovers in our smoothie for breakfast.  Fruits and veggies are our biggest expenditure.  We eat pretty simply.  We don't usually go out of our way to find sugar or grease, but this weekend, for some reason, we did.  Before this weekend, I was pretty confident that our transition into a whole foods diet wouldn't be that hard because we wouldn't have a lot to purge from our systems.  After this weekend, however, I am not so sure.  I think the mental consciousness that we are giving up something is as hard to fight against as the actual desire for the thing itself. 

This is funny to me because we are Calvinists, and Calvinists are the people who were ridiculed for having "Lent all year round."  We don't do Mardis Gras.  The wildness of carnival isn't part of our system.  But just because we don't  indulge religiously doesn't mean we aren't human. 

Funny how hard it is to give things up.  I'll post later on this month about how Whole 30 is going.  #notexactlylent 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Curse of the Should Be's, Pt. 2

Apologies.  I said last time that I meant to write a series.  Then we promptly lost access to half our Internet.  Long story.  I've also been moved into nearly full time at the school where I've been subbing.  I'd like to ask prayers for the V. family as they wait for B.V.'s full recovery.  The long wait is what's keeping me in work right now.  But without further ado, let me pick up where I left off. 

"Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth. . . . You cannot serve both God and money. . . So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own."  

 I once was startled by the following comment at a table in a teacher's lounge: "The feminists lied to us.  You can't be a perfect teacher and a perfect mother, not in the same day."  This was spoken by a woman who was devoted to her kids and ardent in her work.  She was also exhausted and made no bones about it.  She had come to the realization that something had to give.  She couldn't live up to all the expectations.  I think many people are coming to that understanding, and I'm glad of it.  

Expectations, which I have called should be's,  have been on my mind because I wrestle with a lot of them.   You see, I have this nebulous idea of personal perfection.  It comes from the headlines of women's magazines and television commercials.  Sometimes it comes from what I see in other people's houses when I visit.  Facebook has something to do with it.  I studiously avoid Pinterest for the very reason that I don't really need any more input in this area. 

There are too many ways to be personally perfect.  I should have more variety in my wardrobe.  I should have more variety on the dinner table.  I should be planning more, writing more, reading more.  I should be on Facebook less.  I should be reading new books.  I should be reading old textbooks.  I should be looking for full time work.  My furniture should match.  My Christmas should include a certain number of treats, activities, crafts, and presents.  My new year should have a certain number of improvements.  It's a picture of some ether-world impossible good life, and in my right mind, I recognize that I don't need half these things to be happy, let alone to be good.  Still I want them, to be among the perfect ones, the people who don't have any should be's. 

J.K.A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, describes the penchant of people to absorb an idea of the “good life.”   I haven’t found his book back yet after the move, but the general idea is that society creates ideas of what life would look like if it were perfect and publish the steps that the individual needs to take to achieve or at least come closer to basking in that happiness.  Then these idealists of the good life invite you to join the communities of people working to reach it by dangling the vision in front of you through advertising or HG television or whatever means are appropriate.  If you've ever walked past a store in the mall or watched a commercial, ever, then you know the pitch -- be sexy, be professional, be prepared, secure, spiritual, confident, exciting, entertaining, tasty, exotic.  You know, the good life.   

The first problem with "the good life" is that it's impossible to achieve.  You might pull off an element or two.  That's no problem.  But like that magazine photo that just showed up in your mailbox, this picture has been airbrushed by interested parties like advertisers and our own imaginations. The limits on our energy, the time in the day, the number of our commitments, the fact that the people who create these things do so for a living whereas the rest of us try to fit them in at the side, all of these facts are against us.   Think of all the should be’s that apply to our lives.  What we should be, what our homes should be, what our bodies should look like, what our closets should look like, what our kids should be, how we should be doing or approaching our jobs, how we should be interacting with our communities.  You can probably add a few that are personal to you.  Can anyone live up to all of them?  I guarantee you that no one is.

When Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he was well aware of the influence of "the good life" utopia on his followers.  Moreover, just as our Lord cautions us, we tend to run after all these things. The pursuit of holiness or its secular equivalents, is an active human pursuit.  "Upward mobility" has always been a human tendency.  Rowan Williams, the current archbishop of Canterbury, addresses the pursuit of holiness in his book, Being Disciples.  He points out that the more we focus on being holy (or sexy or proficient or domestic, I might add) instead of focusing on being happy with God or happy with ourselves, the less likely we are to achieve what we’re aiming at.  But we do it just the same.

Which is precisely why Jesus/God tells us "Do not worry."  Not you shouldn't worry.  Just don't.  I've noticed something about the Bible.  When God tells us not to do something, it's because we do it.    Imagine what life would be like if we could throw off all these things that hinder and just move forward toward greater grace and godliness.  That would require a lot of faith.  

Friday, December 29, 2017

Curse of the Should Be's, pt. 1

The words should be have been on my mind a lot of late.   They are a potent pair of words.  You can have a could or a would to express possibility, but the word should has consequences.   If the word should is in play, then there is a right answer and a wrong answer.  If what should happen doesn't happen, then there needs to be a reason why.   For example, if my table is messy after breakfast, I should wipe it off.  Why? Because if  the table stays sticky, I can't use it as my writing surface, and that would be a tragedy.  So if I don't wipe off my table, I should really have a good reason.  For instance, being about to miss the bus. 

But not all should be's are natural should be's.  And not all consequences are natural consequences, and some have no consequences at all.  A moral imperative, or at least what feels like a moral imperative attached to a should be, can come from a lot of different places: upbringing, education, media habits, personal preconceptions, a mood swing, or a random headline that you saw at the cash register last Saturday.  It's my personal opinion that we attach should be  feelings to could be facts and circumstances, and it ends up making us unhappy. 

For example, a couple of weeks ago, the temperature here in Michigan dropped into single digits for the first time this winter, and I still had to take Boogaloo to school.   I was cold when I was all bundled up -- thermal underwear, blue jeans, snow pants, parka, two pairs of socks, the whole kit and kaboodle.  The car didn't get warm.  There was snow falling when the radio said it was too cold to snow.  I had to drive on ice.  And I was cold when I got home.  In spite of the fact that I had a sweater, a cup of tea, and a thermostat set at 72, I was still cold.  I had a snit fit that day because that's just not the way it should have been.

 I can hear some of you now . . . "Woohoo, single digits.  We've been in the negatives for over a month now." 

Well, I hadn't.  For the last eleven years, I'd been in Western Washington and Oregon where the rain and the damp creep in at your bones, but the temperature never falls below 16 degrees, and three inches of snow earns you an automatic snow day because there are only two snowplows in the county.  And that's kind of the point.  The source of my indignation, my disappointment, was that I had not adjusted to my new environs.  I didn't have a reasonable set of expectations for the place that I now live.   I actually made myself unhappy because I couldn't figure out something that was completely natural.  I sat at my table with my tea cup and pouted a bit, let myself think nostalgically of Oregon winters, and wondered what on earth I was doing here.  Because I was chilly, the radio weatherman was a little off, and I had to drive my daughter to school on the snow.

Now this is an extreme example.  Tiny stimulus; big response.  But it's also a basic human predisposition, and a dangerous one.  What was the source of my should be?  Limited personal experience and a predisposition to be dogmatic about it.  In this case, a lack of a sense of adventure.   What are the sources of our should be's, and what are their consequences? 
Let me throw out some examples that have been bouncing around my own consciousness in the last few months.  I do so in the complete confidence that all of you will identify with at least one of them.
  • I should be able to come home from work to a clean house.  
  • Moreover, I should be able to relax after dinner , and everything that needs to get done should be done.  
  • I should be able to find salmon more cheaply at the grocery store. 
  • I should be recognized for what I do for this family.
  • I should be warmer. 
  • I should be outside more.
  • I should be done with acne.  
  • I should be over the effects of that accident.
  • I should be more attentive.
  • I should be more active. 
  • It should be easier to be active.  
  • My house should be cleaner.  
  • Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera
Now there are, of course, various responses to these kind of shoulds.  They range from sympathy to "Quit whining" to "Get up and do something about it."  But should be's exist in all kinds of places and affect our ability to be happy in all sorts of ways.  Establishing should be's about other individuals, groups of people, and states of the nation can affect our closest relationships, our racial tendencies, our politics, and our global understandings.   And closer to home our notions of should be  relating to our own lives can have a serious effect on our ability to be content.

Over the next couple of months, while it's cold and snowy outside, I'm going to use my blog to consider the different kinds of should be's, how we respond to them, and how we should respond to them.  There are legitimate should be's as well as illegitmate, and some should be's are stronger than others.  I anticipate at least four more posts on the subject.  Next up: personal should be's, where they come from, and how we should respond. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Atsma Christmas Letter 2017

Every year, I get out the Christmas cards, the stamps, and the envelopes and end up leaving them on a corner of the dining room table until the thought of mailing out those seasonal greetings is just a little ridiculous.  How much time do we have until Christmas?  A week and a half?  At this point, you might all get our cards at Epiphany.   However, we do think of you all, miss you, and read your Facebook updates and Christmas cards eagerly.  

We are all snugly battened down here in Grand Rapids.  The last week has thrown seven different types of snow at us: lake effect snow, light snow, "a break from the snow" in which snow is nevertheless falling, winter storm snow, pellet snow, snow misting, and that lovely snow I like to call snow-globe snow.  In spite of all the dire warnings about winter driving, we seem to be handling it all well as we look forward to Christmas.  I am discovering why we in North America insist on portraying Christmas with snow and icicles, even in places like California.  A frosty, snow-covered view really does create a sense of expectation and wonder.  

This month marks the end of our first semester here at Calvin Theological Seminary.   In July we sold our house, drove across the western half of the country, bought a house here and settled in to work and school.  We weren't quite sure what awaited us, but most of what we've discovered has been good.  We live in a delightful little neighborhood near our church and near several little shopping neighborhoods. The leaves are golden and crunchy in the autumn, something that hardly ever happened in Oregon.  

Seth is wrapping up his last week of a hectic semester.  He had to take five courses, including Introduction to Hebrew this semester, but he enjoyed his studies.  He kept saying that his biggest regret was that he didn't have the time to give all of his subjects the attention they deserved. He did his internship at Wedgwood Christian Services, a residential center for kids who have been through severe trauma.  That was a stretching experience for him because most of those kids not only lacked Christian upbringing, they also lacked those basic formative experiences that we use to explain God's love for us.   But he was encouraged by how eagerly the kids he worked with sought God.

I now have my Michigan teaching license, and I am living off the general shortage of substitute teachers in the area.  I've gotten to work at three or four different schools pretty consistently, and even run into an old school mate of mine.   Outside of work, I am still working on getting our house settled and adjusting to the various differences that Michigan throws at us.  I got to hearken back to my childhood by installing plastic over the windows this fall, and I'm still hunting for enough secondhand bookcases to justify unpacking all of our books.  I run the powerpoint at church once a month and volunteer with Boogaloo's GEMS group.

Boogaloo is halfway through her fourth grade year at Legacy Christian School.  We have her in another mixed grade classroom, and she is enjoying it immensely.  When people ask her how school is going, she answers, "Great" with enthusiasm.  She is also attending G.E.M.S.  for the first time and enjoying it very much.   She has her own desk now to make up for having a smaller room, and she is definitely enjoying the snow.  She is developing a real sense of drama and purpose which is at once entertaining and a little confusing. She is the one who keeps track of our sugar intake in this household.  Housekeeping and cooking are also beginning to catch her interest, which doesn't bother me a bit.

Max the mutt is still with us.  Once he gets his daily aspirin, he is almost as spry as he used to be, and  with or without his aspirin, he is just as hungry as he always was.  He enjoys the fact that we no longer have a fenced in yard, so we have to take him for several walks a day.  He also likes stealing the bread that the neighbor two doors down leaves out for the squirrels.  He sneaks over, sniffs out a piece of bread, surreptitiously bounces his way back to our yard with his tail wagging, buries the bread and then scoots back for more.  The neighbor says he could watch Max for hours.  We have held off on getting Boogaloo her promised pet because we aren't sure how Max would handle it, but one thing we look forward to next year is another, smaller dog or cat

Our daily reality is a little surreal. Not that we're living through anything particularly exciting or abnormal,  but I have a sense of being here temporarily that I didn't have before God shook us out of Oregon.  I think Boogaloo feels the same way.  The other day, she was talking about when we go back to Oregon, remembering our big backyard and our fruit trees.  She wished we were there instead of here.  I had to tell her that we don't know when we'll be going back or where we'll end up, but that it would be someplace different than we were.  We won't be going back to that house specifically.  She took it pretty well.  However, it just highlights that we are now in the business of looking forward with all the adventure that that entails.    
So here's to the New Year.  May God keep you in his will even as you go forward into his love.   

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hello, World!

In the middle of September, I posted a simple request on Facebook.  "Pray for us.  This month is intense."  In the middle of last week, Seth had two people independently ask us if we were all right.  Apparently Facebook had recirculated my post and made me aware of how long it's been since I put out a general bulletin.  We're still here, and life is good.

Last month, a convergence of things had us running and spinning and bumping into each other and learning all over again how to manage three schedules and the needs of a family.  First of all, God provided a wonderful opportunity for me to cover a maternity leave for a third grade teacher.  I was basically working full time from the middle of August to the end of September, the same time we were moving into our new house, setting up healthcare, finalizing our choice of Boogaloo's school, etc.  Anyone in education will tell you that when a teacher works full time, that's not a 40 hour week.  There's no way to do all that in 40 hours, especially not at the beginning of the year.  So that was intense.

Then Seth and Boogaloo each started school.  Seth is playing catch up for two years of online school by taking 5 graduate level courses and working out a 200 hour internship this semester.  Intense, yes?  He was also managing the home front, getting Boogaloo to school, groceries, dishes, and laundry.  We found a wonderful school for Boogaloo -- Legacy Christian School.  She's in a combined class of third and fourth graders, 22 kids, in a school that makes a point of building community around learning differences.  They actually have a program for helping new students make friends.  The only downside is that it's a 20 minute commute one way. So we were a little pushed about, if you follow me.  Like I said on Facebook, it was intense.

Things were working out well.  We found a wonderful church not two blocks from our house.  (We walk there through the Michigan leaves. Next weekend, we might be walking through snow if the weather people are correct.) That church introduced us to a G.E.M.S. club nearby.  We found a couple of great restaurants, though we are still looking for that one coffee shop that will be our go to date place.  We started making friends and connections.  But we were awfully busy.  I, for one, have a tendency to withdraw from people when I get overwhelmed, so that I can get more done.  We were all missing each other. We were all a little fried.   There was one point when Seth looked at me and said, "If it keeps going like this, I don't think we're going to make it through seminary."   And I knew what he meant.  That's when I posted my prayer request.  And you prayed.  Thank you.

Since then, my full time job has ended.  The regular teacher came back.  I have worked a few days here and there, and as there is a general shortage of substitute teachers in our surrounding community, I have had principals approaching me, almost out of the blue, about coming to sub for them too.  That's a relief.

But we are here to make connections.  I've joined the seminary family group.  Seth is making connections every where.  The seminary put us in touch with a sponsoring family through their scholarship program.  We keep looking for friends for Boogaloo, but that will come in time, and she stays busy with her little projects.  She made her entire Halloween costume, and now she is learning to crochet. 

So don't worry about us.  We are falling into a nice routine, and we are starting to get invitations for the holidays.  Life is busy, but we are well taken care of. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Updates and Reflections

Just to keep family and friends up to date, here is the progress toward our move:

1.  We have decided to sell our house here in Oregon.  A market date of early May snuck up on us a bit, but we painted the house (as much as the weather would allow), removed the covered porch, and started weeding the flower beds.  I feel like there's so much that we're neglecting, but there's also so much that we're getting done.

  • The bathroom has been painted.  
  • Half the stuff in the kitchen has been packed.
  • 2/3 of our books are in boxes.  
  • We filled another 30 yard dumpster with destruction materials. 
  • Our beige house with red trim is now a white house with blue trim.  
Of course, I have no pictures of any of this because I don't have time to download pictures.

But the people seem to like it.  When our house finally went on the market last Tuesday, we had an offer the same day, and the only reason we didn't take it was because about two dozen more people had signed up to see the house between then and Thursday.  Our last walk through was Thursday night, and we had to cut off the viewings at that point because we already had six offers in hand.

Some tips for buying in Portland.  1.  Don't bid too high.  We turned down one offer because we just didn't see how a bank would assess our house at that value.  Thank you, but be realistic.  2.  It doesn't hurt to talk to the sellers, should they be around the house when you get there.  We definitely considered the offers of faces we remembered twice.  3.  On the other hand, we did not really read any cover letters because we knew that they would not help us make an unbiased decision.

But we have accepted an offer and are eagerly anticipating going through the process of closing as sellers instead of buyers.  

2.  The housing market in Grand Rapids is such that we should probably be able to get just as much (if not more) house as we have here for about half the price, and because we bought low (as in short sale) here, we might actually have enough of a margin to pay cash.  We did not expect our housing investments to start paying off like this quite this quickly, but we'll take it.  We've got a couple of realtors and a good friend looking at houses in G.R., and we've been spending lots of time on Zillow and Trulia.  By early July, we hope to put out a few offers of our own.  

3. With houses, come neighborhoods.  With neighborhoods come schools.  And with Grand Rapids, headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, comes lots of Christian schools.  I mean lots.  We are school shopping.

4.  And with schools come jobs.  Seth will be in school full time and managing an internship as well, so he doesn't expect to work (nor should he).  Substitute teaching is, of course, always an option for me, but I'm aiming at something more steady.  A couple of part time teaching positions at private schools have opened up, and I am also looking at classified positions and just seeing what else is out there.  I don't have to work in education, but thinking of breaking into a new field or just getting a job to tide us over for a few years feels, again, weird.  I'd like to take the opportunity to sharpen some of the skills that I'm going to need when Seth's ministry comes into its own.  That is the thought that is always in the back of my mind.

5.  A lot of things are going to be staying behind when we go.  My car will find a home in a scrap yard.  Our kitchen chairs probably won't make the trip.  We've already disposed of a couch.  And there is a chance that our faithful hound, Max, might not be up to the journey.  He is 14 years old, and time (and the recent heat) are beginning to tell on him.  Breathing is getting difficult, and his joints just aren't moving the way they used to.  This is another decision we have never had to make before, and both Seth and I are uneasy about it.  He's been such a good companion for us.  How do we know when the time is right?

All this to say that we are at a month and seven days before departure for the great unknown of Grand Rapids.  God keep us, please;  we are seeking to do your will.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Star Gifts

The Atsma family "Star Gifts" from 2016 and 2017.  Boogaloo also received stars, but we never know where they end up.
These are "Star Gifts."  They are an Epiphany tradition at my church.  

Every year, between Christmas and Epiphany, the pastor and several volunteers prayerfully write different spiritual gifts and attributes on over 200 little paper stars.  Then, as the offering is collected on the Sunday of Epiphany, the members of the committee will follow behind the deacons and pass out the stars randomly.  The words are all facing down, and the congregation is instructed to just take the one on top.

Now, some of you might be thinking, "What a cute way to commemorate the Wise men."  And I grant you, there is something fun about colorful little paper stars.  But the stars are always accurate.  They are exactly what people need to receive.  I've even heard people say, "I didn't know why I received the word I got last year, but by the end of the year, I knew exactly why God had given that to me."

 Two years ago, I drew "Pardon," and anyone who knows me well knows that I have difficulty letting go of my past sins.  As I looked at that star, I understood that God wanted me to understand that I was clean.  What I was given that year was the delicate ability to pardon others (particularly political opponents on Facebook), and by the end of the year, I had a whole new appreciation for all being in this together.

Last year, the year of the Great Michigan Decision, Seth got "Encouragement" and I got "Guidance." I thought that we should switch stars because he, as the head of the family, was obviously going to be needing the guidance.  But throughout the year, I found that comparing my gut feeling to the decisions we reached, I knew what we were going to do, especially when we had spent significant time in prayer.

So this year, when I pulled "Discipline" out of the basket, I laughed, right up in front of church with a microphone in my hand.  How appropriate.  Discipline is something that I have been asking about for a couple of months now.  It applies in so many places: discipline in writing more often, discipline in physical exercise, in time management, in accomplishing tasks instead of worrying about them, in choosing my priorities, in getting up earlier in the morning, in prayer and Bible Reading, in speaking my mind instead of willing people to guess what's bothering me and in limiting my time on social media (read Facebook).

One thing our pastor said this year brought the poignancy of the gift home to me.  He said, "This is not an assignment; this is a gift.  This is not something you need to achieve.  This is God's gift to you over the coming year, and over the coming year, we pray that you will see this trait manifest and grow as you mature in Christ and give your best back to God, as the Wise Men did."  Being a good Calvinist, I am much inclined to try to achieve what has been given to me.  But receiving discipline this year was more like that verse when Jesus said, "When you ask for something, believe that you have already received it."

In the few weeks following Epiphany, I have seen a growth of discipline.  I'm not saying that I'm a cross between Maria Kang and Elizabeth Elliot all of a sudden.  But two out of five school days, I manage to get up and read and pray, and I got in some yoga and a little aerobics.  I also had two days subbing for a P.E. teacher, which helps.  As for writing, well, this is my second blog post this year.  That's something.

On the other hand, this past weekend, the family devotional covered the parable of the Talents.  The one indisputable lesson to take away from that parable is that God expects a return on His investments.  This may not be an assignment (for which I am honestly grateful.  The last thing I need is another "to do."), and the gift was certainly free, and I asked for it and He was pleased to give it to me.  But now that I have discipline (and it's growing), I have to do something with it.