God Doesn’t Exist in a Niche: Neither Should You

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Finding your niche. Define your niche. Know your niche.

Niche.

Niche is hands down the official buzzword of the blogosphere. What it mean? Essentially, the number one piece of blogging advice given at conferences, classes, and all over Pinterest boils down to this: find a specifically defined and branded area of the internet where you can establish yourself as an expert, and then stay in your lane. If you blog about recipes? Don’t post about home decor. If you’re a graphic designer? Don’t talk about your parenting. Pick an area of expertise, and then streamline your posts to stay within your sphere so that you have a clearly defined audience and an established brand.

So what’s my niche here at The Joy Parade?

I don’t have one.
photo-1461773518188-b3e86f98242fWhen I started this blog, I hired an amazing designer who specialized in branding. I created a Pinterest board while working with her to brainstorm what I wanted my branding to communicate. Sure, some of that work is about color palettes and graphics and such, but much of it is defining how you want to make people feel. It’s imagining what your readers will experience when they go to your website, scroll through your Instagram, or otherwise engage with your brand online.

If you’ve ever clicked on the Meet Stephanie page, you may have seen this verse: “So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” The verse serves as a manifesto of sorts for my purpose behind the Joy Parade. It’s a place where I get to share myself with my readers in an authentic way, letting each and every one of you into my story to see what God is teaching me and how He’s showing Himself to our little family. It’s an extension of who I am – spilled out to take form in these words and images, and sent lovingly outward to travel the web and onto the screens of whoever God would have them for.

The person God created me to be – she doesn’t have a niche. She’s a mother. She’s an author. She’s a singer. She’s a lyme disease warrior. She loves photography. She’s an autism advocate. She’s a wife. She’s passionate about community. She loves to cook. She sings. She’s a friend. She’s a child of God. She isn’t define by what she does, who she knows, or what she creates. She exists outside of a niche because she was made in the image of a multifaceted God who is too complex to be defined. She’s a direct reflection of a God who is beyond boundaries, rules, or labels.

Niches are finite, and we are reflections of a God who is infinite. 

Photo-Mar-03-8-51-16-AMFor bloggers, authors, and speakers, this embracing of the niche has created a disturbing set of trends in our community. By defining ourselves within our respective niches, we unleashed a wave of unintended consequences. Bloggers in similar niches began to amalgamate more in more. They followed the same people, read the same books, attended the same conferences, pinned the same things on Pinterest, adopted the same mantras… Without even noticing, we created echo chambers around ourselves and our brands, leaving a space that was hostile to diversity and detrimental to the very creativity that we set out to celebrate. The same names appear again and again on the various conference speaker line ups. The same books show up over and over again on Instagram, cleverly staged with a morning coffee or an open journal. Creatives find themselves being asked to point to who their work most resembles so that the industry knows exactly what niche to place them in.

It’s become less about showcasing our creative differences, and more about assimilating to our tribes.

We don’t need to continue this trend. Each and every one of us has a depth and complexity that directly reflects the immeasurable God who created us in His multifaceted image. Fellow Creatives: step boldly into a nicheless world and embrace the freedom that comes without the labels. Why should we be asked to define in advance who our target audience should be rather than simply allowing God to bring the right eyes to our work? Why should we strive to be “the next” anyone, when God has created each one us so uniquely? How much of God’s great glory are we missing by editing our stories and whittling away at our differences until we’re all showing the same tiny facet of who He is, to the exclusion of all the others? If God can’t be defined in a niche, why should we as His image bearers, as walking reflection of His person here on earth, try to contain and define ourselves under such one dimensional labels?

Buck the trend.
Ignore the advice.
Leave the Niche.

Cultivate Community with a Midsummers Soiree

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Each summer I host a dinner for 12 in my backyard. Months of planning go into the event: theme, decor, menu, no detail is overlooked. I figure if we can invest so much time and effort into celebrating events like baby showers, engagement dinners, or birthday parties, why not take one night a year to celebrate the people we appreciate simply for the role they play in making our lives more rich and full. Why not celebrate community itself?

8In selecting the guest list, which varies each year, I deliberately try to bring together a group of ladies who vary in social circles. In fact, many of the guests share only one thing in common when the night begins: they know me. A guest of this years event summed it up perfectly when she posted a photo on social media with the caption, “We ate appetizers with strangers and dessert with friends.” Sure, there’s always a little initial awkwardness as people get to know each other, but by the time the sun had set and the table was lit by the string lights overhead? The conversation was rich, the connections ran deep, and the authenticity with which these women spoke and shared was vulnerable and brave.

This year I used a floral theme, inspired by my desire to create a floral table runner to feature as the centerpiece of my tablescape. I waited until Michaels had a great coupon to combine with the clearancing of their spring seasonal decor to make room for summer. I grabbed some mixed bouquets from the clearance section that caught my eye, trying to keep to a believable color palette to better imitate the look of fresh blooms, and then supplemented with some greenery and single stems from the floral department. When I got home I disassembled everything and placed them all in piles so I could see all of the varying styles I had to work with. 90 minutes later, after placing each bloom individually on the burlap open-weave ribbon I was using as a base,  I had a beautiful faux floral table runner that set the tone for whole evening.

4The 2 sets of china were thrifted at low cost, the glassware was from my own collection but had also been thrifted, and the beautiful gold flatware was actually PLASTIC! Can you believe it? You never would have known until you picked it up. Thanks to some Amazon sleuthing I was able to invest in a very low cost grey table cloth and white linen napkins that are sure to get future use. One of my favorite finds those was probably a set of beautiful flickering led taper candles, so we didn’t have to worry about candles blowing out in the wind. (The set I purchased is no longer available, but was very similar to this set, which actually includes a remote as well.) The beautiful menu cards were designed by the talented Freshmint Paperie on Etsy, and I simply printed them on cardstock at our local copyshop and cut them to size. Yes, there was some cost to the event as not all of the items came from my existing collection, but one of the benefits to planning all year is that you can space out the costs, as well as use the time to search for the best deals. In the end, this is one of the ways I give back to the women in my life who have blessed me over the past year, so the cost is something my husband and I consider a worthwhile investment into the people we care about most.

Here are some photos from this years event:


Easy Letter Play with Alphabet Stamps

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With Jack being three, we’ve begun to take on a little bit of homeschool preschool. We’re not using a strict curriculum or even a set schedule, it’s mostly just following his interests and his lead and getting him comfortable with school-like activities, pre-literacy skills, shapes, numbers, etc.

Today’s activity was a real hit! We had purchased a jar of alphabet stamps from the fun in a jar collection by Recollection (available at Michaels) earlier this summer. I’m unsure if this item is still available, but I found this gorgeous option on Amazon for only $7.96 with free shipping for Prime members! I’m tempted to get one of these for the boys since it has both upper AND lower case options, as well as numbers and some punctuation as well.

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Jack enjoyed spelling out his name and Aidan’s with the stamps, as well as copying words from his Melissa and Doug See & Spell puzzle set by stamping each letter on his paper. It was great to see how comfortable he was getting with the idea of sounding out letters phonetically into words without the frustration of needing to write each individual letter.

Some quick and easy ideas for incorporating alphabet stamps into your own homeschool routine or letter play:

* Practice spelling your child’s name. This is always a great go to as they LOVE the added attention, and the more ways you find to repeat the letters in your child’s name the sooner they will commit it to memory. Jack’s name is far and away his favorite word to spell, and was the first word he could spell with any sort of consistency.

* Play the sound game: “What letter makes the buh-buh-buh sound?” Let your child scan all the available letters to search for the right choice, then let them stamp their paper with the correct sound.

* Use sight word flashcards or write out small words for your child to copy with the stamps. Make sure to say each letter out loud when stamping it to the paper.

* Practice stamping the alphabet in order. Mix up all your letter stamps and have your child find each letter in the correct order for their paper.

* If you purchase the set above, or have a different set that has both upper and lower case letters, take a few minutes to stamp a few random letters around the paper. Direct your child to find the corresponding upper or lower case letter to make a matching pair for each, and stamp it next to each one.

* Draw a few small pictures on your paper then use your stamps to label your drawings with their corresponding names.

Here’s some photos from our stamping time today. Jack had a blast, and we’ll definitely be incorporating letter stamps into our homeschool routine.

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The Prosperity Gospel and the Truth About Suffering


A sweet friend of mine took to Facebook to share the news of a new and difficult diagnosis she was trying to process. She was grappling with news of a condition that will be a life long struggle with pain and disability, and she was turning to her friends online for some much needed support. 
A few comments down, it happened:

“Don’t speak that over you. You do not have *diagnosis*…I rebuke that in the Name of Jesus! God wants you well. Speak healing over yourself.”

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Just a day earlier a well meaning connection had sent me a private message on Facebook, suggesting I should listen to a sermon titled that exact same sentiment: God Wants You Well. The sermon description included the lines “[Religion] even tries to make us believe that sickness is a blessing. That’s just not true. God wants you well.” Seems like a pretty positive message right? I mean, Jesus DID go around healing the blind and asking the lame to walk, so clearly He doesn’t want anyone to be sick…right? He only wants blessings for His followers: all the good and perfect gifts from the Father, and everything else? Well those are the attacks of Satan – obviously.

Friends, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as great as that sounds? It’s totally not Biblical – not even a little bit.

Take a seat, grab your coffee and your Bible if its handy, and lets dig in together to see what God REALLY says about suffering. I’m taking on 7 key points where we can compare the teachings of the prosperity gospel side by side with God’s word, and see just how much they don’t sync up.

The Prosperity Gospel says: Rebuke Suffering
The Bible Says: EXPECT Suffering

1 Peter 4:12
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as thought something strange were happening to you.

1 Thessalonians 3:3
…that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.

1 Peter 4:19
Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good

1 Peter 2:21
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps

The New Testament is absolutely littered with references to suffering, especially if you dig in to the writings of Paul. (There’s a guy who did his fair share of suffering. )We’re reminded time and time again of the truth that suffering is to be expected for followers of Christ. When Jesus told us to pick up our cross to follow Him? He was preparing us for the reality that the Christian walk would in no way guarantee us “health, wealth, and prosperity.” Quite the opposite. Paul tells us in Thessalonians that we are destined for suffering, choosing a word that communicates the idea of the very purpose for which something was created – like a salt shaker is made to hold salt. As appealing as it is to believe that a life following Christ is one where we leave our troubles behind us, the truth of Gods word sheds light on a very different reality.

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The Prosperity Gospel says: Leave suffering behind and claim joy instead
The Bible says: Rejoice IN your suffering and BECAUSE of your trials

1 Peter 4:13
But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed

James 1:2
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds

Romans 5:3a
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings

2 Corinthians 12:10
For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The gospel’s position on suffering isn’t just different from what we’d expect – it’s wildly countercultural and seemingly illogical. Rather than urge us to “speak healing” over ourselves or “name it and claim it” when we long for relief, we are called instead to stand steadfast in our sufferings and openly embrace them. In order to truly count it all joy and find contentedness in our weakness, we have to stop pleading with God to take those very weaknesses away. The truth that we are called to rejoice in our sufferings directly contradicts the idea that our focus should be on healing, and the Christ follower is taught that our greatest strength is actually in our weakness.

The Prosperity Gospel Says: Name and Claim God’s gifts of health, wealth, and prosperity
The Bible Says: Suffering IS God’s Gift

Philippians 1:29
For it has been granted to you for the sake of Christ that you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake.

“It has been granted to you.” It’s not a lack of faith, it’s not a punishment for sin, it’s not the attacks of Satan: it’s a gift from the God of the universe especially to YOU. And I’m speaking from experience here. Lyme disease came into my life as a teenager, bringing chronic pain, fatigue, and increasing handicaps and disability – and I can confidently testify that it has been a 15 year love letter from a God who is passionately pursuing me in the form of my suffering. Herein lies one of my biggest issues with the prosperity gospel: it would have me take the precious gift of my disease and attribute it to either a lack of faith or a spiritual attack from Satan, rather than the gift of a loving Savior who’s drawing me to Himself.

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The Prosperity Gospel Says: God wants to see you prosperous so you can focus on your relationship with Him
The Bible Says: Suffering is the way to a deeper intimacy with Christ

Philippians 3:10
that i may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death

Psalm 34:18
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit

James 4:8a
Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.

Suffering’s not only a gift: it’s a love letter. It’s the God of the universe personally pursuing each one of us, calling us into a deeper intimacy with Him. When I hear proponents of the prosperity gospel calling us to “claim” our way out of disease and suffering, I can’t help but liken it to a date with my husband: how would he feel if he got us a babysitter, made reservations, and brought me to a beautiful romantic dinner for two, only to have me spend the whole date trying to go home where I can more comfortably lounge in front of the television? How would he feel if I spent the whole date complaining about having to wear a dress or shave my legs and how much I would rather just be back in my pajamas? Our God is passionately pursuing us in our sufferings – how are we responding?

The Prosperity Gospel says: God wants to make you well
The Bible Says: God wants to make you more like Him

Philippians 3:10
that i may know Him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death

2 Corinthians 4:8-10
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

Romans 5:3-5
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us

James 1:2-4
Count it all joy my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have it’s full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Suffering doesn’t just bring us closer to Jesus, it’s the tool he uses to make us more like Him as well. The prosperity gospel misses the mark when it teaches us to avoid suffering, the same way it would be imprudent for an athlete to skip training or a musician to skip rehearsals. If our goal as Christ followers is to become more like Him, then we need to recognize and embrace the role suffering plays in this process. When we incorrectly attribute all of our trials to being “under attack” spiritually, we take our focus off our Coach and miss out on important chances to grow.

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The Prosperity Gospel says: God wants to bless you with earthly comforts and riches
The Bible Says: God doesn’t want us too comfortable on this earth, so we can’t forget that heaven is our home

2 Corinthians 4:16-18
So do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Philippians 1:21-23
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

Philippians 3:8
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Revelation 21:4
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away

The key point missing from the prosperity gospel view of suffering is this: this world is not our home, and our perfection will never be found on this side of eternity. I can confidently claim healing from Lyme disease and pain – absolutely – but I am never given any guarantee that healing will come while I still inhabit my earthly shell. Furthermore, Lyme disease has presented me with an invaluable blessing by serving as my “glasses” of sorts when viewing this temporal world. When your body lives in near constant pain? It’s a lot easier to long for heaven. When your health continues to deteriorate? Its a lot easier to remember this world is not your home. The truth is that suffering is truly our default state in this earthly existence, not a “season” we need to press through or a trial we need to overcome. Our perfect healing will come when we finally leave this earthly shell behind and step into an eternity with our Savior.

The Prosperity Gospel Says: Rebuke people’s sufferings and speak healing over them instead
The Bible Says: Acknowledge people’s sufferings and mourn with those who mourn

2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Here’s the thing, the prosperity gospel actively damages our ability to be effective ministers of Christ. Imagine this for a moment: your spouse has just lost a long battle with cancer and has passed away. You take to Facebook to share the news and express your sorrow, only to have the first commenter respond, “Don’t speak that negativity over yourself. You do not have sorrow!! I rebuke that in the Name of Jesus! God wants you HAPPY. Speak joy over yourself!!” How invalidating right? How ridiculously deaf to the very real pain and loss you would be justifiably feeling. There is a time to mourn, and we as Christians are called to jump in and mourn right along those who are in the grip of sorrow (Romans 12:15 commands us to do exactly that.) The truth  is that we show the same lack of empathy when we respond to those facing illness and other very real forms of suffering with an empty call to simply “speak” their way out of it. Once we have openly embraced our own sufferings, we are equipped to get into the trenches along side those in their own seasons of struggle and loss. Just as we receive comfort for our sufferings in Christ, we are called and equipped to minister that same comfort onto others.

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When God Pushes Pause

 

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The blog has once again been eerily quiet.

There was such a year of build up to creating this site, with God opening doors I could have never ever dreamed and with opportunities coming together in the most providential of ways. It was amazing to experience how when you are willing to simply say yes to whatever and wherever He leads, the journey is beyond anything you can ask or imagine. It was all of the truths of “immeasurably more” coming to life and exploding off the page. It was magical.

And then right when the opportunities were most abundant?

HE PUSHED PAUSE.

If you follow my social media channels you will have likely seen the reason behind the recent silence on the blog. After 15 years of continuing health issues a surprising twist has come to light. Countless misdiagnoses and failed treatments and incredulous shrugs from doctors who couldn’t agree on a name for the symptoms that seemed to be multiplying more rapidly than ever all culminated in a unexpected identity for my captor:

LYME DISEASE

With the key finally in hand to the mystery of my crippling illnesses, we set out to finally banish my issues once and for all, only to discover we had been dealt a double edge sword. This particular diagnosis, it would seem, is only a beginning to a very long road indeed. Treatments are difficult and uncertain. Doctors who are knowledgable of the condition are few and far between. Insurance companies all but refuse to cover any of it. The diagnosis isn’t so much an ending to this struggle as the beginning of a new one.

BE STILL

And so it is that I found myself, neck deep in a beautiful calling and newfound purpose and growing ministry, with a surprising new direction. Rather than growing the platform He seemed to have orchestrated, rather than chase the dreams and run down the opportunities, He was leading me into a season of absolute stillness – a season of total surrender. The physical symptoms of my worsening lyme brought my fatigue to insurmountable levels. The neurological symptoms have made even the simple act of writing a challenge. Even reading more than a few paragraphs at a time has become increasingly difficult.

INNATE WORTH AND IMMEASURABLE VALUE


When your greatest accomplishment for the day is that you managed to move from the bed to the couch, it can be easy to measure your value in similar terms. To go from a mindset of growing ministry and purpose to one of total surrender is jarring to say the least. And yet it is in the midst of these lows that I’m discovering the face of Jesus. Im experiencing His heart for “the least of these.” I’m seeing the illusions of accomplishment and accolade fall away and discovering an eternal value that was never attached to anything I could have done but simply to who I am in Christ. Oh the power of grace to the one who is made desperately aware of how wholly they are in need, and how easy it is to eschew your own identity for that of Christ when you have nothing left of your own making worth clinging to.

IN SILENT WORSHIP

This point was beautifully illustrated for me this past Sunday in church. I have been no longer able to stand in worship or raise my hands for more than a brief line or two, sometimes even relying on a cane to get into church at all. But my heart still desperately seeks to praise Him in all things, so I would raise my voice in praise from my seat in the pew. Until on Sunday my very breath became difficult to come by, and weakness and dizziness forced me to stop midsong. Initially I felt guilty, as those around me stood and boldly proclaimed their love at His throne. I had no gift to bring, no worship to offer, and I felt naked and exposed in my empty handed state. And then it was if He whispered directly to my heart – It was never about what YOU could do. Just sit and breathe me in. Behold my glory. Embrace my goodness. Let the words wash over you as you meditate on my nature and discover more of who I am. I don’t need your displays: My glory was never dependent on you. If you raise your voice in worship? It’s by My Spirits urging, by My Power alone, and for My Purposes. If you sit in silence and simply receive? It’s by all the same. Never doubt My purpose for You. Open your empty hands so you can willingly receive. Let your surrender be your act of worship.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?


In the short term? The battle of my life. We have secured a spot with a leading expert in Lyme and will be traveling to be treated at his clinic in Idaho, beginning November 28th. Treatment will be difficult, and truthfully will be more expensive than we have any idea how we will afford. We are choosing to see this as yet another time God will reveal His faithfulness to us. Beyond that? It’s all a faith walk. Will the treatments work? How long will they take? How soon after the initial treatments will I be well enough to begin writing regularly again? Will I be healthy enough to return to speaking engagements? Will there still be a platform here for me after so much time away? Part of clinging wholly to the truth of immeasurably more is admitting I don’t know the answer to any of these questions: and that I don’t need to. I may not have any idea what His plan is, but I know His plans are perfect – and for now that’s the hope to which I solely cling.

LETTING GO

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” For now I am letting go of my grip on this ministry and choosing to surrender it totally back to the One from which is came. Where it goes from here is totally  and completely in His hands, and I can’t think of a better place for it – or for me –  to be. I rest in the assurance that His perfect best will be immeasurably more than anything I could ask or imagine – and that in His perfect timing His plans will be revealed. I hope you share in my excitement to see just what those incredible plans may be.
If you feel led to contribute financially to the costs of Lyme treatment, please head over to this link. We are unable to pay for the staggering costs of treatment without supernatural provision and generous support. Thank you. 

Why I’ll Never Teach My Children About Stranger Danger

stranger dangerWe hear it all the time: “It’s just not the same world out there anymore.” The world is supposedly a much scarier and more threatening place than the days of old when we would ride our bikes to the store with no parents in sight and blow our allowance money on candy and silly knick knacks with hardly a care. “We know better now,” we’re told. Keep a close eye on your kids at all times. Be aware of the dangers of others adults when you’re at the park or using a public restroom. Be wary of anyone who’s too friendly. Teach your kids about “stranger danger.” The world is so much more perilous these days and you simply cant be too careful when it comes to our precious children.

As a mom of two small boys you might be surprised to hear I disagree 100%. And whats more – I have never, and WILL never, teach my kids about “stranger danger.” Never. In fact, I hope to raise my kids to be ready and willing to interact with strangers in safe and appropriate ways, and I regularly encourage them to do so. I’m not a “free range parent” as they are currently known, but I admittedly make some parenting choices that would make many people these days more than a little uncomfortable.

Now before anyone starts calling CPS (or filling my inbox with hate mail) try to give me a minute to explain.

First off, I just want to take a minute to point out that the idea the world is less safe that the one we grew up in is a common misconception. You might be surprised to learn that all of the crime statistics actually show our children are SAFER today than we ourselves were back in our days. Don’t believe me? The folks over at Free Range Kids have compiled an incredible amount of independent research and statistics on this helpful page to show just how much safer our world really is. So why does it seem so much more dangerous? It all comes down to perception really. Crimes are more widely covered by the media these days in a way you simply didn’t see in our childhood. A child goes missing in a small town in Idaho and it can be national news coverage in the same day, and instantly flooding every social media feed for weeks. Statistics agree though: stranger abductions are remarkably rare, and the alarming majority of all crimes committed against kids are by family members or close friends. In short, the likelihood of a child being grabbed while walking to school or playing at the park is almost negligible.

crowdatparkOn top of all this media coverage we also need to take into account how much internet hoaxes have exponentially compounded the problem. Have you seen the story making its way around Facebook for the past few months about supposed attempted sex trafficking of a child in a Target store with their mom? A little internet sleuthing quickly reveals the story is 100% false, and that both the store manager and the local police have absolutely zero record of any incidences even remotely related to the one described on Facebook (despite the story clearly describing the authorities being the one to tell the mom about the sex trafficking ring.) And this is far from an isolated incident: urban myths have taken on a new level of reach in the social media world, and parents everywhere are bombarded with messages of supposed dangers around every corner. It’s pretty understandable why parents everywhere are feeling afraid.

I can already hear some of the naysayers ready to write me an email response right now. “But Stephanie: we can just NEVER be too safe when it comes to our kids. Its always better safe than sorry, so why chance it?” Truthfully, I 100% understand where you are coming from, and I think its important to acknowledge our clear common ground here. We both LOVE our kids dearly, that much is apparent. We both want the very best for them in every possible way. Its just the details of how to accomplish this that we seem to disagree on.

Here’s the thing: I refuse to raise my kids in a spirit of fear.

I can’t agree with “better safe than sorry” when I truly believe there are immense negative consequences to teaching kids to be fearful of strangers and to be constantly alert to potential predators around every corner. Parents are complaining that cellphones have created a generation that doesnt know how to relate to each other, but have we ever stopped to consider what sort of effect it had when we told our children that strangers are all dangerous? Or that anyone who’s a little too friendly might be trying to take them or hurt them in some way? What effect do you think it creates on our sense of community when a child cant go out and play with his friends on his street because all of their parents believe they cant be trusted to be alone for any stretch of time without fear for their safety? Do most children even KNOW who lives on their street anymore? And how can we bemoan the textbook millennials who seemingly don’t know how to be independent and care for themselves these days when we are raising an entire generation of kids who are never allowed to leave the safety of parental supervision until they are one day thrust into adulthood with no real experiences to prepare them?

Am I advocating total free range parenting? Not exactly – but I can certainly see why the movement has been gaining steam. I won’t pretend to know what all families need to do, but I can share a little bit of what’s been working in mine.

We never taught our boys to fear strangers. In fact, most american families who have babies and toddlers begin by naturally teaching their kids the very opposite. We tell them to say hi to the lady who’s smiling at them in the grocery checkout lane. We encourage them to wave back at strangers. We model friendliness, polite interactions, and overall participation in the human community. We were pretty typical really. And then somewhere around preschool age we saw a shift: more and more parents teaching their kids about “stranger danger” and espousing the importance of doing the same. It was a confusing 180 to say the least, and for myself it felt very much at odds with my core values of celebrating the lost ideals of community and “it takes a village.”

So what have we done instead? We continue to teach our boys to confidently address and interact with strangers, but we also teach important safety ideals as well. When Aidan was about 3 or 4 for instance we started to quiz a lot of “what if’ scenarios. For example, we’d ask him “what should you do if you find matches on the ground,” and then we’d practice the answer. We’d play this little quiz game every now and then until it became a normal part of our interactions. It was at that point we started to add questions like “what should you do if someone you don’t know asks you to get into their car with them?” or “what should you do if someone grabs you at the mall and tries to take you away somewhere?” We practiced important distinctions like making sure to scream “this is a stranger” and “I need help this isn’t my dad” instead of just screaming (because how many times have we seen a parent dragging away a screaming toddler and haven’t given it a second thought.) We started to introduce ideas like the difference between tattling and telling, and between a surprise and a secret, and how we cant ever keep a secret from our mom and dad no matter who might ask us to. We talked candidly about body privacy, respect for other peoples bodies, and age appropriate issues of consent, and we modeled with friends and relatives that our boys were always the boss of their own body and whether or not they wanted to show someone physical affection. We even introduced a secret family password and made sure he felt confident enough to ask for it whenever appropriate.

We gave Aidan all these safety tools, but we framed them with our confidence in him rather than a fear of all the evil out there. We didn’t spend any lengthy time discussing the people who might try to hurt him, and we were very very careful not to give him the impression we were fearful for him. We taught him that he was brave and smart and capable and that he had all the tools and knowledge to make good choices out there. Then when we were confident that Aidan understood all these ideas inside out and backwards? We began to give him more chances to test out his independence and have more responsibility. We started to let him go into the public men’s room on his own while I waited outside and respected his desire for privacy and independence. This year we started to allow him to walk the two doors down to the school bus stop on his own and walk the two doors back from the bus on his own as well. And we’ve seen a marked increase not only in his self esteem this past year, but also in his own sense of personal responsibility. My mother watched the boys during my recent conference trip and was amazed to see that Aidan gets himself up in the morning to an alarm, follows a morning schedule to dress himself and feed himself and his brother breakfast, and is ready to leave for the bus right on time when his alarm goes off again at 9:00am. He needed no help and was totally responsible for his own self care in the morning. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think this growth in personal responsibility wasn’t directly tied to the independence we’ve been giving him and the confidence we’re working to instill in him.

aidanwithflowersAm I writing all this to say that I think my method is the “right” way? Not at all. I will say that I think we’re seeing a generation of kids that are disconnected from others, lack any real empathy for people outside their direct circle of contact, and simply lack the independent skills and personal responsibility to transition successfully into adulthood. Is “stranger danger” to blame? Not entirely – but it’s certainly not helping the issue either. We can do so much better by our children than to raise them in fear. We can do SO much better than teaching them to prioritize safety above community at all costs. Deeper than that, we can remind our kids that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but he gave us the power to be bold and to rest comfortably in our faith in Him. I know God has a plan for my kids, and I know he has my boys safely in His grip even when I’m not there to watch over them. I do understand that evil exists in the world, but I refuse to raise disconnected children who are so worried about their own personal safety and needs that they never get a chance to reach outside their bubble and impact a hurting world around them. I want my boys to know I have confidence in them. I want them to be brave in situations that could be uncomfortable and learn to handle confrontation without feeling helpless. I want them to gain a strong sense of personal responsibility and pride in their independence. I want them to feel compassion and love for people who may not look like them, talk like them, or share anything in common with them other than being created by the same God who loves them. I don’t want to raise my kids in the spirit of fear, but in a boldness of faith and a strength of character.

And “stranger danger” simply doesn’t doesn’t fit with any of those goals.

Easy DIY Watercolor Project for Preschoolers

My sweet mama has a birthday coming up soon, so Jack and I set up some super inexpensive supplies we had on hand and made her a piece of art I know she’ll treasure. This project is super simple and Jack needed very little instruction other than “try to fill up all the white with your colors” and he was happily entertained at the table for longer than Im usually able to keep him in one place.

All you need for this project are:

* Thick Watercolor Paper
* Washable Watercolor Paint Palette
* Brushes
* Scrapbook “Thickers” Letter Stickers
* Cup of Water
* Paper Towels (for blotting and clean up)

Instructions:

1. Decide what you want your art piece to say. We opted for “Happy Birthday GRANDMA love JACK”

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2. Place scrapbook thickers onto your water color paper. Make sure to press them down all over so they have a tight seal.

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3. Have your little one paint over as much of the paper as possible, especially focusing directly on top of the scrapbook letters. We found its helpful to “blot” the brush on top and around the letters rather than simply brushing in strokes. You want as little of the white paper showing through as possible for this to work, especially in the space where the letters are affixed.

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4. Let the painting dry.

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5. Carefully peel of the scrapbook thickers. Occasionally some of the paint will rip off a bit with the letters, and thats totally ok. The idea here is an authentic child-made project, not a Pinterest worthy piece of perfection, so don’t sweat it.

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6. Make sure to take some photos of your child with the art piece. Our favorite way to frame and display child art is right next to a photo of its talented creator with their completed masterpiece.

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Conferences, Canes, and Chronic Pain

The Winshape Retreat, Location of the Pursuit Conference

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, but I’ll do my best to condense my overflowing brain in to something resembling a blog post.

Recently I was in Georgia for the 5th annual conference for the Pursuit Community (an amazing nationwide ministry you can read more about by clicking the link in the top of the “Friends & Sponsors” section in my sidebar.) As has held true year after year at this event, God showed up in incredible ways. This year’s verse ruminated on the theme of “a new thing.” I came to Georgia with open hands, ready for God to show me something incredible without my own constraints and expectations getting in the way, and yet I was still utterly blown away by what He revealed through speakers and attendees alike, all speaking the same messages to me over and over.

Mary Marantz at Pursuit Conference

I felt consistent confirmation that God has laid a path before me that is uniquely my own. Sure, this industry is full of experts and mentors and plenty of well intentioned advice, but over and over He spoke plainly to my heart that His plan for me is a NEW thing: not a repeat of anyone else’s story. He hasn’t called me to be the next “so and so,” but rather to embrace the story He has written specifically for me. More than that though, He’s given me a calling that He created me perfectly equipped and suitable for in every way – not in spite of my weaknesses and struggles, but BECAUSE of them. His strength is perfectly displayed in my weaknesses, His story beautiful showcased in His faithfulness and grace to me each day. I felt confident that I don’t need to #hustle or knock down doors to make all my own opportunities, I need only to be ready to obey whenever He says to go, and be patient on His perfect timing. The Joy Parade is going to be exactly what He wants it to be exactly when He wants it to be it, even if I don’t always have an exact vision for what that is. Sometimes admitting we don’t have all the answers is the first step to something so much bigger and better than we could have imagined for ourselves.

The cross country travel to and from the conference definitely wreaked havoc on my body though, and I saw a lot of how the world treats people with invisible illnesses and disabilities. On the one hand, I need to give an enormous shoutout to the wonderful people at Southwest Airlines. From the moment I checked in at PDX for my first flight, all the way to loading my bags into my car as I was photo-1437846972679-9e6e537be46eready to head home, the folks at Southwest went above and beyond to ensure I was cared for in every way. They never hassled me about needing the extra help, they never demanded I produce extensive documentation to prove my need for assistance, but rather they jumped at the opportunity to provide extra services to me the moment they could sense I was in pain. They ended up setting me up with a wheelchair escort through all the airports I traveled through, which helped with the journey far more than I anticipated, as well special preboarding for all  4 flights so they could give me the opportunity to sit in the front row (where you get some extra leg room and a chance to put your legs up on the front wall when needed.) I had never even set up or arranged these services before booking my trip, but when I asked for help loading my bags onto the belt when initially checking in at Portland? The attendant immediately noticed signs of struggle and sprung into action. I was incredibly touched by the service I received on each leg of my trip, and Southwest has certainly won this customer for life.

The passengers I encountered along the way were unfortunately not always as kind. I recognize, its unusual to see a young 30-something in a wheelchair, and its even more confusing when that person stands up from the chair to move into their seat. Here’s the thing though: disabilities don’t all look the same, and not everyone who needs to use a wheelchair is paralyzed. It was clear there were a few business passengers (who had likely paid the extra fee for their coveted A1 boarding status) who were pretty convinced I had wheelchaired my way into preboarding in front of them without even paying a dime. And since I accepted the first row seating as offered, I got to see each and every one of them glower at me as they passed by to choose seats of their own. It was one of those times I wished my airport-wheelchairdisabilities were a little less invisible. I wanted to tell them I would gladly board the plane last and have someone else live with chronic pain in my place, but I sat silently in my seat and did my best to meet their annoyed stares with apologetic smiles the best I could. In the end I was grateful for the additional help Southwest had offered me, because at the end of each travel day by body was a total wreck. There were plenty of tears, lots of night waking from the pain, and eventually I had to use some of the narcotic pain meds that I usually try everything to avoid. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been without all the extra help from the airline.

Image by Jordanne Marie | Click for Shop

Image by Jordanne Marie | Click for Shop

Since arriving home from my trip I have finally let go of a long fight with embarrassment and accepted once and for all that it was time to buy my first collapsible cane. I have been fighting this day for some time, much in the same way I initially fought glasses, but this trip really solidified for me how much more pain I am putting myself in by refusing to use the tools designed to help me when I need them. I don’t need to use the cane all the time, but since I have regular issues with both my knees and my hips, it’s certainly a helpful aid to have on hand. I’ve done my best to embrace this with a sense of humor as much as I can, and I even chose a gold cane so that, as I told my husband, it would “match my iPhone.” He of course tells me I just need a fur coat and a fedora and my pimp costume is ready for Halloween, and I’m pretty sure my boys just see it as some kind of weapon. All in all, I know that the cane is another sign that pain will always be a part of my story, but that acceptance of my reality is the healthiest step towards making the best of the body I’ve been given. As I told some students at a recent talk I gave: this pain is my constant reminder that this world is not my home, and that my Jesus is passionately pursuing me each and every moment of the day, reminding me that He has so much more for me than this world can hold. I’ll always be blessed to have such a longing for heaven so deeply entwined with this pain, and for that I can only be grateful. I know he’s not done with me yet, and this silly collapsible cane will only be one tiny page in the story He’s writing.

Let The Wild Rumpus Start | Jack’s 3rd Birthday

I can hardly believe my littlest miracle is already THREE, but alas, it appears to be true. This year we took our inspiration from his current favorite book, Where the Wild Things Are, which he affectionately refers to as his “Wild Rumpus Book.” And a Wild Rumpus certainly seemed appropriate for our little monster. We opted for a Saturday morning brunch, complete with pancakes, bacon, a yogurt bar, and plenty of donuts. There was even a mimosa bar for the grownups to enjoy. We chose to have an “open house” get together, rather than a traditional birthday party, so that we could enjoy the time with our guests and just let the kids be kids. Overall we had a grand time and I would call the rumpus a big success.

Here’s a gallery of some very quick photos I snapped before the days festivities got underway (and before we added all 5 lbs of bacon to the table! YUM!) Much of the party was DIYed by yours truly, but I will include links on the bottom in case you see something you want to snag. (I tried to include a link to a similar item whenever I could.)

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ITEMS PICTURED:
Shirt: Plucky Mustard on Etsy
Crown: Fortune Favors the Gold on Etsy
Tail: Fox Tail Keychain from Amazon
Wooden Silverware: From Amazon
Corrugated Cups: From Amazon
Birch Tree Straws: From Amazon
Green Hanging Tissue Balls: From Amazon
Chocolate Rocks: Similar from Amazon
Candy Bags: From Amazon
Burlap Table Cloth: Similar from Amazon
Galvanized Silverware Caddy: Similar from Amazon

ITEMS NOT PICTURED BUT WORTH MENTIONING:
Big Brother’s Special Party Shirt: Our Five Loves from Etsy
Big Brother’s Party Horns: Babycricket from Etsy
Twig Pencils Included in the Favor Bags: From Amazon

DIY SUPPLIES:
Plain Favor Bags to DIY: From Amazon
Soft Gold Paint Made for Fabric: From Amazon
Craft Moss: Similar from Amazon
Fairy Garden Mushrooms: Similar from Amazon
Moss Table Runner: Similar from Amazon


People of the Internet, You’ve Been Had

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People of Internet,

You’ve been had.

In the past couple years we’ve borne witness to an interesting set of trends. Various hashtags started gaining popularity that claimed to be celebrating the #authenticlife, but they were unusually ripe with photos of farm to table feasts on custom built farmhouse tables, cleverly staged journals with pristine latte art, and gorgeous minimalist home decor without a trace of evidence that real live people actually inhabited these homes. We saw an Instagram “celebrity” go viral for posting an extremely public breakup video to the very app that gave her a platform, only to start rapidly growing a following on her very well marketed (and highly monetized) site promoting her newfound position as a leading voice for being “real” online. Conferences and retreats have popped up left and right with speakers who market themselves brilliantly as experts and success stories of their supposed fields and vocations, but if you peek behind the curtain you discover the only job they actually hold is that very self marketing, speaking, and teaching. It’s a bit like when we find Dorothy pulling back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard of Oz is in fact a tiny little man pulling levers and dials, and its all been a cleverly designed trick all along.

There is no Wizard folks.

photo-1449535423830-de3f6546aabdThe internet doesn’t actually care about authenticity. Social media isn’t actually growing more appreciative of the vulnerable and exposed. Many of the biggest names who claim to have a way to sell you a path to success don’t actually have success in anything other than selling success.

Yeah… kind of Debbie Downer today, right?

But hear me out fellow citizens of this crazy online world. I am NOT advocating for cynicism or apathy. I’m in no way hoping to simply burst the bubble only to sit back and watch the damage. This isn’t just a case of “misery loves company.” Rather, I’m hoping we can all find a little Dorothy in ourselves right now and be brave enough to pull back that curtain, call out a clever con for exactly what it is, and put the illusion to bed in order to make way for something better to rise in its place.

The good news is this: the underlying reason for this trend’s success is that so many people ARE in fact craving a more authentic experience online. The bad news however is that its going to be much scarier to achieve than we hoped or expected. We like when we are seen as brave and vulnerable, but we’re not nearly as in love with the reality of living that out. It’s messy. It’s embarrassing. It’s anything but glamorous. It’s counter cultural in every way. And yet the only way we can hope to see a more authentic form of community online is to be willing to come to the table first, knowing full well we might be out there alone and exposed. It’s risky, but all the best things certainly are.

photo-1447914178647-198e7e4a70b5Can you imagine if we all stood up and saw the false hashtag #authenticity for what it really is and demanded something better? What if we stopped celebrating pseudo-vulnerability and held ourselves to a higher standard of bravery? What if we didn’t just share the carefully curated highlight reel that fit the persona we worked so diligently to cultivate, but opened our personal closets and admitted we aren’t any more on top of things than anyone else? What if instead of self promotion and viral marketing, we just put our work out there and let it speak for itself? What if we actually created the #authenticlife we claim we so desperately crave?

And therein lies the bigger challenge. It’s easy to criticize what we’re against, it’s a lot more difficult to actually do something about it. I could get up on stage after stage speaking against false authenticity and write blog after blog calling out the online culture of deception, but what can we actually DO about it? It’s not good enough to know where we don’t want to go if we still don’t have a plan for where we should – it only leaves us stalled and stagnant.

Claim your personal stake as part of the solution:

Calling out pseudo-authenticity doesn’t solve nearly as much as stepping up to the plate with the real thing. The only social media accounts you have any certainty of affecting for change are your own. Make a commitment to take personal responsibility for your online citizenry and focus on your own domain. Lead by example.

Don’t misinterpret inappropriate sharing as authenticity:

No, you don’t need to post all your dirty laundry on facebook in the name of being more authentic. There are most definitely situations that call for privacy, especially in the name of respect. No one enjoys seeing martial spats played out over social media, and disputes with friends are always better handled face to face rather than publicly on facebook. Most importantly: authentic sharing is NEVER sharing information that isn’t about you or isn’t yours to share. Gossip isn’t a tool to better community, it only encourages people to hide their vulnerabilities even more, lest they become ammunition in the wrong hands later

Take regular stock of your social media “big picture,” and compare to the real story:

There’s a difference between not airing your dirty laundry and presenting the false idea that you don’t have any laundry to begin with. It can be a tightrope walk for sure, but it CAN be done. Look over your social media account regularly and ask yourself if the story you present overall is an accurate representation of the real life person behind the screen. If you aren’t sure, find a close friend you trust and ask them to weigh in. Ask yourself: if someone who had only known you online were to come spend a week in your home, do you think they would be at all surprised at the person they would see? If your answer is yes, ask yourself which parts of yourself would be most surprising, and how your might more accurately represent them moving forward.

Real authenticity is almost always scary to some degree:

If you have never experienced that nagging instinct to self preservation, or had to will yourself to press post on some less than flattering aspect of yourself, its a good idea to examine just how authentic you’re willing to be. Yes, there are those rare folks among us who maintain such an incredibly healthy self esteem that no amount of unflattering photos or admitting of their flaws holds any sort of fear. These are the exception though, and not the norm. For most of us, the idea of sharing our mistakes with the world gives us more than a little bit of pause. For many its outright terrifying. If you’ve never had to urge to hit delete or felt the weight of just how vulnerable it is to feel exposed? Challenge yourself to share something uncomfortable and see how folks respond.

Resist the urge to adhere to a label or niche:

One of the most insidious ways we start to take on false personas is by allowing ourselves to step into a comfortable label online. Nobody is just a DIYer, just a Christian, just an attachment parent, just a #girlboss… the list could go on and on. When we take on a label its often too easy to take it on as a role to be played, with proper costumes and guidelines for who the character should and shouldn’t be. Theres a reason that you’ll see so many similarities between bloggers who blog in similar niches – it can be all to tempting to let those labels define us and start to filter our other choices through those roles. Authentic people are much harder to fit into a box. You might be a blogger who doesn’t like coffee, a hippy mom who also enjoys rap music, or a fantastic designer who’s living room usually looks more like an abandoned daycare than a plug for HGTV. Real people are more than one thing, and we wont all look the same.

The Best Question to ask before EVERY post:

“Are you sharing this to build better community or to build up yourself?” Real authenticity is always about building connections, not building a platform. Authenticity is never about gaining the high ground, but about leveling the playing field. Authenticity is never about being liked, but about being known. Authenticity cant be planned, staged, coached, or branded. It has no cares of what will be retweeted, repined, reposted, or double tapped. It is because it IS. It’s truthful, it’s real, and it’s without agenda. Anything less simply misses the mark.

We can do this, people of the internet, I know we can. It’s not too late! With bravery and intention we can still right this ship.

The only question that remains is whether we really want to.

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