The Problem With Pretty

I filled my new hand lettered mug with the last of the morning coffee, scooped up my official canvas tote filled with notebooks, pens, and my journaling Bible, threw my favorite cozy blanket scarf over my shoulders, and walked to the hotel conference room to listen to the day’s speakers. The beautiful decorations looked fresh out of the craftiest blogs and most followed Pinterest accounts, the worship was richly experiential and full of emotion, and the weekend was filled with heartfelt reminders that God made us each beautiful and unique, and that we never needed to feel anything less than fully enough as we embraced big and powerful callings for Jesus. Women left the weekend feeling refreshed, feeling encouraged, and feeling empowered.

What I never felt that weekend?

Convicted.

brigitte-tohm-187223Sure, there were tweetable quotes from speakers who inspired us and encouraged us – but was there ever time they had really convicted us? Had they ever challenged us? Had I ever felt shaken from my spiritual comfort zone? Ever felt possible disagreement with something that was said from the platform? Ever felt that Holy Spirit punch to the gut that urges us to confession, and repentance, and ultimately to transformational change?

It wasn’t simply this particular weekend either. Looking back over many of the various retreats, conferences, and women’s ministries I had experienced so far, I began to see a common thread take shape. Between the adorable swag bags and the hand letters quotes, amongst the DIY decor and the fellowship around cupcake bars and campfires, and in spite of journal after journal filled with furiously scrawled notes from speakers, I struggled to find a moment in which the experience had been anything but beautiful. Even speakers who were seen as “raw” or “vulnerable” had ultimately shared past-tense experiences and struggles, most of which had an arc mimicking the 30 minute sitcom episodes of my 90’s childhood. Sure, there’s always a problem for our protagonists, but by about minute 25 we find the solution, the lesson to be learned, or the surprise happy ending, and we can put a bow on this week’s episode and see the happy family hug as the end credits roll. We feel inspired, we feel uplifted, and ultimately we feel comfortable and secure.  [Read more…]

Thoughtful Gifts for the Chronically Ill

Since I often blog and speak about my chronic illnesses, I occasionally find myself on the receiving end of an email that sounds something like this, “Hey Stephanie, my friend so-and-so just found out they have insert diagnosis here. I really want to send them a care package or a gift to show them I care. Could you give me some kind of idea of what they would want?” In fact, I get these sorts of messages so often I’ve decided to dedicate an entire blog post to answering this, so I can point people towards this list in the future.

It’s important to remember: whether your friend or family member is facing a life long chronic ailment, is spending the next few months enduring chemo or radiation, is facing a long bedrest for pregnancy complications, or is learning to cope with a new physical handicap – every case, and every person, will be different. Not every gift is appropriate in every circumstance or personality, so above all, don’t be afraid to ask. But in the end, I know first hand how hard it can be to ask for help even when it’s offered, so hopefully this list will offer some great ideas when you have that friend says “it’s ok… we’re managing” (Yeah, guilty as charged on that one!)

Heartfelt Gifts

Caring Crate Subscription Box ($39.95 per month, or discount if ordering multiple months)
caringcrate

Subscription boxes are all the rage right now, and this incredible company decided to create a box specifically to minister to the needs of the chronically ill. Every box has beautiful self care products for the body and mind, each hand chosen with those suffering from long term illnesses in mind. They are the perfect gift for somebody going through cancer treatments since you can arrange a 3 or even 6 months subscription so that when the initial wave of cards and calls start to taper off, they are still receiving beautiful reminders each month that someone is thinking of them.

Spoon Necklace ($14.99)
spoonnecklace

Members in the chronic illness community have adopted the spoon as one our most important symbols, often referring to ourselves as “spoonies.” The inspiration behind this comes from an incredible post called The Spoon Theory, that you can read all about here.  A spoon necklace is a touching way to tell your friend that you understand the choices she faces each day with managing her “spoons.” I suggest adding a thoughtful note to let them know you always want them to have an extra spoon for those especially tough days.

 

 

[Read more…]

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

niche

 

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

Niche.

Niche is hands down the official buzzword of the blogosphere. What’s 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.

[Read more…]

Cultivate Community with a Midsummers Soiree

2

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:

[Read more…]

People of the Internet, You’ve Been Had

youvebeenhad
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.

photo-1447913908958-567c1d629e0c

I Speak for the Turkeys

Last fall I had the amazing opportunity to share my heart over on Delight and Be. As the calendar rolled over to the 1st of November this morning I found myself urged to share these same thoughts as we dive into the holidays once more. 

It was the day after Halloween and I found myself standing squarely in the middle of my living room letting out a silent scream. A Christmas commercial. Amidst the discarded hulk mask and superhero cape and the crinkled up wrappers from last nights snicker bar binge it was all I could do not to pull out my own hair and curse all things merry and bright. A Christmas commercial – heralding all that was snowy and shiny and on sale for only $19.99.

Im one of THOSE people, you know the type – we are the grinches who complain about the stores decorating too early or who gripe about Starbucks bringing out the red cups in November. Im the Scrooge who loudly declares a moratorium on any Christmas music while any of the leaves are clinging red and orange to their branches; the one who scares her children with threats of bad reports to Santa if they so much as think of starting their wish lists before the turkey and cranberry sauce have been reduced to leftover sandwiches. If you met me in November you’d be convinced that I had experienced some sort of horridly traumatic Christmas past that converted me into an avid rejecter of all things remotely yuletide.

Im going to steal a page from my children’s Dr. Seuss obsession and appropriate the catchphrase of the Lorax for a minute. Except instead of the trees? I speak for the turkeys. Now before you roll your eyes and click that little red x in the corner of this screen, let me clarify that Im not speaking for the turkeys in the picketing for PETA and buying a tofurkey sense. By all means, when it comes to turkeys go ahead and shoot ‘em, pluck ‘em, and roast ‘em up nice and juicy. Im allll for turkeys… when they are covered in gravy that is. Lots and lots of gravy. No, I speak for the turkeys as the adopted mascots of Thanksgiving, which in my humble opinion is the single most important holiday of the year – and also the most under appreciated.

I will go so far as to say that without a Thanksgiving we absolutely unequivocally wouldn’t have any Christmas at all. Aaannnd I know what you’re thinking: she’s gone and lost it now. The baby Jesus couldn’t be laid in His manger and the shepherds wouldn’t hear the angels sing unless… the pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and had a feast with the Indians?

Yep.

Well, sort of.

Ok not at all. But there IS a point to my madness, I swear.

Image Credit: Grace & Salt

You see Thanksgiving is a holiday that boils down to only one thing: gratitude. Underneath the turkeys and the pilgrims and the bundles of wheat on our perfect Pinterest mantles, Thanksgiving is in its simplest form is an entire season wholly dedicated to stepping back from a culture that’s saturated with discontentment and an all out pursuit of more for the sake of more, and calls us instead to look at the abundance we have already been blessed with and utter a prayer of gratitude for having more than we could possibly deserve. Thanksgiving is a season of “thank you’s” in a world of “but I want more’s.” It’s the epitome of counterculture at its finest.

And when the final bite of stuffing is consumed and the last piece of turkey has been placed in the final leftovers sandwich, a new season emerges: Christmas, the season of joy to the earth and goodwill to all men. And its here that we find the thread that seamlessly pulls us from one holiday into the next: because the root of our joy? It has to be gratitude. Without the fertile fall season of gratitude we can never reap our Christmas’ joy. For Christmas depends on Thanksgiving the same way the crops in the fields depend on nutrient rich soil and abundant rains to bring them to life for the harvest. It is only in a heart of gratitude that the seeds of joy can take root, and its only by watering them regularly with prayers of thanksgiving that joy can thrive and grow bring forth something new and beautiful in our lives.

To truly receive the joy of Christmas it is essential to dive in fully and embrace the season of Thanksgiving with our whole hearts. To begin to make room for the presents the yuletide season brings, we must first spend time emptying ourselves onto the altar of gratitude, recognizing the overabundance we’ve already been given. For it simply wouldn’t be Christmas without Thanksgiving. The world around us may try to hurry us along, beckoning us across its ramshackle bridge straight from the halloween candy right into a Christmas tree farm and long lists to Santa. Don’t go my friends. Take the long way – under the falling leaves of red and orange, through the fields of golden wheat being brought in for the harvest, and by the long table of abundance shared with those we hold most dear as we remember the incredible blessing of even having these people to walk life’s journey with. Take a stand against the “Christmas Creep” and build up those boundaries around a season increasingly taken for granted. Speak for the turkeys.

And don’t forget the gravy.

No You Can’t Actually Do It All

Photo Credit : Desirea Still | Pursuit Conference 2014

Photo Credit : Desirea Still | Pursuit Conference 2014

My fellow mamas – oh how I need to share my heart with you. God has been laying some truths on my soul, that kind of truths that ruffle feathers and leave you shifting uncomfortably on your seat, but that your heart latches onto and simply wont let you avoid any longer.

I get it ladies: we all want to be the next wonder woman, the poster for super moms everywhere, who are having their cake and baking it from scratch out of organic gluten free ingredients too. Peruse some mommy blogs for a couple hours or a take a virtual stroll around pinterest and you’re bound to get the idea that most of the other moms in this world are not only doing it all, but they are doing it all brilliantly, and looking fantastic while doing it too. Their children are getting their very best, their jobs are somehow also getting their very best, and yet somehow they are also volunteering in their churches and communities, perfectly decorating their homes, hosting amazing parties, and they are keeping themselves fit and well dressed while they do it.

But is any of it true?  Have we finally solved the secrets to this elusive virtue of “balance?” Have women just defeated evolution once and for all and found a way to be everything we’ve always wanted?

Or in fact is this one of the biggest cultural myths we’ve continued to perpetuate ultimately because we fear that we really ARE the only ones who are failing? Perhaps we fear that trying to expose the myth may ultimately just expose ourselves as the outsider we really are, and that’s a risk we simply aren’t willing to take?

Who told us that we could do it all? Or more importantly, who told us that we even SHOULD?

If we were truly able to achieve it all, and all on our own, what would draw us outside ourselves into the embrace of community? Isn’t the myth of independence one of the biggest roadblocks to living in community with the people around us? When we believe that not only CAN we do it all on our own, but that we SHOULD, isn’t that the end of “the village” and the beginning of our own isolation? When would we ever have a chance to experience the love of a friend bending down to meet us in our hour of need? When would we feel the intense connection that only comes from walking through a deep valley braced on the shoulders of someone we trust? When we spend our lives as competitors, how can we ever be companions?

mythofindependenceIG

Think about it: if the God of the universe, the epitome of total perfection, exists in a triune form – not as a singular being, but as community in and unto himself, three persons in one state of perfect union – why would we ever want to exist outside of community ourselves? Let that set in for a minute, because its a pretty enormous truth, and I know it takes a moment to process. The God who created us in His own perfect image, who embodies perfection and strength and omnipotent power, He exists in a state of COMMUNITY – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and forever models for us not confident IN-dependence, but perfect INTER-dependence. For even before the world began, God Himself was never alone, but always existed in a communal state, in perfect harmony as three in one – and it was in this image He created us.

We weren’t created to do it all. We weren’t created to BE it all. We were designed for community. We were designed to strengthen each others weaknesses and brace each other where we fail. And Scripture is absolutely rife with verses pointing us to this truth.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! – Psalms 133:1

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another – 1 John 1:7a

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25

Ladies: lets kill the myth once and for all. We can’t do it all, and we just were never designed to. Im flawed, you’re flawed, and its our beautiful brokenness that His mercy and grace shines through. When you share your weaknesses with us, you give us a chance to be the hands of feet of Jesus and come beside you as a tangible extension of His love in your life. When I share my weaknesses with you, I give you a chance to admit your own flaws and lay down the myths that stand between us and a chance at walking this road together. Let’s all let go of this lie of doing it all, and instead embrace the truth that we were made to do it together

designedforcommunity