One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Trust and Gratitude: A Powerful Combination aka The Christmas Letter I Never Wrote

Trust and Gratitude:  A Powerful Combination
aka The Christmas Letter I Never Wrote
By Anna Giattina Lee

Christmas is over, but our gratitude is overflowing. Words cannot adequately express how grateful I am for the people in our lives that have come to our aid and supported our family and our mission this past year (and every year).

So many days, I feel emotionally alone.  It's not that people don't care, but our lives are fairly challenging to understand and we are admittedly a challenge to be around. Ironically, I'm an introvert who needs time alone to energize; yet God blessed me with people 24/7, making that quite a challenge.  The kids don't do well in certain situations – including any time they are separated from us. As I've come to recognize what those triggers are, I make efforts to avoid them -- so I miss out on some of the things I would like to do because I don't feel like I can do it without ruining it for others.

People always ask us how we financially support so many people with my husband's income. The answer has always been that God provides for us through the people who cross our path. Family, clients, friends, even strangers. Somehow, whatever we really need, and sometimes luxuries far more than we can justify, are literally dropped in our laps.

Money, clothes left on our porch, horseback riding lessons, a car, gift cards for the kids, diapers for an unexpected baby, help paying for crisis therapy not covered by insurance, money for a family vacation intended as therapy to help our family re-group after some awful trying times, funeral expenses, food, orthodontic care.  You name it – if we need it someone provides it.

Then there are the crazy unexpected things, like getting a sizable refund last week for adoptions completed in 2013, when we had no idea that we had overpaid.  And that time I was paid for work I did without sending an invoice because I volunteer part of my time and although I had not billed them in months, they knew our family could use the money.

My husband is an accountant and I am a former attorney, and we both know that none of this is logical.  It's not logical to have 21 kids on our income.  It doesn't make sense to keep giving more and continuing to support others who sometimes hate our guts, sabotage any chance for joy, and sometimes think we have nothing of value but what we will give or do for them.  It doesn't make sense to continue making ourselves a living target for rage and intentionally placing ourselves in the midst of chaos, trying to live in peace. 

While money is not a solution to all of our problems, it is a sad necessity.

The stress of providing for the basic needs of so many, not to mention some super thrifty yet gorgeous weddings and a few educations, is hard on my husband.  As the needs keep increasing – and no, they will never end as long as we are living -- his mental productivity is decreasing because he is learning that it is equally important for him to be emotionally present for some our children from hard places, a regular dad to some healthy kids, and the sole breadwinner. Seeing God provide always lifts his spirits - making him feel like the entire weight of our mission isn't up to him.  And that is a relief to me because I hate watching him struggle and I need his help with the children.

My husband has been a wonderful provider who NEVER complains about working his butt off for other people– even those for whom he had no legal obligation whatsoever.  He gives of himself every hour.  However, when the economy began to tank and his clients struggled, we also struggled.  Through it all we always try to live as a family by the basic principal that we do whatever we are capable of doing for whoever needs it, without conditioning our actions on the promise of payment. While never neglecting those that are paying for services, we will work overtime to meet the needs of others - never knowing how, or when, or even IF we will ever see any return on our investment from that particular person. 

Why? It’s not because we are uniquely holy people who have some special connection to God.

Come to think of it, if you read my last blog post entitled "Why Giving Freely Shows My Trust," then  you will see the kind of internal battle I sometimes have to fight with myself to remember to trust.

Nope.  We actually learned to trust the old-fashioned way.  Experience.  In spite of our circumstances, over and over again – even when nothing made sense --  we have never been without.

Part of that is literal.  We have a beautiful huge house and cars and utilities and good educations and food and diapers and medicine/oils, and so much more. 

Part of that is perspective.  While we certainly live an American lifestyle with cars and iphones and computers and Internet and freedom, we are satisfied with far less quantity than in our earlier life.  And while we rarely forgo quality (translated durability) we actually feel better living in this world now that we live predominantly from hand-me-downs, clothes left on our front porch in trash bags, thrift store bargain shopping, cars at least 10 years old, used and hand-me-down furniture and so forth.  For us, everyday is Black Friday. Finding a good bargain is as exciting as anything new and we know that means that we can meet more needs.

The funny thing is that God provides for our family through others - – emotionally, financially, spiritually, and in every other way  -- whether we trust Him or not. 

The kicker is that when we choose to trust, we get to rest and wait with anticipation.  When we fail to trust, we tend to worry and agonize, trying to find our own solutions as we are left wondering why we meet with obstacles at every turn. 

Somehow, true logic seems to say trust and skip the agony even though it doesn't make sense in the world's view, especially with a financial or business mindset. But I can’t always remember that. 

This year was one of those years that was extraordinarily hard both financially and emotionally.  Yet, as I reflect on the events of this year – I find nothing but good. It all came together for me on Christmas morning. 

Since 1995, we have had a family tradition of gathering on our stairs before the kids come downstairs to open gifts and my husband prays for each and every family member who is was not with us, or who is somehow struggling to overcome.  That includes all biological family members for each of our 21 kids.  Some years, prayer takes a very long time. 

But this year was different.  Many of our usual crew was missing.  There were only 13 of us on the stairs this Christmas morning.  Ironically, this was not because of some tragedy, but because everyone was exactly where we had been praying for them to be for years! 

All but one of my adult children who have children of their own were WITH their children this Christmas.  Either at their own home, sharing Christmas together as a complete family, or at our home with their kids.  It was at that moment, I realized that years of praying had produced fruit.  Fruit that is hard to see in the midst of chaos.

So, once again, God gave me a glimpse of all that we learned this year.  Things that are hard for me to recognize except in the context of some of our family rituals.

We learn every day to trust irrationally.

We learned – again - that we can live with even less than we thought we needed last year. 

We accepted that we can feel peace in the midst of chaos.

We continually force ourselves to remember the value of being content and grateful, no matter what.

We understood - again- that everything takes time and that there are no quick fixes to broken lives. 

We were grateful that after more than 8 years with us, children were reunited with their mother and new father and are doing well. Mom is working and has returned to school.  She is also working on writing her life story with me, which is a unique bonding experience.  Bonus: We continue to see them daily. (We raised mama too – so this is a win-win-win!)

We continue to be proud of one of our older daughters and her husband, who have voluntarily adopted one child and taken legal guardianship (meaning zero financial support from the state) for 2 more children over the course of 2 years.  These are kids that would otherwise have been in foster care.  My son-in-law is just like my husband, voluntarily working his butt off to provide for children that he would otherwise not be required to support.  And my daughter is mothering  3 under 3  and a pre-teen like a pro.  I love watching them give to others.

Another daughter is almost finished earning her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy so that she can help families get the kind of counseling we so desperately needed for our children. I love watching her grow and mature into this role.

While yet another daughter is has the most incredible heart for God and life, is finishing her college degree and planning to work for or start a non-profit organization/mission using her business degree. I wish I had known what I really wanted to do with my life at her age!

One child (who gave me fits as a teen) is a working mom and wife with incredibly beautiful children, whom she teaches and trains to be gracious and polite and humble no matter their circumstances. Watching her become a mother has been my privilege. 

The child who helped me so much with the babies when she lived at home is now a preschool teacher/nanny that gives of herself daily, even when it is hard. Everyone adores her heart and commitment to their kids and they trust her implicitly.

One daughter, who we were told would never live independently, is working two jobs, married to an incredibly supportive man who totally takes care of her, and is soon to be a mother.  Far from the description we got when she was a pre-teen, she is nothing short of impressive.

Yet another child is a hard-working mom to her children, who are all thriving under her direction – even though her life is still hard every single day.  Her children do not live the life she had to endure.

After a lifetime of challenges, the cherished mom of several of our kids has become a stable, working woman with a healthy relationship, who is re-engaging in her children's lives with us and is distancing herself from her traumatic past and terrible choices.  (We raised her too, so this is thrilling for us as well!)

I have connected with one of my adult children in a brand new way.  We went from not trusting each other, to living together long enough to find out that we not only could tolerate each other, but we actually liked each other.  That was a bonus blessing.

Sibling groups are being reunited physically and emotionally as they grow up and learn how to relate to each other in healthy ways -- as the people that they have become, rather than as remnants of their past selves.

Every day, my husband and I learn a little more about how to connect and bond to our children that have special emotional needs.

We are blessed by school teachers and administrators that truly care about our children and go far out of their way to help us with all of our unusual needs and situations with grace and understanding – even when our children don’t meet any other normal criteria for special needs assistance.

My husband’s clients are loyal and kind.  A few -- who I’m fairly sure don’t want to be singled out – have supported our family mission far beyond any polite gesture of support.

I don’t know if we unintentionally surround ourselves with good people, or we get special treatment.  Either way, our doctors, dentists, pharmacist, therapists, orthodontists, teachers, grocers, veterinarian, neighbors, and even our garbage and recycling collectors -- who empty 4 cans at our house each week without complaining because they know our unique situation and often wait for us to run down the last load – are wonderful, helpful and gracious, always giving us the benefit of the doubt and helping in whatever way they know how. I brag on them all the time.  

I don't think we are special people who deserve so much blessing, but let me tell you I love it.  Every year, I am reminded of the simple - but challenging to remember principal that the people we surround ourselves with are the hands and feet of God for us.

My life feels so right when others support us in whatever way they are capable. My role is to trust irrationally and to be grateful no matter what. 

As some character in the Princess Diaries once said, "The concept is grasped.  It's the execution that is a little elusive!" But I'm working on it. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

My Story: Why Giving Freely is Ultimately a Test of my Trust

Preface: This past week, I posted 17 Counter-Intuitive Choices for Believers that will Vastly Improve Your Quality of Life.  Of course, I have stories to go with each lesson I am learning, but so far, they are only written in my head.  Yesterday, I couldn't help but write my lesson of the day - the truth in all its glory! Turns out, it really connects to three choices.  

Choose to give generously and freely, especially when you think that you have less than you need.  

Choose to be transparent and real and authentic and vulnerable, trusting that the people who matter will love you anyway. (So if telling you my actual thoughts doesn't make me vulnerable to critique, then I'm not sure what will!)

Choose self-control, especially when you are tempted. (Like, you know, when you are tempted to keep something that doesn't really belong to you ... or something like that... maybe!)

My Story: Why Giving Freely is Ultimately Test 
of my Ability to Trust
By Anna Giattina Lee
December 8, 2014

Today is one of those days when I had to make a choice to trust. 

I have this personal rule about giving at church. Regardless of what my husband gives on behalf of our family, for the past few years I have had this little ritual at church of looking in every nook and cranny of my purse, my briefcase and on my person and literally giving every last cent.  Mindful of that verse about bragging about giving, I find it’s generally wise to keep it a private thing – except to my husband, and then only in relation to getting excited with him about God’s provision. 

It’s not like it is a huge sum of money. I give because I want to DO something specific to demonstrate to myself that I am trusting God’s provision.  Sometimes, a diligent search produces nothing. Not a single penny. Sometimes, I can muster up a few dollars and some change. 

Other days, like today, I have been to the bank to get cash to pay to get into my son’s basketball game.  I was in a small town and my bank wasn’t there, so I had to go to another bank and pay a $3 fee to withdraw.  Paying a fee goes completely against my penny pinching ways –but it was a necessity (because of my poor planning – but still….)   In order to make it worth my $3, I got out $100 – forgetting that the next day was Sunday. 

So, this morning before church I was looking for money my parents had given our children to give away before Christmas (another great story) and I ran across the money I had stashed in my purse from yesterday.  My first thought was nothing gracious or noble.  Nope.  Not me. What did I think?  “Oh crap, now I have to give it all away.  That wasn’t my plan!” Even typing this I feel like an idiot for thinking that.  Like the money was mine anyway. 

Anyway, it didn’t end there.  I wasn’t wise enough to just obey and comply with my own dang rule.  No, I started thinking about how I could spend a good chunk of it on the stuff we “needed” before we got to church.  Major shame here.  I stopped at the corner store (a treat) and found myself spending $2 on soft drinks for the kids. 

Really?  Are you freakin’ kidding me?  Soft drinks? Did I really just spend $2 on four soft drinks - something that is so rare that the kids wonder if I’m dying or something?  So sorry God.  I’m lame. And I know it.

But there is more.  Handing out soft drinks to four shocked children, we head to our usual Sunday morning bagel stop.  A few times a month we get this treat on the way to church -- usually just a $13 expense for two meals for the entire family.  No cream cheese.  No drinks.  Just straight bagel.

But what do I think? “Hmmm..  Maybe i should go ahead and get an extra pack and freeze one for later.  I have the cash……”

Really God?  Why do I fight you on everything?  How can I be so thick headed?  Thankfully, by the time I get to the front of the line I have convinced myself that I’ve already spent too much time arguing with myself and I don’t feel one bit better.  I know that I am choosing to rely on myself and not to trust God to meet my needs - but I don't seem to want to hand over control. 

So I ordered our usual frugal pack.  And asked for 3 glasses of water.

One tiny little success – but it wasn’t over yet. 

Aldi is our usual after church stop.  By now I was convincing myself that I needed to put up or shut up.  All I needed was a quarter for a basket at Aldi  - I would give away the rest.  

My mind immediately remembers all the times I have been to Aldi with not a single penny in cash and someone has given me their cart without me having to ask.  

I argue with myself for another few seconds, but ultimately, I leave the quarter in the bottom of the cup holder because it is covered in some sticky substance that I now have all over my hands. I wonder to myself if this is a practical matter or my attempt to hold onto 25 cents worth of control?

So, I walk into church and the person who greets me is a woman who lost her husband to cancer this year.  It is her first Christmas without him.  We connect on our shared experience and loss. 

Twenty feet away I see a close friend who is far younger than me, but has always been a wise and faithful servant and prayer warrior and I think, “Oh! You want me to give the money to this family.  Okay.  That’s good with me.”  As if my agreement is a prerequisite.   

I wait for an opportunity to secretly slip the money in the front of this person’s sweatshirt pocket – but he’s a guy and I think better of that plan!  Walking up, all I say is, “I don’t know why, but this is for you.”  

He glances at his closed hand, which is now in his pocket and gives me a quick smile matter-of-factly with a slight amount of shock, “Well, okay.  I’ll take it.”

He doesn't say, “Thank you.”

Nothing like, “Wow, I can’t take your money.  You need this too.”

Nothing, except a smile and a hug, where he says “Praise God” and we part ways. 

At that moment, my heart was filled with joy.  Because we both understood that the money wasn’t mine.  Never was.  And my only job was to be the physical body that passed it along to the person who God wanted to have it.  At that moment, all the pieces fit together.  It all made sense.  And I knew – once again – that God not only provides me with what I need, but he lavishes me with bagels and soft drinks and a home and a vehicle and things far beyond any basic need. 

Once again, obedience brought me joy – even though it went against every grain of flesh in me.  Why do I have to keep learning this lesson over and over again?

Oh, and does anyone need a quarter? I wiped the sticky stuff off of it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

17 Counter-Intuitive Choices For Believers That will Profoundly Improve Your Quality of Life.

17 Counter-Intuitive Choices For Believers
That will Profoundly Improve Your Quality of Life.
(Easy to say.  But a lifetime to Master.)
By Anna Giattina Lee

NOTE:  This is a work in progress.... both the list and my choices.

1.      1.      Choose to be transparent and real and authentic and vulnerable, trusting that the people who matter will love you anyway.

2.     Choose to intentionally discover and seek to understand each person’s story so that you can attempt to view life through their lens.

3.     Choose to forgive without conditions, even when forgiveness is undeserved. 

4.    Choose to spend the majority of your time uncovering and recognizing your own faults, then repent and apologize quickly.

5.     In so far as it is up to you, choose Unity with others, remembering that unity is not the same as agreement. 

6.     Choose to give generously and freely, especially when you think that you have less than you need.

7.     Choose to remain humble, even in the midst of overwhelming success. 

8.     Choose to give Grace freely, especially when it is unmerited. 

9.     Choose to overlook and let go of every offense, unless it directly contradicts the five values you hold most dearly.

10.  Choose to be satisfied with enough, even when there is much more available.

11.     Choose joy, even when you have no outward reason to be happy.

12.   Choose to actively search out the best in everyone you meet.

13.   Choose to pray, even when you don’t feel like it and you can’t see the results.

14.  Choose to be grateful for what you have been given, rather than angry, bitter or searching for what you don’t yet have.

15.   Choose to remain committed, even when it is challenging or requires sacrifice.

16.   Choose self-control, especially when you are tempted.

17.   Choose to trust your faith, even without continuous proof.