A Prayer for Year’s End

O Love beyond compare,

Thou art good when thou givest, when thou takest away, when the sun shines upon me, when night gathers over me.

Thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world, and in love didst redeem my soul; Thou dost love me still, in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust.

Thy goodness has been with me during another year, leading me through a twisting wilderness, in retreat helping me to advance, when beaten back making sure headway.

Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead; I hoist sail and draw up anchor, with Thee as the blessed Pilot of my future as of my past.

I bless thee that thou hast veiled my eyes to the waters ahead.

If thou hast appointed storms of tribulation, thou wilt be with me in them;

If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation, I shall not drown;

If I am to die, I shall see thy face the sooner;

If a painful end is to be my lot, grant me grace that my faith fail not;

If I am to be cast aside from the service I love, I can make no stipulation;

Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial, as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.

(From The Valley of Vision: Puritan Prayers and Devotions. Emphasis mine.)

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Planning to be a Stay-at-Home Mom

When I was five and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would tell them about my plans to be a missionary/movie star/artist. (I wanted to travel to distant places to film movies, where I would paint the sets and tell people about Jesus while I worked.) When I was in sixth grade, I thought that maybe I should look into becoming a courtroom artist. (I still laugh about that one!) In high school, I wanted to be a doctor. By the time I got to college, I was smart enough to realize that I had no idea what I wanted to be. I considered international relations, nursing, and law before I finally settled into the education department and began preparing for a teaching career.

But all along, from the time I was young, there was a tension and a conflict that kept me from deciding on a future career. You see, what I really wanted was to be a mom. A stay-at-home mom. And I knew that my desire to stay home with my children was in conflict with all of those careers I was considering. But high school teachers and college professors don’t think much of a girl’s desire to prioritize a family over a career, especially if that girl is an honors student with a bright future ahead of her. I was told that I needed a high-paying job and a prestigious career to fulfill myself. I needed to be able to support myself. I needed to “do something meaningful” with my brains. I needed to make something of myself.

When I was a freshman in college, my dad, my sister, and I drove to Macon, Georgia to meet with a scholarship counselor. She was supposed to help us find other sources for scholarship money, but instead it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience. (A different blog post for a different day.) However, as we talked with her, she asked me what I wanted to do after college. When I told her that I was leaning toward teaching, she asked me why. In that moment I had a quick internal debate – should I tell her what she wants to hear, or should I be completely honest? Against my better judgment, I decided to be honest. I said that I wanted to be a teacher because I really just wanted to be a mom, and teaching was the career that seemed least in conflict with that desire. Well, boy was that the wrong answer! She went off on a tirade against my reasoning, told me I could do better than teaching, and mocked me for wanting to be a stay-at-home mom. I just sat there and tried to hold back my tears.

Her attitude, however offensive, was not abnormal – I encountered it everywhere. No one seemed to think that motherhood was a “career” to plan for. Everyone tried to push me toward a career that entailed years and years of school and long hours of work. At the time I didn’t realize that the battle I was fighting was actually against our post-modern culture. Feminism has spread so far and so deep, and it has greatly devalued the role of wife and mother. Few modern mothers prioritize their children over their careers. Call me old-fashioned, but I didn’t want to compromise in this area.

So, I kept my ultimate goal of being a stay-at-home mom in mind as I made decisions in college. When faced with the option of taking on a lot of debt or transferring to a different college, I transferred. I continued with my plan to become a teacher. JD and I got married, I graduated, and I wanted to go to graduate school. But grad school meant debt, so I put it off. I taught for a few years in two different schools – one job I LOVED and the other I HATED. And when we were ready to start a family, nothing was standing in our way. We didn’t have any debt. No student loan payments, no credit card debt, nothing. We were able to live on JD’s salary. And I was able to stay at home with Piper, which I wouldn’t give up for all the money or prestige in the world.

My best friend, Chrystal, has taken a different path but is still working and planning to be a stay-at-home mom when the time comes. When she finished college, she wasn’t dating anyone and honestly thought she’d never get married. So she started pharmacy school, but before long was dating a great guy and making plans for the future. They got married a few years later, and Chrystal graduated from pharmacy school in May. Most young couples with two (very good) incomes would be living it up – vacationing, buying cars and a house, enjoying the fruits of their labor. But Chrystal really wants to be a stay-at-home mom as soon as possible. She and her husband are living modestly off of his income and throwing all of her salary and any extra money they have toward her student loan debt. In a few years they’ll be debt free, accustomed to living on one salary, and prepared for Chrystal to stay at home with their children.

I write all of this as a reflection on my journey to becoming a stay-at-home mom, but also to encourage other young women. If you desire to be a stay-at-home mom, plan for it. Keep yourself out of debt. Make college and grad school decisions with your end goal in mind. Don’t listen to anyone who thinks motherhood is not a good career choice. Ignore the pressure to find success and prestige in a degree or a salary. Our culture says motherhood has little value, but don’t listen to that. It’s the most important job, and the most rewarding. I promise you, if being a stay-at-home mom is your desire, you won’t find fulfillment in any other career.

Only in Alabama: The Coondog Cemetery

Remember the scene in the movie Sweet Home Alabama where they sit in the coon dog graveyard and mourn the death of their dog and the loss of their relationship? Did you think that was just another made-up, stereotypical insult to Alabamians? Well, friends, I have news for you. It’s real. It exists. And I’ve been there. Twice.

My first adventure at the Coon Dog Cemetery was on Christmas Day, 2008. JD and I went to eat lunch with his grandparents, and we found ourselves driving them around northwest Alabama, visiting their favorite places. We saw where Grandad was born, the house Grandmom grew up in, the cemetery where Grandad’s sister was buried, and the schools they had attended. And then, without warning, it happened. I found myself (on Christmas Day, in a dress and high heels) stepping out of the car and into the Coon Dog Cemetery.

We read the grave markers, and JD’s grandparents knew stories about some of the dogs. Grandad told us about family gatherings at the Cemetery when he was younger – where the men would “sand the creek” to catch fish and the women would bring large “wash pots” to cook them in. Apparently, in this family, the Coon Dog Cemetery was a sacred spot. As if to prove it, JD took me to see the tree where he and his cousins had carved their initials when they were kids.

Y’all, I’m not making this up.

When my parents, Piper, and I went to the Rattlesnake Saloon a few weeks ago, we realized that we were only a few miles from the Cemetery. How could we go home without stopping by and paying our respects? How could I let my parents miss out on this unique spot of Alabama history? How could I not introduce Piper to a place so dear to her family?

So, I found myself once again stepping out of the car (this time in jeans and Toms, thankfully) and into the Cemetery. I didn’t have JD’s grandparents with me to tell the stories, but I was fortunate enough to find a brochure. Let me share a few of the more interesting quotes and excerpts with you.

“In a small, grassy clearing, deep in the rich, thick wilderness of Freedom Hills, Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. They had hunted together for more than 15 years. They had been close friends.”

Good old Troop’s grave is surrounded with flowers and other tokens of remembrance. He was the first dog buried at this site, and the most beloved.

” ‘When I buried Troop, I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery,’ said Underwood. ‘I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.’ “

More than 200 coon dogs from all over the United States are buried in the Cemetery now, and there are strict requirements to qualify for burial. The dog must be an authentic coon-hound with witnesses to verify its lineage and an inspection by a local coon hunter’s organization.

“A spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunter’s Association summed it up this way: ‘A dog can’t run no deer, possum — nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound. Couldn’t be a mixed up breed dog, a house dog.'”

Key Underwood, Troop’s owner and the Cemetery’s founder, when asked about allowing other breeds to be buried there, responded: “‘You must not know much about coon hunters and their dogs, if you think we would contaminate this burial place with poodles and lap dogs.'”

The graves of these authentic coon hounds are well-marked. Some with homemade markers:

And some with fancy headstones:

If you think you’re up for a visit to the Coon Dog Cemetery, might I recommend going on Labor Day? Every year the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunter’s Association hosts a Labor Day celebration honoring the deceased dogs. You can celebrate by listening to music, eating barbecue, dancing, and witnessing the legendary ‘liar’s contest.”  You might even see JD’s grandmom and grandad there — they’re regulars!

www.coondogcemetery.com

Coondog Cemetery on Facebook

High Noon at the Rattlesnake Saloon

My parents like to go on road trips. As I’m writing this, they are on the back roads somewhere between Birmingham and Nashville checking out the fall scenery and discovering hole-in-the wall restaurants and shops. Last Saturday, however, they didn’t have anything planned, and invited me and Piper to ride along and explore with them.

Our destination: The Rattlesnake Saloon.

The Rattlesnake Saloon is a restaurant and bar built in the mouth of a cave. It’s located near Tuscumbia, Alabama, very close to where JD’s grandparents grew up. His Grandmom told me that before they had electricity, her mother would send her down to the springs near the cave to store their milk in the cool water. When JD’s dad was a teenager, the University of Alabama sent a research team to excavate the cave and recover Indian artifacts. Well, the Indians have been gone a long time, and electricity eventually came to the area. What’s left is a good burger joint and a fun afternoon!

When you pull into the parking lot, you might wonder if you’re in the right place. All you can see are horse stables and pastures. But if you wait in the parking lot for a minute, the “Saloon Taxi” truck will pull up and drive you down to the cave.

In the mouth of the cave, there are tables and a stage. In the Saloon building, there is a kitchen, a bar, and more tables. I was a little worried about taking my toddler to a saloon; but they don’t serve alcohol until 5pm, and the lunch crowd is full of families with children and church groups of senior adults.

We had read in the newspaper (and heard from several friends) that the Rattlesnake Saloon’s burgers had won a “Best in the State” award last year. I ordered the Rustler Burger, and it definitely lived up to its reputation. Fried cheesecake is also on the menu, and I wish we had left room to try it!

My girl had a great time, too. She danced and sang on the stage, ate french fries, and talked to the horses. She got VERY dirty, but that was just part of the fun.

I’m already looking forward to our next trip to the Rattlesnake Saloon, and I think you should check it out, too.

Rattlesnake Saloon Website

Rattlesnake Saloon on Facebook

Seven Years: The Highlight Reel

Last week JD and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been married forever, and then sometimes it’s hard to believe that seven years have passed.

JD and I met at church, and knew each other for a few years before we started dating. We dated for two-and-a-half years, during which time I started college, JD graduated from college, I transferred to a different college, JD got a job at his home church, and we learned how to date long-distance.

JD asked me to marry him on either my 21st birthday or his 25th birthday. (His birthday is the day after mine, and it was close to midnight, so we’re just not sure!) After a seven month engagement, we were married on October 8, 2005.

When we got married, I moved to Albertville. Four months later, we moved to Dothan. Three years later, we moved to Macon, GA. After a sixth-month stay in Macon, we moved to Huntsville. Two years after that, we moved to Decatur.

Seven years. Five houses and one loft apartment. Six moves. Needless to say, I’m tired of moving!

In 2006, I graduated from UAB with a degree in secondary education and history. In 2008, JD graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a Masters in Divinity.

We’ve had: One cat. Two dogs. Five cars. Six computers. Five iPods. Five iPhones.

We’ve been to five youth camps, six D-Now weekends, two conferences, and two mission trips. (And those are just the ones we’ve gone on together since we’ve been married!)

We’ve traveled to Jamaica, Seattle, and Athens, Greece (not to mention most of the southeast.)

The greatest adventure of our marriage, however, began in the summer of 2010 when we found out we were going to be parents.

Piper was born on January 25, 2011. She’s definitely the greatest blessing we’ve received in our marriage, and we don’t know how we ever managed without her.

So, seven years after saying, “I do,” I’m still counting my blessings. I’m thankful for every funny story, every inside joke, and every minute I’ve spent with my husband and daughter. Life is good and (most importantly) God is good.

The Hardest Part of Being a Pastor’s Wife

I love my husband. I love that he loves Jesus and the Church. I love that he spends his life for the sake of the gospel. Every Sunday as he preaches from the Word, I am proud of him. I love being a pastor’s wife, and I consider it a high compliment when I am called Mrs. Preacher.

However,  alongside the joys of being a pastor’s wife, there are many struggles, and these struggles have been heavy on my heart lately. And what’s the point in having a blog if I can’t use it to reflect and process personal struggles from time to time? So, here is my countdown of the hardest struggles I’ve faced as a pastor’s wife.

(Before I begin with my list, however, I need to clarify that my husband has prioritized his family and ministry responsibilities to keep me from facing the main struggle of most pastors’ wives. Many (if not most) wives of full-time ministers have to sacrifice time with their husbands in the name of service to the church. Many (if not most) full-time ministers wrongly prioritize their ministry to the church above their ministry to their families. One pastor’s wife I know and love told me once that she often felt like a single mom. I’m so thankful I haven’t had that experience. JD has committed to make his ministry to our family a higher priority than his ministry to his church, and he sets clear boundaries between family time and church time. He spends ample quality with me and Piper, and I am incredibly thankful for a husband who keeps his priorities in line.)

With that major struggle averted, here is my list of the hardest challenges I’ve faced in seven years of marriage to a full-time minister:

5) Unrealistic Expectations. Once upon a time I was a young, newly married youth pastor’s wife. Within a week of moving to a new church in a new city, I was (quite aggressively) asked to lead an interpretive dance ministry group, made up of about a dozen 40 to 60 year old ladies. They told me they were so excited that JD and I had come to their church because they needed a new leader and God had sent me to them. I was caught completely off guard, but thankfully had the presence of mind to stammer some excuse about needing to settle in before I made any commitments.

I might have gotten off the hook for that one, but I’m really not good as saying “no” and I’ve had to do many things I never wanted to. For example: 1) Choreographing youth Christmas musicals. (Even though I’ve never had a dance class in my life.) 2) Playing the keyboard in Easter programs. (I really tried to say no to this one. Several times.) 3) Confronting two middle school girls who were making a college-aged guy uncomfortable with their flirting. (Apparently neither the guy nor the moms who called me to do this could handle it themselves.) 4) Teaching a kids’ Bible Drill class. 5) Babysitting choir-members’ kids during the Easter program.

That’s just a small list of things I didn’t say “no” to. Here are a few of the requests I’ve denied: 1) Helping with an all-day kids’ sports camp (when I had a five-month-old baby.) 2) Teaching sixth grade VBS. 3) Joining the choir. (I’ve said no to this one more times than I can count!) 4) Enforcing modest dress among female church members.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love to serve in the church. I have taught youth Sunday School and small groups, mentored girls, led Bible studies, organized tutoring programs, spoken at Missions’ events, gone on mission trips, played in a hand-bell choir, etc. I even worked as JD’s assistant for a (short) season! But please, church members, if you love your pastor’s wife, let her choose how she serves. Don’t pressure her into serving in ways you think befit her position.

4) Unjust Criticisms. When JD is criticized, I take it much harder than he does. He is my hero, and I know the motivations and thoughts behind his actions. I understand his personality, his priorities, and his philosophy of ministry. When he is criticized unfairly, I get angry. Really angry.

Once, we were new to a church and spending time getting to know people. Instead of returning that favor, several people made a rash judgment about JD. They went to the senior pastor and complained that JD was arrogant. Those of you who know my husband will know how ludicrous that is. Introverted? yes. Arrogant? heck, no! Apparently he made a quick stop by an after-church party, said a general hello to everyone, spoke with the person he came to speak to, said a general goodbye, and left. Therefore, because he didn’t spend a hour engaging every person in the room in in-depth conversation, he was arrogant. In addition to this rash (and false) judgment, the complainers didn’t have the courage to address JD with this issue! Needless to say, when I heard about this I was irate. I’m still mad thinking about it. And I wish this was the only time in our ministry that JD was unjustly criticized, but it’s not, and dealing with this is a hard struggle.

3) Unnecessary Drama. There are some issues that are important and worth fighting for in the church. We can fight to protect sound doctrine, we can fight to remove prejudices, and we can fight sin. But there are some issues that simply are not worth fighting over. Those are the issues that (at least in our years of ministry) seem to cause the most trouble.

At one church we fought about doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. Krispy Kremes, to be exact. We fought about doughnuts on multiple occasions over the course of several years. The debate got very heated and people took sides. Over doughnuts. Can you see me rolling my eyes here? If you’re going to fight for the church, fight over an issue that matters! Fight injustice, fight poverty, fight modern-day slavery, fight abortion. Fight for the spread of the gospel. Fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. But for goodness sake, don’t you have something better to do than fight over doughnuts?

2) Unsaid words. Over the years I’ve learned that one of the most essential skills of a pastor’s wife is the ability to hold her tongue. In good and bad circumstances, there are things I want to say that I can’t. I want to defend my husband against criticism. I want to explain why he does things the way he does them. I want to tell people to back off. I want to tell people what I think of them. I want to debate. I want to fight.

A part of my “flesh” that I’m continually trying to overcome is my desire to argue and debate. I enjoy it, and I’m good at it. In an English class debate I once made a girl cry. I often make up conflict scenarios in my head and think about the words I would use to make my case. (That’s not weird, is it?) When we’re facing drama or criticism within the church, my mind fills with arguments, debate points, stingers, and put-downs. But can I use them? No. Do I ever wish I had? Occasionally. But 99% of the time I’m so thankful I kept them to myself.

There is one past conversation that I wish I could return to and say what was in my head. But in that moment, I was so hurt and so mad that I was on the verge of tears and couldn’t say anything for fear of breaking down. Those tears, I truly believe, were God’s way of keeping me from saying something I would regret; and I’m sure that if I could return to that situation, He would send me those same tears of frustration. I just have to learn that, as hard as they are to keep in, there is grace in unsaid words.

1) Unfinished Ministry. By far the hardest thing about being a pastor’s wife is leaving a church. We’ve left four, and I miss people from every single one of those churches. Saying goodbye to people you love is never easy, even when you know God has ordained your move.

A friend and fellow pastor’s wife recently told me that she has needed to put up a wall between herself and the people of her church to keep herself from getting too attached. She and her husband have moved many times, served in many churches, and left behind many friends. And while I hate to admit this, I know I’ve been guilty of the same thing. If I don’t get too close, it won’t hurt as much when we have to leave.

This wall-building, however, never lasts. We can’t help but develop close friendships with the people who serve in the church alongside us. And honestly, we want and need those friendships badly. So we let down our walls and enjoy a season of life in community with those friends and pray that we won’t be called to move on. (At least for a long time.)

Thank you for praying for your pastor and your pastor’s wife. I really do love my position in ministry and I’m thankful for the things God is teaching me through these struggles. So, fellow pastors’ wives: what would you add? What are the hardest struggles for you?

Color Running in the Rain

Last Monday, Dad, Ellen, and I participated in The Color Run. Oh, I mean, we Color Ran.

I began hearing about The Color Run sometime last year (probably through Pinterest.) After completing the Couch to 5K program in the Spring, I was so excited to register for the Run in Birmingham, and I somehow talked my dad and sister into registering with me. Honestly, we didn’t train very hard and we weren’t too interested in logging a good time — we just thought it looked like a lot of fun!

The Color Run is a 5K where volunteers throw colored powder on you at each kilometer marker. You start off wearing white and as you run the race you get colored yellow, blue, pink, and orange. At the finish line every participant has a color packet to throw in the air to celebrate and get even more colored. Sounds like fun, right?

On the day of the run, we got up early and headed toward Barber Motor Sports in Leeds. As we pulled into the venue, it started to rain. Getting out of the car, we had a five minute conversation about whether or not to bring an umbrella. We didn’t want to have to carry it while we ran, but neither did we want to stand in the rain for an hour-and-a-half waiting for the Run to start. We finally decided to bring the umbrella, and I cannot even tell you how glad I am that we did. We got lined up in the starting chute (with lots of time left to stand there and wait) and the bottom fell out. Seriously. Cats and dogs.

But despite the rain, everyone was so excited. Girls were wearing tutus and tiaras. Guys were sporting fake mustaches. Neon was everywhere. And this couple? A cheerleader and Elvis? Turns out I’m related to them.

Meet my cousin, Josh, and his sweet wife, Amy. I’m so glad we found them in the crowd and got to run with them! And standing next to Josh in the starting chute was kind of like sitting at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom. People wanted to take his picture. He was kind of a big deal.

In the starting chute, we were getting geared up. Not warmed up, mind you, as there was no room to stretch. Several people around us couldn’t wait for the finish line and threw their color packets over the crowd before we even started. Meanwhile, it started raining even harder. Have I mentioned that I was thankful for that umbrella? It at least kept me from getting soaked through before we even started.

Finally, fourteen minutes past starting time, they let us loose. I folded up my umbrella and off we went. I had never really run in the rain before, and I have to tell you, I didn’t mind it! It was nice and cool, and rain dripping down my face feels much less gross than sweat dripping down my face. Running on the track at Barber Motor Sports was also a neat experience. I wasn’t quite prepared for the hills, but we made it. At the color stations we put on our sunglasses and held our breath as we ran past the volunteers and got doused with color. Now, I imagine the effect is different when it’s not raining, but the powder got a little pasty when mixed with the water. And it ran. We passed a girl who had gotten a good dose of blue powder, and Dad said, “Those are the worst varicose veins I’ve ever seen!” in reference to the rivulets of blue running down her legs.

We made pretty good time considering we were slowing down to run through the color zones, walking up some of the larger hills, and splashing through several inches of water on the track. At the finish line celebration, it was raining even harder, so our pictures are blurry. (By the way – thanks, Ellen, for bringing your waterproof camera!) But here’s the end result:

And wouldn’t you know that as we got into the parking lot the rain finally let up? (Which allowed us to take a few more “after” pictures.)

Don’t you love Dad’s pink hair? We were secretly hoping it wouldn’t wash out for a few days!

As proud as we were to finish with a strong time, we were even prouder to get home and get cleaned up. (Well, at least I was.) And it sure was nice to eat a big meal at Jim-N-Nick’s for lunch, and even nicer to see other (still colorful and soggy) color runners there.

But as I reflect on the race, I don’t really feel like I experienced a true Color Run. What we did Monday in the monsoon was a completely different race than what I expected. Don’t get me wrong– it was a ton of fun, but still not the conditions of a true Color Run. I guess the only thing to do is sign up to run it again next year! Who’s with me?