Unplanned and perfect

Have I ever told you about my favorite day? Maybe that’s weird to you that I have a favorite day. I don’t know if that’s a normal thing or not. But I do, and you might be surprised to learn that it’s not my wedding day, or any of the days I gave birth to my children (although those days are etched in my memory and tucked in my heart forever).

No, my favorite day ever happened on a Tuesday in June, during the summer of 2017. My family and I were taking a big two-week road/camping trip throughout Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming. We’d flown into Denver and rented a 30 foot RV and we had 14 days to see and do as much as we could fit in.

As you can imagine, a trip like this doesn’t just happen. There was an entire year’s worth of planning that went into this trip, which I’d been dreaming about for even longer. And if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s plan. I had mapped out our route carefully, estimating the driving time for each day, how long we’d stay at each destination, reserved camp sites, booked fishing trips, ordered a National Park Pass, and even tried to build in “extra time” in case things went wrong, as I new surely something would.

It didn’t take long for the first set-back. After 2 days exploring Denver and Colorado Springs, and visiting with my sister-in-law and her family, we were scheduled to pick-up our RV on a Monday. The plan was to pick it up by 1 p.m. and hit the road by 2, getting a solid 4 hours of driving in on day one. But when we landed in Denver I discovered an email from the RV rental place asking I call to book a pick-up time. When I called I was told that the earliest slot they had available was 4:30 p.m. I knew that getting the RV back to my sister-in-law’s house, loaded up, and then dealing with Denver rush hour traffic meant the earliest we could possibly hit the road would be 6 — if we were lucky.

Frustrated at the early set-back, I revisited our itinerary for the first two days and decided we’d have to find a campground closer to Denver for our first night, which would mean cancelling our plans to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park on Tuesday since we’d need to drive at least 6 hours to get to our next destination, Cortez, CO, by Tuesday night. It was disappointing, but I tried to be flexible and luckily found a campground with space that was only 2 hours from Denver.

We pulled into our site in Buena Vista after dark on Monday, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. Tuesday morning we awoke early and got to finally see the beautiful campsite in the daylight. We hiked down to the Arkansas River, which ran along the edge of the campground, had breakfast, and hit the road. Since we were no longer going to Sand Dunes, I found a more direct route from where we were in Buena Vista to Cortez. The goal was just to make good time and arrive in Cortez by dusk. What I didn’t realize at the time was that our more direct route would take us across the Wolf Creek Pass, a stunningly beautiful and historic route (and also part of the route the Griswold’s took in National Lampoon’s Vacation).

The first half of the day brought us great weather and a beautiful drive through Colorado farm land, with the mountains making a stunning backdrop. Around 12:30 p.m. we rolled into South Fork, CO and stopped for lunch at a little Mexican restaurant where we ate burritos the size of our heads!

Then we began the ascent to the top of the San Juan Mountains, where you cross the Continental Divide. As we got higher in elevation we saw snow covering the ground, which my kids thought was crazy since it was the middle of June. By the time we got to the top – at 10,000 feet elevation — we decided we had to pull over and enjoy it. In our flip-flops and shorts we hopped out of the RV and ran through the snow, and even had a snowball fight. It was the most unexpected moment of sheer joy and laughter.

We continued our drive and a few miles later saw signs for a waterfall, Treasure Falls, and decided we had to stop and explore. That stop turned into a 40 minute hike to the middle of the falls where they had a misting deck. My kids danced and twirled, getting soaked from the mist of the powerful water. A few more stops to enjoy the view as we descended the pass added to the day and we finally pulled into our campsite in Cortez about 7 p.m. that night — several hours later than planned, but full on happy memories.

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It was, without a doubt, a picture-perfect day. Nothing was planned, everything was unexpected, and our hearts were full of joy as we took in the wonder of each new discovery. I often look at the photos from that day and smile, reminiscing about how much we laughed, how much we loved one another, and how effortless it was. There were a lot of wonderful things we did and saw that trip — things I had dreamed of doing my whole life, like seeing the Grand Canyon at sunset, and standing in front of Old Faithful in Yellowstone. But the day that stands out most to me is that Tuesday when we had no plans.

For this Type-A personality, who likes writing lists, and making plans, and crossing off to-do lists, the lesson is not lost on me. When I think back to this day and what made it so perfect, sure it was partly the beautiful scenery, and lack of incident. But I think it was more so my lack of expectations, the not-knowing what lie ahead, and being surprised by the gifts God presented to us along the way. Too often in my life I plan and work to craft these ideal experiences — perfect date nights, perfect parties, perfect ministry events, perfect holidays — and too often I am left feeling disappointed by all that didn’t go according to plan.

God reminded me on a Tuesday in June that often He has something even better waiting for me. But it’s only after I let go of expectations and control that I am able to experience these gifts.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

Stories for hope: how one family is honoring their premature triplets by giving children’s books to hospitals

When I was pregnant with my twins I was put on bed-rest at 34 weeks because of some early-labor symptoms. The doctor told me as long as I could make it to 36 weeks, it would be considered a full-term twin pregnancy. At 36 and a half weeks I felt the contractions begin and I could not wait for those babies to be born. I was D-O-N-E being pregnant!

I labored through the night and into the next day, my only focus: getting through the pain and trying to deliver my babies safely. When they placed my tiny 5 pound, 11 ounce little boy in my arms after 22 hours of hard labor I was overjoyed! Here it was, what we’d been waiting 9 months for, and he looked perfect to me. A few minutes later they whisked him away so I could focus on delivering his sister. She arrived weighing in at just 5 pounds, with some powerful lungs, and I breathed a sigh of relief…two healthy, beautiful babies.

Twenty minutes later, my bubble of euphoria was burst. A pediatric doctor from the hospital came to talk to us. Something was wrong with my son. They had taken him to the NICU. The next few minutes were a blur of words like emergency surgery, transport to another hospital, and birth defect. My beautiful boy had been born with a condition called imperforate anus. His little body had not quite finished developing and as a result he would not be able to pass stool. If he didn’t have surgery right away he would get very sick and the local hospital where I had delivered my babies did not have the pediatric surgery specialty needed to perform the delicate operation.

At one day old my son was transported two-hours away to the University of Virginia Hospital and at two days old he had his first corrective surgery (a second surgery happened when he was 6 months). My husband followed along and I stayed behind with our baby girl because she was having trouble maintaining her birth weight and was jaundice. The following week was mostly a blur and I only remember bits and pieces. A few days after his surgery, I was finally able to travel the 2 hours to see my son. As I sat in that NICU holding my tiny boy with an IV taped to his little hand, trying to nurse him for the first time, I cried. Tears of relief, fatigue, love, fear, gratitude…all of it flowed out.

As scary as those early days were, I will always look back with fondness for the NICU teams at both hospitals. I am eternally grateful for their kindness, quick action, skill, and empathy. I also realize how lucky we were. At seven days old, both of my babies were home, making our stay in the NICU relatively short. Many families are not as fortunate. Their babies spend weeks, even months in the care of the NICU staff. Which is why I want to tell you about the Triple Heart Foundation.

Stacey Skrysak gave birth to triplets Peyton, Parker and Abby in 2013, at 22 weeks 6 days gestation. Abby passed away shortly after birth; Parker passed away in the NICU at nearly two months old. Peyton is their lone survivor, a healthy and happy 5-year-old girl.

When Peyton and Parker were first whisked away to the NICU, Stacey and her husband Ryan felt helpless. Their one-pound babies were too fragile to hold. After a few days of staring through the isolette windows, a nurse made the suggestion of reading books to their babies. Stacey and Ryan began bringing books to the hospital, creating a bedside library by the time Peyton came home at 4 months old. The books provided comfort and created a special bond during a trying time.

In 2016 Stacey and Ryan created the Triple Heart Foundation — in honor of their premature triplets — to help other families who spend hours, upon hours in the NICU waiting for the day they can bring their baby home. They Triple Heart Foundation provides new children’s books, care packages, and other gifts to families in the NICU. While Triple Heart Foundation currently serves the Springfield, Illinois area, Ryan and Stacey have plans to reach other hospitals in Illinois. Triple Heart Foundation also takes requests from families across the country.

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Spread the word! Follow Triple Heart Foundation on Facebook and share with others the good work they are doing.
  2. Donate new books. Check out this page on their website for more information on what type of books they need and how to send them.
  3. Hold a fundraiser or send monetary donations. Triple Heart Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity and is 100% funded through donations. Click here for more information on how to donate.

 

This blog post was written in partnership with the Blogging for Better Supporters, a collective platform to raise awareness and money for a different charity each month. #bloggingforbetter

 

 

photo credit: Stv. Peek-a-boo! via photopin (license)

Not just a wife and mother – a love letter to my family

I never wanted to be known as a wife and mother. I wanted to BE a wife and I wanted to BE a mom, but I didn’t want those to be my defining labels. I guess I was afraid of losing my own identity and that scared me.

From a very young age I had this idea that I was meant to be somebody. You know, make a name for myself. Maybe as a famous writer, or high-powered executive, or motivational speaker. If not famous, at least known for all I accomplished and contributed to the world.

Jelise the missionary who shaped communities and brought people to Christ.

Jelise the small business owner who brought joy to her community and served with love.

Jelise the college professor who shaped young minds and encouraged them to follow their dreams and do their best.

All things I thought I might be at some point. None of which I became.

Instead, I became David’s wife. I became Hannah, Daniel and Olivia’s mom. I became known to many as Mrs. Ballon, instead of Jelise. It’s what I was afraid of.

At 23 years old instead of heading off to join the Peace Corps, I headed down the aisle. I stood across from that handsome groom and promised myself to him forever, no matter what would come our way. And boy did stuff come our way. So much ugly, scary, knock-the-wind-right-out-of-you stuff. He needed me and I him, and we mostly clung to each other through all of it. Then one day it occurred to me that God chose me to be David’s wife because He knew.

At 25 years old instead of laying the foundation of my own business the mid-wife laid a beautiful baby on my stomach. A week late entering the world, I swear she tried to pick up her head as she stared at me with those great big chocolate-brown M&M eyes. And for nearly 16 years I have loved her, cried for and with her, and prayed so much it that if printed to paper it would make War and Peace seem like a Reader’s Digest. Then  somewhere along the way it occurred to me that God chose me to be Hannah’s mom because He knew.

At 28 years old instead of delivering a great lecture or speech, I delivered a little boy so anxious to enter the world he hadn’t even finished growing in my womb, followed quickly by the feistiest little 5 pound bundle of red faced, screaming girl you’ve ever seen. And my heart grew three sizes larger, even though the days were hard and the nights were long and I thought I would never leave the house again. But at some point over the next 13 years it occurred to me that God chose me to be Daniel’s mom and Olivia’s mom because He knew.

 

God knew that man would need me to love him when he struggled to love himself, to stand by him as he fought addiction, to care for him when he was sick, to forgive him when he fell short and to cheer him on when he felt like he couldn’t.

God knew that brown-eyed girl would need a mom who understood what it was like to dream big, to want to do it all, and try to make everyone else happy in the process. That she would need someone who could be her biggest fan, and also push her to try harder when things didn’t come easy. Someone who understands what it’s like to feel everything, and that sometimes a good cry over a bowl of ice cream just because it’s Tuesday is all that’s needed.

God knew that anxious little boy who entered the world with a larger-than-life spirit, but broken body would need an advocate. He’d need someone to hold him before and after two surgeries when he was just a baby, and years later take him to see countless doctors and specialists until there were proper diagnoses and treatments. He would need a mom who saw the absolute best in him, even when he was at his worst, and who was determined to pick up the pieces of his heart every time it broke, even while hers was quietly breaking all the while.

God knew that red-faced, screaming little bundle would need a mom to hold and cuddle her at all hours of the night when she refused to sleep. Someone strong enough to walk away as the girl screamed and cried at each goodbye, but who always came back (sometimes just 20 minutes later). And she would need someone who could listen and listen, and listen, for the little girl liked to talk a lot and needed to know there was someone there she could count on to always listen.

And God knew I needed them. I needed that man to teach me what real love looks like. Deep, in the trenches, 100% all-in, God-centered love….

…And I needed that brown-eyed girl to remind me what it was to dream-big and love fiercely, and bring people together by always seeing the best in them…

…And I needed that little boy to teach me patience and perseverance; to show me if that much strength and tenacity could come in a lanky 80 pound package, how much more did I have…

…And I needed that itty-bitty girl with the loud cry that echoed off walls so that my lap would never be cold, and so every single time I heard her sweet voice say, “mama” (she’s 13 and still calls me that) my heart would melt into a giant puddle and every bit of tension and stress from the day would be washed away.

 

I never wanted to be just a wife and a mother. But gosh dang it I needed to be his wife and their mother.

As Jelise, David’s wife, I’ve brought joy to my home and served with love.

As Jelise, Hannah, Daniel and Olivia’s mom, I’ve shaped young minds and always encouraged them to do their best and follow their dreams.

As Jelise, wife and mother, I’ve shaped our little community of five, doing my best to keep our hearts fixed on Christ.

And it is in this way that I became more myself than ever before.

 

 

“I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return.” Philippians 1:9-11 (NLT)

 

Five ways to celebrate Advent with children

The Advent season officially kicks off this week. Many churches celebrate Advent every year as a fixed part of the church calendar. But if you didn’t grow up in one of these churches or aren’t sure what Advent is all about, here’s a simple definition, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

I love this definition because it describes the season (December 2-24) as both a time of “expectant waiting” and a time of “preparation”. What a wonderful way to view the Christmas season! Not just as a time to prepare our homes with decorations, presents, and cookies; not only as a time to wait expectantly for the big guy in the red suit. But a time to prepare our hearts for Christ and for whatever God is calling us to do, as well as a time to reflect on the glorious gift He gave us, excitedly counting down the days to when we declare “for unto us a child is born”!

If you’re like my family, sometimes the other side of Christmas can get in the way of true Christ-centered waiting and preparation. But here are five ways you and your family, no matter what age your kids are, can celebrate Advent this year:

1. With a daily Advent devotion

A few years ago I bought Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift to read with my kids. It’s a beautiful book that takes your family through the journey of God’s people leading right up to the birth of our Savior on Christmas Day. Each day’s reading includes a story and related scripture, and it was a great way for us to all come together as a family each evening and focus our attention on the reason for this season. I would recommend this for families with children 8 years and up as the readings are a bit long for little ones. However, since buying Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, Voskamp has come out with a pop-up book called The Wonder of the Greatest Gift that looks like it would be more suitable for younger children, although I personally have not seen it in person.

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Photo credit: “Reading” by Sarah Elizabeth Altendorf

2. A Jesse Tree 

I first heard about the Jesse Tree when reading Ann Voskamp’s book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. The Jesse Tree is an interactive way to tell the stories of the Bible that lead up to the birth of Jesus. Each day there is a scripture reading and an associated ornament to represent that day’s lesson. Your family can either hang the ornaments on your Christmas Tree or have a small separate “Jesse Tree” just for this tradition. There are lots of places to buy Jesse Tree ornaments, but you can also make them yourself. I especially love this tutorial from Faith and Fabric.

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Photo credit: Weihnachtsdekoration mit Rentier-Kissen und Weihnachtsbaum by marcoverch

3. With an Advent Elf or Kindness Elf 

By now we all know about the “Elf on the Shelf”; but if incorporating that little North Pole spy and all of his crazy antics into your Christmas traditions is not for you, here are some alternative ideas that stick close to the heart of the Advent Season:

  • My friend Lauren from Blacktop to Dirt Road has the Kindness Elf show up to her house each year, beginning December 1st and staying through the Advent season. This cute little guy encourages Lauren’s family to do something kind each day, reminding them of the kindness and character Christ first exhibited for us.
  • Another friend of mine, Anne from Once Upon a Mom has introduced the Advent Elves into her family tradition. These elves help her family with their Jesse Tree by showing up each morning with that day’s ornament. So cute!

4. Intentional prayer as a family

Sometimes something as simple as time set-aside each day to pray together as a family is all you need to keep your heart focused on what’s truly special about Advent. Ask each member of the family to report on how they saw Jesus in action that day, what they did to shine His light to others, and who they saw that needs help or is hurting. Then pray together, praising God for His faithfulness and action, and lifting up those in need. This is simple and requires no pre-planning or materials.

However, if you’d like something a little more structured, check out this Advent Prayer Guide from my friend Bailey Suzio at The Thin Place.

Family hold hands around the kitchen table before their meal

5. Seek Peace Together

Let’s face it, this time of year can be one of the busiest we face, and in our rush and haste it’s easy to lose focus on the real reason for the season, coasting into December 25th exhausted, grumpy, and stressed out. A simple way to combat that is to be intentional in seeking peace. This will look different for each family. For some it may mean cutting back on extra-curricular activities and/or saying no to certain events in order to be home more in the evenings and on the weekends. For others it may mean scheduling family dinners a few nights a week. For my family it means protecting Sundays as our day of rest, as much as possible.

Take it a step further and use that down-time to read what God has to say about peace. You can download my free 31 Days of Seeking Peace scripture calendar and use it as a guide for you and your family. The readings are short, so this can easily be incorporated into prayer time, a Jesse Tree, or other Advent tradition.

 

31 Days of Seeking Peace

Whatever you do, I believe by spending a little bit of time each day to come together as a family and remember the special gift that God gave us not only keeps us focused on the reason for this season, it prepares our hearts to celebrate and accept that gift today and throughout the year.

If you or your family have other traditions for celebrating Advent, I’d love to hear about them!

 

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She needed her story told

When I was 13 I was molested by my step-father. There was no police report filed. There was no public announcement made. I never even got to confront him. When I told my mom what had happened she could not accept the truth. She said I had misunderstood. She said if I reported it to anyone it could ruin his life and his career.

Two days later I went to live with my dad and step-mom, where I could feel safe, but still no one talked about what happened. There was a lot of whispering behind closed doors. There were awkward hugs and “how are you doing?” from family members. I wasn’t sure who knew and who didn’t. If they did know, most of them never said anything to me, and I was afraid to bring it up.

I was sent to a counselor – a stranger who sat behind a large desk. This was supposed to be the place where I could talk about what happened, but it was the absolute last place I wanted to be. While no one ever said the topic was taboo, I felt it deep in my heart. I felt like it was too big, too real for anyone to handle. So I pushed down my truth and hid it in a dark corner, under a heavy rock in the pit of my stomach. There it stayed for many years.

I was embarrassed and I was scared of how my truth could tear apart my family and destroy my already estranged relationship with my mom. But hiding my truth, and avoiding true healing impacted my other relationships, it impacted my mental health, and it impacted my spiritual growth. And so, for nearly 20 years I stayed stuck. That scared, angry, hurt 13 year old continued to live inside me feeling all of those same feelings but she wasn’t given a voice.

Nearly two decades later, fed up with it all, I sought out professional counseling and finally started to speak my truth. Then I began to share with other people what had happened to me. The first few times I told my story my hands trembled, my heart raced, and I sobbed — barely able to get the words out. Then, with each telling it got easier. With each telling I healed a little bit more; I took another step towards freedom and redemption. I began to own my past, not hide from it.

This was the beginning of learning how to forgive my mom.

 

Friends, I don’t want another woman or man who has faced sexual trauma to wait 20 years to find that same kind of freedom. That’s why I’m grateful for organizations like The Voices and Faces Project They are an award-winning, non-profit storytelling initiative created to bring the names, faces, and testimonies of survivors of gender-based violence to the attention of the public. Through the power of the personal testimony they are changing minds, hearts, and laws.

The Voices and Faces Project does this through educational and advocacy trainings, their survivor story archives (housed at The Voices and Faces Project and World Without Exploitation), and their signature program, The Stories We Tell – an immersive, two-day testimonial writing workshop for survivors of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and trafficking.

On this #givingTuesday will you consider being a part of this important work? Every $650 raised provides a full, two-day scholarship to a workshop applicant ready to take part in The Voices and Faces Project’s groundbreaking writing program. Together, let’s help another woman who needs her story told.

Click here to donate.

Click here to learn more about The Voices and Faces Project.

And don’t forget to share on social media so more people can learn about the life-changing work this organization is doing, and so those who are looking for freedom, healing, and redemption can connect with The Voices and Faces Project.

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The first half of this post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: Forgiven and Restored, planned for release in 2019.

This blog post was written in partnership with the Blogging for Better Supporters, a collective platform to raise awareness and money for a different charity each month. #bloggingforbetter