I survived the canoe disaster of 2014

Let me set the stage for you. It’s a sunny, beautiful June day in Chincoteague Island, VA. My family and I are here on our annual pilgrimage for a relaxing vacation in our favorite  beach town in the world. We’ve hauled our kayak and canoe the 5.5 hours from our home in the Shenandoah Valley in anticipation of some fun paddling adventures and decided today is the day. We’re not amateurs, mind you. My husband is an avid kayak fisherman who has spent many days on lakes, rivers and saltwater bays in his kayak. I grew up canoeing at summer camp, spent a week canoeing down the Shenandoah River when I was 13 and in college took canoe as one of my P.E. courses (seriously, Appalachian State rocks). Of course, it was during the final trip in that college course where my partner and I ended up flipping on a damn dam-controlled river, right as the waters were released, and our canoe got wedged under the rising water and we had to finish the trip sitting in the middle of classmates’ canoes. Five days later our instructor and some other people from the University went back to the river to rescue our canoe, which still had my trusty Jansport backpack tied to it. But I digress.

The point is my husband and I aren’t novices when it comes to paddling on water and we’ve taken our kids out on the lake where we live a number of times, so a day of paddling the waters of Oyster Bay seemed like a good idea. The afternoon started well enough. The house we rented is right on a little channel, so we boarded our vessels from the back yard and started our adventure. I was in the three-seater canoe with my two girls and my husband and son were in a tandem kayak. We exited the little channel that empties into Oyster Bay and, except for some very shallow areas where we skimmed bottom, we had no issues. We headed for an area across the bay called Morris Island in hopes of finding a sandy spot on the shore to dock and hunt for seashells.

Canoeing in Oyster Bay
The girls and I, before things took a turn for the worse.

As we got further out into the bay and closer to the island the wind started to pick up and so did the current. Pretty soon I was noticing the ripples in the water were looking more like small waves and the canoe was rocking pretty hard. This is is where the story starts to take a turn for the worse. As I tried to steer our canoe north (the wind was blowing south-east) I was met with serious resistance. The wind was turning us sideways, which meant the waves were hitting the side of the canoe and rocking us pretty badly. I started to get very nervous at this point and decided it was best we start heading back. But for each stroke of my paddle it felt like we were getting pushed further back in the opposite direction.

I’d like to tell you that this is the moment where I rose above it all. I stayed calm for the sake of my girls, said a silent prayer, put all my trust in God and a gentle breeze blew us across the little bay to the safety of the canal. Yep, I’d like to tell you that, but it’s not how things went down. Instead, I started to yell at my girls to paddle harder. I looked up at my husband floating in the kayak beside us; he seemed apathetic to the whole situation which totally frustrated me and so I said through gritted teeth “I don’t like this.” To which he responded “what do you want to do?” What did I want to do? I wanted to get the hell out of there, that’s what I wanted! And then a familiar thing happened, my fear turned to anger. And I directed all that anger at this man because he didn’t have the answer. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe he would magically produce a trolling motor? I knew it was not rational, but somehow this was all his fault, I just wasn’t sure how. Maybe it was because when I suggested the current looked a little fast before we embarked he said he thought it looked fine. Maybe it was his fault because he had been kayaking in these waters before and should have known what would happen. Or maybe it was just because he was in a kayak that in that moment looked like an aerodynamic engineering marvel while I felt like I was trying to navigate in a cement block. Then I noticed he had his little Go-Pro camera on his head and I yelled at him in my you-better-not-have-the-wrong-answer voice “are you recording this?” The poor man. He said nothing, but he did press the button to stop recording.

At this point my arms were burning and I started to panic a bit. I was having visions of the Coast Guard having to come rescue us. And my voice started to crack as I yelled at my girls to keep paddling. Then my eight year old started to cry and I felt like the absolute worst mom ever. How could I let them see my fear and worry? How could I bring them out into this bay without having explored it first myself? How could I yell at these little girls to paddle harder? The wave of humility and conviction hit me so hard I could barley breath past the lump in my throat. At that point I managed to steer us to the side of a marsh area that would keep us from being pushed any further back by the current so we could rest our weary arms. I told the girls it was all going to be OK, we just needed to rest and wait for the wind to die down a bit. After about 10 minutes I said “OK girls, we can do this!” and we started again. We got a little bit further, but the wind was pushing so hard that I had to constantly steer to keep us pointed in the right direction. This meant I was doing little paddling and my poor girls just didn’t have the strength in their strokes to make much progress against the current. So my husband yelled out he was going back to the house to get a rope so he could tow us home, and he and my son took off through the channel in their kayak cutting through the water like a hot knife through butter.

Somehow my girls and I managed to paddle our Yugo-of-a-water-vessel a little further and hit a shallow area covered in oyster shells and bottomed out in another effort to give us a rest. I started to consider getting out of the canoe and pulling it back to the canal. It was low tide and the shallow waters were knee-deep at best through a good bit of the bay. But we continued on, getting stuck a little further ahead on a sand bar. Then we saw my husband and son paddling toward us like the cavalry coming to our rescue. Eventually my 11 year old, who had been dying to get out of the canoe to play in the water and shells, and my husband, pushed the canoe off the sand bar and we were able to paddle the last little bit of bay into the safety of the canal.

Needless to say, it was not my finest moment. Not as a mother, wife, or believer. I let fear take over and that turned to frustration, anger, humility, and shame. Although I channeled it at my poor husband, the person I was most angry with was myself. Angry because I felt I couldn’t get us out of this situation, frustrated that I couldn’t be that mom you read about in news articles who stays calm in the midst of a crisis for the sake of her children. And humility and shame that not once during the entire situation did I try to let go of control and give it over to God. Why do I still forget to do that? How can I have been a believer for 25 years and still not get that one essential thing right?

Pslam 91 14-15 says “‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.” And Proverbs 3:5, 7 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…Do not be wise in your own eyes.” This is a pretty common theme throughout the Bible, and these are just two of the verses that remind us to put our faith and trust in God and not in ourselves. I know this, of course, but I still struggle with it. In so many areas of my life I try to keep it all together. Be the super-mom, perfect wife, shining-star employee, most thoughtful friend, etc., etc. But usually I’m doing those things to glorify myself and not God and as a result I almost always fall short. Today was a humbling reminder that I’m neither a super-star canoe paddler, or a model of grace-under-pressure. It was also a reminder that I can’t fix every situation. Some things (ok most things) are just out of my control and no matter how hard I paddle, if I am relying on myself, the wind and the current are going to push me back and I’ll just end up tired and frustrated.

As I finish writing this, my eight-year-old, whom I’m pretty sure I will not be able to convince to get into a canoe ever again, comes over and says “thanks for encouraging us today, mommy.” Me, with a baffled look on my face: “How did I encourage you today?” “You kept telling us we were doing a good job and to keep going.”

Next time I’m going to silent my fear and ego and listen for the Father so I can hear Him telling me I’m doing a good job, and to keep on going.

There’s just something really special about Caroline

For most people, referencing home or where they “grew-up” means a house or maybe even a town or neighborhood where they lived as a child. For me, going home to where I “grew-up” means going to an unassuming, but beautiful place hidden in the Blue Ridge Mountains called Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp. I was a camper there for 7 summers when I was a child. I met my dearest friend there; I met the Holy Spirit there.  I learned how to paddle a canoe, build a fire, and take a shower in under 2 minutes. And there is no place in the world that feels more like home to me. Now my children are campers at Caroline Furnace and a new generation is getting to experience a week of living in the woods, creating masterpieces out of yarn and Popsicle sticks, singing songs about yodeling ostriches and that one tin soldier riding away, and collecting slag.

The truth is I could probably write a hundred blog posts about Caroline Furnace, my summers there, and what it means to me. But today I want to share with you my most recent visit. This weekend was the annual spring work weekend at camp where volunteers are recruited to do much needed work around the camp grounds and facilities before the busy summer season. I waffled for a few weeks on whether or not we could attend because my midterm for my capstone is due tomorrow and I wasn’t sure I could really spare any time this weekend. On Wednesday I said to my husband, “do you mind if we go to Caroline Furnace on Saturday for work weekend?”  Don’t you like how I said “we”? Of course being the amazing man that he is, he didn’t hesitate at all. Even though he was never a camper there, he gets it about Caroline.

So we decided to go down for just the day. Like good little campers we filled our water bottles, put on our I-don’t-care-if-this-gets-dirty clothes and got on the road only slightly later than I intended. I knew from emails and Facebook that several old camp friends of mine would be there, including a friend whom I hadn’t actually seen since the last time we were at camp together — over 20 years ago! As I drove the familiar curves of the back-mountain road a little faster than I should have, I felt my heart quicken with excitement and couldn’t help but smile as memories came flooding back. It happens every time.

When we arrived, many people were already off doing their assigned morning tasks, since a large number of the volunteers had come up the night before. We were greeted by one of my former counselors, who is now on the camp’s Board of Directors and the driving force behind work weekend. After sharing a few hugs we were quickly sent to our assigned areas. The kids got to be on the “kid brigade”, I was put to work helping clean in the kitchen, and my husband was ushered off to help with work being done at the camp director’s house. I felt a small twinge of guilt and worry because I knew my husband wouldn’t really know anyone and it might be awkward for him. But I silently prayed he would not feel too out-of-place.

camp friends
Shannon and I, together again after 20 years. It was like no time had passed.

As I walked in the kitchen I found my friend Shannon, the one I hadn’t seen since we were kids. We immediately embraced like long-lost sisters and I felt none of the awkwardness you sometimes feel when you run into old high-school friends you haven’t seen or talked to in years. We caught up quickly, as I was aware I was there to do a job. There were a few other people I knew or recognized, and many I didn’t, but within moments we were all working side-by-side like we’d been scrubbing kitchens together our whole lives and it was the most natural thing for us to be doing at that moment. As I chatted to some of the other folks I found out some of them had been former campers, some former staff, others were parents or spouses of former campers or staffers. But everyone was there, gladly giving up their Saturday, because Caroline Furnace had touched their lives in some way.

I later found out there were over 70 people that came throughout the weekend to get dirty, sweat, and share their camp memories. Some of us knew each other before the weekend, others didn’t. But you wouldn’t know it looking from the outside in, because we all seemed like old friends in moments. We were only there for 7 hours that day, but by the end my kids were begging me for playdates and sleepovers with the new friends they’d made and worked alongside, my husband was laughing and shaking hands with several guys he had just met that morning, and I was hugging tightly onto many friends, knowing it would not be soon enough until I saw them again.

As we pulled away I told my husband how much I appreciated him coming with me and spending his Saturday working on a place that was not his childhood home (or even childhood camp). And he said “are you kidding, I loved it! I may not have gone to camp here as a kid, but our kids do, and I get why this place is so important to you. There’s just something really special about Caroline Furnace.” Yes. Yes, there is.

Children and worship: how do we create life-long church-goers?

I recently joined in on a debate on Facebook  that was discussing the value of having children attend worship service with their parents instead of offering a separate service or Sunday school for kids during the same time. While, as a general rule, I try not to engage in debates of any kind on Facebook, in fairness it started more as just me commenting on a friend’s status about the topic and then seemed to snowball from there. I didn’t realize until reading through the responses on Facebook that this is a sensitive topic that is dividing congregations. It surprised me because it seems to me it should really be a choice made by the parents, based on what’s best for them and their children at the time.

Since having our first child 11 years ago, my husband and I have attended churches that offered a “children’s church” or Sunday School during the main worship service, churches that only offered a nursery, and even one church that had children’s church only for pre-schoolers, so I think we’ve had a good sampling of the different methods and we know what works for us and what we want for our children (more on that later).

praying childWhen I was engaged in this “friendly” Facebook debate, one of the points I made was that I wanted church to be a place where my children wanted to be, not something they had to do every Sunday. The response I received from a well-respected Pastor friend of mine was that “have-to” isn’t such a bad thing. As he put it: “Have to do is not as evil as it’s cracked up to be in modern parenting circles. You have to stay out of the road as a toddler playing with your blocks. You have to practice the piano if you want to take lessons. You have to eat food that’s good for you, you have to get that cavity filled, you have to learn to share, and on and on. Kids catch on really quickly that they ‘have to’ do the things that their parents value, and isn’t parenting our shot passing on what we value most?” Fair point here. Sometimes as parents we make our kids do things because we know it’s what’s best for them. Certainly if you are raising your children to be Christian this should include regular times of worship. But if it’s our job as parents to make sure that our children are experiencing worship and time with God’s word, what is our role as church leaders?

Recent studies tell us that one in three young adults are unaffiliated with a church. This doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God, just that they’re not real interested in attending church.  According to Focus on the Family, 22 million Americans say they have struggled with faith or relational issues and therefore quit going to church. There have been numerous studies and reports on why people are leaving the church or aren’t interested in attending in the first place and most of them report reasons along the lines of : church goers are judgmental and hypocritical, churches rebuke anything secular, Christianity is too closely linked to certain politics, etc., etc.

Whether these opinions have been formed by personal experience or by reputation…either way the church has a big problem on its hands. The reality is churches are not immune to sin. Some churches (regardless of denomination) have judgmental people sitting in the pews; they have ministers in the pulpits who are leading double lives; they have fundamentalists that will tell you your music is evil, or your politics are sinful. These things happen and they happen because churches are made up of and led by people. Loving, well-intentioned, flawed, sin-filled people! So how do we keep today’s youth from becoming part of that number in a few years? I believe it comes back to a personal relationship with Christ.

I have attended churches with the aforementioned problems and left churches with lesser problems. I have seen politics and back-stabbing, extra-marital affairs between church leaders, and mismanagement of church funds. So what keeps me from losing faith in church all together? What makes me seek out a new church when I see too much sin infiltrate a place that has been an extension of my home and family? What is keeping me from becoming a part of that 22 million Americans? My relationship with Christ.

I was very fortunate that in my high school and college days I developed a very personal relationship with Christ. This relationship developed through Bible studies, service and missions work, friendships with other Christians, and some amazing worship experiences. Like any relationship, my journey with Christ has seen its ups-and-downs, but throughout the last 23 years of my life it has been there, this burning desire to have a relationship with Christ, to know Him, to be closer to him. And so, I continue to attend church.

Yes, I have been angry at church, I have taken long breaks from church and I have questioned if there is such a thing as  the “perfect church” (reality-check: there isn’t!). But each time I’ve been hurt or disappointed and felt I could not continue where I was, I have laced up my shoes and started the “church shopping” experience again. Because I know that in order for me to grow closer to God and continue to be strengthened in my faith, I need church. I need people more experienced and different from me to share their thoughts and perspectives. I need to participate in live worship with singing and praise. I need to be surrounded by friends who will pray for me when I ask and even when I don’t ask, who will help keep me accountable and lift-me-up when I’m feeling down.

So, now to get to the point and come full circle. As a church leader, I believe our responsibility to children is to cultivate relationships with Christ. To teach our children what a relationship with Christ feels like — the joy, the grace, the love. To create in them a desire to be in relationship with Christ so deeply that even when (because it will happen) they are let down or disappointed by a church, they won’t give up on the church. And I believe the best way to do this is to reach the children on their level. Speak to their young, immature hearts about God’s sacrifice and Christ’s love for us in a way that they can comprehend. Create in them a desire for the Lord and to be in relationship with Him.

If your church can do this during a single service, that’s awesome! I personally don’t think that my young children will get the same out of the sermon that is shared during the main service as they will out of the children’s service our church offers. However, when one of my kids asks if they can sit with us for a change, I usually say yes. I want them to try different ways to hear God’s voice and experience the Holy Spirit. But most of all, I want them to love the Lord with all of their heart and I want them to want to be at church because of this love.

So while I agree that “have to” is an important element of parenting, and I may find myself telling my kids they “have to” attend church at some point, I know that one day they will be out of my care and will have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to go to church. It is my prayer that the choice will be easy.

(And should that Pastor friend of mine happen to read this little blog post, I want him to know that while I might not entirely agree with, I completely respect his thoughts and experience on this topic, both as a pastor and a father.)

 

Dear Nana

Author’s note: My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Elizabeth Pope, died of ovarian cancer in 1997. She never got to see me as an adult, or meet her great-grandchildren. I miss her terribly and so often something will happen, or I’ll see something that will make me think of her and think “I wish Nana could be here to see this. She would have liked that.” This post is a collection of these thoughts.

Dear Nana,

Did you know I learned to crochet? When I sit with a new skein of yarn and work up something new and unique, I think of you. Of all of the needlepoint and quilting and embroidery you did over the years. I think, I bet Nana would be proud of me and think it’s cool that I am doing something creative with my hands. I bet we would love going yarn shopping together!

Hannah's sewing project
Hannah modeling the flannel pajama bottoms she made herself in sewing class.

Nana, did you hear that Hannah is learning to sew? And Daniel, too. Oh you would have loved the little pillow alien he made in art class. And Hannah? She’s so talented. She can already make clothes from a pattern! She made the Kermit the Frog flannel pajama pants which are just adorable. You would be so proud. 

Nana, did you know that all of that Barbie furniture you made me when I was little, well I saved it all. And now, my kids play with it. All of those hours you spent, focusing on every little detail to make canopy beds, refrigerators, pool tables, kitchen appliances, and even tiny clocks, books and ice cream sundaes. It was so worth it! A new generation is getting joy out of your hard work. They may not be as careful with the delicate yarn and canvas pieces you made as I would like, but I know you made these things to be played with, not sit in a box. So I remind myself that a little wear and tear done in love is OK. Then I tell them about you. They ask me questions about you. They would love you and think you are awesome. 

Needlepoint Barbie furniture
Daniel and Olivia getting ready to play with the Barbie furniture you made.

Nana, would you be surprised to hear my kids love your tuna and noodle casserole? Probably not, since Vanessa and I always asked for it when we were kids. Every time I make it I think of you. Once I even tried to make your meatballs and beans dish! It didn’t turn out as good as yours, but Hannah, Daniel and Olivia thought it was delicious! I wish you were here to teach me your recipes. I remember how every summer we came to visit and on our first day you would always say “I’m going to the grocery store, what would you girls like to eat while you’re here?” No one ever planned an entire week’s worth of meals around what we wanted. That made me feel so important.

Nana
My beautiful Nana when she was in her early-twenties.

Nana – Did you know that sometimes I come across something with your handwriting, a card, back of a photograph, letter, and I start to cry. Did you know how hard it would be on the ones you left behind to not have you here with us anymore? I bet you did. You knew loss.

Dear Nana, save me a spot next to your recliner. We will have a lot of catching up to do.

Love,

Jelise

When our kids remind us that what we’re teaching them does make a difference

As parents we dish out a hundred bits of advice and instruction to our children every week. By repeating ourselves over and over we hope that we will impart some small intelligence. That we will provide them with the tools they need to be empathetic, honest, open-minded, and compassionate. That they will grow to know the difference between right and wrong, how to take responsibility for their actions, win humbly and lose graciously. But often it feels like we are a broken record that has become background noise and our children have, at best, decided we are spewing eye-roll-worthy old-people talk and, at worst, have tuned us out completely.

But then.

Then there are those moments that stop you in your tracks and convince you that you are getting through. That the seeds have been planted and some of them are starting to sprout. Those are the moments that make this whole parenting gig completely worth it.

My son’s hockey team has not had a particularly winning season. They’ve lost more than they’ve won, and a few of the games registered scores that made even the winning team feel bad for them. But they had an excellent coach who was not only encouraging, but gave every child lots of playing time and made them feel like they were good enough to be on that rink. Not once all season did my son cry a tear or throw a glove in frustration at their loses. If you had seen my son play hockey in his first season, just last year, you would know that this has not always been the case.

Daniel after hockey game
Daniel proudly wearing his bronze medal and sweaty mop top after a tough game.

Today their team entered the semi-finals of the season as the 3rd seated (out of 4 teams in their division) to play the 2nd seated team. Earlier in the week my husband and I had talked about  well-known under-dog stories, like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, in an attempt to encourage him to believe their team could win the semi-finals and make it to the playoffs. When we arrived at the rink the 1st and 4th seated teams were already playing and to everyone’s amazement the 4th place team was beating an undefeated, crazy-good team of boys and girls. The game was intense and the crowd was completely wrapped in it, cheering for these underdogs. I excitedly turned to my son and said, “See Daniel! Look! The Blackhawks are winning and they’re playing the Capitals! See, just like Daddy and I told you, anything can happen. Your team has just as good of a chance as winning as the other team, even if they’ve beat you before!” I thought, this is just the pep-talk he needs to go out there and give it his all. But my dear boy had another thought. He said to me, very matter of factly, “Yeah, but it doesn’t really matter if we win. All that matters is that I have fun and try my best.” Oh. My. Word. To say my heart was bursting with pride would be an understatement. My little 8 year old son was reminding me about what was important. Things that his father and I have said to him and his sisters hundreds of times! He not only knew what to say, but he truly believed it.

I’d like to say my son’s team won their game today. They didn’t. But they played their heart’s out, and made the other team work for the win. It was a very close, very exciting game and that little 8 year old left it all on the rink. And at the end when the two teams lined up to shake hands, he was beaming with joy, just as if he had won.

Thank you God for these moments. And for trusting me and my husband to get it right, at least some of the time.

Romans 8:38-39