Enemies –> Friends

Sweet Blonde GirlSometimes I joke that friends are just enemies I haven’t alienated yet, but most often, the sliding scale of friendship runs the other direction for me: people I may initially dislike grow on me as I get to know them better; as I learn their story and get to know their hearts.

A couple of years ago when I first joined the church I’m at now, I started looking for a midweek bible study to get involved in. I emailed the leaders of a few groups in my area, and I ended up hitting it off with one guy in particular – Donny.

I’d never met Donny in person, but even over email, our chemistry was obvious. I could see from his gmail photo that he was an attractive man, and we also quickly discovered that we shared ties to the United States Military Academy.

“Hi Donny – I am interested in joining your group, as the time and location are a good fit for me.  Is there any additional information you need? What are our next steps? Thanks, Aurora”

“Hi Aurora – Generally we subject all potential new joins to an in depth personality screen, followed by a battery of intelligence and psychological assessments. If those come back satisfactory then we conduct the physical fitness test and group interviews. Just kidding, of course! There is nothing more for you to do other than show up. We would absolutely love to have you! – Donny”

“Hi Donny – I’m an INTJ with a 16:00 two mile time who graduated magna cum laude. Let me know by when you need my congressional nomination. 🙂 Thanks for making me smile. I can already tell we’re going to get along great. Looking forward to meeting you!”

“We’ll need a letter signed by a Senator, actually. And your vertical is?”

The emails continued all week long, increasing in their ridiculousness, so I was shocked when I showed up to bible study and was introduced to Donny’s wife. Naturally, I immediately disliked her. Cristin was beautiful and petite, with intelligent eyes and long, curly blonde hair. I estimated that she was in her mid thirties, and her face was just starting to show the worry lines that came from being the mother of their four children.

Just the frustration of being around lovely, wifely, maternal Cristin would have been enough to deter me from joining their group, but in addition, it ended up being a bible study of 15 married couples (plus me in all my singleness), so I didn’t visit their group again. But our church is a close-knit community, so my path continued to cross with Donny and – more often – Cristin.

Over the past two years, their children have grown old enough to be in the kids’ ministry where I volunteer at church, so I now have the blessing of getting to teach and play with their two beautiful blonde daughters a couple of Sundays each month. And those two sweethearts are some of my absolute favorite girls to teach.

Ally and Avery are kind and thoughtful, intelligent and attentive. They are obedient and respectful, as well as snuggly and affectionate. I have fallen in love with Donny and Cristin’s children, and over the years, I have gotten to know Cristin more and more from passing one another in the hallway, chatting when she comes to pick up the girls, or volunteering at one church event or another. She shared godly wisdom with me over brunch one morning last summer when I was struggling with dating relationships, and in the past few months, she has shared with me about her own struggle with an eating disorder and how it has been affecting her marriage to Donny.

Getting to know Cristin – her heart, her life, her struggles, her children – has changed the way I see her. I care for Cristin, and I care for Donny, too, but now I see him exclusively as Cristin’s husband and my brother in Christ.

Just two days ago, little Avery crawled into my lap to snuggle with me while we talked about the Feast of Trumpets, and as I stroked her soft blonde hair held back by a glittery silver headband, my heart felt full. I kissed the top of her head and felt like a part of their family. In a way, I am. Raising godly children is a community effort. I offered this week to start babysitting for the girls, and my eyes flooded with happy tears as they jumped up and down with excitement, running to wrap their arms around me in enthusiastic hugs.

Two years ago, I never would have dreamed how our relationship would change – my relationship to Donny and, more significantly, my relationship to Cristin. Humanizing people – taking time to get to know them – has a way of peeling back the layers, mitigating assumptions and enabling us to really see people through the eyes of Christ. What Satan intended for evil, God has once again used for good. He truly is the Redeemer of all things.

Authentically Aurora

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Candy and Mud Pies

Kids ministryWhat is an appropriate ratio of kids to adults for teaching? For camp counseling? For babysitting? For Sunday school?

Usually when I volunteer with the kids’ ministry at church, there are five leaders for the elementary school kids: one for 1st & 2nd grade girls, one for 3rd & 4th grade girls, two more for each of the boys’ age groups, and one master facilitator who leads us in the bible story during “big group time.” There are online sign-up sheets for volunteering, so Elle – the woman in charge of the kids’ ministry – knows ahead of time if she needs to call in reinforcements.

Yesterday when I showed up to volunteer, I was the only one for a while, so I clustered all of the elementary girls together – 1st through 4th grade. Soon, a guy named Mark showed up, but he told me it was only his second week to volunteer, so he mostly followed my lead as he gathered all of the boys together. Mark and I led our kids through the “rug time activity” – a craft involving a memorized bible verse – but soon we were finished with the craft, and no more volunteers had shown up.

I glanced at my watch. It was past time to move on to teaching the bible story, but I didn’t see any of our usual “big group” leaders. So while Mark got the boys in a circle, passing a ball around while each of them recited one of the Ten Commandments in turn, I got my girls in a circle – a very large circle, I noticed, as twenty different frilly skirts took their places on our mat – and told them we had an exciting opportunity.

“Usually at church,” I began, killing time while I continued looking around for our facilitator, “We have a set program in place. We do a certain craft, learn a certain bible story and then have small group discussion time.”

“But today,” I continued, clapping my hands together with a big smile, “You girls get the chance to ask me anything you want – any questions you have about God or the bible or church or Sunday school.”

“Can we ask you anything?” One precocious girl spoke up. “Like how old you are or if you’re married?”

I laughed. “Maybe if we have time at the end. But let’s start with bible questions. Does anybody have a bible question for me?”

A soft-spoken girl to my left raised her hand. “Yes, Angeli?”

She lowered her arm slowly as she began her question. “You know that girl who God promised would have as many children as stars in the sky?”

“You mean Sarah and Abraham?” I asked, clarifying. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abraham, “I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.”

“Yeah. When God told Abraham his children would be like the stars in the sky, does that mean the stars in the sky are all of the unborn babies?”

“Wow, that’s an interesting interpretation,” I told her, and I went on to explain gently that stars are actually burning balls of gas and the biblical meaning of that passage was that all of the offspring of Abraham – “All of his children and great-grandchildren and great-great-great-great grandchildren” – would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. “Good question!”

After Angeli was satisfied, another girl asked a question that stopped me short. Her big, innocent eyes looked up at me as she asked me a question most adults ask all their lives. “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?”

“That’s a hard question, isn’t it, Savannah?” I acknowledged her question, thinking how to answer. “I’ve asked God that very same question a lot of times.” I gave a few personal examples and then explained to the girls – all of them listening now – that sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no” because He loves us and wants what’s best for us. “Sometimes the things we want aren’t what is best for us, and because God loves us, He doesn’t answer our prayers with the ‘yes’ we hope for.”

I paused for a moment, collecting my thoughts; then gave an example. “If you ate candy for lunch and dinner every day, how would that make your tummy feel?”

“It would hurt,” some of the girls murmured.

“That’s right. But sometimes we want to eat nothing but candy for lunch and dinner, don’t we?” The girls nodded.

“We have mommies and daddies who love us, so they make us eat vegetables and food we don’t like because they love us and know that eating vegetables is better for us than eating candy. God is the same way. He is a loving Father who sometimes doesn’t give us what we want because He has something even better for us than we want for ourselves.”

I glanced over at Mark, who was starting to lose the boys. We were in a large, open gym, so it was nearly impossible to contain the dozens of kids running around. I decided no one else was coming to help, so I walked up to the front and tried to figure out the A/V system. I got a headset plugged in, turned on and tested it. “Test, test.” My voice echoed across the gym.

“Alright, boys and girls!” I called in my perkiest voice. “It’s time to play a bible trivia game!” I fumbled with the music and the PowerPoint slides, but between the two of us, Mark and I got through it. Right at the end, Elle showed up, aghast at the sight of me wearing the headset and barely containing the explosion of children wiggling in their seats.

Parents started showing up, picking up their kids, and Elle hurried over to me. “Oh my gosh! Did your Head Leader not show up?” I grinned and shook my head, nearly laughing at this point because of how ridiculous the whole morning had been.

God has really been teaching me a lot about flexibility, spontaneity and letting go of control. I like order and the expected. But if I’d had the security of a set program that morning, those girls wouldn’t have gotten their previously unspoken questions answered. And if I had the comfort of control over the situation, I wouldn’t have gotten to grow in faith, leadership and dependence on God as I struggled to rise to the occasion and make the most of our under-resourced morning. It’s just like I told the girls – sometimes God doesn’t give us what we want because He has something even better for us than we want for ourselves.

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” – CS Lewis

Authentically Aurora

Redefining STEM

STEM education

I hear about STEM all the time: Science, Technology, Engineering & Math education. As someone who works for a major oil company and also volunteers in the local school system, I feel constantly bombarded by rhetoric about pushing STEM education, particularly for young girls (who society ignorantly thinks are focused entirely on frivolities).

Our elementary and junior high students are the makers of either our future economic prosperity or hardship, so I can understand why so many individuals in both government and industry want STEM education raised as a national priority. But I am a proponent of small government and, still further, I don’t think a laser focus on STEM education will result in the desired outcome. If the desired outcome is a thriving economy, I believe in providing a well-rounded education, allowing for a natural synthesis of science and liberal arts in young minds, and then equipping people to do what they are passionate about.

America was built on creativity, passion, ingenuity and independence. More than forcing children into STEM careers, we should equip them to do what they love. Pushing students into engineering, if that’s not what interests them, is not the secret to building a great economy. They will end up frustrated and burned out, leaving for a different career path or, worse still, staying for the money, becoming a liability to their employer because their driving force is not intrinsic but financial.

Although less than a fifth of high school students report as being interested in STEM careers, I believe the situation is not as dire as some imagine. I have an engineering degree, but I never use anything I learned in school. My day job does not require me to do differential equations or engineering physics calculations. Could I figure out how to solve these complex math problems? Yes. But would I enjoy it? Probably not. Am I still able to do a good job working for a major oil company? Yes.

The girls in my Sunday school class constantly amaze me. This week, we talked about the bible’s most famous set of best friends: David and Jonathan. During craft time, my 1st and 2nd graders decorated large gold stars cut out of construction paper, writing kind notes to their best friends on the stars.

Earlier in the morning, Abigail – a sweet, quiet bookworm in the group – had been telling me about a children’s book she’s writing and illustrating. It’s about a unicorn who was once a fairy. I asked Abigail about her favorite subject in school. I wasn’t surprised at her answer: English. She wrinkled her nose when I told her that I love math and am an engineer. But I’ve seen in Abigail the makings of a brilliant engineer, despite her dislike of math.

While all of the other girls dug through bins of markers and stickers to decorate their stars, Abigail folded in four arms of her star to the center, taping them in place. Then she folded the fifth arm of the star into the center, tucking it into the pocket created by the four other points of the star. On a separate piece of paper, she wrote a note to her friend, which she tucked into her “star pocket”.

When everyone was finished, we hung the golden stars on the blackboard. I smiled to myself, seeing Abigail’s imaginative little “star pocket” standing out among all of the other stars stretched out along the blackboard. I almost took a picture so that I could caption it, “Dare to be different.”

After the other girls saw Abigail’s “star pocket”, they all wanted her to teach them how to make one, too. So I watched petite little Abigail lead the other elementary school girls in making pockets, too. Abigail is a leader, but she’s not a showy leader. She marches to the beat of her own drum. She displays a quiet confidence that draws others to her. The makings of greatness are written into the core of her being, but it’s not the result of a great STEM education. The intangibles that will make Abigail great are the result of natural giftings and great parenting.

Abigail doesn’t like math. She likes English. But she is constantly shining with inventiveness and creativity. And that –more than excellent math skills – is what we need in our future scientists and engineers.

Authentically Aurora

Faith Like a Child

Rainbow Scratch Paper 2The weak are actually the strong. The foolishness of the world is used to shame the wise. We die to ourselves so that we may truly live. Those who wish to be greatest must humble themselves and become least; servant to all. When our eyes are opened, we see all of the so-called truths of this world turned on their heads. And I continue to learn from little children.

In the new year, I have continued volunteering in the children’s ministry at my church. I teach Sunday school to 1st and 2nd grade girls most weeks now, and I absolutely love it. These girls are so sweet and kind; innocent and affectionate. They constantly surprise me with the adorable things they say, and every week, God uses them to soften my heart.

A few weeks ago, we did a craft using rainbow scratch off paper, where the girls used scratching sticks to write their names or draw pictures, scraping away the black upper layer and revealing the colors hidden beneath it. I didn’t have enough scratching sticks for all of the girls, so I dug around in my wallet for some coins they could use for the scratch-offs.

I handed out a couple of pennies, a few dimes, and finally, a quarter to my sweet little Mia, who waited until last to receive her coin. When she saw that it was the last quarter in my wallet, she asked me, “Miss Aurora, is this your last quarter?”

“Yes, Mia, it is.”

Her eyes widened. “Like… your last quarter EVER?”

I smiled. “No, just the last quarter I have in my wallet right now.”

“Oh.” She looked down at the shiny coin in her hand before glancing up at me shyly. “So… when I’m finished with it, I should give the quarter back to you?”

I patted her on the shoulder. “If you want to. Or you can keep it.”

I watched Mia move the quarter around in her hands, feeling it; thinking about it. Then she looked up at me through long eyelashes. “What do you think I should do?”

I hadn’t planned to say it, but the Holy Spirit gave me the words to speak. “What do you think God would want you to do?”

Mia pursed her lips, thinking hard. Then she smiled slowly as she answered, “I think God would want me to give it to people who need it more than I do.”

Wow. I was astonished by the wisdom of this six-year-old. Yes, Lord. You use the foolish things of this world to shame the wisdom of the wise. I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 

We have a small mason jar for the kids to put any donations into, so when Mia finished using the quarter to scratch her name in rainbow colors, she skipped to the front of the classroom and cheerfully dropped her quarter into the jar with an adorable little smile.

What a witness. What a beautiful testimony. What a joy these children are to me. When we serve, we are truly the ones who receive. Your gift will return to you in full – pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap (Luke 6:38).

Authentically Aurora

Looking Down to Role Models

ArielI learn so much more from kids than I do from adults.

With adults, there are agendas and ulterior motives; insecurities, projections and complications. But children are simple. They are innocent and straight-forward. Their words and actions are not yet adulterated by societal expectations or unhealed wounds. And so I learn from them, in their simplistic, innocent view of the world.

As I have continued volunteering with the kids’ ministry at church, I am reminded how funny it is that, the more we seek to bless and serve others, the more we discover that we are ultimately the ones blessed as we pour ourselves out on others’ behalf.

A few weeks ago, I had a 10-year-old girl named Ariel in my group. She’s a beautiful African American girl – smart, bright-eyed, a good listener and fast. To drive home one of our bible stories, we played a game that required athleticism, and she won. The prize for winning was candy, but when I showed Ariel the Starburst, she declined politely. “I only like chocolate, not fruity candy.”

I wanted to give Ariel something, though, so I dug in my wallet and pulled out a shiny Sacagawea dollar – the new, golden US dollar coin. My mom is always giving me trinkets like this because she delights in the little things in life and expects that others do as well. She’s sweetly childlike that way.

All of the other kids gathered around Ariel and ooh-ed and aah-ed over her winnings. They had never seen a gold dollar coin before, and – to my mom and to elementary aged kids – its shiny surface looked magical. They took turns passing it around; it was precious and special, and Arial was admired for having this special coin.

After our game and lesson, our rag-tag group of kids joined the larger assembly for music time. While I herded the kids to our assigned green rug space, Ariel walked up to the front of the auditorium and spoke quietly to the worship leader before the music started. I saw the worship leader walk over to a jar we use for collecting offering and extend it to Ariel. We’d already taken up offering for the day, but I watched from afar as Ariel placed her precious gold dollar into the offering jar.

When she wordlessly made her way back to our rug, I asked her, “Ariel, did you tithe your gold dollar?” She looked up at me with a unique combination of poise, innocence, joy and wisdom. “Yes. I wanted to give it back to God.”

I was astonished. What a gem of a young woman. How many adults would have responded that way? How many adults do respond that way? The more we have, the greedier we get. If we have something shiny that draws the admiration of others, we are not going to part with it – certainly not willingly! But Ariel displayed a selflessness, generosity, faith and devotion that was inspirational. She went out of her way to give her blessings back to God.

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” -1 Timothy 4:12

Authentically Aurora

Teaching Math to Hoodlums

Latte ArtI love math.

And coffee.

And when the two come together for an afternoon of pure, unexpected awesomeness.

For about a month now, I have been coaching a junior high Math Club. Every Thursday afternoon, I leave work a little bit early to drive to a local middle school and teach Number Sense (competitive mental math) to about a dozen 7th and 8th graders.

Yes, I was a nerdy Mathlete once upon a time, spending my Saturdays at math competitions. Fortunately for American society, I now teach other young, impressionable children to be equally as nerdy. Luckily for these kids, some brilliant fashionista coined the term “hipster” so they have a chance to be cool while being smart. I cannot say I was so fortunate back in my day.

On the week I started this volunteer work, I allowed a lot of extra time for traffic, not knowing how long it would take me to drive across town. I ended up arriving almost an hour early, so I stopped by a neighboring Starbucks to kill some time while I waited for the after school program to start.

As I climbed out of my car – still in my business suit – and walked up to the door of Starbucks, some teenagers dressed in all black with punk accessories started to catcall me. One in particular, with sunken eyes and an untamed mass of curls, called out, “Hey lady, will you buy me a drink?”

I looked him up and down and asked why I should do that. He said, “Because it’s freezing out here!”

It’s true that it was cold outside, but when I asked, “Why don’t you go inside then?”, he looked dumbfounded for a second; then replied with sass, “I’m so cold, I’m frozen in place!”

I lifted my chin and told him, “Then you’re not smart enough to earn yourself a drink.”

I walked inside, got in line to order, and had a crazy thought. I am an engineer, not a teacher, and it would be nice to run through my lesson plan with a practice audience. The punk kids outside all wanted coffee (and obviously needed some positive adult attention), so I got out of line before I could over think the wild idea.

I popped my head outside and called to the dozen teenagers skulking about, “Hey, anybody who wants a free coffee, come with me! If you are willing to sit and listen to fifteen minutes’ worth of a math lesson, I’ll buy you a drink!”

The curly-haired boy who had asked me for a hot drink only moments earlier gaped at me with wide eyes, astonished. “Are you serious?”

“I sure am. Are you coming?” I held the door open for him as he walked in, along with five of his friends.

They had been angry, aggressive kids outside, wrapped in their claimed misunderstood status, but once in line with me, the transformation in their collective demeanor was astounding. They were all suddenly shy, polite, and sweet.

Every single teen, when he or she got to the front of the line, looked up at me with big eyes and asked shyly, “Does it matter what size I get?” I loved that they asked, and I loved that I could tell them, “Get whatever you want. It’s my treat.”

After the last kid had ordered, and I paid for their drinks along with my tall cafe mocha (with whip, of course), the cashier asked me skeptically, “Is this some kind of community outreach program?”

I laughed, “Nope. This is just me loving on some kids and practicing my math lesson.”

The woman raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, looking scornfully at the teens behind me. “Well you treat them better than we do.” These kids must be the bane of her existence, always hanging around outside the store, seemingly up to no good.

Once all of the teens were settled with their inevitably Venti-sized drinks in their hands, I started the lesson. I walked them through LIOF and the Rule of 11, first explaining how each mental math trick worked; then talking through examples. I let the kids pick the numbers we used, getting them involved in the exercises. And then I made each of them solve a problem on their own in front of the group.

When my fifteen minutes were almost up, I turned to the curly-haired boy and said, “Okay, you’re the last one. Time to do your sample problem.”

“No, I went at the beginning,” he told me, straight-faced.

“You did?” I asked him.

“No he didn’t!” said the lone girl in the group. “Remember? I went first!”

I raised my eyebrows at the boy and said with a tease in my voice. “This is a Lie-Free Zone. Did you already solve an example for the group?”

He looked down at his shoes. “No,” he told me.

“Alright. Then let’s do one together. I’ll help you. Do you want to do LIOF or the Rule of 11?”

We worked through the problem together, with the other kids surprisingly giving him encouraging comments as he thought through the answer. When he solved the math problem, his eyes lit up. He was so proud of himself that I had to blink quickly to hide the tears welling up in my eyes.

It was an absolute joy to watch the lightbulbs go off in the eyes of these teens; to watch their confidence build over the course of just fifteen minutes. I loved hearing them encourage one another and get excited about learning something new – about math, of all things!

Before long, I had to leave to teach the kids actually involved in Math Club. But I’ve gotta admit, teaching the hoodlums was way more fun. I have been looking for a place to actively volunteer for five years, but organizational bureaucracy or stringent scheduling always has gotten in the way. Maybe I finally found my niche. Maybe it’s time I just start going to different Starbucks and picking out juvenile delinquents to invest in. Math for Mochas. It’s got a nice ring to it.

Authentically Aurora

8-Year-Old Heartbreaker

StrattonHow is it that even eight-year-old boys are capable of breaking my heart?

Last Sunday, I volunteered with the youth ministry at my church for the first time. I was assigned the 3rd & 4th grade boys, but there was an especially energetic 2nd grader named Stratton who latched onto me (literally – grabbed my legs and looked up at me with big, blue eyes) and begged for me to be his leader.

“Please, please, please?” he asked, spiky blonde hair sticking out in every direction.

Jeff, the volunteer in charge of 1st and 2nd grade boys, chuckled and said that yes, Stratton could hang with me for the day. Stratton gleefully grabbed my hand, pulled me to our classroom, grinned up at me and called out, “Come on, Mom!”

I laughed, “Oh, I’m ‘Mom’ now, am I?”

“Yeah,” he said shyly. He tiled his head to the side and smiled at me. “You get to be my mom for the morning… Mom.” He looked up at me through thick eyelashes, freckles dotting his nose. Be still, my heart. So precious and such a rascal, all at the same time!

While the 3rd & 4th grade boys collected “manna” (cotton balls) and learned about God’s provision in the desert (thanks, God, for the irony of having me teach this lesson), Stratton sat at a craft table and taped straws to a paper plate. His favorite subjects, I learned, are math and science. He’s my little future engineer. Mommy’s so proud!

I know Sunday school teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but if we’re honest, how can we help but have that one child who absolutely melts our heart? Ruth told me that she believes God is going to use music to soften my heart. I’ve determined that He’s going to use music and children. Particularly 8-year-old boys.

When Stratton’s real mom came to pick him up after church, he ran eagerly to her and gave her a big hug without even looking back. And that’s when I realized that even 8-year-old boys are capable of breaking my heart. I hope his mom knows how lucky she is to have such a precious blessing… and to be “Mom” for more than just three hours on Sunday mornings.

Authentically Aurora