Steph Groutas

adventures in letting go and living love…

An Open Letter to my LGBT Family Members and Friends

Dear Ones,

There has been much talk about you this week. I can only imagine how you must feel being the center of heated debate on a regular basis. From what I have read on the interwebs, there have been a lot of blog posts and articles written with the reactions to the World Vision debacle, but I have not seen anything written directly to you. I’m writing you this letter, because I feel like you have not been addressed directly, and I have something to say that I think you need to hear.  

I want you to know that I feel so heavy for you. My heart is aching for you, because of this present reality in our country that you are being talked about and argued over as if you are not a part of the same humanity as the rest of the world. I want you to know that you are seen and loved. You are seen and loved by God. You are seen and loved by many followers of Christ. Just because the loud, angry, squeaky wheels get heard more and receive more attention does not mean that they are the majority.

I’m not a statistician, so I don’t know all the hard numbers. What I do know is my piece of the “Christian World.” My husband and I have been in vocational ministry since we were in college 20 years ago. We started our faith journeys and ministry careers in a very conservative, evangelical denomination. Over the past 2 decades we have sought to understand and live the Gospel of Christ to the best of our human abilities which has led us to a place outside of our original denomination. I cannot say that I love God and long to emulate Him in my daily life and thinking without loving and seeking justice for ALL people. I want you to know that from where I stand in Christian leadership I see a lot of other Christians who share in this same belief. I want to implore you to not judge all people who are labeled Christians by those who are the squeaky wheel.

I also want you to know that I see hope for equality in the future. As my husband and I and another couple were visiting last night, my 14 year old daughter overheard us and asked what had happened with World Vision. As we explained the basic situation to her, she became visibly upset. I could see rage for the injustice in her eyes. Later, after our friends left I asked her what she was thinking. She said, “Mom, I have friends who are gay, and I am so hurt for them. This is not right. Why are people so mean? Don’t they know that we are all human?” Then my 11 year old son chimed in and said, “Jesus said that the most important thing for us to do is ‘Love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.’ Right, Mom? That includes our friends that are gay. I have gay friends.” Dear Ones, that is the voice of the next generation. I don’t want you to have to wait until their generation is in leadership for you to have equality, but I know that because of them equality is inevitable.

These are the words of Jesus that are recorded in the Bible in Matthew chapter 11: “Jesus prayed this prayer: ‘O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding the truth from those who think themselves so wise and clever, and for revealing it to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way! My Father has given me authority over everything. No one really knows the Son except the Father, and no one really knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls.’ ”

I know you must be weary because of the heavy burden you bear. Please let Jesus take the burden from you and let Him carry it for you. If that seems too impossible or intangible, then seek out a Christ-follower who is humbly seeking to live and love as Jesus did and let him/her come alongside you to love and encourage you as you journey along in this life.

You are seen and loved,

Stephanie

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It only takes one.

If you know our family or have been following our story or have read the few number of blog posts that I have posted over the last several years (I am clearly NOT a prolific blogger), then you know that we have been connected to Uganda for the last 4-5 years. Through our dear friends, Scott and Sarah, who live and work in Kampala, UG, we have become very connected to the multiple NGOs there and established life-long friendships with many Ugandan people. Never in a million years would I have believed you if you told me 5 years ago that those friendships and connections would bring us to where we find ourselves now.

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Pastor Wilson Bugembe, me, and Celestine Katongole (my 20-something friend who calls me “Mama Stephanie”)

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Some of the kids we’ve helped to sponsor through Mercy Child Care Ministry

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Mark with a group of kids at Amazima Ministries

Words cannot begin to describe the love we have for the people of Uganda. We have been so blessed to travel there multiple times over the years in order to develop ministry partnerships and personal relationships. At one point in our transition from Austin, TX to Denver, CO, I looked at Mark and said, “I think it might have been easier in some ways if we would have moved to Kampala instead of Denver.” Of course he rolled his eyes at me, because, well, that was just crazy talk coming out of my mouth. I said that though, because we didn’t have the kind of strong relational connections in Denver prior to moving that we already had in Kampala.

In November of 2012, I was able to travel to UG to join Mark there for Worship Night. Mark has been traveling to UG every November since 2010 to be a part of this amazing night where 40,000-60,000 people gather to worship the Lord in a soccer stadium from 6pm-6am on the last Friday night of November. It is an indescribable experience.

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Mark rehearsing before the Worship Night concert.

Several days after Worship Night Mark returned to Denver to our anxiously awaiting children while I remained in Uganda for a few more days. We had traveled separately in order for our trips to overlap so that our children didn’t have to be without both of us for longer than 4 days, so he traveled first and returned home first.

One day after Mark had already returned home, I spoke with my friend, Pastor Wilfred Blair Rugumba, the Executive Director of Mercy Child Care Ministry. It was then that I told Wilfred that Mark and I had been considering adoption for many years. Knowing that although the majority of the kids at MCCM are children that are not adoptable, I told him that if he ever had a child that he could not find their family to reunite them with that we would consider adopting the child or find another family who could. I told Wilfred that it would be ideal for our family for us to adopt a boy between Toby’s and Kindsey’s ages but that we would consider any child that he could not find family for in UG. Immediately, Wilfred said to me, “I have a boy now that is 8 years old, and we cannot find any history on him. We have not been able to find anyone who can identify him previous to the police finding him on the streets and bringing him to us.”

YOU GUYS! That was it. That was the moment that has changed my life, Mark’s life, and our kids’ lives. I knew then that this boy Wilfred told me about would be the one that we would pursue to be a part of our family. I knew it, and it scared me to death. He asked me if I wanted to go back to visit the Mercy home the next day to meet Enoch. Of course, I said yes.

The next day I accompanied Wilfred to the Mercy home. I had just been there a a few days before with our group of friends that were visiting Uganda with us. We had played games, painted faces and held babies. This time I would act no differently than I had before. I didn’t want to make Enoch uncomfortable in any way by singling him out. I wasn’t there to interview him. Wilfred just wanted to subtly point him out to me so that I could see him interact with the other kids and get a feel for his personality. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I FELL IN LOVE with this boy. He has the sweetest smile and demeanor. He and a group of about 4 other boys about his age were playing together in the yard, and he kept making sure that everyone included a younger boy with special needs. I could see his compassion and protectiveness for the younger boy, and it melted my heart. I was also privileged to be there on the day that the children would be presenting their end-of-year school reports to Wilfred. Enoch had just completed year 2, and his scores were at the top of his class. I left the Mercy home that day convinced this boy would be my son and trying to strategize in my mind how I would convince Mark of this.

Pictures from Mercy Child Care Home on the day we painted faces:

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Some of the kids with Julius, Wilfred’s Assistant

I arrived back in Denver on December 10, 2012 with a lot of emotions swirling around inside me. I’m pretty sure Mark thought I had lost my mind somewhere between UG and the US. During the day I was angry at our American culture because I was disgusted at all the materialism and the commerialism of the Christmas Holiday Season. At night, I would lie in bed and cry, because I wanted to fly back to Uganda and bring Enoch home with me. The stark contrast between America and any third world country is shocking to the intellect and psyche. I found myself paralyzed unable to even justify purchasing one Christmas present, because really….what on earth does anyone in my family (myself included) really NEED? NOTHING. We have so much. One of my children possess more clothing and toys than all the 96 children at MCCM combined. Seriously. It’s a good thing that my hubby is the shopper in our family and loves to buy gifts otherwise our kids wouldn’t have gotten a single present for Christmas that year, and I’m sure they would have been talking to there therapists about it well into their 30s.

It really didn’t take any convincing on my part to get Mark on board with pursuing adopting Enoch. Mark says that selfishly he really didn’t want to adopt a child. We have family members and dear friends who have all adopted and we’ve walked alongside them as they have lived their adoption journeys. We’ve seen that it’s not an easy road and selfishly Mark and I were (and still are sometimes) afraid of how adopting would alter our lives and future. The big BUT here is this: we started praying and asking God what He wanted for us and for our family. God quickly made it clear to us that we were to pursue adopting Enoch into our family.

So, here we are in February of 2014 very close to submitting our dossier and praying that we can get a Ugandan court date assigned to us before the Ugandan government shuts down international adoptions. It’s been quite a journey so far! God has been so faithful, and we are learning so much along the way. I’m here to tell you something I’ve learned so far: It only takes one. It only takes one step of faith, one conversation, one moment in one day to change a life forever. Our lives are changed and continue to change through this process, and hopefully one day soon Enoch’s life will be changing too. We are convinced that this story and journey is not about us. It’s about Enoch and about what the Lord is doing in all of us in order to make us a family that reflects His love, grace, faith, and hope.

Thank you for supporting us through friendship, prayer, encouragement, and even finances as we work towards bringing Enoch home.

If you would like more information on Enoch’s story, click here to go to our Rally page. There you can click the “I’m in” button to follow the developments of the story. I am also going to try to blog here more often than I have in the past in order to keep you updated.

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Being Planted

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I’ve posted to the blog. The time has flown by! I’ve started many posts, but never gotten around to finishing and publishing them. It’s been an extremely eventful year.

God has been doing some serious work in our lives this year. He has shown us that rather than moving us to Denver to plant a church, he moved us to Denver to be planted. To be honest, I have struggled to be planted. I’ve been the plant that after being transplanted withers up and nearly dies. You think it is a lost cause, because it’s shriveled up and dried out, but you keep watering it in hopes that it might bounce back. Yep. That’s been me. I think I’m finally coming to the stage in the process where I might be regaining a bit of color in my stem and soon there might even be a new bloom or two.

My heart has been broken hundreds of times for one reason or another since we left Austin in October of 2011, and many days have been a fight for emotional and spiritual survival. Have you ever experienced times when the air around you feels so heavy that it’s hard to breathe? I have had those days more often than not. I ask God why, but I have yet to get a clear answer. What I choose to believe is that one day Mark and I will be able to tell the whole story of our life and ministry together including all the ups, downs, ins and outs and that God will use this crazy story to bring encouragement and hope to others. 

In spite of me, God has done some amazing things this year. We have made some great friends in our new neighborhood. They have loved us, encouraged us, introduced us to their friends, included us, and given Mark a job (Yes. That’s right, folks. My hubs is the manager of the Urban Mattress in Cherry Creek, and I am so proud of him.) Our non-profit, Artists for Denver, became an official partner of the Denver DHS. Our church community, The Stone, has developed into a sweet community of people who love God and long to be a part of something outside of themselves engaging need and figuring out this life together.

People ask us, “Where is your church?” That’s a hard one to answer, because we really don’t have a where as much as we have a who. Our church is with our people wherever they are. We try to meet together every week in one way, shape or form, but it’s rarely at the same place from week to week. I’m sure it can be frustrating for some who need more structure (I am often one of those, but I’m learning to go with it), but really it’s quite beautiful. God is moving. He’s drawing people in different ways for different reasons to this vision of doing church differently than what we’ve known it to be. It’s about people being a church instead of going to a church. It’s about truly seeking to love others more than ourselves. It’s about spending more time with people who don’t go to church than people who do, because that’s what Jesus did. It’s about being honest and real and even broken together instead of hiding all the mess and trying to look like you have it all together for a few hours a week. It’s about seeking “His Kingdom come, His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

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Opposites Attract

It’s official. If it weren’t for Mark Groutas, I would be all work and no play. We’ve been in the midst of life upheaval this year to say the least, and last week as I was in the throws of working from sun up to sun down in order to get our new house unpacked and settled he booked a condo in Breckenridge for our family to get away this week. My initial reaction (in my head): “Are you smoking crack?! We are in the middle of trying to unpack and settle this house which is exactly HALF the size of our house in Austin which means we have to purge half the stuff we have. We are not even close to finishing that job, and you want to go to the mountains for 5 days right before a 4-6 week stretch of having out-of-town house guests coming and going from this new home???!!!!!” Notice. This was the reaction IN MY HEAD. If there is only one thing I’ve learned in almost 15 years of marriage to my wonderful, glass-more-than-half-full, fun-loving, when-I’m-not-on-vacation-I’m-planning-a-vacation man, it’s that I better not have a negative response to the idea of something he’s excited about. Now, friends, I must admit that most of the time I fail at keeping my knee-jerk reactions of sarcasm to myself. Fortunately, this time (by the grace of God) I was initially able to keep my doubts to myself.

Can I just be fully transparent with all of you for a minute? This has been a hard year. We have been through more trials than I would ever wish on my worst enemy. I’m not even kidding. My new God-given friend, Jenny, asks me every week, “How are you? You know what you all are going through right now is NOT normal, right? You know that this isn’t the way life is going to be forever, right? You know not everybody could do what you’re doing, right?” Thank you, Jesus, for someone who is speaking truth to me and trying to keep me sane!

Friends, I’m warning you now. Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. And, when you get what you ask for, you might realize that you really didn’t know what you were asking for. We asked God to show us what He wants us to do. We told Him that our lives, our family, our livelihood, everything is His. We asked Him to do what He wanted with us. We didn’t know what we were asking for. We still don’t know all that He has in store, but the ride so far has been AMAZING. It hasn’t been easy, clean, seamless, or what we planned. It’s been challenging, scary, sometimes heart-breaking, but it’s also been beautiful. God truly brings beauty from ashes!

So, here I sit in Breckenridge, CO after having been here for 4 days. I thought Mark was crazy for booking this trip. I have to admit that I even let him know the day before we left home that I wasn’t so sure this was the wisest choice. There is SO MUCH TO GET DONE AT HOME! I drove away from Denver not sure that I would be able to enjoy this little vacation, but now I’m here to publicly confess that this getaway was just what I needed. Look! Here I am writing for the first time in months. Getting away from the chaos of everyday life has helped me take a deep breath, sleep, relax, and enjoy my husband and kids. We will jump right back into the chaos tomorrow when we get back to Denver, but maybe we will be able to approach it all with a better perspective. It looks like after all these years Mark sometimes knows what I need more than I do. All work and no play makes Stephanie a very cranky girl. Here’s to opposites attracting! 

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Guest Post by Mark Groutas

Thoughts on Exodus by Mark Groutas:

The lessons in the story of the Exodus seem to be endless, but I’m particularly struck by how God prepares his people for freedom.  It begins with a season of withholding His presence and allowing the nation to feel the pain of slavery. For is there truly such a thing as freedom for those who do not feel the need to be free?
Once the Lord reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush, He reintroduces himself to the people of Israel through the wonders of the plagues. This is a fascinating part of the narrative, with each plague usurping the power of the egyptian gods and the magicians in Pharoah’s court. This demonstration of God’s power is as much (if not more) for the nation of Israel than for the Egyptians or Pharoah himself. God’s chosen people were living in a foreign land, with strange gods, and pagan practices. They needed a cleansing.

This is really convicting. I am described as an alien and stranger in this world (I Pet 2:11), so why do I often not feel that way? Why does the world sometimes feel cozy and friendly…like home? I need cleansing. I need transformation from a renewed mind. I often need the very same process that God took the Israelites through. And it begins with HIS demonstration that the “magic” of this world is false, that it’s gods are strange, and that He alone is faithful and true. This necessary process is why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, making him unwilling to let the people go. He didn’t want the Israelites to be free until they had seen his power and were truly ready to embrace freedom.

Stories like this cause me to appreciate the process. I’m sure the Israelites just wanted to run out of Egypt with their hair on fire. And that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I wanna move; I wanna get stuff done; I wanna run…fast. Our culture is built for speed. Faster food, faster download times, shorter lines and shorter waits are what I want on a daily basis. If I approach my spiritual life in the same hurried manner, I’ll likely miss what He’s trying to accomplish in me along the way.
In the story, even the great Moses only saw one goal – freedom. He didn’t see God’s other goals – spiritual formation. Sanctification. He wouldn’t begin to understand these things until Chapter 20 and his encounter with God on Mt Sinai.

I’m so grateful for the Word. That we can learn from these stories and actually gain a perspective on God’s processes that even Moses didn’t have in the moment! whoa.
It encourages me to be patient and trusting. We’ve been given the Holy Spirit so let’s be sensitive to Him. The Lord’s plan is perfect, and He always accomplishes great things with or without us, so how we get there – the journey – matters as much as anything.

Steph’s response:

I have a confession to make to all of you. I really needed these words today. I’m so thankful for how God uses His Word and His people to speak to my heart. I haven’t been enjoying all of the process these last couple months. I have kind of shut down a bit on every level – emotionally, spiritually, physically – simply because I’m impatient and tired of the process. Basically, I’ve been treating God the same way my preteen treats me when she doesn’t get what she wants right when she wants it. Sheesh…

Today begins a new chapter for me in this process.

For my own daily devotional time, I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s “Here and Now.” I’d like to share with you all a passage that really spoke to me yesterday.

“So the real question is: Can we do anything to worry less and be more at peace? If it is true that we cannot change anything by worrying about it, how then can we train our minds not to waste time and energy with anxious ruminations that make us spin around inside of ourselves. Jesus says, ‘Set your heart on God’s kingdom first.’ That gives us a hint as to the right direction.”

This has been me: wasting time and energy with anxious ruminations making me spin around inside myself. My prayer for all of us is that we would set our hearts on God’s kingdom first. May His Kingdom come. May His will be done. In our hearts. In our lives. In our homes. In our city. In this world.

 

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Back in the Swing of Things

It seems that I had a lot to say and write about until I started trying to blog. Then, suddenly, I got stuck in my own head. I have to admit. I am not a huge fan of change. I LOVE the idea of change. I like dreaming big dreams. I even get excited when we start taking steps toward those dreams, but somewhere between the first steps and the end results I get paralyzed. Fear takes over. I end up being like Peter who got all excited to step out of the boat and walk to Jesus on the water. Then, I take my eyes off Jesus and start looking around me and thinking about tons of overwhelming details (ie: What if I drown/fail?), and I start sinking. Surely, I’m not alone in this struggle. Right?

Our “core team” has started a new exercise together. We are studying “The Essential 100” together. This is a Bible reading plan of 100 selected passages (50 from the Old Testament & 50 from the New Testament). Each day we are emailing our responses to the day’s passage to one another. This accountability is helping me get back in the habit of reflecting on God’s Word and writing about it. I’ve been doing a good amount of reflecting over the past few months, but I have not been writing. Writing is actually what God uses in my life to teach me. Writing helps me internalize what I have read. Writing gets me out of my own head.

So I thought I’d share with you, my friends, some of my reflections. Here’s the one for today:

Exodus 32 response:

There is so much to learn from Moses’s interaction with God. Of course, we know the story and have seen the movie, but have we really studied what went on?

I am dumbfounded by the immaturity of the Israelite people. Apparently, they had a hard time with short-term memory. Just a few weeks before this God had delivered them from Egypt. They had walked across dry land as the Red Sea parted and then watched as the sea enveloped the Egyptian army that pursued them. As Moses is up on the mountain getting some instruction from the God who just delivered them, they got as impatient as a mob of preschoolers and decided they needed a new god to worship. If that weren’t bad enough, Aaron buys into it and actually makes them a golden calf to worship. God tells Moses what is going on down at the bottom of the mountain, and let’s Moses know that He has had it with those “stubborn and rebellious people.”(32:9 NLT) God has even made up His mind what He is going to do about it. He tells Moses, “Now then let Me alone, that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” (32:10 NAS) Here God is telling Moses that He is going to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses. He’s promising Moses what He promised Abraham. Whoa!

What was Moses’ response? He went to bat for his people. He begged God to give them another chance. He reminded God of His own Nature and what His promises were to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. The outcome? Moses changed God’s MIND! This is such a convicting reminder to me to be faithful to intercede for others before the Lord. God listens to the cries of His people. He hears us and responds to us when we bow to Him.

Who do you need to intercede for today? How can the rest of us intercede for you?

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Tales From The Commune vol. 1

Living communally has its definite ups and downs. I’m happy to report that if you pick the right people to live with it is a real blessing most of the time. More than anything, we have to be able to have a great sense of humor about most everything, or I think we would all go completely nuts (We are all already a little nuts anyway!). So, I’ve decided to regularly share some of our comic relief with you, my friends. I’m going to name the blog series, “Tales From The Commune.”

Today’s tale is entitled:  Oops! I’m stuck here.

Last Saturday, PG went out to get something from her car parked in front of our house. When she got outside, she discovered this:

Yep, folks. A completely flat tire.

This is when living communally comes in handy. I’ve let her borrow my minivan all week to get back and forth to work, but that means that the rest of us have had to work out transportation/carpooling. Fortunately, Mark and Jon have schedules that are similar (coffee with this guy, lunch meeting with that guy, board meeting there, rub shoulders with those people), so that means they’ve been able to ride together a lot. This leaves me with Mark’s truck to do my taxi duties with the kids.

Well, this morning everyone was up and out pretty early except for Kindsey and me. We were enjoying a bit of a lazy Friday morning after a busy week and hosting a dinner last night. At 10:24am suddenly it dawns on me that I never talked through car sharing with anyone last night or this morning. Immediately this is the text convo I have with Mark (who is up in the mountains with Jon for the day):

Me: Did you take Jon’s Jeep so that I can use the truck to pick up the kids from school?

Mark: Shoot! The keys to the truck are in my pocket!!!!! Darn it, my bad. What r our options? Whit gets home soon right?

Me: IDK. Can u get back in time to get them?

Silence…..no response.

I call Whitney and explain what’s up and ask her what time she gets off work today. She says she can leave the Colorado Athletic Club at 2:30pm, but it takes her awhile to get to her car, plus it’s snowing so she doesn’t know how long it will take her to get from downtown back out to west Denver. People, my kids get out of school at 2:45. It’s freezing cold and snowing outside, and they have to stand out in it and wait for their ride. Their school has no buses, and we live too far for them to walk. I decide to call the office to let them know that Whit will be picking the kids up from school, but that it may be after 3pm before she gets there. So, please for heaven’s sake can my babies wait inside in the office?
Don’t ask me why, but I tend to be a teensy bit scared of school secretaries. If you have ever worked in a school (which I have) or spent much time in a school, you know that the school secretaries have the majority of the power in a school. Yes. The principal is the boss, but to get to the principal you have to get through the support staff first. If you get on their bad side, you may as well transfer schools, because they can make you and your kids’ lives hell for years. This particular secretary that I spoke with this morning has worked at this school for over 20 years, and she intimidates me. The principal at the school this year is new. He’s there on an interim basis, a trial year. He wants to stay on as the principal permanently. I guarantee you that he’s scared of her. I know I am, so having to call and admit imperfection to her was not my happiest moment.

Rather than let all this upset me and ruin my day, I just had to laugh. Seriously.

To make matters worse. Now, the dishwasher isn’t working. Their are 8 people living here. Some days I run that thing 3 times! After our little dinner party last night, I stacked dishes in that sucker like it was a game of Tetris. I’m not kidding you when I say that I do not know anyone who can fit more dishes in a dishwasher than me. It’s an obsession.

Granted. The machine is old, but it has worked great for the 4 months we have lived here. Late last night after loading her down I switched her on just like I have multiple times a day for the past 4 months, but I got nothing. Nothing happened. I tried again, and again, and again. I begged. I opened and closed her. I pleaded. I sent Mark to check the fuse box. I shook her a little and gave her a little “love” kick. I may have even dropped an inappropriate word or two. Then I decided to just go to bed and pray to God that she would work this morning. Nope. She’s still not working. I think we’ve done her in. I refuse to unload all those dishes and wash them by hand. Paper plates and plastic ware are in our future. Sorry, Earth. I love you, but I am living with too many people to be hand washing dishes. This will conserve water, and I promise I’ll buy the plates that are biodegradable. Costco here I come as soon as someone comes home with a car and car keys I can use.

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Getting unstuck

Do you ever just get stuck? I’ve been stuck in my own head lately. We’ve had so much going on in our lives. So much change. It’s exciting and scary and fun and crazy all at the same time, and sometime in the past month I think I just shut down. I tried to turn off my brain, because I had been stuck in my own head for awhile. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. Trying to figure out how to live in a new city in a different part of the country doing a new work and living with extra people in my house somehow started to overwhelm me. I can’t imagine why!

I think turning off our brains and just living life in automatic is what a lot of Americans do. It’s easier to deal with life’s hectic pace and social expectations when we disconnect from ourselves and each other. I believe this is why we have so many people addicted to so many crazy things like online gaming, alcohol, drugs, Facebook, Twitter, gambling, pornography, and the list could go on and on. These things help us dissociate from the immediate world around us and escape into something else.

When I check out of living intentionally, I tend to watch too much trash tv, and I quit writing altogether. In order to write you have to think, and in order to think you have to feel. Feeling stinks somethings, and writing leaves me completely exposed. I’ve always been a writer (not really for anyone else. Just for me and sometimes for God.) I started journaling as early as I can remember. I just like to write stuff down. Mostly, I write to process how I feel, think and what I’m experiencing or learning. I write down things that I want to remember. I have an entire large moving box full of journals that represent my entire adult life and experiences to date. If my house ever caught fire, I would grab that box instead of my kids’ photo albums. I have digital copies of their pictures, for heaven’s sake, but there are no copies of those journals.

All this to confess that I needed a kick in the pants this month. I needed something to force me to think and feel and push through the post holiday blahs. Enter Jen Hatmaker’s new book, 7: an experimental mutiny against excess.

First, you need to know what 7 is all about. Jen took seven areas of excess (food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending, stress) and focussed on each a month at a time. It is “an exercise in simplicity with one goal: to create space for God’s kingdom to break through.” Click here to view the video explaining 7.

I think that the structure of the book is what makes it resonate. It’s basically her journal documenting the journey she, her family and her friends took through this social experiment against excess. She shares the good, the bad, the ugly, the highs, and the lows. Some entries consist of confessions. Other entries share amazing spiritual and emotional revelations. Then, in true Jen Hatmaker form there are some entries that are just downright funny. It’s truly easier to digest writing like this,

“Jesus‘ kingdom continues in the same manner it was launched; through humility, subversion, love, sacrifice; through calling empty religion to reform and behaving like we believe the meek will inherit the earth. We cannot carry the gospel into the poor and lowly while emulating the practices of the rich and powerful. We’ve been invited into a story that begins with humility and ends with glory; never the other way around.

when it’s surrounded by comments like, “Were it not for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, my girlfriends and I would end up on Jerry Springer.”

The sections on clothes and possessions forced me to come face to face with my need to be accepted by others. Now. I have to say. I’m not a shopper or a spender. The majority of my clothes have probably been bought on sale at Target, because I was there to buy milk. Just because I don’t really enjoy the clothes shopping process doesn’t mean I don’t care about what I wear and how I look. 7 made me think about how my clothes make me feel, why I dress the way I do, and how much time I spend caring about my outsides instead of my insides. I love Jen’s reflection on her clothes as she was donating them to SafePlace.

“I thought about how my lovely clothes propped up the outside while my inside was struggling to find it’s way. I smile to think of a broken abused woman slipping these pretty things on and propping up the outside a bit during her healing process. I pray they remind her that she is beautiful, she is valuable, she is worth it.”

Reading 7 this month has reminded me how fortunate I am to be a part of a faith community and friend network that is seeking the way of Jesus. I am reminded that there is so much we can accomplish when we all join together to live simply, responsibly and intentionally. Will you join us?

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When I grow up…

When I grow up, I want to be just like Poppy.

This is Mark’s grandfather, Poppy.

He is an amazing individual.

First, he’s 81 years old, and I promise you that he’s in better shape than two-thirds of the U.S. population. A couple years ago he was running his usual 4 miles a day when he felt a little winded. This shortness of breath caused him to become concerned enough to make an appointment with his cardiologist. Come to find out, he had blockage in his arteries and needed heart surgery, but he had adverted a heart attack. I ask you: Who does that? Who on earth works out religiously and then gets concerned about some windedness and goes to visit their dr. about it? I’ll tell you who! The Poppy.

Second, he is passionate and faithful. Poppy has loved the same woman for his entire life, and he overcame some serious obstacles to make her his wife. Mark’s Mimi passed away 10 years ago, but Poppy has remained in love with her to this day. He still carries her picture in his wallet. Mimi is from Seoul, Korea. She was raised as nobility there. Her grandmother was a lady in waiting in the queen’s court. Her ancestors lived their lives within the palace compound. Mimi was married to a member of the Korean General Assembly before the Korean War. Mark’s mother is the off-spring of that marriage. When the communists overthrew the government in Seoul, Mark’s Mother’s biological father was kidnapped by the North Koreans (as far as we know he was assassinated). Mimi was left widowed with a child. Fortunately, Mimi was well-educated and multilingual. After the Korean War was over, Mimi got a job at the American Postal Exchange, and that’s where Poppy met her. They hit it off and started dating, but by the time Poppy decided he wanted to marry her it was too late. According to Uncle Sam, he had to report back to the U.S. immediately, and there was no time for nuptials. He returned to the U.S. without his love, and he spent the next 9 months working and saving money in order to return to Korea for her (much to his mother’s dismay). You see. Poppy is the son of a WASP Kentucky family. His father was a judge in the Kentucky State Supreme Court. It was expected that after he finished his law degree at the University of Kentucky and then served his term as an officer in the United States military that he would return home and marry a debutante. Instead, he returned to Korea married Mimi and brought her back to Kentucky with him where he started his law practice. He adopted her daughter (Mark’s mother), and the rest is history.

I’ve learned a lot from Poppy over the past 16 years of knowing him. Here are just a few:

1) Love what you do, and give it your all.

Friends, the man is, I repeat, EIGHTY-ONE years old, and he still works almost full time! He is a federal court judge for the Social Security Administration, and he has been for over 20 years. Every year for the past several years he’s told us, “This is my last year to work. I’m not going to renew my contract on the retired judge circuit when it’s up.” So far he’s still working. When the time comes around to quit, he just can’t do it. He enjoys what he does and can’t imagine what else he’d do with his time. Which leads to the next thing I’ve learned from Poppy…

2) Work hard to play hard!

Poppy LOVES vacation. Vacations are what he works hard to be able to do. He grew up with a grandfather that would take the family on vacations, and that’s what he does. If you see a 6 ft tall, 81 year old man with a Kentucky accent at a Disney theme park with 3 Asian-American great grandchildren working hard to keep up with him, that’s our Poppy and my kids. He loves Disney and roller-coasters as much as a kid loves candy, and he raised his grandson, Mark, to feel the same way. Now, the 2 of them are brainwashing my children to believe that no vacation is complete without spending at least 2 FULL days (from the time the park opens until the time it closes) at a theme park preferably a Disney park. We are so thankful to have a grandfather that loves to play and take us on vacation once a year. As my girlfriend says, “Everyone should have a Poppy.”

3) Be self-disciplined.

Poppy is the most self-disciplined individual I believe I have ever known. Until after having heart surgery, he worked out a minimum of 5 days a week. I’m talking full on running long distances well into his 70s. Now, at 81 post open heart surgery he works out 3 days a week because he says he needs a day in between workouts to recover. Ummm. I’m way younger, and I need at least a day between workouts. That’s if I bother to workout at all, but enough about me. Also, did I mention? He only eats 2 meals a day. That’s it. Sometimes he may eat a piece of fruit mid day, but mostly it’s just breakfast and dinner for Poppy. If all my family required of me from the kitchen was oatmeal and a muffin for breakfast and then salad, fish, bread, and steamed veggies for dinner each day, my life would be so much easier.

4) Love God and Love people.

This is definitely the grand finale. Poppy loves the Lord even more than he loves Mimi, his family, his job and vacations combined. How do I know this? By the way he has lived his life and dedicated himself to ministering to others and teaching God’s Word.

It wasn’t enough for Poppy and Mimi to just attend church. They have been very involved in the local church. They even earned seminary degrees in order to be more knowlegable teachers and leaders. They put those degrees to work too. Mimi was an outreach pastor in a Korean church. Poppy has taught Bible classes in the local church since the 1960s. He has been very dedicated to prison ministry as well driving a good distance every week to a juvenile prison to build relationships with and mentor young men.

In addition to giving their his time and talents over the years to God, he and Mimi have always been generous with finances too. They have given not only a tithe (10%) to their local church, but also given sacrificially to other organizations working around the world to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed.

James 1:27 says, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

Do you love what you do? Are you dedicated to your spouse and family? Do you work hard AND play hard (with your family)? Are you taking care of the body God gave you? What are you doing to love God? What are you doing to love people (especially those in need)?

These are some of the questions I am pondering as 2012 approaches. I hope that you will think on these too. I don’t know about you, but when my kids have kids I hope that I will be someone they aspire to emulate.

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Season of Changes

Changes. There have been a whole lot of changes taking place in the Groutas household over the past year, and as we are quickly approaching the end of 2011 we have more changes in store. Many of the changes that have taken place are very obvious. Mark resigned as Pastor of Worship at a big, ole Texas mega-church. We moved from Austin, TX to Denver, CO. (People, if you’ve lived your entire life in the South, this kind of move is a big deal! I didn’t realize what I was getting into when we decided to leave the South. Wow. I’ll have to write an entire post on that topic later.) We left total suburban life to live city life. Moved from a brand new home that we owned into a lease house built in the 1960s (Think 6 different kinds of linoleum throughout the house, 2 different styles of cheap carpet, pink wall tiles & pink laminate counters in the bathroom with a turquoise ceramic sink and bathtub. I’ll spare you the other details. Let’s just say we are still battling a bit of a rodent issue.). All this because we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is calling us into something new and different.

We’ve invited some of our closest friends to be in on this adventure with us. As a result, Jon and Whitney Branch and Pamelagrace Okeke relocated too, and we are all living as a big, happy family in the aforementioned lovely, old home. Fortunately, the house is 4600 sq. ft. (that includes a portion of the basement that is unfinished), so there is enough room for all of us. The home is a ranch style house with living room, dining room, kitchen, 3 bedrooms & 1 full bath on the main floor with den & wet bar with walk out patio to backyard, gameroom/office, 2 bedrooms, 1 full bath, and unfinished workroom in the basement. My kids are living on the main floor of the the house each with their own bedroom. All the adults are living in the basement. Each couple has their own bedroom, and PG is living in the gameroom/office (we just installed a curtain rod with curtains to close off her room for privacy). Jon and Whit have 2 cats and a big dog. We have a little weiner dog and a snake. So, just to recap: We have 5 adults, 3 children, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and a snake all living together. It is truly an adventure!

Communal living is amazing. It’s not easy, but it is truly awesome. Over the years, I’ve read plenty of books that tout the glory of communal living (i.e. Blue Like Jazz, and The Irresistible Revolution), but I always thought it wasn’t possible for us especially with our children. Communal living sounds so hippy-dippy. You know? What I can tell you now already is that everyone should live like this at least once in their lifetime. I have learned more about myself in the past couple months that I have in 5 years. I kid you not. Living in community puts a spotlight directly on your weaknesses. For those of you that have been married, remember how hard those first few years were, because you were learning to consider someone else in every situation? You had to learn to consider your spouse’s feelings about everything, right? Well, Mark and I have been married almost 15 years. We are a pretty well-oiled machine when it comes to day to day living and raising kids together. Of course, we hit snags and bumps along the way, but on a daily basis we pretty much know how the other person is going to think, react, etc. Now. Throw 3 new adults into the living situation, and life gets a lot more complicated. Now there are a whole lot of other feelings and idiosyncrasies to take into consideration on a daily basis. I’ve learned that I’m a lot more controlling than I thought I was. I like things a certain way in my house, and when they aren’t that way it really bothers me. I’ve had to learn to let the stuff slide that really isn’t all that important. I’ve had to become more disciplined in the areas where I have allowed myself to slack off – managing time & energy, not letting dishes sit in the sink, planning meals, getting completely alone with God (not easy in a house full of 8 people on different schedules coming and going all the time), etc. The only way we can all continue to live together for an indefinite amount of time is for each of us to look for ways to serve one another and for each individual to focus on his/her own issues/areas of needed growth. It boils down to humility, and Whitney recently wrote about the subject of humility in an excellent blog post from her perspective of our living situation. You can check it out at whitneybranch.wordpress.com.

As Christmas is just around the corner, there is another key change happening for the Groutas family. We are simplifying Christmas. This has been a work in progress over the last few years. Every year as Christmas approaches my girlfriends and I have had lengthy conversations about how we are sick to death with the way our society has commercialized Christmas and how we as the Christian community have bought in to it. We’ve tried different approaches to counter the culture. One year we resolved to put “Love your neighbor as yourself.” into practice and spend the same dollar amount on a family/families in need as we did for our own family. Sheesh. That got seriously expensive, because we still weren’t really good at reining in the spending on our own family yet. For a couple of years now we went by the rule of my dear next door neighbor, Jonna, and bought for each kid “something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read.”

We’ve never been big on Santa at our house. Mark grew up without Santa and honestly can’t stand the thought of giving some fictional character all the credit and glory for our own benevolence. Just so that our kids wouldn’t be the Kindergarteners that ruined the Santa “magic” for all the other kids and their families we’ve given our kids each 1 gift from Santa each year. My two oldest kids became very aware at young ages that Santa is Mom and Dad, because we were never committed to the lie. I bought a children’s book when our oldest was a toddler titled Santa, Are You For Real?, and we bring it out with all the Christmas decorations every year and read it. It’s the basic history of St. Nicholas. This year we just aren’t going to do Santa at all. The kids get so much stuff from their grandparents, aunts and uncles that really it’s unnecessary for them to get one more gift. My children don’t NEED anything. They have more than enough. In the moving process, we donated 5 truck loads of stuff to Goodwill (I have receipts to prove it) and threw away another truck bed or 2 full of junk. They have not missed any of it! I wish I would have gotten rid of more. If you’ve never purged your stuff, you must! I’m telling you. It is the most liberating experience. Weight lifts from your shoulders. It’s addicting. If you feel bogged down in life, maybe even struggle with depression, stop buying, and start purging! Purge smart too. There are plenty of great organizations who will happily take your stuff and put it to good use. Typically, I like to find families in need to give to directly, or I give to local crisis centers.

I think the biggest change of all for our family this Christmas is that we will truly have time as a family. For the past 7 or 8 Christmases, Christmas has revolved around the work of the church. The Christmas Eve services and Easter services at a mega-church are like the Superbowl for the NFL. The work behind the production is months in the making. It takes countless hours of manpower to pull it off. It is exciting and fun and crazy and all-consuming. Mark loved his job. He was really good at it too, if I do say so myself. I think his ability to plan, administrate, build a team to delegate tasks to, and execute a production got better and better every year. I understood the amount of hours and energy it took to produce and perform in 6-8 services of that caliber in a matter of days, and I was committed to picking up the slack at home in order to support him. It was my ministry to him and to our church. All that to say, understanding and being committed did not change the effect it had on our family. This year Christmas gets to be simple for us. We get to spend time together as a family without Mark being completely and utterly exhausted. This may be the only year like this for us. I don’t know what the future holds for us when in comes to Christmas and Christmas services, but I know that this year we have a reprieve. Christmas this year will be a Sabbath. The thought of it causes me to take a deep breath.

For more thoughts on doing Christmas differently, please check out my dear friend Jen Hatmaker’s blog post The Christmas Conundrum. She finally put in print the years of conversations we have had among our friend group. Thank you, Jen!

My prayer for you and your loved ones is that Christmas is a time of love, light, reflection and togetherness. I pray that you may know Christ more intimately and deeply and that through knowing Him and loving Him you would pour out love to others.

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