Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Different Beautiful

I am honored to have Courtney Westlake guest posting on the blog today. Courtney is a fellow University of Illinois graduate, a recently published author, and a gifted communicator. I know you'll enjoy her words, her story, and her refreshing perspective on true beauty.

When my daughter was first born, I thought they just needed to wipe her off.

At first glance, she seemed to be covered with a thick coating of white, causing confusion and near-panic with the medical staff in the room. It soon became clear that the towel the nurse was using to clean her wouldn’t alleviate anyone’s concerns.

Because the white covering was her skin.

Our daughter Brenna (our second child and sister to our now 7-year- old son Connor) was born in 2011 with a rare genetic skin condition called Harlequin Ichthyosis (har-le- kwin ick-thee- oh-sis).

This severe disorder means that Brenna’s body has trouble with things like regulating her body temperature – she can’t even sweat – and keeping bacteria out, so she can get skin infections easily. It also means that her body produces skin about 10 times too fast, leaving her with very dry, peeling skin that looks like a sunburn all over her body.

Brenna’s condition affects our lives very profoundly every day and has caused her four short years to be filled with surgeries, doctor and therapy appointments, and a lot of health issues. But my husband, Evan, and I have never questioned why – we have believed from the very beginning in God’s plan for Brenna’s life.

We are often asked what is “wrong” with Brenna, with her skin or her face. But to be But to be wrong is to be mistaken… and I don’t believe that mistakes happen with our awesome God.

When Brenna was just a few days old, critically ill in the neonatal intensive care unit, a family member came to us and said: “I haven’t talked to God in years… but I’ve been praying for Brenna.”

It was in that moment that I was assured that God had an extraordinary purpose for her life, and that he was bringing his children closer to him through our daughter and working through her to reach the hearts of others.

And, as I soon discovered, God was also working through me, by giving me the courage to stand up and say that my daughter is not wrong, she is beautiful.

God has given us the courage to find the beauty in this life, not the tragedy. We believe wholeheartedly that Brenna was given to us uniquely and beautifully created by God, not that she was given to us broken.

Within this, we are learning every day how to discover the beauty in the different and the unexpected. Where society often mocks different, we have found God’s beautiful creation in our differences and are learning to glorify his awesomeness through our distinct personalities, talents, and yes, appearances.

And yet, as we learn to appreciate and to celebrate our differences – our own and each other’s – it also serves as a great reminder that the God who created each of us with unique purpose and talents also created us with a likeness in his image.

We are different, and we are the same – none of us perfect, but formed purposely by a perfect Creator. And there is nothing wrong about that.

Courtney Westlake is the author of newly released book A Different Beautiful. She lives in Illinois with her husband Evan and two children, Connor and Brenna. After Brenna was born with a severe skin disorder, Courtney began chronicling family life and experiences raising a child with physical differences and special needs on her blog. Her writing has been published on sites such as the Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day and Yahoo Parenting. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Sweet Sixteen with the Leader of the Band

For sixteen years I have been Dirk's wife. He's seen me fancied up for parties and rumpled up from the flu. He's heard me speak kind words softly and heard the sharp tone of my snappy retorts. He's enjoyed gourmet meals lovingly prepared and swallowed burned biscuits served in silence. But for more than three decades of his life, he didn't experience any of these things. He didn't know me, and I didn't know him.

I don't always think about how much of our lives have been spent apart, but it is good to remember. It's good to take into account the full lives we lived before we were Melinda110 and Dirk509 on Christian Connection. I was well set in my career twelve miles inland from Malibu, and he'd just completed doctoral coursework at Arizona State when we met. We had lives - full single lives - before we ever became husband and wife. We both had no interest in marrying unless we felt a union would enhance our already bountiful lives. Much to our surprise, a trial on an online dating service lead us into the best merger we could have imagined. But we were individuals for a long time before we were a couple.

This week we're up in northern Minnesota visiting Dirk's parents, and I'm surrounded by the history of the man who married me. Some of it feels familiar after so many years together. I recognize him in the childhood pictures his mother still has on the wall. I know where the tree house used to be in the backyard. But this trip, I got to hear some tales I'd never heard before because they were told by people outside of the family who knew Dirk before he ever knew me.

Dirk's class reunion was last weekend, and it was a surprisingly great time. These things can be both terrible and wonderful depending on who attends and what expectations are in the room. But this was actually great fun. His class is full of interesting characters who have gone on to become engineers, attorneys, sales executives, architects, and parents. Person after person came up to me to introduce themselves and tell me about Dirk through their eyes. I felt myself well with pride the way you do when you first start dating someone and hear privately, "He's a catch," or "He's the nicest guy." And your reassurance grows as you realize it's not just you who thinks he's a keeper. But to feel such advocacy sixteen years in, well, that's a sweet surprise.

Dirk's high school is this amazing place which actually has a spot on the National Register of Historic places. It was built by a mining company back in 1923 who were displacing the town after discovering valuable iron ore under the existing city. To make the move more palatable to the residents who highly valued education, they promised to build a "castle in the woods" for the students. And that they did as they spent $4 million on the building in 1923!

The 1800 seat auditorium was modeled after the Capital Theatre in New York with crystal chandeliers currently insured for $250K a piece. The stalls in the bathrooms are separated by solid marble slabs and the dressing rooms off stage were outfitted with box lights around mirrors like the finest in Hollywood.  As a result, the drama and band department at the school was widely acclaimed, and all the kids wanted the honor of being part of these programs.  Aside from the band's leader, who is kind of a legend around town to this day, there was one drum major who won the respect of his classmates and is still upheld as the best they ever had: Dirk Mattson. I mean, I knew this, to some extent. I knew he'd been the drum major in the band, and people mentioned how good he was when we'd bump into them on visits. But to have dozens of people come up to me to make a point to speak to me about the lasting impact of his leadership on them and how irreplaceable he remains even today got my attention. So many whispered, "He's such a good guy," or "You married well," into my ear as they walked away, and I knew they spoke truth.

We can get pretty familiar with the story of our marriage, assuming we know the key characters and setting. But I'm grateful to be introduced to the prologue and what set the stage for the chapters we've written together.  The sum total is a sacred and beautiful tale full of  more than a few plot twists and even a villain or two, depending on the page or day of the week. But after sixteen years, here's what I know: Dirk is a keeper, it turns out, just as I suspected he would be. It was wonderful to hear so many people lean in and agree with me at the reunion. But what I treasure most in our story are the pages known only to me, the excerpts reserved just for husband and wife.

Building a life with stories wide open is nothing short of holy. It takes guts to share the not so favorable parts and even more courage to turn the page. I love the back stories which brought us to this anniversary, and I look forward to chapters still unwritten.  

Here's to sweet sixteen with the drum major.

He's a good leader indeed.

Where he marches, I will follow.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Hope is Hazardous but Worth the Risk

I needed this refresher today and maybe you did too:)

You are overflowing with hope about some amazing thing that’s about to happen. You pick up the phone to call one of your people. You can hardly wait for them to answer. And then, when they’ve scarcely said hello, you blurt out, “Guess what?!” and tell them what you are over-the-moon excited about.

Then they say that thing no one ever wants to hear. 

“Just don’t get your hopes up.” 

Umm, what? 

We’ve all heard it, thought it, or maybe even said it ourselves. But why are we compelled to diminish hope in those we love?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why I'm glad Unicorn Bones Were Found this Week

So CNN reported this week that unicorn bones were recently discovered in Siberia. Journals of applied sciences and Snopes weighed in, and yep legit news reporting has confirmed that the mythical creatures I've dreamed about since youth used to roam the earth for real. Except they were nothing like my dreams or screen printed book bag from sixth grade. The fossils show that they had the single horn, as their name suggests, but instead of being of stallion stature aglow in rainbows and fairy dust, they were rhino-like woolly mammoths who hung out in Kazakhstan. Well, that's disappointing.

I spy a metaphor for life in this story. Sometimes we dream about a magical job, stage of life, or place to live. We spend lots of time imagining what it would be like there. We'll love it! Sure, it won't be perfect, because we're mature people not looking for a Fairy Tale, but it will be wonderful and we'll be so happy. But then we get there and find scenarios which never showed up in our daydreams. We did not authorize any of these adversaries and plot twists or cliff hanger moments. Our story was supposed to be shiny and light. We knew it wouldn't be perfect, but we never thought it would be so hard and humbling. And yet, these surprise elements are precisely what make up the best stories.

My life hasn't looked a lot like the fable I'd dreamed it would be. Things didn't happen in the time-frame I'd plotted out and I've had to say goodbye to key characters far earlier than I wanted to. Yet I am more fulfilled and joyful than I ever imagined I'd be. Real life, it turns out, trumps Fairy Tales all day long. When there's no script to follow, the unpredictable, messy and the challenging parts come and the good stuff happens...the parts I don't want to miss. Not necessarily easy parts with rainbows and glitter, but meaningful moments where I'm refined to become the person I really want to be. It's in these seasons where wisdom is gained, perspective is sharpened, and sweet times are birthed...precious, deep and wonderful times where I think my imperfect heart might explode from the love within it for the imperfect people I call mine. I was never aiming for perfect, after all. 

I want my story to be about triumph, strength, spiritual growth, and glory to the author of my life. These elements are only found in tales where things don't go as planned and obstacles emerge. I'm learning to welcome the times when my little script is no longer relevant so I can remember Whose story this really is. I've found Him to be such a gracious playwright who never leaves me alone in my struggle, ensures my victory, and loves me without end. 

So with this I raise my glass to the one-horned woolly mammoth! He isn't likely to grace the front of many coffee cups or t-shirts, but he's alright by me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I Hope You Know How Much Jesus Loves You

Ainsley loves to make cards and notes and decorate them. I think I received seven cards from her on my last birthday. I wasn't surprised at all when she told me she wanted to make Easter cards this year. I gave her some cardstock and colored pencils and let her have her way. When she finished the first one for my dad, she asked me for an envelope and before sealing it up, I spied this little gem:

I was so struck by the simplicity of her wish and find it perfectly fitting for Holy Week. 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." 
John 3:16

In a world where some of the loudest voices for Christianity are often filled with hate, I cringe at what people might misunderstand about our great God of love. I don't want to be lumped in with those who claim to be Christians while they make divisive and idiotic statements. I hope no one ever assumes I think the way they do simply because I am a Christian too. But more than my reputation, I want to protect the image of God. 

He is love. 

He loved the world (the whole world) so much that he gave his only son.

So that whoever believes shall not perish.  

This love is so much bigger than we can even comprehend. Oh, but if we could see that doing anything without love can never... not one attributed to Jesus. Being a Christian means we follow the way of Christ and He led in love --- may we do the same.

So on this Easter and everyday, I hope you know how much Jesus loves you and what a God of love He is. 

Oh how He loves you and me.

Happy Easter indeed! 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Why We Need to Just Do It

“You will never plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” ~Irish Proverb

I’m a muller. I like to think things through before I make a decision. I’m not abysmally slow, mind you. If I’m at a restaurant, and the waiter starts with the person to my right, I’ll have a decision for him by the time he gets back to me. I just want some time to consider my options before I make up my mind.

When the decision is weightier than what I’ll have for lunch, the mulling time does increase. It is safe to say I stew over an idea. I think about it from every angle before discussing it with a trusted friend who adds her perspective, which I proceed to consider. All the while, I’ve taken no action.

Read more on The Glorious Table.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Beautiful Farewell: Remembering the Last Week of My Mother's Life

These words were originally shared on Facebook two years ago today. I looked at today's date and realized this was the very day I packed a funeral dress in my suitcase and flew 1,100 miles to my mother's bedside.

Some of you know that I left San Antonio one week ago in the dark of early morning. After receiving a call that my mom (who has been in hospice care for advanced dementia and Parkinson's Plus) was terribly ill and unresponsive, I flew to Illinois in a wild rush in the hopes that I would have one more chance to squeeze the hand of the woman who raised me, who poured her life into mine. By God’s mercy, I was given that chance and so much more.

The past seven days have been nothing short of sacred, holy, and wrenchingly beautiful. My mom (and all of us) were given more than we could have ever imagined or hoped for in the gift of her restored clarity of mind and spirit for the last week of her life. Not only was I able to squeeze her hand, I was able to have numerous conversations with her in which she knew me fully. Her joyous persona, which none of us had seen for over four years, was back for one last party. Though none of us had left anything unsaid, we spent time telling her how much we loved her and one another and how good it was to be together. She joked with us in the wit that has kept us all in hearty laughter the whole of our lives. We talked about her soon to come journey to heaven and how jealous we were that she’d get there first. 
We sang to her, and read God’s Word over her, and laid in the bed next to her. We took her out of the residential home on Wednesday so that she could be in her own bed and enjoy the comforts of the house in which she lived for more than 46 years. Last night at 7:25pm, she left the party. While her beloved family encircled her she quietly took her last breath and headed straight into the arms of Jesus and to an out of this world party that has no end.

Though our hearts are shattered we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

To all who swooped in and loved on my girls and Dirk while I was away – I haven’t enough words to express my thanks. To be able to focus entirely on being a daughter rather than as a mother this week was glory divine. Never once were they out of my thoughts and heart though being away from them was piercingly painful. Yet my heart was peace-filled knowing that so many (in my stead) were scooting them off to school, practice, playdates, and treating them to special meals. I fear that in my return they will miss terribly all of the delicious food delivered hot to the table and find my company rather dull after all of the great fun each of you has treated them to.

To those who offered up prayers on behalf of my mom please know that they held power. They were felt palpably as the Lord of heaven and earth drew near to us. This was by far the most extraordinary week of my life. I fell in love with my mom, my siblings, and my dad all over again. I always knew I was blessed with a solid family but I’ve never been more humbled to be a part of it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

They're Good when they Sleep

My mother-in-law once told me when she, as a young girl, asked for herself and her brother, "Mama, are we good?" her mother said, "You're good when you sleep." The first time I heard this story, I was a bit appalled. How could a mother say such a thing to her child? Was she implying the only time they were good was when they were knocked out cold? It seemed pretty harsh, even for German ancestors not known for their effusive affection.

Over the years, my husband and I have made a bit of a joke of it when our girls catch an unplanned nap, with a smile we whisper to one another, "They're good when they sleep."  But now, I actually think I get what his grandmother meant and I imagine her answer may have been different had she been asked on a different day or even a different time of day. Some days are crammed to the corners with the demands of parenting. The good isn't wildly evident amidst bickering, groans over homework and debates over why Cheetos aren't vegetables. But when the day's work is done and they are nestled in their beds, curls tousled over softly printed pillow cases, that is when we have the full bandwidth to see them – 
to see that they are good, they are everything good.

Even on the best days of mothering, I am generally quite ready to call it a night as I kiss the little loves to sleep. There are times as I walk out the door of their room and they ask for yet one more fresh glass of water, it is all I can do not to go bat crazy because I haven't been allowed to clock out at my normal quitting time. The humanity! I usually don't lose my shizzle, and I do really adore these treasured girls, but we all have our limits. In the evening I eagerly anticipate those moments when no one will ask me how to spell something or why owls bob and weave their heads. And yet so many times after they have gone to sleep, when I am in the quiet all alone and I think only of them.

My mind replays the accounts of the day. Sometimes it's the best of moments that come to mind – the times when we loved one another well, laughed heartily, listened intently to one another. Other times I recount missed opportunities or a tone I wish I hadn't taken. I offer a prayer of thanks that a new day is coming, a second chance to do better. And soon I find myself climbing to the top of the stairs to have one more look at them. They always look especially tiny in their beds, knees pulled to their tummies, faces softened with nary a crease to be found. It is in this place, where nothing is required of me, that I can see it. All of their goodness rises like cream and I see who they really arevulnerable, beautiful, tiny, impressionable, treasured little beings entrusted to us for a whisper of time. And I see how good they always are, imperfect, but always good.