Parenting as a Team in the Early Years

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The day our first child was born I was awestruck looking at him and thought, we made this child, a part of both of us and a whole new person!  A phrase from our Pastor lodged in my heart, “God has given you an eternal soul to be responsible for.” Luke vowed to be an expert at putting baby to sleep, and armed with a swaddling blanket and pacifier did just that. There’s nothing more endearing than watching my husband rocking our son to sleep. He was like our first pet crawling around our cramped apartment floor.

While still in the first years of our marriage, we had three boys in two years. These were wonderful years, but also extremely difficult, Luke and I were often forced apart by the daily struggles of raising children. I was tired, he was impatient. One evening after Luke had disciplined our toddler my facial expression displayed my disapproval, and this frequent scene became too much. “We can’t watch the kids together. Either you watch them or I will!” With this resigned declaration from my husband, I felt absolute failure as a mother.

This was a moment of desperation for me. How could we be a loving couple if we couldn’t parent together? It was hard to manage the kids and feel like we connected with each other, Luke craved time with just me but there was so little! I knew it was vital to learn to connect as a family and as a couple. Luke wanted intensely to be an integral part of our home life, to be able to support me in raising our sons, and to be needed by me. He wanted to walk in the door and be my hero.  As I learned to lean on him, and communicate my needs so he could meet them our relationship blossomed. Becoming aware of what I needed from Luke was the first step in working together. Asking in a humble patient way BEFORE it was a national disaster was the next. My expectation was that Luke would be able to see when I needed help and know how to help without being asked.

We fell into a predictable pattern of Luke being occupied on the computer while I managed the house and kids, then at some point my expression would unavoidably show my frustration, next came, The Offer. “Hey babe do you want me to help you with something?” I always said, “No it’s fine, I got it,” too mad by that point, and too prideful to ask for help in a specific way. Our success in becoming a good team hinged on our ability to express our needs to each other. I learned to ask, and Luke learned how to help me. It was so hard for me to even ask that I went over the sentence, “can you hold him while I make supper?” 50 times in my head before getting it out!

 I also started taking my struggles to God immediately in each angry moment of disagreement. I worked hard to ask Christ to change my heart when I was prideful or controlling. A quite helpful refrain in my head many times went like this, “you do not own him!” We had a common desire to be a unified team and that desire drew us together. We also laughed together at our boys antics, Luke has the endearing quality of laughing out loud at every funny story I tell him. I have always saved the comical parts of my day to laugh over with him each night.

We learned to talk in a way that the other could hear, I listened more, and he plowed through conflict more. Many times when we felt strongly about something or got predictably angry over a certain behavior in our children it went back to our own experiences or our expectations for the future. I had vowed never to marry a hot tempered man that would deal with our kids in an angry manner. If I even felt that Luke was becoming angry at a child I was insanely defensive. We had to talk about these fears and reactions over and over until I trusted Luke’s disciplining to be fair and controlled, and accept that I would have to forgive him when he wasn’t perfect.

In these early years I discovered an amazing secret on endearing our children to my husband’s heart. Make love to him often. When he felt close to me he had the emotional energy to pour into the kids.  This cure had miracle properties! Making time together as a couple with three little boys took enormous creativity and determination. If the baby went to sleep I would have egg cartons for each of them with mini snacks or toys to occupy them, and turn on a kid show for the one kid that would watch TV at that age. Sometimes these efforts to find kid-free time together turned into comedy routines from the ten million interruptions! No matter what it was never wasted effort.

One of the most wonderful routines we have now is bedtime, I kiss each one goodnight and Luke does all the work. This was not a simple or pain free process! A few years ago when he started putting them to bed every night the kids would yell for milk, or sneak out of bed multiple times, Luke would spank them and I hated it! I didn’t want our evenings to end with spankings. We eventually figured out a great system and a better schedule. This was where we practiced communicating about discipline, expectations, and child training. What an incredible gift it is every night to have my husband put the kids to bed while I nurse the baby or drink cocoa!

After six years of parenting practice I love the connection we have as a family and a couple, it’s more than enough motivation to keep communicating and never settle for dysfunction! We have changed for the better raising what is now four sons, these eternal souls given to us by God, it is our journey of joining together.

 

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Two Things I Thought I Knew Before I Got Married

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I got married two days after my thirtieth birthday. We celebrated our thirty-second anniversary last May. My daughter asked me what advice I’d give young wives and I had to think & pray about it because it has been a long time since I was a young wife. I now have been married longer than I was single — something I could not imagine being true in my mid-twenties.

I came into marriage with a lot of sound and unsound Biblical teaching along with emotional baggage and unresolved issues. I had theory, but not practice (except in the experience of those who gave advice). I had expectations based on all the books, movies, and music I’d been exposed to. And I was like every other new spouse in that regard. We all come into marriage unprepared for the reality at some level because it is a new thing.

Nothing Will Be Like You Thought It Would Be

At least, not after the first “dream come true” moments when you think your fantasy has actually become real. That organized house, perfect pair of jeans, and every relationship you might have will be different after you live with them a while. I was reminded of this recently by a 9-year-old who confided, “I thought when my dad told me he would have full custody that everything would change, but really it didn’t much.” Her life has had a lot of changes and this one will be good, but it will not be problem-free.

Getting married does not mean “happily ever after” any more than getting to live with your most stable parent means everything will change. But living with the most stable parent is pretty good when you are nine. A stable home is a good thing at any age even when it isn’t like what you thought it would be. Any kind of home can become something good when God is finished with the people who live there. This is something I thought I understood, but the in-your-face dynamics of marriage and parenthood took that understanding deeper.

Things in God’s Hand are Not Wasted

I think the most important thing to remember about marriage is the same thing that is priority in singleness: God is with us. He is with us in the mundane daily tasks that nobody sees. He is with us in the spotlight of high-stress situations. He promises that all the things..ALL of them…are not wasted (Romans 8) but we have no promise that things will be what we planned.

Some heartbreaking things can happen. Discouragement and despair can cloud our vision until we can’t see any hope at all. Is God still working? Yes. Is He still with us? Yes. The entire Bible is the story of His redemptive love for broken, sinful, rebellious individuals. The fact that you are here, reading these words, means that He is giving you another chance to respond to Him.

Most of life is not made up of big things. Life is little things, one after another, day after day. The choices we make in the little things don’t always seem very important. Much of the time, God is the only one who knows what kind of sacrifice it is to keep your mouth shut or pick up that sock on the floor. It’s a sacrifice to stop what I am doing and pay attention to someone who wants to talk. But those are the times I am picking up my cross and following Jesus.

As we do that, the hidden choices pile up. The mundane things are not wasted. It won’t be like you thought it would be, but it will be better than you could imagine eventually.

Don’t Wait to Get Caught

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In today’s world, we see Christian leaders fall into sexual sin all the time.  Each time a name comes to light, it becomes more and more obvious that Satan has a huge foothold in this area.  And if sexual sin is this common in our leadership, it has to be rampant throughout churches everywhere.

What I believe is at the root of this problem is a fear of confession and a lack of trust that God’s way is better than our own way.  I believe this is the root of the problem because it was the root of the problem for me.  I also believe that the church needs examples of confession and accountability.  We need stories of people who choose God over their temptations on a regular basis.  We need to be reminded of what we believe and why we follow Christ.  And so, to that end, I’d like to tell you my story.

I was introduced to pornography at a young age and instantly, something inside of me woke up that I have not been able to put back to sleep.  You may have heard of people who take one drink and are addicted to alcohol, well, I took one look and I was addicted to sex.  My addiction went unchecked for almost 10 years, escalating to include masturbation and cybersex.

At the same time, I was growing up in a Christian home and building a relationship with God.  I desperately hated these urges that I was not able to control.  I was disgusted at my body’s reaction to things that my heart knew were damaging, both to me and to the other people involved.  I educated myself about the realities of the sexual exploitation industry, trying to convince my mind that this was a horrible thing.  I wanted God to magically heal me and take the temptation away, and I prayed for that constantly.

When I read verses like Colossians 1:22 “..to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation..” those words made me cringe.  I related to passages like Jeremiah 2, Ezekiel 16 and Hosea.  I was the child bride who rejected her husband and went out to seek sex like a whore.

But that was all on the inside.  That happened in the dark and behind closed doors and in my cleared browser history.  In my visible life, I held a position as youth representative on the church board.  I was a trusted member of the youth group leadership team.  I led the drama team in our church and started a worship band.  I led two lives, and I had conditioned my heart and mind to accept this.  Sin had an iron grip on my heart, and Satan whispered to me that only men struggled with porn, that I would be humiliated if I ever was found out.  It was only when the Holy Spirit got through my defenses that I cried out to God.

When I was 17, I gave myself the ultimatum to either get help or get out of leadership in my church.  That fall, I entered an intensive discipleship program where I confessed my secret sin issues and got the accountability that I needed.  I hoped that after the big confession that I would be healed, but that isn’t the way God worked for me.

Even with the help of my advisers and close friends, I had a decade of sin with roots that had grown deep into my life and habits that had to be unlearned.  I needed regular and intrusive accountability to maintain a clear conscience for years, but the peace of living without the fear of exposure over my head, of knowing that I am forgiven and that my life is open to God’s prompting and plan, it is the best feeling I have ever experienced.

It has been another decade since I finally confessed and got help.  There have been times when I failed, times when I backed away from accountability and ended up justifying small indulgences.  But God used the decision that I made in my junior year of high school to build a foundation for repentance and pave the way back to a clean conscience.  Just as it is easier to continue in sin after you have done it once, it is easier to confess and repent once you build that pattern into your life.

My prayers for miraculous healing were not answered.  Instead, I was given enough grace to take each step that was put before me.  God’s way has drawn me ever slowly closer to his heart through the years.  And because of this decade of learning to discipline my mind, I am softer when he convicts me.. I am stronger when he challenges me.. I am braver when he asks me to change.  It is both the mystery of his grace and the daily walk in his will that have worked the miracle in my life.

As a body of believers, many of us have lost the discipline of confession.  We are so afraid that we are alone in these temptations, and so afraid of the disgust that we see slung around on social media when a sinner is caught.  But if we confess our sins he is faithful and just.  He will forgive us from our sins.  Don’t wait to be caught; give yourself up.  Turn yourself in.  You have the choice of wallowing in your invisible dirt or walking into glorious freedom.  I bet you would be surprised who all has been wallowing beside you.

I was meant to be holy in his sight.  Without blemish.  Free from accusation.  Should someone point the finger at me and name my sins, I do not need to cringe.  Satan doesn’t hold anything over me that has not already been confessed and forgiven.  As the song says, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.

If you are reading this, please do one of three things:  

If the Holy Spirit is convicting you of sin right now, tell a trusted friend that you need to talk to them.  Even just setting the appointment is a huge step on the road to confession and freedom.

If you have dealt with secret sin in your past and are now experiencing freedom in Christ, share your story with someone.  The church needs examples of how to deal with their sin, and you can contribute to that cause.

And if you are not in a place that you feel able to do either of those things, please pray.  Pray for yourself and for others to have the courage to give themselves up and finally be free.  Pray for God to give us all the grace to triumph over seemingly impossible trials and that we would trust that his way is truly better than our way.

Celibacy and Chastity Are Not Dirty Words

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It’s been interesting to see the debates on the recent marriage decision by the US Supreme Court. I’m not going to get into the fray by saying my thoughts on that decision because it will sidetrack from one issue that is often revealed: for some reason, the idea of controlling one’s sexual appetite is seen as a bad idea.

Most of the time I am told that it is wrong to deny your feelings, that people have the right to do whatever their inclination is sexually. If it feels good to someone, they should do it (whatever “it” is) and not repress themselves.

The problem is that we see the benefit of controlling one’s appetite in other areas. People who control their appetite for unhealthy food reap the benefit of improved nutrition. Those who control their appetite for laziness don’t have soft puffy bodies. Those who control their appetite for mind-numbing media tend to be more intelligent.

The professional dancer says “no” to a lot of things in order to become proficient at dance. Those Olympic athletes have denied themselves many enjoyable moments in order to compete at the highest level. If you are going to be in top physical shape, you have to control various appetites, saying “no” to one thing so that you can say “yes” to something better.

Celibates have said “no” to sexual activity in order to say “yes” to something they deem better. People practicing chastity say “no” to sexual behavior outside marriage in order to deepen and strengthen the bond of that marriage. 

There are many people who are chaste or celibate for reasons that are not religious. Some are interested in avoiding sexually transmitted disease: a topic that should be more visible in our sexualized culture. Others have been so scarred by the past they try to avoid more trauma. Occasionally there isn’t much sexual appetite to begin with because what is happening in your body affects desire.

Controlling what you feed your sexual appetite begins with the thought process. Chastity and celibacy involve more than a physical appetite. Sexuality begins in the emotions and thoughts of a person, which is why porn can be so devastating since it creates habits rewarded by pleasure. But if the porn really satisfied, the same level of porn would be enough to satisfy again. We don’t see this in the porn industry — instead there is increasing demand for different types of porn and deeper degradation.

Every person involved in the porn industry is a person whom Jesus came to seek and to save, which is easy to forget sometimes. Every person who is focused on feeding their appetite for whatever triggers pleasure is a person who needs to see that the pleasure is fleeting.

Pleasure isn’t a problem unless it is sought at the expense of the permanent.

Saying “no” to the future in order to say “yes” to something that will only last a short time is like eating the seeds instead of planting them for a harvest of many more. Jesus used the example of a seed needing to die in order to produce many more seeds, and that principle applies to our lives in many ways.

Biblical Christianity says “yes” to Jesus, who chose to say “no” to all that He had as deity so that we could be alive in Him. He chose to leave all the privilege of being God and become a fertilized egg in the womb, be born and grow into limited manhood, and die a shameful death on the cross for the simple reason that He loves us. His disciples saw Him die, were terrified of dying themselves, and then something changed.

Those who knew Jesus was dead and were hiding from the authorities suddenly came out in public insisting that Jesus was alive. Many followers of Jesus were beaten, arrested, and killed. They died unafraid, knowing that the God who overcame death would do all He promised and that this life was not the end of life.

We see people die for what they believe to be true all the time. But these Jesus followers would be dying for what they knew was a hoax — if it was a scam put on by the disciples they would be the first group in history willing to die unanimously to perpetrate a story they made up. Why would they say “no” to life and “yes” to that?

They said “no” to the temporary and “yes” to the eternal.

Jesus told us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. This includes all our appetites, in every area of life, married or single. It doesn’t necessarily mean those appetites are bad, but it does mean those appetites are recognized as temporary.

When you think about it, people who are chaste or celibate are saying “no” to a temporary sexual urge so they can say “yes” to something that lasts longer and has more value.

A Husband-Shaped Hole

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The first time that my new husband hurt my feelings, I sat on our front steps and cried my eyes out.  It was a warm night at the end of the summer, and as I sat there I asked God how it was possible that just weeks after the wedding I could be this crushed by my loyal and loving (and oblivious) husband.

It was one of those times that God answered me very specifically.

It isn’t his job.

What?

Filling all of your needs.  It isn’t his job.

The tears dried on my cheeks as I thought about that.  I had this erroneous idea that was probably born in my childhood or early teens that marriage was the ultimate goal and would make me happy.  Even knowing intellectually that it wasn’t true, it was a hard reality to actually encounter.

Christian dating/courtship books encourage this idea, though they probably don’t mean to.  Even most of the conversations that I have had about marriage make it seem like singleness is a long hard journey and the reward is marriage.. much like we look forward to heaven at the end of the journey of life.  But marriage isn’t a goal; marriage is a continuation of the journey.  Marriage is acquiring a running partner.  Marriage is the decision to make the hard journey of life with a loving and sinful spouse who is also a novice at the whole thing.

There’s an evangelistic concept that we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only he can fill.. only I feel like as single women we were all subtly told that it is actually a husband-shaped hole.  We long for marriage, and so we imagine that a husband will make us secure or cure our loneliness or fix our brokenness.

It isn’t a husband-shaped hole.  It is definitely a God-shaped hole.  Don’t make the mistake of trying to saddle your spouse with responsibilities that actually belong to Jesus.

Even after 2 years of marriage, sometimes I have to stop and evaluate where I am placing my trust.  Am I expecting things of Jason that are not within his responsibilities (or capabilities) to fulfill?  Am I trusting Jesus to be my Savior and trusting Jason to be my partner?

That night, I got up and climbed the steps back into my house.  I gave my hurt feelings to God and responded to my (still clueless) husband with love.  And I let the hole in my heart be filled by the only one big enough to fill it.

Contentment in Brokenness: Sexual Impurity and the “Good Christian Girl”

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Women seem to have so many things to hide: zits, wrinkles, gray hair; mood swings, anxiety, depression; exhaustion from working overtime or caring for a sick loved one or staying up all night with a collicky baby; we desperately try to hide anything that shows our imperfections or weakness. We’re often ashamed of our weakness, but perhaps most hidden and shameful of all are all of the sexual impurities that have left their marks on our bodies and our souls.

I was seventeen and naively confident in my sexual activity. Only, I wasn’t really that confident, but the older man abusing me at the time tried to make me think that I was. I carried the secret of my shame for the next two years, even after he was long gone and Christ had become King of my heart.

I kept silent out of a twisted concern for the man who had taken advantage of me, but also out of fear that my new Christian sisters would label me a freak and a sinner and an outcast. “Good Christian girls don’t do those things,” Satan whispered, “and they certainly don’t talk about them.”

Don’t we all believe these lies? That we are alone in our suffering, abnormal in our struggles, and despicable in our secret sins? That we’re ruined, unlovable, and unforgivable? I know I believed them, and still do sometimes. But the truth is that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1) and “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). And the even better news is that our God is not a God who can’t relate to our suffering and struggles: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3); and “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

How gloriously wrong I turned out to be about these lies! My sisters loved me MORE, not less, when I broke down and spilled the secret that had been poisoning my heart. They spoke the truth of the gospel to me: “You have been redeemed! You are a new creation! You are the bride of Christ!” And what a beautiful truth it is, that Christ suffered and died and rose to new life that I may die to myself and be made alive in Him. Even the confusion over that man’s sin and my own sin in it is covered by grace, much to my constant relief.

So why are so many women, especially Christian women, still hiding? Partly because of the stigma that “good Christian girls” (whoever they are) need to be pure in every way APART from God’s grace; that they need to be whole BEFORE they come to the cross.

But the cross is for broken people: the sinners, the abused, the outcasts; the girls with zits and wrinkles and anxiety and depression and every kind of weakness or temptation. And if the cross is for people like that, then I am content to be broken that He may restore me to new life, made whole only by His indomitable grace.

*If you have been physically or sexually abused, the No More website (http://nomore.org/need-immediate-help/) has helpful resources and hotlines.  I also urge you to find a trusted Christian friend or mentor to talk to. Feel free to contact me, as well, at christianc@dm.org.

**If you are wrestling with your own sexual sin that is controlling your life, check out Harvest USA (http://www.harvestusa.org/), a Christian organization aimed at caring for sexually broken people in Jesus’ name.

How To Find Contentment In The Real World

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I think one of the craziest things about our culture is marketing. This pervasive industry is built on the goal of destroying contentment — because if you are content with what you have, you aren’t going to be buying anything.

That clickbait title is designed to make you discontented with your current level of knowledge. People analyze titles to see which ones generate the most traffic, and try to utilize the wording that gets results. Who doesn’t want to see what brought tears to the eyes and made the jaw drop in amazement? Why not see what we are missing?

All the magazines, most of the blogs, and every piece of advertising we are exposed to is designed to make us discontent with our current state so that we enter the sales funnel. That funnel may begin with getting on an email list or liking a facebook page, but the idea is to generate income eventually.

The problem isn’t in people wanting to be paid for what they provide, but in the discontent generated to make us dissatisfied with what we have so that we get something new. This new thing could be a purchased product, an experienced activity, or a new level in a relationship. But it doesn’t keep us satisfied — it doesn’t bring the lasting contentment we think is being offered.

I am terrible at this, because it is easy for me to surf for fun eye candy instead of taking care of what already is in my life. Amazon knows how often I look at that Chromebook and will drop the price like a dangling worm on a hook. Etsy is like the Molasses Swamp in Candyland, sucking me in for many turns while I look at removable tiles to update my backsplash. I am pretty sure I am not alone.

Why not take an honest look at what we already have? In Christ, we have more than we realize: Philippians 4 — …I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Notice some things here: 

  • Contentment is a learning process
  • There are things like being brought low and facing hunger in the contentment category
  • The famous “I can do all things” verse is in context of learning to be content in any situation

Hebrews 13 — Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Thoughts to ponder:

  • Love of money, not money itself, is the potential problem
  • What we have is Jesus and He will never leave or forsake us

1 Timothy 6 — But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. Perspective:

  • You are not going to take it with you
  • If you have something you could eat (not if you like it) and something to cover your body, that’s enough

I have been thinking about the food/clothing thing a lot lately. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, they had God’s presence guiding them day and night. When they were hungry, God gave them manna (which means, “what is it?”) and told them not to stockpile unless directed to do so. Their clothing and shoes never wore out, so they never needed a new wardrobe. Later on, He brought them to a land of plenty, with many things to eat and many riches. He warned them that it would be easy to get sidetracked by all the stuff they could accumulate.

Many years later, Jesus would tell a group of people on a hillside that there was more to life than food and clothing: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6)

When I was a young believer, I trusted God to dress me. I knew I didn’t have a good handle on what would be appropriate clothing, so I used these verses as a challenge to trust His provision. He was really good about providing many things to wear, and things to eat, over the years. I have learned that there are seasons in contentment. Sometimes I have had very little, but most of the time I have more than I realize.

I am still being challenged to trust His provision, but when I put my list of wants in His hands, it’s been interesting to see how He provides. For example, I have been eyeing some very cool market baskets made in Africa for a few years but never could justify spending the money. At the local Rescue Mission Thrift Store I found one for $3 and gleefully bought it with thanksgiving in my heart. It’s a reminder to me that I don’t need to buy stuff immediately — and that it’s a good idea to wait on God’s provision.

The illustration that continually reminds me of contentment is the way my hand feels when I hold it out the window as I drive. If my hand is relaxed, it feels full. If I try to grasp it, there’s nothing to hold. I see contentment as relaxing my hand so that God can fill it with the temporary things that are best for me at the moment. These things will change like the wind and they will feel full of promise. If I relax my grasp, I enjoy the moment. If I try to hold on, my hand is empty.