For my nephew and his bride on the eve of their wedding

My dear nephew and his bride,

Your wedding is tomorrow. You won’t have time to really read and take this in today, but it’ll be here when you do.

It’s hard to imagine that the little blond baby I fell head over heels in love with at the hospital not that long ago is ready to take a bride, but the two of you have declared your intentions to walk together from now on. Your new life as husband and wife begins tomorrow.

To wish you well along your journey together, I’ve asked some friends to share their advice with the two of you. I’m including some of my own thoughts, as well as some “white wedding-y” flower photos, all taken since you two first met.

hydrangea2013FT

You may hear, especially this first year, that the first year of married life is the hardest. That may be true for you, as your final year of college will bring its own special kind of stress and difficulties. But don’t get complacent after you’ve made it through the first year: it’s not necessarily true that the first year is the hardest. Marriage will always take effort. Expect ups and downs throughout your marriage. There will be good days and bad days, good years and tough ones. Agree from the start that you will weather these together.

orchid2013FT

Marriage is not a contest or a competition. At times, one of you may bring more to the relationship than the other. Accepting that you won’t always contribute 50-50 will save you from many tears and frustrations.

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You are at the same time still young but also grown and ready to make life-changing decisions. Know that you will both change—possibly a lot—in your twenties. Your hopes will change. Your dreams will change. Your goals will change. May you grow stronger together as you encounter these inevitable changes.

Because you are marrying now, before you have figured out your vocations and avocations, you will likely have to make sacrifices for the happiness of your spouse. It may feel too hard sometimes to put your personal dreams on hold, but expect there to be times (maybe years at a time) when your personal goals and dreams do not get to come first.

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I know it’s hard to imagine not wanting to be together all the time, and you should enjoy each other’s company and enjoy many of the same hobbies and activities. But also give yourselves time and space to cultivate interests that you don’t both necessarily share. Think of this space in your marriage as a way to bring out the best in each other. As counterintuitive as it may seem, these differences can enrich your marriage and make you stronger together.

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Your marriage isn’t all about you. You are part of something greater than just the two of you. I hope you’ll find a way to bring your strengths as a couple to share with those around you. And I hope you’ll lean on your faith to help you learn how you are to love yourselves and others as fully as possible. Henri Nouwen wrote it beautifully:

… I have love to offer to people, not only here, but also beyond my short, little life. I am a human being who was loved by God before I was born and whom God will love after I die. This brief lifetime is my opportunity to receive love, deepen love, grow in love, and give love.

Finding My Way Home, 139-40

Speaking of faith, I hope you won’t ignore its importance in your relationship. God’s love is a perfect love and can teach you how to love each other even when you don’t really much like each other. A faith community is also a vital way to grow together, develop abiding friendships, and find mentors and other couples who can hold you accountable for your actions within your marriage. Many of my friends who married young attribute their successful marriage to a strong faith and the communities of faith that have supported them in difficult times.

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I could ramble on, but I’ll stop here. I wish you joy. I love you. I pray you will, together, be exceptional.


As promised here is some advice from friends across the country. Some have had long and happy marriages. Some have learned hard lessons in divorce and remarriage. All have walked the road ahead of you and have wisdom to share with you.

On changing (for good and for bad)

  • “My grandmother told me when I got married (at 19 years old) that whatever they do when you get married they will keep doing. Whatever they do NOT do, they will continue NOT doing. Don’t expect people to change when you get married.”
  • “We are always developing as individuals and as couples. Never stop trying to ‘get to know’ your partner. You are both new people every day.”

On inevitable fights

  • “Using slogans such as ‘How important is it?’ would have resulted in fewer stupid arguments and less resentments resulting from the petty stuff we might notice when we are younger.”
  • “Pick your battles. Everything is NOT worth a disagreement. This advice has helped us to have almost 20 years of happiness.”
  • “I think the word ‘blame’ should be eliminated from the vocabulary. The idea of blame is intrinsically crippling. That is why it is spelled B LAME.”
  • “My mantras: 1. Accept and embrace imperfection, in myself and others. 2. Refrain from personalizing—other people’s feelings are usually not due to you. They are feelings. 3. Pause before reacting. 4. Choose encouragement, not criticism. 5. In discussions, say ‘I feel’ rather than ‘You should’ 6. Approach your days with kindness, savoring and gratitude. 7. Give as you would like to receive. (an iteration of the Golden Rule, of course!) 8. Let go. Let love.”
  • “You don’t always have to be right. In 35 years it won’t matter anyway. When we got married our theme was ‘Divorce is not an option.'”
  • “My advice is to be honest and truthful but not hurtful in the process. Remember, the person you are speaking to holds the other half of your heart. So treat it with care.  There is a gentle way to address all situations and you can NEVER take back words said in spite disguised as honesty.”

On compromise

  • “Marriage is a compromise where things don’t turn out like she or he wants, but instead how the couple, as one, wants. It’s worked for 32 years and counting. There’s no more you and me; it’s now us and we.”

On your future together

  • “Talk about money, and save money together. Start now, not later.”
  • “Do not hurry to have children.” [I would add: be willing to revisit your decision not to have children, as your desires may change over time. They may not, but be open to an honest conversation on this huge decision.]
  • “Make time to do things together. Plan mini vacations.”
  • “Remember that in marriage there are many ups and downs. There will be days you wake up and are so in love with your spouse and others you can’t seem to stand to look at them, but these times are normal and will ebb and flow. It doesn’t mean the love is gone; it returns! Stay patient and work and remember it isn’t always easy, but with God in the center of your marriage, you can conquer all!”

On luck and blessings that will keep your marriage going

  • “I know this isn’t a very Christian perspective, but I feel extremely ‘lucky’ that our marriage has been what it is. We were so young and naive.”
  • “These are the only things I can think of that are authentic and sincere: May you laugh together every day, find things you love to do together and separately, and grow up together.”

To all the rest of you reading this, what advice, blessings or well wishes would you add to send off this young couple into their marriage?

Revisiting the good aunt

I’m heading into a month of good aunt activities: graduations, a wedding, visits with family and friends whom I also consider family. The amount of travel is dizzying, and I’m still trying to catch up from having been sick off and on for several weeks. But in the midst of it all, I’m thinking and writing a lot about the good aunt.

My latest writing project is an expansion of the Good Aunt series from 2012. I have been blessed to interview some wonderful women along the way, hearing about their paths to childlessness and uncovering their struggles and joys that have led them to flourishing lives.

The topic of childlessness is no less charged than it used to be, but I am seeing more conversation around the topic in mainstream media. Where I’m not hearing as much is within the Christian community, and I’d like for that to change. (Well, Pope Francis broke his silence recently—declaring childless couples selfish—but that requires its own response another time.)

The church’s silence can be supportive or condemning, and it can be hard to tell which until an issue comes to the surface. This silence makes me want to have a louder conversation about childlessness, both within the Christian community and the broader culture.

This is a subject worth delving into, worth understanding better. Women and men choosing childlessness need the telling of our stories. We need the ears and the voice of the church. We need a better response than silence or a patronizing label calling us selfish.

Whether you have children or don’t, if there’s something you hope I’ll address in this project, I’d love to hear from you. The brilliant, amazing women I’ve been interviewing may just have the response you’ve been waiting to read.

Simply comment below, contact me by email, send me a tweet (use #goodaunt) or post on my Facebook page. Let’s keep the conversation going.

The good aunt and social taboos

I don’t watch much television, and when I do, it’s usually a show I’ve DVR’d. So I don’t watch many ads. But last Wednesday evening, I sat down to watch a show as it was airing. That meant dealing with the ads, too. There was one in particular that ruffled my good aunt feathers.

I don’t know exactly when the Christmas season ads started (see above about the DVR), but my first Christmas ad of the season was one by Best Buy: Maya Rudolph holding a story book telling of Judy, who goes to Best Buy to stock up on a tablet, a PC and a smart phone for her nieces and nephews. Rudolph ends the book’s story with the nieces and nephews saying, “Yo, Aunt Judes, you’re like the best auntie ever.” See the ad for yourself.

This ad made me cringe and want to weep a bit at the same time. As if there’s not enough pressure at the holidays to set the perfect table and be the perfect daughter/wife/sister/mom/friend/fill-in-your-own-blank, now there’s pressure to top “Aunt Judes” with her gift-giving prowess.

Don’t get me wrong. I love shopping for my nephews and my friends’ children at Christmas, but I am not going to load up on electronics at Best Buy for them, even if that would elicit a response from them like the nieces and nephews in the ad. You see, I don’t believe Christmas and other gift-giving occasions are about spending ridiculous amounts of money to bribe children into “loving” you.

I know that puts me firmly at odds with the giant monster of American consumerism, and I’m okay with that.

When speaking your mind puts you at odds with society
I attended a book launch party this past weekend and was nervous about going. You see, I am not cool. I never was one of the cool kids and never will be one of those cool, trendy adults. (I’m okay with that, too.)

But I was going with one of my cool friends, and we were there to celebrate with another cool friend – Enuma Okoro – who has co-edited a book of essays called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith.

The book is a compilation of 40 women under age 40 writing about topics that the church and society at large shrink away from discussing. And listening to several of the contributors read their essays, I took a deep breath and felt like I was in the safest of places. Uncool me, safe among voices willing to talk about topics, some of which I couldn’t even be brave enough to type out for you here.

I looked around at one point and realized I was surrounded with amazing women (and not a few supportive men) who were brave enough to break out of chains that might otherwise shame them into silence and share their stories. And I felt at home and uncharacteristically chatty. I was able to dish out little moments of grace, but received much more grace in return.

I had bought the book at the door and sat down for the readings to begin, but I cannot simply hold a new book in my hands without taking a peek inside, and that’s when I had to fight the urge to sit and read one of the essays and tune out everything around me.

The essay, written by co-editor Erin Lane, is called “Married without Children.” She’s talking about me, you know. That’s this good aunt. And words cannot express the surge that went through me that this group of women, that Erin Lane in particular, had picked my particular taboo topic to include in this book.

I saved reading the essay until after the party, actually waiting until I could sit in the quiet of a Caribou coffee shop sipping pumpkin chai (so, so delicious). The coffee barista stopped mid-order when she saw the book I was holding and wanted to know all about it. So I told her: it’s essays by Christian women about taboos within the church, taboos about gender and addiction and sexuality and more. I told her there was an essay in there about being married without children. Her response? “Oh, that is a taboo.” You’re telling me, I thought.

Reading that essay there in Caribou, I felt like I was sitting beside a new friend, one of those that you know from the first handshake really gets you, really understands where you’re coming from. I underlined, starred and even drew a heart beside words as I read. There were moments I was afraid I might have to gather up my things and leave, the wave of emotion – equal parts relief and revelation and validation and a feeling of kinship washing over me.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Talking Taboo. (It’s available through Amazon, but it would make me happiest if you would look for it in a local bookstore.)

You may find your own taboo topic discussed out loud in there. I hope you find the essays as freeing and energizing as I have. Once you’ve read the book, come back here and let me know what you thought. What made you laugh or cry or blush even though no one was looking?

Calling all good aunts, nieces, nephews and friends

It’s time to revisit the Good Aunt series, and I’ve decided to make it into a larger project. But making it bigger and better means I need your help.

So tell me, if you and I were walking and talking together and stopped to sit here for a few moments, what would you want to ask me? What would you want to tell me? What part of your stories would you want me to share?

Will you join me here for a conversation about good aunts?

Will you join me here for a conversation about good aunts?

I’m reaching out to you today to invite you to sit down with me and share conversations that matter with each other.

If you’re a woman who does not have children, if you’re a niece or nephew of a wonderful aunt who does/did not have children of her own, if you’re a friend of a woman whose story the world should know, I’d love to hear from you.

I’ve created a contact form with some questions to get the conversation started and to learn more about what you want to know about the woman you think of when you think of “good aunt.” The information you submit on the form will not be public. Only you and I will see your responses. (And let me assure you: You don’t even have to be a particularly good aunt or an aunt at all, but I’d still like to hear what you want to know about the topic.)

If the form is too daunting or bothersome for you, feel free to add your thoughts in the “Leave a Reply” section below, or simply email me. And please feel free to forward this post to anyone you think might like to participate. As I’ve said, I look forward to getting the conversation going.

HOPE for vulnerable women and children

“And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?”
– Micah 6:8

—————————————

In the Great Lakes region, there’s an epidemic we don’t hear much about. Women and girls are suffering rape in great numbers, sometimes at the hands of gangs, and these women and girls then suffer the subsequent shaming that comes with rape. Many end up shut out of their families, giving birth to unwanted children, and mothers and children alike are ending up on the streets.

Haven’t heard about this in the news? Oh, perhaps you thought I meant the Great Lakes region in the United States? If that were the case, we North Americans would likely hear more about it. But this Great Lakes region is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Now before you decide to stop reading because you’re weary of atrocities in other countries far away from your own world of problems, I beg you to read this story and search your heart to see how God may be calling you to help.

The prevalence of rape in the DRC
The DRC is about a fourth of the size of the United States, and its vast wealth of minerals and other resources help explain the wars that ravage the country. Especially in the eastern part of DRC, the Great Lakes region I mentioned, rebel fighting continues with threats from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda never far enough away. Just this past Sunday and Monday, the city of Goma on the eastern edge of DRC was shelled in fighting that involved UN troops and rebels.

Yesterday, I met Maguy Makusudi, who is spending her vacation here in the United States raising awareness about her organization HOPE (Humanitarian Organization for People Empowerment).

She lives in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, where she has lived since fleeing her home region of Kivu in eastern DRC in 1996 to escape war there. She still has family, including two sisters, who live in the eastern DRC and remain under threat of violence. Because of the prohibitive cost and difficulty of traveling from Kinshasa to her home region, Makusudi is rarely able to make the trip.

Makusudi traveled to my part of the United States thanks to a college friend of hers, who happens to be a member of my church (and who teasingly calls me one of his American nieces). Together, they are telling her story to all who will listen. It’s not an easy story. But I know that he is not only my African uncle but also my brother in Christ, and she is my sister in Christ, and as God’s family, we are called to share each others’ burdens.

The birth of HOPE
When Makusudi first arrived in Kinshasa, she saw the effects of war in the number of displaced children living on the streets: from abandoned children to child soldiers discharged from the army. She helped form HOPE in 2002 to aid these displaced children in retracing their families and negotiating with the families to reunite with these children.

It is better for the children to be reunited with their families, but this, she explains, is not always easy. Children born of rape are unwanted, and often the women themselves are cast out by their families instead of receiving comfort and care from them. Another mouth to feed is a burden many families are simply unwilling to accept. Makusudi also points out that many of these children are orphans, and it is the aunts or uncles who have no place for them and no willingness to take responsibility for their survival.

Accusing unwanted children of being witches is a common way of getting rid of them. Families take these children to local “churches,” where they are beaten or exorcised and then abandoned. Can you imagine this level of evil and negligence toward vulnerable children? Makusudi assures me it is the reality in the Congo.

A 2006 UNICEF census identified 20,000 children under the age of 18 living on the streets of Kinshasa alone. Makusudi says the problem has only grown worse as the cycle continues for girls growing up on the streets, being raped, or entering into prostitution to feed themselves and then also their children born into this horrific situation.

Where reunification is not possible, Makusudi works to place children in foster homes, a rare possibility in Kinshasa. For the others, HOPE’s center houses the children and provides schooling, healthcare and psychological counseling for them. HOPE partners with another organization to provide vocational training such as sewing or hairdressing classes so that the girls can gain skills that will give them a way out of life on the streets.

Even in the desert, a rose can bloom
Through the years, HOPE has seen its share of accolades and visits from prominent dignitaries. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the center in 2006, and Unicef Italy recognized the center with a prize in 2002. Makusudi spoke of the award, a piece of sculpture depicting a desert rose. She explains, “Because even in the desert, a rose can bloom. Even in very hard situations, you can have a smile. You can have hope.”

HOPE is bringing smiles and hope to as many girls in Kinshasa as possible, currently housing girls from ages two through 18, with younger boys sometimes accompanying older sisters or mothers. The priority for acceptance at the center is given to very young girls and older girls who have babies, but for those who don’t get to come to the center, HOPE’s healthcare workers go out to the streets to treat women and their children when possible.

In addition to schooling and shelter, there are also games and team sports at the center, an attempt to give these children elements of a normal childhood. A pastor visits some Sundays, and when the center can find a van to rent, the girls will attend church two to three kilometers away, an outing they look forward to.

HOPE for the future
Makusudi has many hopes for her organization’s future growth. She’d love to expand services to the eastern part of the country, where she sees great need among the women ostracized from their communities and left vulnerable because they can no longer work in farming that leaves them open to more attacks. Micro-loans, healthcare and therapy, vocational training and a safe community for these girls and women can help them improve their lives.

HOPE is currently housed in buildings owned by another organization, and though HOPE owns land, there aren’t funds enough to begin building yet. Eventually, HOPE plans to build shelter, a healthcare center and a school for the girls they help.

Among these plans for HOPE’s future, you can see Makusudi dreaming of a better, safer Congo. She tells me that these are the ways you and I can help:

  • First and foremost, pray for the Congo in general and for peace in particular there. With peace would come renewed safety and opportunity for work, as well as a chance for families to rebuild.
  • Pray for the gang-raped women and girls.
  • Support HOPE with your gifts and service.
  • Visit Kinshasa to see how HOPE is at work saving the lives of these girls, giving them hope and helping them transform their lives.

We sat in a coffee shop bustling with people as Makusudi told me her story and her hopes for the organization. I thought how incongruous her visit here must seem compared to the daily heartbreak she witnesses in Kinshasa. She came here, though, because aren’t we all connected and called to kindness and justice and care for those who are more vulnerable than we are? Aren’t we all called to offer one another hope?

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her to tell me what is most beautiful about the area of the Congo where she grew up, and she smiled large as she told me of the beautiful lakes and volcanoes (a few still active) and the beauty of the land that wows even European travelers. And I thought, this love of place connects us, too, this love of the beautiful world we call home. A place we should all work a little harder to make safer for our children.

Maguy Makusudi and me (taken by Joe Mabiala)

Maguy Makusudi and me (taken by Joe Mabiala)

I share her story with you because God charges us to act with mercy and love and “to do justice” (Micah 6:8). Will you help in Makasudi’s fight for justice for the children of DRC?

Want to learn more?

Makusudi is currently working with friends here in the United States to create an English-language website for HOPE, and I’ll share that link here as soon as the site is up and running.

In the meantime, here’s the contact information for the organization:

HOPE International
Asbl
KINSHASA RDC
39, Bld Lumumba, Q/Immo-Congo
Commune de Kalama/Kinshasa. Congo DRC

By phone:
Tel: +243 818110833; +243 815258301