Saturday, October 3, 2020

Practicing Sabbath - An Invitation to Rest

A few years ago, at the annual Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) Summit in Nashville, I was introduced to Ruth Haley Barton.  Because of my work schedule during the conference, I was only able to pick a few sessions to attend. Scrolling through the CAFO syllabus Barton’s session drew my attention: How is it with your soul?  During that time, I was in the middle of some really painful and difficult family circumstances and I knew my soul was not well. I sat in her session with tears pouring down my face the entire time.  I knew what she was sharing held keys to navigating life wholeheartedly, yet I didn’t know where to begin. I bought her book, Sacred Rhythms, retreated to the prayer room alone, and quietly asked God to help restore my soul. 


As a working mom to a large family, including some special needs situations, someone is always wanting something from me. Year after year after year of running 24/7 to meet every goal and desire was extracting a huge cost from my soul. I was so frayed at the ends I didn’t even know how to sleep well or practice any level of self-care. I did read Barton’s book and tried a few ways to introduce some aspects of these new practices into my very busy and overwhelmed life. But I literally panicked at the thought of sitting still in solitude and reflection. My soul was years behind where my body was currently functioning.   


Hearing my prayers, and yet seeing I didn’t know how to facilitate changes on my own, God mercifully intervened. He moved me into a new job which allowed me to work from home and brought some needed relief to my schedule. Through this adjustment I was able to begin a daily devotional and prayer routine that was actually sustainable long term in my life. I was also given the chance to travel and have time away from home and family, which came with built-in solitude experiences. I started taking walks with my puppy without playing an e-book or listening to music. Slowly, and maybe for the first time ever, I began to see margins appear in my life. 


This past February I was at the home offices for my employer, Operation Blessing, in Virginia Beach for a weeklong training. Every day I was there I had the opportunity to attend the noon chapel for employees. Can you believe that every single chapel that week was from a different guest speaker who were all coincidently speaking about sabbath-keeping?  I felt like each day the message was directed to me personally. I knew God was inviting me to take another step forward in this new way of living He was leading me, but was I willing to keep sabbath and take an entire day off in my nonstop world?


Let me tell you that I was still traveling every other week at this time.  I was also in the hardest grad school course I’ve ever taken, which on top of my full-time job was taking a solid 20-hours of each week. Additionally, and impossibly, we were also preparing to move again. I needed both days of my weekend to tend to home and hearth, as they say, as well as accomplish schoolwork + a move!  How in the world could I possible take 24 hours off each weekend and simply not be productive? 


Ultimately, I said yes to sabbath simply because I felt God was inviting me. In the end, none of my excuses mattered. How could I say no?  So that February weekend, without any kind of formula for what or how I should sabbath, I just took a day off and rested. It felt odd to stop doing anything productive if I wasn’t sick. The idea of not engaging in normal life to produce, purchase or be entertained felt abnormal. But that is entirely the point of sabbath!  It’s trusting God that everything in our lives will be sustained and cared for without our help. The lack of striving for our needs and resting in His goodness is precisely the solution for our weary and frayed souls. 


Nothing magical changed in my life after that first sabbath. It’s laughable when I think back on that day now, as if just because I obeyed once everything in my life would be instantly fixed. I mean, I’ve always attended church, but in our modern culture that seems to be largely the extend of what sabbath means.  But “keeping the Lord’s day holy” is much, much more than going to church. In his book, Subversive Sabbath, A.J. Swaboda writes, “Sabbath recognizes “our time” was never our time in the first place.” I’ve come to realize that just like I give a tithe of my money to God, sabbath gives a tithe of our time to God. And you know what?  The same way God blesses us our finances through giving seems to be the same way he blesses our time through sabbath-keeping.  This is a mind-blowing revelation!


I’ve now been keeping sabbath for 7 months and the practice has transformed my life in so many ways. For starters, I breath deeper, I rest easier, and my time to accomplish all of my to-dos seems to be stretched each week.  I’m not legalistic about what I do or how I sabbath, but I do hold these lines: 


1) I take extra time to worship, pray and read my bible. This also includes church with my family.

2) I take 24 hours off of ALL work and production tasks each week.  For me this means no email, cleaning, studying, or planning for the future.  

3) I don’t engage in any commerce-based activities, such as shopping or paying bills. 


I literally enjoy God’s creation, my family, and the gifts he’s given to me. It’s almost like a mini vacation every weekend. I float in my pool and reject all feelings of guilt for being “lazy”; I walk the beach with my husband; we go to church and worship; we cook a family meal and eat together; we play games (yes cards!) or work a puzzle or color.  Sabbath helps me get through the pressures of each week because I know there is a full day of doing nothing at the other end. It’s a reward that God wants to us enjoy - deeply! 


God has been quietly working in the background of my “busy” life since that CAFO session and my subsequent prayer for help back in 2017. I’m still learning and studying and figuring out more about this beautiful gift of sabbath given to us by the Creator. He is helping to heal me from the disease of productivity. Someday I hope to get to 24-hours without my cell phone, but with 3 kids living away from home I don’t feel free to take this step yet.  My husband and children don’t sabbath like me, but they are all leaning into the practice more and more every weekend.  The pace of our family is slowing down and it’s making us all healthier, more loving people.  As lifelong Christians it’s sad to say, sabbath-keeping is a spiritual discipline that is new for us, but we are finally finding our way.  


In case you are interested in learning more about sabbath-keeping, here’s a few books I’ve discovered that are excellent and I highly recommend:


1. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry - John Mark Comer

2. Subversive Sabbath - A.J. Swoboda

3. Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You - John Ortberg

4. Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Delight - Wayne Muller

5. Sacred Rhythms - Ruth Haley Barton

6. Habits for our Holiness - Philip Nation


Do you keep sabbath regularly?  If so, what are your practices?  If you have any sabbath-keeping favorite books or resources, please drop the info in the comments below.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Our Standing Reservation at Olive Garden Every July 15th

Today is Rebekah’s 13th birthday. At long last, the final Stark baby becomes a teenager! And today, as on every other July 15th, you will find our family having dinner at Olive Garden. Here’s the reason why:

On September 3, 2009 we readopted Dennis and Rebekah in the State of Illinois. When they came home from Guatemala, they were already officially ours and also US citizens. We didn’t have to readopt, but it was a recommended formality for a few different legal reasons. When this special event occurred, Rebekah was only 2 years old and had been home from Guatemala for a little less than a year; Dennis was almost 3 years old and had been home almost 2 years. 

This was a huge day for our family as it finally marked the end of our 23-year infertility journey.  Through a simple ceremony, we all raised our hands together and swore to be a family for each other. Thereafter, the judge issued the order and made the final decree of adoption.  While it’s just a formality, it is nonetheless an incredibly powerful experience. Officially and forever, family.

After we left the courthouse, we decided to eat lunch at Olive Garden because it was a place all the kids liked and felt comfortable. When we arrived and the staff learned about the nature of our special occasion, they sat us in the middle of the restaurant and showered us with so much love, attention and honor. It was so overwhelming and beautiful that I could barely eat. Surprisingly, even my introvert children soaked up the experience. Everyone on the staff stopped to congratulate our family, to take pictures, and make all of our children feel special.  They sang to us and brought out two celebration cakes, one for each baby. Then the manager whispered to Tim and I that the meal was on the house. When we - amid flowing tears asked why - he said, because when you are here, you are family. 

Ever since that once-in-a-lifetime day, Rebekah picks Olive Garden for her birthday.  If you would ask her why, Rebekah would simply tell you it’s because Olive Garden is her favorite restaurant.  But it’s much deeper than that of course. It’s because Olive Garden is the place where we finally and completely became a forever family.

We found her on the floor napping after her big day!

Our beautiful and smart 13 year old!  Welcome to the teen years, Rebekah! 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

When the Curtains Come Down

Dismantling and remaking home is tiresome and complicated.  There’s a particular tension to maintain, because the moving process requires you to hold onto normal and orderly as long as you possibly can.  One of my kids in particular really struggles with the disruption and mess that occurs during the moving process. I’ve tried to minimize the disorder in our world these past few weeks, especially in the midst of the world-wide insanity of Covid-19, but there comes a point when the warmth of home gets stripped down and packed into boxes. 
Today was that day.  Today the familiar turned sterile.  Today the curtains came down. 

However, sometimes we must endure hardships today for the promises that lie ahead in tomorrow. There is great joy in knowing that after nearly 5 years we will finally be back in a space that is wholly ours. Finally, we are establishing permanency in Florida!  Color can go happily back on walls and I can plant whatever tropical thing my heart desires in our yard (if you're curious, it will be a lemon tree!) But even more importantly, my children will know where home is.  Finding home is very important to me, especially with two more young adults eying their horizons preparing to begin their lives apart from mine.  

What I know now, that I didn’t know when we first moved to Florida in 2015, is that home can be re-established.  Every box that gets unpacked, every treasured memory that goes back up on the wall, and the first batch of cookies made in the kitchen all work together to stabilize and re-root a family. There are absolutely uncomfortable and tiring changes to work through in the process. But the good news is that resiliency arises in the midst of challenging situations and makes us stronger and wiser on the other side of the difficulty. 

In many ways, this is where we are all living in a coronavirus world. Life is being dismantled from all of its norms.  Everything we’ve known is suddenly sterile and rapidly changing. The entire situation is tiresome, and right now we feel anything but resilient. Whether we like it or not, the proverbial curtains are coming down on the way we’ve all been living.  

For anyone wanting to be honest though, the “normal” our society has built is simply not sustainable for us as people, or frankly our planet.  While this pandemic is disruptive and scary, it’s also a unique opportunity to sort through our “stuff”, figure out what’s really important, get rid of what's not, and decide what we want our lives to look like post-corona.  

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Hope in Crisis: Our way through Covid-19

HOPE: it’s like oxygen to our lungs. We need it to live. Right now, it seems we could all use a little hope. Tonight, I wanted to share this story and give a dose of hope to you.

23 years ago I spent many months on bedrest during my first pregnancy with a complete placenta previa.  This was my miracle pregnancy, for those who don’t know, after 10 years + 4 IVFs of trying to have a baby. This condition had nothing to do with our infertility, yet it was serious enough to threaten my life and that of my unborn baby. 

Most of those months were spent laying down on my right side, with several of those weeks spent in the hospital.  And though this threatens to be TMI, the hospital bedrest also meant being constricted to a bedpan. My hospital room was the closest to the OR intentionally.  I was hemorrhaging and losing blood on a daily basis.  My family was donating blood to prepare for the inevitable transfusion I would need.  The possibility of future pregnancies was threatened due to the likelihood of a hysterectomy immediately after delivery of my premature baby.  

Baby showers that I’d waited forever to have were postponed or cancelled.  Friends decorated my nursery and put away baby supplies without me. Cute maternity clothes I never was big enough to wear before I was put on bedrest hung in the closet.  My family, my doctor and the NICU staff were on constant high alert. 

Everything I dreamed of during my decade of infertility and failed procedures was taken away from me as I laid watching minutes tick into hours, for days, for weeks, for months.  It was beyond scary. The words over me were negative.  The predicted outcomes dire.  

But do you know what?  

As hard as it was, in every single threat against us, the worst-case outcomes simply never came true.  

My baby girl born at 34 weeks gestation immediately breathed on her own without medical assistance. My bleeding was controlled, and I did not need a blood transfusion or a hysterectomy. Our daughter came home after only 9 days in the NICU. There were simply no long-term outcomes to all of the threats against us that I lived out in painstakingly slow motion for months, in undoubtably the most vulnerable condition I have ever experienced during my entire life. 

Today that daughter is a 23 years old college graduate serving in Guatemala.  I’ve had 4 more children, two born from that womb I almost lost, and 2 more born from my heart.  My placenta previa experience taught me a lot about fear and a lot about hope that I bring into Covid -19.  Will this be hard - most certainly!   Will there be disappointments and losses - 100% yes!  Will we lose our freedoms and mobility - YEP!  Will it be as bad as the endless threats and predictions?  I honestly, in my heart, do not believe it will be, no. 

All of us have stories of hope to cling to during this pandemic. I encourage you to remember your stories and share them with others.  We all need to speak about hope in the midst of suffering, together it will be our way through this crisis.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Aloha in 2020

My 2020 word for the year is “Aloha”.  I’ll admit, it’s an unexpected choice. It’s not even technically an English word.  I’ve searched several of the One Word 365 sites I’ve followed, and I don’t see that it’s ever been used in this manner, which makes me even more insecure about my decision.  It’s not even the word I was planning to embrace, but here I sit on the dawn of new year and new decade embracing aloha for many reasons.     

2019 was my “relentless” year.  I was also afraid of that word when it was whispered in my heart.  I was concerned it was too negative or maybe even too big for me.  But I was learning to be ok with never giving up on those things that mattered the most, no matter the cost, no matter what people thought.  That word gave me the courage for many things in 2019, not the least of which was stepping onto an airplane in March bound for Virginia Beach that led me towards a new job, which led to many blessings for me and my family.  

I’ve thought since this summer my word for 2020 was going to be “freedom”.  For months now I loved how freedom fit so nicely with relentless.  My words have always seemed to dovetail into each other since I started the one word practice in 2015.  All of my other words have always been so sure and clear, well ahead of the new year’s arrival.  But as December rolled around, I’ve sensed freedom wasn’t the right choice. 

This week Tim and I were running some errands together and I started talking about how I’ve been feeling about this new year and where I was with my word for 2020. I’ll admit, this is not normally his type of thing, so I more or less was just processing out loud (something I’m known to do!).  All of a sudden he said to me, “Dawn, your word is aloha, because it’s everything positive and the opposite of everything you are feeling.” The minute he said it I was filled with such peace and freedom and joy - all of the things I’ve been seeking all wrapped up into one beautiful word.

Five letters with such a powerful meaning.  Here’s what I’ve already learned about aloha:

Aloha is directly translated from Hawaiian to English as, “the presence of divine breath.”  Scripture begins with God’s breath bringing order to the chaos (Gen 1), then He breathed into man and gave us life (Gen 2). We exist because God breathed life into us.  Simply, God’s breath speaks order into the chaos of our lives and brings us purpose!  

Aloha is a hello and a goodbye. Aloha helps me acknowledge the tension at this moment of time, the goodbye of one decade and the hello to a new one.  It’s both a sense of welcome to what’s ahead and a farewell to what’s behind - the beautiful and the broken. 

Aloha is the Hawaiian word for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy. While used as a simple greeting, this word has a much deeper significance.  It’s a complex state of mind that is often described as a sense of care and hospitality to those around, even in the face of stressful environments, occasions and people.  

Aloha is a beautiful, positive word that fills my mind with sweet memories of our honeymoon, many airline adventures with family and friends on flight #1, dreams coming true, the smell of a plumeria lei, the sounds of wales singing underwater, and everything that is perfection about the Hawaiian Islands. This simple word conjures up my senses and memories in a way that’s almost unexplainable.  

Aloha is a rich word with so many different expressions, it reminds me of the Hebrew word Shalom. It’s a state of mind and a way of life.  It’s exactly the complex word I need to begin a new decade, filled with so many meanings that are precisely what I need right now.  It’s not the obvious choice, but it’s the right choice.  The only thing that would make this word more perfect is if Tim and I were heading back to Hawaii for our 35thanniversary this summer, but I suppose we can bring a "spirit of aloha" with us to Puerto Rico instead!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Have You Given Up on Christmas?

Do you remember the classic holiday cartoon when Rudolph saved Christmas with the help of the characters from the Island of Misfit Toys? The one with the cast of goofy, bumbling characters giving all of their excuses to Rudolph as to why they couldn’t help with his important mission. How could a spotted elephant, a bird that swims, a train with square wheels on his caboose or a water pistol that squirts jelly save Christmas? They were just broken and misplaced misfits with odd skill sets living out their days secluded on an island.  These toys failed to realize their uniqueness and idiosyncrasies were exactly what Rudolph needed to save the day. 

Do you ever feel like life just doesn’t “work” like it has in the past or that you are not needed in the same capacity anymore? Do you have dreams that are out of sync with the life you are living today, leaving you feeling a little bit like that train with square wheels with no clue about your life purpose? Or, has your journey has left you feeling without hope for tomorrow?  

Have you given up on Christmas?  

It’s been years since my children watched that movie, yet I woke up with that story on my mind and this thought in my head: Jesus uses the broken to accomplish the impossible! This idea immediately filled me with such hope! No matter if we sometimes feel too broken or misplaced, we have a secured hope that we have been created for a unique purpose. This hope came to us at Christmastime in the form of a baby born in a manger. This hope - our King - takes our broken and misfit lives and uses them for his glory!  

My apologies for mixing modern tales with ancient truths, but this idea is nonetheless so true. Jesus took twelve misfits as his disciples and they were able to change the world!  Take heart this Christmas Eve my friends: broken dreams, broken lives, not even a broken world are too much for our Savior.  Our redeemer takes us just as we are and uses everything for his glory! 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Annual Christmas Letter 2019

Dear Family & Friends, 

It’s an unusually blistery day here in Sarasota, tomorrow is the last day of school before the holiday break, and our home is filled with the smell of cookies baking - all of this can only mean that Christmastime is finally here!  The warped pace speed at which we live most of our year is finally beginning to slow down and we are all very much looking forward to the fun-filled, yet relaxing holiday celebrations ahead of us. 

The past few years have brought many changes to our lives, and 2019 has been no exception!  As the kids grow up, our home has turned into more of a bus station as everyone comes and goes according to their own schedules these days.  I still cook dinner, but most nights food sits out on the stove for anyone passing through late after work or extra-curricular events.  More often than not, I’m already in bed when the final family member finishes dinner. Even our summer vacations were different this year as half of the family went to Guatemala and the other half went to Europe. But, as our photo in the matching PJs testifies, I’m still holding on to a few family traditions despite all of the other shifts in our world.      

Tim proudly celebrated his 5th work anniversary with ABC this October. He’s busy as ever, chasing business (and delivering donuts) to hard-working contractors all over Florida.  He continues to serve in recovery programs in the area on a monthly basis, including a ministry called Loving Hands and a new program at our local hospital.  In June, Tim went on a mission trip with our church and two youngest to Guatemala to serve at a malnutrition center. He enjoyed spending time with Lydia while in-country and getting to see one of the ministries she was working with this year. During this trip, he also got to zipline for the first time! 

Lydia is now 22 years old and has just completed her first year in Guatemala.  She’s been home since November for a respite period and to raise funds for returning in early January to serve as a missionary for another year. In 2019 she worked with a few different organizations but beginning in 2020 she will be working in a social work capacity with a single mom’s ministry.  Lydia has also worked very hard on her language skills this past year and was excited to earn her official diploma of Spanish as a foreign language. Please continue to hold her in your prayers as she steps into full-time ministry this next year. 

Michael turned 18 years old in November and has finished his first semester of classes at the State College of Florida.  He is studying to be either a screenwriter or to work in film production.  In fact, we just found out today that he has been hired as a paid intern for the Sarasota Film Festival!  This year he got his driver’s license and is getting close to buying his first car.  This summer he went to Europe for the first time with me and Isabelle, attended a musical festival in Miami, vacationed in Colorado with his best friend, and even spent a weekend in New York City! It’s safe to say he’s been bitten by the travel bug.  
Isabelle is also 18 years old and is finishing her senior year of high school where she will graduate this May at the top of her class holding a Cambridge AICE diploma. She recently finished her year as co-captain of the color guard and is already starting to say goodbyes to the various final events at her beloved school.  Izzy is applying to 3 art schools: two in Florida and one in Alabama. She’s already applied to the schools and has finalized an amazing art portfolio for submission.  The next few months will be an exciting and unfolding adventure as she decides where she’ll be going next to advance her skills and hone her craft.

Dennis is now 13 years old and is in 7th grade. His entire world is now solely about football: playing football, watching football, & talking about football. He wears #40 proudly for the Sarasota Redskins,even after the on-field assault that sent him via helicopter to Tampa’s All-Children’s Hospital as a trauma patient this fall! Thankfully, after a few days of rest for a sore neck, he returned to finish out the season.  He remains active in his youth group and loved returning to Guatemala this summer to serve and spend time with Lydia.  He’s also the proud new owner of an iPhone, which fully seals his teenager status.

Rebekah is now 12 and is also in the 7th grade.  She’s a committed and hard-working student, who’s showing an interest in STEM classes. Last spring, she was part of a small group of students selected to participate in a shark research expedition through a program sponsored by Girls, Inc. and the University of Miami.  It was an amazing opportunity for Rebekah! She enjoyed every minute of the time spent on the boat and in the water learning with her peers.  Although she dealt with some sickness, she did have a great time in Guatemala this summer too. She’s also started playing the flute and is showing real promise with her new instrument!

Dawn –and finally, there were major shifts in my world this year as well.  Although I wasn’t looking, God surprised me with a new job last spring! I now serve as the Regional Philanthropy Manager for Operation Blessing in the Southeast US.  While this does mean I am traveling a bit more than with my previous job, the blessing is that I am officed from home.  Now that the transition is behind me, I can tell you I absolutely love my new role! One of the highlights of my year was getting the chance to run around Europe with my twins.  I continue to plug away at grad school; as of today, I am officially halfway through my program. 

That wraps up the quick rundown on the happenings from our little tribe in Sarasota. Wishing all of our dear family and friends a very Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year! 

Tim, Dawn, Lydia, Michael, Isabelle, Dennis & Rebekah Stark (and Ky too!)