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On Sunday, my brother Joey and his girlfriend's son Jay stopped by my house for a brief visit. After we all talked, competed against one another in Mario Kart, and played with Cocoa, I went in the kitchen to check on my crockpot meal. I was adding something to the dish and all of a sudden I hear Jay ask, "Whatcha doin'?" And I explained to him what I was doing and then, like any good kid, he started looking around my kitchen. He began looking at the pictures on my refrigerator. The pictures on my refrigerator aren't just any pictures--they are some of the most important and special memories and people to me. If you've made "the fridge," you've made it as someone who I consider close in my life! He saw a picture of me and my mom in a car and saw a woman in the background and asked me, "Who's that?" I looked at the picture and Jay was pointing at my Aunt Carol's face. This particular picture (which won't be posted--I do not want my mom and aunt to disown me) was one from the last day of our trip to New Jersey/Pennsylvania this past October. We all wanted Jimmy's Hot Dogs (a delicious hot dog shop in Pennsylvania--by the way, it was my mom and I's third time eating there that week!) and we just happened to end up at the same place at the same time before we were supposed to meet at the movie theater to watch The Joker together! It had been pouring down rain but it was all worth it for one last classic lunch on the trip.
I've thought about this trip a lot over the past couple months. This trip to New Jersey was a very big deal. For about 95% of my life, I have focused on the goals I have for myself. I've worked hard in school. The jobs I held in ministry (whether it be an internship or a long-term position) have all been varied so I could get the most amount of experience I possibly could get so I could be a good pastor. Once I was commissioned and began my residency (the last two years before ordination), I was focused on doing all of my residency work on top of being a first-time pastor! Before my ordination interviews, I decided that I wanted to take a trip and see my mom's side of the family, most of whom I had not seen in 16 years! I worked with my Aunt Barbara on a good time for us to visit and then we told my Aunt Carol so she could fly in. Aunt Diana lives near my Aunt Barbara and all mom had to do was take the time off (just a month before her retirement). This trip was planned and I was excited to go to the East Coast and reconnect with my family.
In early May that year, just a few weeks before I was ordained, another vocational opportunity popped up for me. Our conference has an amazing program called Advancing Pastoral Leadership (APL). It is a program that all young clergy are encouraged to apply for, as it helps train you on how to be an even better pastor. I've known about APL since I was a pastoral intern in 2011, so I knew I wanted to apply and join the program! When I looked at the dates of the program, though, my heart sank. The very first week of this program was the exact week I had already been scheduled (for months at this point) to go and visit my family. I remember feeling very conflicted in this moment--what do I do? Do I call my aunts and see if we can move the dates around? Can I change my flights without penalty? I've already signed up for a half-marathon for the trip--I guess I could try to find another one that would work with new dates? It was after all these questions and more that I realized I had to make a choice. Was I going to choose to put my family first or was I going to choose to put my career first (I say career because my vocation does not require this program--this is an amazing opportunity for career-building, though)?
As difficult as it was, I ultimately decided to put my family first. I was young enough to where APL would always be an option to join--and I really do hope I get the opportunity to be in that program one day--but I wouldn't always have this opportunity to spend a whole week with my mom and her sisters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The second I made that decision, I felt a huge weight lifted from my chest. I knew I had made the right decision and, more than that, it would give me the opportunity to actually slow down and just be a pastor, a daughter, a niece, a sister, and a friend for a while. I didn't have to be chasing after the next goal for once in my life--I could just truly enjoy the moment I was in and appreciate it for all it had to offer.
When COVID struck in March, I was even more grateful for the decision I made just the year before. If I had chosen to wait a year to go visit family, I may not have had the opportunity to have had as much fun as I did, if I even had the option to travel at all! I wouldn't have had the chance to hug my aunts and my uncle for the first time in 16 years. I wouldn't have completed my second half-marathon among the beautiful (yet very hilly) backroads and small towns in New Jersey. I wouldn't have had the chance to get lost on a backroad in my mom's old hometown. I wouldn't have been able to visit my grandparents at the mausoleum (or my great grandparents in the cemetery). I wouldn't have had the chance to watch a Packers game with my family--trust me, it's an event! I wouldn't have had the chance to enjoy a delicious, home cooked meal from my Aunt Barbara. I wouldn't have had the chance to deal with terrible traffic to and from Philadelphia, where I spent the day with my mom in a beautiful, historic city. I wouldn't have had the chance to find a new vegan bakery where I bought a couple cakes for my Aunt Barbara, Uncle Kirk, my mom, and myself to enjoy on our final night. And I definitely wouldn't have had that amazing selfie of my mom, my Aunt Carol, and myself on a rainy day, sitting in the car and enjoying one last meal at Jimmy's Hot Dogs!
As I explained the story to Jay about what we were doing in that photo, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "okay." We then went back into the living room to play another round of games. As I played games with them and we all laughed at Cocoa, I was even more grateful for this time with family. The trip to New Jersey in October was so much fun, but it really taught me an important lesson. When the opportunity presents itself to spend time with family, you take it--ALWAYS! Not only is tomorrow not promised, but you never know how much can change in a year! I'm grateful for my family and I am working on being intentional about spending more time with mine. I hope this inspires you to spend more time with your loved ones--even if it just means a phone call an extra night a week. Family, and the time we spend with them, is a gift--don't waste it!