My son and I sat opposite each other at the table, discussing a middle school project he had basically ignored. I spoke in measured and practical tones, making it clear that I was disappointed in his lack of attention to schoolwork. Ted’s head sank lower and lower as he sat rigidly before me. Ted’s primary love language has always been words of affirmation, and he braces himself noticeably in the face of criticism. As I talked on, the negative effect of my words was more and more apparent. I suddenly stopped mid-sentence, leaned forward, and said quietly, “Ted…I am on your side.” His head jerked up and his eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he challenged.
He may have been surprised and perhaps a bit irritated that I had abruptly played that card in our discussion but in truth he and I both knew what “I am on your side” was supposed to mean. It reflected one of the basic concepts of the Mehl Family Mission Statement, a document that was well known to our family of five. After all, we had spent quite a bit of time writing it in the summer of 2000.
That year was a pivotal one for us. We were a missionary family based in Moscow, and my husband was preparing to take on the role of regional director. Up to that point, one of the benefits we had enjoyed as missionaries was a close family nucleus. John’s new position would require him to travel to places where other missionaries worked in and around the former Soviet Union. More travel time meant less time with the family, especially during the school year. Anticipating time away from us, John determined that we develop a family mission statement—intentionally discussing our beliefs, values, and purpose, and putting them into a brief document. Together or apart, we would be bound together by this written expression of our common foundation and mission.
We had a full calendar of activities from late May to mid-August that summer. To make our time on the road more comfortable, friends had loaned us a well-traveled blue conversion van. This vehicle became our family cocoon as we accumulated hours and miles driving around the country.
To my husband, time in the van was perfect for working on a mission statement. To our three grade-school aged kids and to me, the task of hammering out a mission statement seemed a lot like homework during a summer break that was already busy. Our groans were often audible as he climbed into the van at the start of another day, put a fresh mug of coffee in the cup holder, and handed me a notebook so I could record our discussions.
John was either oblivious to the groans and tension, or he was simply not to be deterred. By the end of the summer, his probing questions and our grudging responses, faithfully noted by whichever parent was not driving, produced a family mission statement that we could all agree to.
When we returned to Moscow at the end of the summer, we printed off our mission statement and attached it with magnets to our refrigerator. In our small kitchen it was easily visible whenever we sat down to a meal. Later that year I met another woman who told me her family also had a mission statement—theirs was framed and hanging in their living room. I assured her that ours also had a place of prominence in our home!
The thing is, we are “process people,” and our statement was in the perfect place to be discussed, tweaked, refined and polished. The revision process continued for the next decade or so. After the initial changes we began the practice of reading our statement together on New Year’s Day, an annual appointment to decide whether further changes to it were warranted. The most recent version, taped to our kitchen cabinet in Nebraska, is dated January, 2010, and had been approved with few alterations for two or three years prior to that date. It reads as follows:
The Mehl Family
…Knows that God is for us, forgives us, and loves us no matter what because Jesus is our Savior. We want to know Him and want others to know Him. We study his Word and continue to grow in Him.
…Knows that we are a team. We are for each other. We want to know each other well. We love one another and will always love one another, no matter what. We look one another in the eye and speak words of apology, forgiveness and truth. We make and keep promises. We encourage one another. We value a sense of humor.
…Wanders and wonders in the world God has made, so that we will know it, too.
…Understands that earth is a temporary place to live and grow and share God’s Word; heaven is our eternal home.
As we became familiar with our mission statement and repeated it to each other, we quickly latched on to the phrase, “I love you and I will always love you, no matter what.” We said these words to each other at bedtime when we hugged goodnight. We used them to accompany our good-byes and hellos when John left on a trip or returned home. We said them to reinforce “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” when apology and forgiveness were necessary.
In short order, “I love you and will always love you, no matter what,” was abbreviated to ILYAWALYNMW (yes, the second ‘I’ is omitted)—which I confidently pronounce as “Il-ya-WAH-lyn-mwah,” because that’s what it says, right? It is a code word for unconditional love that is part of our family culture, and is used in letters, notes, texts, and signs that have hung in our homes. A few years ago our daughter, Louisa (who displays ILYAWALYNMW in her middle school classroom), had this abbreviation made into a bracelet for me as a Christmas gift.
Both the full phrase and the abbreviation gained import in the decade between 2000 and 2010 as our children left the family nucleus to attend high school in the US. During those same years our home base moved from Moscow to Frankfurt, and then to Hong Kong. The bond of ILYAWALYNMW was increasingly precious, as our family, once snug in the confines of our trusty blue van, was stretched and spread to opposite sides of the globe.
If asked, I believe each of us can point to times when ILYAWALYNMW has been put to the test in our family. Declarations of unconditional love WILL be tested. Whether doing the wrong or suffering the wrong—whether daring our family to love us despite our sin or being pressed to prove that ILYWALYNMW was more than just words, we each have felt the strain of testing. To be sure, repeating the words “I love you and I will always love you no matter what” carries a lot of power within a family. We feel and mean those words deeply—more and more with every repetition. But we also know that actually living them through the fluctuating highs and lows of living sometimes requires power that we do not have on our own.
You may have noticed that the Mehl family mission statement begins with God, and with good reason. Much as we like to repeat ILYAWALYNMW, unconditional love begins with God…with His promises to us and their fulfillment in Jesus. We believe that GOD is for us, forgives us, and loves us no matter what because Jesus is our Savior.
Because Jesus is our Savior…our sins have been forgiven
Because Jesus is our Savior…we know what it means to be loved sacrificially, unconditionally
Because Jesus is our Savior…we have a right relationship with God
Because Jesus is our Savior…we are free to love sacrificially, unconditionally
Because Jesus is our Savior…we are empowered by His Holy Spirit to forgive and to live FOR others, beginning with those closest to us.
Honestly, it is not in my power to say and to live “ILYAWALYNMW” without the power that Jesus provides in His original, loving, and sacrificial act of “ILYAWALYNMW.” He proved himself to be on my side by taking my place. He died so that I might live blameless before God, and daily enjoy the blessings of grace and reprieve. Living in that grace, it is every bit in my power to say and live ILYAWALYNMW with His spirit at work in me.
Writing a mission statement may not have been my top priority in the summer of 2000, but I’m thankful it was my husband’s and I love him for his tenacity. It gave us words that bind us and remind us that because Jesus loved us unconditionally, the power of ILYAWALYNMW is ours—given by him to us so we can share it with each other.
A few months after my conversation with Ted, he and Louisa were having a discussion (possibly about me) and I heard him say, with only a hint of teenage sarcasm, “Louisa, don’t you know? Mom is On. Your. Side.” Over the years, he and I have had our disagreements, but if I pause and then say, “Ted…” he will reply, “I know. I know. You are on my side.” Earlier this year, when he presented me with his customary hand-written Mother’s Day letter, I was moved to read these words: “Thank you for always being on my side.” Grown to be a young man, he is also on my side, and I’m quite sure he knows what that’s supposed to mean.