How must we then live?

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image11 years ago, I woke to find my infant daughter Emma not breathing. It took awhile to accept that she was gone. I did cpr, John called 911. The paramedics worked on her in the ambulance. The doctors worked on her in the hospital. But there was no sign of life, no response to our urgent attempts to breathe life back into her little body. And so we let her go, once we knew she had already gone, we let her go.

One thing that was excruciatingly hard to accept was the fact that I wasn’t there with her, holding her in my arms as she passed from this life into the next. The pain of this part of the story came back up for me again just last month. My grandma passed away on January 2. She was in the hospital, and my grandpa was there, but he was sleeping at the end. grandmaHe feels so bad that he wasn’t holding her hand. And as he shared his pain at not being able to be there for her, I remembered that I shared in that pain. Even while knowing how hard it will be to let go, I think it is natural to have the desire to be as close as possible to our loved ones when they approach death’s dark door.

But we can’t go through that door for them or even with them if it isn’t our time. Even had I been holding Emma’s body in my arms, there would have been a point where her spirit would have left me, where she would have had to go on alone. Death is a door we walk through alone.

All of us will reach that point. Life is temporary. But until that moment we live and we don’t live alone. I feel like traditional Christianity often puts an emphasis on our life after death. That it is at the end of our life that we truly begin life anew. But lately I find that I want to focus more on the life that we have been given now. Every day we awake with the gift of breath in our bodies is a day that we have been given to live.

This morning as I reflected on Emma’s death, remembering that day with an oddly comforting sense of nostalgia, I wondered what I will feel when I reach the end of my life. When I look back on the days, months, years of my life, what do I hope to see? What is it that I want to be able to say? And I think, that when I reach death’s door, I want to pause and look back to see all the relationships both in my past and present and say: “I have loved well, and thus, I have truly lived.”

Wind.

This morning, shortly after I woke, I heard the wind. The house is surrounded by it. It rushes around the corners, whistles through any metal it finds till it vibrates and sings, and pushes the cold in through every little crack it can find. Walking to preschool this morning left Dietrich with hair that stood on end and an attitude of disgust. “I not like that!” was his reaction after finally reaching the protection of his school.

Everything is being pushed around by the wind. Most stand their ground, even if they obviously don’t like it, like the little squirrel I can see out the window, trying to determine how far out on the branch he can walk without being blown off. But not everything can withstand the wind. A large evergreen tree, though apparently healthy, lies wounded on the ground. It gave in to the wind gusts sometime in the night, falling with a heavy crack that Will described this morning.

Some days I feel like I’m trying to function while being pushed around by the wind, just like the little squirrel, his tail bent over backwards, his little claws clinging to the branch. This morning was one of those days. Mondays are my day off, my weekend, set aside for self-care, whatever that may look like in any particular week. This Monday in particular felt extra special because it’s the day after my birthday. My birthday was spent throwing Elise an elaborate mystery birthday party, which I enjoyed, but also was a huge gift of my time and mental energy. So today was supposed to be a day just for me. I woke this morning with pain, pain I’ve been having in my neck since Saturday morning. Something is out of place and even though the subsequent days haven’t been as bad as the first morning, it is still annoying. Plus I seem to have come down with yet another cold, right after finally recovering from the last one. When I went to wake kids up for school, I remembered that Will won’t be going to school. Yet again he will be staying home for a sick day, this time for possible pink eye. I guess a doctor appointment will be on the schedule today. There is a lot of anger, frustration, and stress surrounding this one little thing because it brings up the fact that we are still waiting to hear back about our health care application for the kids.

My morning was spent making phone calls, searching for paperwork I couldn’t find, and generally feeling sorry for myself. And once I start dealing with the frustration of one thing, it feels like every other single thing that lives on the list of to dos in my head starts calling out for attention. I suddenly feel like there is no possible way that everything that needs to be done will ever get done. Why in the world did I think that I can rest today? I need to do that, and this, and that other thing. And while I’m at it, I might as well just give up on ever having time off again. If I were really doing all that I were supposed to do I would be working from morning till night every single day. Yes, I know, crazy, but that’s what happens when I start to feel emotional and stressed. The uncontrollable circumstances felt like the wind, blowing me about, changing the course of my day. Yet, I don’t want to be like the tree that was taken down by the wind. If I’m going to survive this windy day, I need to stop letting my attitude be controlled by the circumstances and choose to approach this day the way I want to. Despite the fact that I now have two doctor appointments interrupting my day, one for Will’s eye, and one for my neck, and despite the fact that my day will not be spent alone as I had originally hoped, I still have the ability to make this day my own. I need to stop expecting Monday to fit into the dreams I have for it, and instead live my Mondays with a spirit of Sabbath no matter what the day’s schedule brings. Because the truth is that as parents, life rarely follows the plans that we have made. My choice is not whether or not there will be twists and turns in my path, but how I choose to walk them. Today I am choosing to walk them with my head held high, attempting an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of loving sacrifice. I admit that at times today there will be, as there have already been, tears in my eyes and a pang of self pity in my heart, but even while recognizing those feelings I am choosing not to let those rule my day. I may look a little bedraggled by the wind, but I will not fall. And just like the little squirrel who realized his limitations and turned around, returning to the safety of the tree trunk, I will make space for self-care in this day too.

Waiting.

Last Advent, I gave myself a blog challenge. I attempted to find beauty in the everyday and share it all with you in pictures. It was a good practice for me. I find that being intentional about something in our daily lives encourages reflection, processing, and really just thinking. Things that get kind of lost in the busyness of everyday life.

With that in mind, I have been wondering how to approach this Advent season. I want to be intentional with my life and Advent seems like a good time to start working towards that, even if it is just in little ways.

img_4678My thoughts Sunday as we walked to church across our color-filled campus, enjoying the sunshine and breeze even despite the cold chill in the air, were on waiting. Not just waiting, but how to wait well. How do we wait in anticipation, rather than boredom? How do we welcome the holy into our everyday lives so that we live in the present while also working towards the future?

The homily Sunday echoed a lot of my thoughts, pointing out the importance of preparing ourselves for Jesus now, welcoming him into our lives now. We can’t just wait for some future time, the kingdom of God is here, now, present within and among us. That is what I want to focus on this Advent, the balance of living intentionally in the present while also looking towards the future.

I hope to share some of my processing and thoughts with you here in the blog. Please share your comments as well as you discover the holy in your every day, the beautiful in the commonplace, the tension in the waiting, or anything else that you find causes you to think this year.

“See me.” Lessons from a toddler.

seemeEven though Dietrich is not the most verbally adept 3 year old, he often surprises me with his correct usage of pronouns and plurals.  But obviously he is 3, so some of his phrases, though logical, are not actually grammatically correct. One such phrase: “See me.”

That phrase has really stuck in my head lately. The correct phrase would be: “Look at me.” But how often do we look with our eyes, and fail to actually see. And it started me thinking. How do we see people, truly see them. Not just what they look like, the clothes they wear, the things they do, but really see the person.

Even in my closest relationships I tend to look at people through the lense of self-interest. For example, if John does something because he is stressed, my first mental response is to think about how his stress affects my day, instead of first recognizing his struggle, his needs, his sorrow, his passions, etc. When my children misbehave, I immediately think about how their actions reflect on my parenting abilities and what people around me must be thinking about me, instead of noticing why they are upset or confused or looking for attention, etc. I’m not saying I think we should all unselfishly try to meet everyone’s needs while ignoring our own. But I do think it would be good to get out of our own head enough to recognize the humanity in the person next to us.

If it is so hard to see those that we live near, those we share lives, history, and love with, is it actually impossible to “see” strangers for who they are? What would it look like to go about my day and actually see the people around me?

A few weeks ago I got off work and had time to kill before the bus came, so as I often do, I started walking down the street towards the metro, planning on catching the bus at a later stop. I had almost reached the end of my walk, when a man stumbled across the street in front of me and disappeared into the drive of a hotel. It was like a blip in the normal smooth traffic of people and cars. No one else seemed to notice even though this man walked as if he were falling.

As I passed the hotel drive, I glanced into the covered space, wondering if I would be able to see him still. He was there, but not walking. Instead he was lying on his back with his head on the curb, feet stuck out into the driveway. I kept walking, but then I stopped. This wasn’t normal. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, if he was just drunk, or if there was something else going on, but I couldn’t just leave him there. I turned around and entered the driveway and walked up to the man on the ground.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Are you ok?” He groaned and sat up, but there was blood on his head. I repeated my question and the man assured me that he was fine, even though his confusion and his body language told me otherwise. “You don’t look ok,” I said. “Can I get you some help?” He said he had fallen down, and then asked me if he looked like he had hurt himself. I told him about the blood on his head and that I thought it would be best if we called an ambulance to make sure he was ok. Thankfully at that point a man who had been standing a little ways away in the designated smoking area came over and asked if he could go in and ask the hotel to call for help. I agreed and I stayed with the gentleman. The hotel called for help, the man who had stepped in stayed and waited with me. This man had actually seen the older gentleman enter the drive and stumble into one of the brick pillars, which is why his head was bleeding and how he ended up on the ground. While we talked, the injured man sat cross-legged on the ground between us and kept wiping blood away from his sweaty forehead. He repeated himself often, and didn’t seem terribly coherent, so I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Later I wondered if it had been really rude to talk about him as if he weren’t there.

It didn’t take long before an ambulance pulled up and the paramedics entered the drive. The first one knelt down and addressed the injured man by name, asking him what had happened. The man said: “I fell down.” And the paramedic’s answer made it clear that this had happened before. The witness gave his report and we were allowed to leave. I walked away, but felt so uneasy. I actually turned back around after getting a few yards down the road, returned to the ambulance where they had already loaded up the man in the back and mentioned to one of the paramedics that I had seen this man before he hit his head and his behavior was not normal. “Yes,” he replied. “We pick him up all the time. My partner just picked him up yesterday actually.” There was nothing more I could do, but as I walked away I felt sad. Here is a man who is picked up by ambulance so often that the paramedics know him by name. Yet, nothing is changed for him. I “helped” him today by stopping and making sure he got help, but I didn’t truly change anything for him. It was all so incredibly sad.

I came home, my brain in a muddle, wondering if there was anything to do that could actually help someone like that. I talked it over with John, who has passionate views about the social systems in our country and who immediately began lamenting the fact that our systems are failing, and this is just one of many symptoms. And I agree. Work does need to be done to change big picture things. John’s good at thinking big picture. But his response didn’t totally satisfy me either. It is sometimes easy to help one person and satisfy our conscience enough that we can ignore the big issues that we should be contributing effort to solve. But if we completely focus on the big picture, we lose sight of what makes up the big picture — individual people. And that is just as wrong. Even though it felt like I was the only one who actually saw that man when he walked past me that day, I know I didn’t truly see him. I know nothing about him other than what I experienced during those few minutes with him. I don’t even remember his name. I didn’t touch him. I didn’t even stay truly present with him while I was there. But maybe I saw him just a little more clearly than I sometimes do. Our lives touched for just an instance and the disparity between them caught me off guard.

I really don’t know how to “see” people. But I think it requires listening and presence. Those are two gifts I have the ability to give to anyone. I may not have the means to change their circumstances, but I can offer them these two things. I’m not good at it. I often respond in selfishness instead of in the kindness of listening and presence. But I hope to practice this more, to continue to train myself to see.

“See me,” Dietrich says. Next time he says this to me, I will get down on my knees, look him in the eyes and say “Yes, I do see you.”

My thoughts on guns, violence and racism.

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My heart has been heavy the last couple of days. I took some time to read about the most recent police shootings (both those by the police and the attack on the police). It’s hard to read, to listen, and to think about these things. I would much rather continue living my life as if these things were not happening in my nation. I choose silence so often when it comes to hard things. But these things that are happening in my world also intersect with my own life, things in my own household, worrying things that my silence only allows to continue.

I wish that it was a simple matter of not spreading words of hate and prejudice and violence to my kids. I wish that I could remain in silence and that they would just naturally fall into the way of love. But it doesn’t happen that way. The culture we live in is steeped in violence. The messages they receive, even if they aren’t purposefully so, are filled with us vs. them ideology. The movies they watch, the stories they hear, the toys they use all come from a system of heroism based on violence, on good guys vs. bad guys. I see it in their play, I hear it in their words. I never purposefully taught my kids these concepts, and yet they are so obviously there, ingrained in their minds. When my son comes home from school saying that he doesn’t want to play with a certain kid because his skin is brown, I know that racism still exists. I know that it isn’t enough to NOT teach racism, but that I also must actively counteract it. When my kids continue to put guns into their play even when we’ve strongly discouraged it, I realize that it isn’t enough to remove the guns, but that we have to replace it with something else.

I realize that some of the issue stems from me, as the parent. I realize that until recently I used corporal punishment in my home, believing the popular opinion that this was an effective and non-harmful mode of discipline. My choice to use violence to try to control my children ingrained in them the habit of responding to frustration, hurt, and violence done to them with more violence. It accomplished nothing positive in our household, and I strongly believe it added to the violence that is often present in their disagreements. When the kids were younger I was conflicted about the use of guns in play. But it seemed liked everyone told me that it didn’t matter if they had guns or not, it was just ingrained in males to use weapons and that they would just make a stick into a gun. So what was the big deal? Though I do believe that violence is ingrained in our human consciousness, I no longer believe we should just accept that and live with it. I believe that we need to counteract this. I believe that the glorification of violence often comes from our culture, not from our soul. I believe that we can learn a different way, a way of peace, the way of Christ.

But it is hard. As I have started to pay attention to the influences on my kids’ lives (and on mine), I realize how pervasive this ideology of violence is. The movies I loved to watch as a kid and am excited to share with my kids almost all teach this idea. It is subtle sometimes, but it is almost always there. I use to say it was ok, because the movies were just portraying this battle between good and evil. But is it beneficial when the “good” is represented by a small band of people who have to use violence to survive, and the “bad” are represented by another usually larger group of people whose choices have made them in some way irredeemable? We learn from these stories that violence is ok if it is aimed at the “bad guys.” But life isn’t that simple. The world is not divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Everyone thinks they are the good guy and everyone makes both right and wrong choices. “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us,” to quote J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

I’ve started to try to explain this to my kids. I had started a conversation with one of my boys a few days ago about guns. We’ve really tried to explain to my kids the dangers of guns, but in their minds it really only applied to real guns, something to worry about when they are older. In an attempt to broaden their understanding a little, I shared with one of them about the danger of having a pretend gun that is mistaken for a real gun. The danger of them being shot because someone, even a police officer, might mistake the gun they carried as a threat. The only thing this really seemed to accomplish though was fill my son with fear. I really don’t want him to be afraid of police officers, but I also want to be honest with my kids, to help them understand that everyone is capable of making a choice that harms others. As I tucked my son into bed and tried to assure him that the scenario I shared with him was unlikely to happen to him, I stopped short of adding in the race issue. I knew that because he is white, there is a much less likely chance that it would happen to him, but I didn’t say that. I’m not sure why I didn’t say it, I think part of me felt that it was wrong to give him assurance in this way since it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that I don’t really have to worry about that happening to him while other parents legitimately do need to worry about it only because their children have a different color skin.

But then yesterday I realized that I need to share that part of the story with my kids. Not because I want them to be reassured, but because it ISN’T fair. And they need to know it isn’t fair. They need to see the injustice of it, so that they can choose a different way in their interactions with those around them. And so I told them. I told them about the things that have been happening, and the troubling number of black people who have been shot by white policemen. And rather than relief my son’s eyes were again filled with fear, but this time the fear was for others. He has friends who are black and he has friends who are hispanic and he was scared for them.

pirate_cakeWhen I asked both my bigger boys what they thought we could do to help, they both answered immediately with: “We can pray.” And I inwardly cringed. Because this is another message that I hear from Christians all the time, and too often it is an excuse to do nothing. I do believe in prayer, don’t get me wrong. We need to pray, probably mostly because prayer changes us. We need to pray for ourselves, we need to pray for those who are hurting, we need to pray for those who have hurt, and we need to pray for those we are afraid of. I absolutely think we need to pray. But we can’t JUST pray. Prayer should spur us to action. And so I answered my boys, “Yes, we can pray, but we also need to treat everyone with respect, no matter what their skin color and we need to step in and stand up for people when they are being treated with disrespect.” And I think we possibly need to do more than that, but I’m still sorting out what that is and wrestling against my desire to take the easy way out yet again.

And so begins the hard job of retraining, both my  mind and my children’s mind. It will be a long process. The conversation I shared above was just yesterday and today as John and I sat watching and listening to the kids play on the playground we noticed that yet again they were pretending to use guns. It was ok though, because they were shooting the “bad guys,” the pirates. And so today there was another conversation about how the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys. How everyone deserves to be treated with respect. And this time instead of stopping at the negative directive: “Don’t play with guns.” I went one step further and tried to replace their story with another one. Instead of a ship captain who was going after pirates, Seth became a ship captain searching the sea for refugees in rafts that he could save. I will try to continue to fill our minds with narratives of heroes who make changes in this world without the use of violence. And hopefully in this process we will begin to notice the injustice, the violence, the inequality around us and try to change it. Hopefully we will no longer choose silence, but rather love. Love that speaks up and emboldens us to act.

 

Finding Home.

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We’ve been in Alexandria now for 2 weeks. As John has mentioned a couple times, the next three years will mark the longest we’ve been in one house since we sold our house in Siloam about 6 years ago. Since then we’ve moved from house to house in NWA, then to Germany and back again, and now to Alexandria.If all goes as planned, we’ll be in Alexandria longer than we were in Germany, even longer than we attended Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam. It seems like such a long time in many ways, yet in others, very short.

IMG_4279Knowing this sense of a possible security of place for the next three years has meant that I have looked forward to settling in, making this place our home. It means buying furniture and decorating to our taste instead of living with whatever we happen to be given. But unfortunately, we still have at least 4 months before that happens. Right now we are house-sitting for fellow seminarians who are gone for the summer. We are so so thankful for the provision of their house. We love living here, but it does mean that most of our stuff sits in storage waiting for us to have our own space to put it. At the beginning of August we will move on campus. But because the family housing won’t be completed by then, we will be put in some sort of temporary housing until Fall break, when they hope the apartments will be done and everyone can move into their own place. So again, we will make do, live temporarily, get by without settling in.

IMG_4261We should be good at living this way by  now, but I feel like what happens, what has been happening for the last several years, is that we never truly live life the way we want because it is too easy to say: “We’ll make those changes, live the way we want to once we are in our own place.” When living in constant transition, you end up putting off lots of important things because it is easier. Perhaps this unexpected change in plans is a chance for me to practice living the way I want no matter how stable I feel. After all, even the 3 years in seminary is still a transitionary phase. If I want to live intentionally this 3 years, why do I feel I have to wait until my house is semi-permanent? That may be helpful, but I think perhaps I’m just making excuses if I can’t start making some changes now.

At the same time though, I want to give myself and my family lots of grace. Not only are we living in a temporary physical home, we are learning a new balance of work and living. We have never before had a time when I was working as much as I am now. We have never before had to figure out how to balance running the household to the extent we are now. When I get frustrated about how it’s going, John reminds me that it has only been 2 weeks. “This will take time to figure out,” he says. And he’s right.

In general it is going well, my main frustrations focus around the grief of letting go. Despite the fact that there are lot of household care things that I don’t enjoy and gladly would share with John, there are others that I have grown accustomed to being in charge of and that I am struggling to let go. The biggest of those being cooking, grocery shopping, and planning meals. I still do some, but I’m not home for several meals each week, so we are trying to figure out how to work it out with two of us shopping, two of us making meals, and two of us trying to live within a single budget. And of course it is all complicated by trying to learn to shop in an area with a much higher cost of living than Siloam Springs. What it will come down to is lots of communication. And some of those conversations will be hard, because if John and I have one thing we tend to “fight” over, it is meal planning. I know, that comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? But it’s an emotional area for both of us and we have different ideas of how to approach things.

So, I have come to the conclusion that this time of temporary housing will be a time of exploring what I want home to look like. I will take the time I would have been using to set up my house to explore my new place in my family, to sort out the balance of house management, to think through what living intentionally looks like, and to process a few of the parenting and lifestyle things John and I have been working towards changing. In short, I will take this time to set up our real home, the home that moves with us no matter where we go.

Packing vs. Processing

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The last couple of weeks have been spent doing little spurts of packing as we prepare to leave. Before that I had been doing a lot of internal processing. I’ve been going to counseling since the beginning of the year. My counselor mentioned to me the first time that she met with me that it was not just John who was going through discernment, but that I was also going through a period of self-discernment. John’s discernment was very intentional and included a committee of people that had chosen to walk alongside him, so it was easy for me to ignore the depth of the internal discovery that was happening in me. Even after she pointed out that self-discovery process, I still thought of it more in terms of external practicalities, like figuring out my passions and how that fit into how I spent my day, what kind of job I would get, what my long term goals were. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that it went much deeper than that.

It hit when I noticed the internal chaos raging in my brain. Without completely realizing it, the faith shift I was experiencing was digging deep into my inner self. Self-discovery suddenly meant rediscovering the true me, both how what I’ve always known about myself relates to my new worldview, but also digging into the depths of the hidden me, the me that I haven’t wanted to look at because it didn’t seem to fit into the conservative evangelical box I made for myself. As I opened locked doors, and tore down internal walls, things came tumbling out in a heap. My old coping mechanisms were set aside as I re-evaluated what lay behind them. I started dealing with obsessive thoughts that I’ve been mostly able to avoid the last few years. I started dealing with more grief related to Emma. I started questioning assumptions that I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. And all this added up to a pretty messy me. It was good work, work that needed to be done, but it was scary and hard and so so much.

packing2For awhile I did process some of it. It’s not going to be a quick thing, that’s for sure. But then there was a day about two weeks ago when as I sat in choir practice listening to the voices raised in song and contemplating that I was going to miss being a part of choir, some of the sadness of leaving hit. It’s been predominantly an emotion of excitement surrounding this move, so I haven’t really felt much sadness, even though I intellectually recognize that it is sad. I knew the emotion of sadness would start to filter in eventually and when it did, it brought with it a whole new level of stress. I suddenly inexplicably started mentally listing all the things that I still had to do before I left. As the stress started climbing, my ability to handle the internal processes I had started began to dwindle. I have intentionally put aside the internal unpacking and reorganization process in favor of the practical need to organize and pack the physical objects of my house.

Right now we are living with a fairly high level of stress and it is hard. At the beginning of this week I had a near panic attack, something that hasn’t happened in 3 1/2 years. It is uncomfortable to me, but I do see an end in sight, at least an end to some of the things that are adding to our stress. As some of them end, others will begin, and eventually the internal chaos will start to make itself known again. Perhaps as I physically unpack my belongings at the end of the summer I can return to the process of unpacking those closets of the mind and reconfiguring them in a way that is not so cluttered. But for now, I need to learn to live in the unknown and chaos of both my external and internal environment.