Individual vs. Collective Hope

Last Sunday I sat in Christian formation and felt the familiar rise of emotion. I have been enjoying this class each week as it encourages me to think, and it hasn’t failed yet to rile me up. As we discuss different stories and themes from the Bible, usually the Old Testament, I am struck by how many different ways there are to understand certain things and how rather than floating on a boat of apathy in a peaceful sea of uncertainty (which is where I thought I still was in this process of faith shift), I find I have replaced many of my former beliefs with rather strong ones that are often in opposition to the ones I once held. This group gives me a chance to examine those, and to find ways to share them out loud in hopefully respectfully kind ways, while also learning to listen to competing viewpoints with a critical ear (not just critical to their side, but just as much so to mine). Still working on that.

Most of the time I just listen, it often takes a few hours or days for me to fully process the conversation we had and decide how I feel about it. And this Sunday, the emotion that rose in me was stronger and very different than that which I have been feeling. It was grief. Strong, undeniable grief. The kind that causes your face to flush and your breathing to rise as you fight the urge to burst into tears in front of a group of people you hardly know.

The theme we were discussing was the Exodus. What this central story from the Old Testament meant to the Israelites and what it can mean for us. Hope. Hope was the word that was coming out of the story. Hope that no matter how low we drop, how horrible the circumstances that surround us, we will come back up again. We will be delivered.

I listened as one person after another shared what that meant to them personally. And because one person specifically brought up something that had happened to his daughter when she was just an infant, and was sharing how he coped with and still copes with the permanent effects this had on her, my gut wrenched with pain. This conversation had suddenly veered too close to home. The words he shared were very similar to words that I have shared in the process of grieving the loss of my 7 month old daughter. They were words of searching, searching for purpose in the tragedy, for hope for himself in the midst of his daughter’s pain.

But, oddly I found myself resonating much more with another man who shared something that was rather different in focus. Instead of looking for purpose in his own story, he instead focuses on presence. God was there and is there in the midst of it. And for him, that was enough. Someone else tried to explain the purpose of pain in the world, or the reason for it, but the explanation was not enough for me. I’ve heard it before and it no longer made the sense I used to think it did. And then another woman shared a hope that went beyond herself and to her family, the hope she held that they would survive and thrive even if she were to die from the cancer that she had just been diagnosed with.

There was so much emotion writhing in my gut. I spoke once, and it was only to share the less than cheery fact that in the story of the Exodus, the people that were brought out of Egypt, were not the same people that entered the land of Canaan. A whole generation died in the wilderness, waiting for the promise they were given. The hope of the Jews is not an individual hope. It is a collective one. WE will be saved. WE will rise again. WE will gain our promised land.

Why was it that that one part of the story is the only one I felt compelled to comment on? Why did some of the hope that was shared in that circle Sunday morning sound so hollow to me, while other versions of it resonated? Why did the whole conversation leave me feeling so unsettled? It was as if there was nothing answered for me, but rather a stirring of the waters that left everything murky and dark and confusing.

As I talked it over with John Sunday evening, while the echo of the emotion still sounded in my shaky voice and the tears I hadn’t cried that morning wet my eyes with just a touch of sadness, I realized that I felt unsettled because there were no simple easy answers to the questions that pain and suffering stir up. The world does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. God does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. The only thing I could cling to was that an individual hope was not enough. Because too often an individual hope is proved false. What happens when 58 people’s lives are cut short by a senseless shooting in Las Vegas? Where is the hope for those people? What happens when someone continues to live in despair and pain even after crying out continually to God to save them? What does hope mean to them? What happens when a 7 month old baby girl dies for the inexplicable reason that her body was just not born as perfect as it should have been?

An individual hope focuses on ourselves. It looks for what happens to me. How can I find hope in the midst of the senseless violence? How can I go on after the death of my daughter? How many blessings do I have that others don’t? These aren’t entirely negative questions. It is normal for us to find the personal relevance within the questions. It is normal to look for purpose in the pain. I believe that we have to do that to a certain extent in order to survive.

But I also believe we are missing something much greater when we focus solely on an individual hope. In our US culture, an individualistic point of view is common and expected. Our faith has to do with the individual. Our salvation has to do with the individual. Our hope has to do with the individual. The majority of Christian faith that I have seen in the US tends to be rather hopeless rather than hopeful. We have given up on a world that does not appear to be getting any better and began to focus on a hope that only truly exists in the afterlife. Even there that hope is limited, limited only to those who somehow individually find their way to God. This is not the way that everyone has or does live. The Israelites hope was collective. I am not as well studied in this as my husband, but I believe that their identity as a nation was much more important than their individual identity. Why else would a story in which nearly everyone dies, still be a story of hope? Where a remnant remains, there is still hope. Hope that the nation, the community will survive.

This is a hope that is so much bigger than the individual. This is a hope that goes beyond one person. This is a hope that can look at senseless suffering and say, “Things look bleak. But I hope for a day when people live in a world where violence does not take lives. I hope for a world where all people are cared for. I hope for a world where peace is the rule of the day. I believe in the kingdom of God. I believe that it can and will exist.”

I find greater peace in this absolutely almost foolish hope than I do in the attempts to find purpose in the suffering. This hope for me goes beyond death, because I can hope that even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it can still happen in someone’s. And the weird crazy thing about this type of collective hope is that when enough of us believe it can be true, then it actually begins to hold the possibly that it will be.

Living with loneliness.

miriam_profileThis post might be a bit long, because I realized as I processed this a bit this week, that loneliness has been my traveling companion for quite a few years. It hasn’t always been the same, but it has been there. And I think it is that loneliness that inspires me to help people find their village. Because I long so much for one of my own. I’ve found it sometimes. And that knowledge of what it is like makes me long for it all the time.

Several years ago I lived in a large fairly new house with a very large back yard. My kids were about 9, 4 and 3. I was attempting to homeschool my oldest while also keeping two very active little boys occupied. I was feeding my family, hoping for a clean house, and also running a business. My days were full, but the people I interacted with all day long were my children. It took me awhile to realize that I was lonely. That what I was longing for was a community of people to live life with. People that weren’t all children begging me to meet their never ending needs all day long. I longed to do housework alongside someone else. I wanted to have adult conversations that went beyond the niceties. I wished for friends who would come into my messy life and be a part of it.

I wasn’t without friends, but it was becoming very clear to me that the American culture did not easily make room for deep and meaningful relationships. People just didn’t have time to step out of their own lives and into other people’s very often. Once I realized what I was longing for, I was able to see that it was something worth longing for. I believe people do live more fulfilled and contented lives when they have people that they are sharing them with.

During most of my mothering career I did participate in a mother’s group that helped to meet that need. There was one year that my small group within that group became to me a community unlike any I had ever known. It only happened once in that perfect “I can’t believe these people are all my friends” sort of way, but those friends I made then were a big part of my life. They were my village.

Shortly after that time, John and I moved out into the country, into an old farmhouse that someone was willing to rent to us. We were surrounded by land, which we loved. We started pursuing some of the things I had always longed to do. John built me a chicken coop and I mail ordered a box of fuzzy little chicks. We bought two perfectly adorable miniature goats and John and I worked together to fence in a portion of the field for them. I loved that house. I loved the things we were dreaming about. But it was even more lonely. It took nearly half an hour to get into town, so I didn’t go that often, saving my trips to consolidate my time.

But it was also in that house that for possibly the first time in my life I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking with my husband. It was during that time of our life that we started looking at the possibility of real adventures. We talked about mission work, and we started looking at possibilities, and then chose Germany as our desired destination. Life was purposeful and exciting and we were working together to make our dreams reality. My husband and I were making our own little village of sorts.

We moved back into town into a little tiny rental because we needed to be closer to meet with people and raise financial support. My contribution to our support raising endeavors felt very real and appreciated. We met with people several times a week and shared deep conversations. We realized how sad it was that it wasn’t until we were leaving that we actually had our first real conversations with friends that we’d had for years. It was a hard, weird, and exciting time. But it wasn’t particularly lonely.

Eventually the long awaited day of our flight came. We finished up packing all the possessions we hadn’t sold into our bags and headed across the ocean. I think I expected Germany to be lonely. I was 20 weeks pregnant, and not assigned to any specific job in the mission. I was leaving behind friends that I’d had for years. I was leaving behind a church I’d attended since I was a kid. There were definitely lonely times, but they were often interrupted by the unexpected kindness of a community that welcomed us with open arms. Like when I got the flu shortly after arriving and someone brought me soup and muffins and someone else took my son to and from kindergarten. And when I was in the hospital wishing my mom and family were there to help welcome our newborn son and we were visited by new friends who showed they truly cared.

And a few months into our stay I found a group of friends who are still the people that I tell everything to. A group of moms who all found themselves in very similar circumstances and all clung together sharing life and real deep conversations. I had found my village again and I was happy. We moved away from Germany a short while later as did many in that group then and in subsequent years. We find ourselves all over the place now, but we are still an online village. It isn’t the same, but it is something that I am thankful I have.

Ironically, my husband was entering a very lonely period in his life. He hadn’t realized how much he would miss the friends he’d made in recent years. How much he’d miss the interactions and their supportive conversations. He and I were growing even closer as I learned to be more honest and open with him, and as we learned to rely on each other for the community we needed. But I did not realize at the time the depth of the depression he had entered, the hopelessness he often felt, the weight of the questions he was asking.

When we came back to Arkansas I entered a period of loneliness that I wasn’t quite prepared for. I was returning to a place that was supposed to be home to me. I had friends and family there. But it wasn’t like everyone had left a Miriam sized hole waiting for me to step back into it. I felt like I had to force my way back into relationships. I know it wasn’t that people were purposefully leaving me out, but it didn’t feel as effortless as I had hoped. I was a different person who was starting to believe very differently than I had before, and it was hard to find where I fit into people’s lives. I was also very wary, waiting to see how each person would react to the new things I was learning and changing my mind on. Even if they accepted me and respected me in the midst of disagreement, it was hard to acknowledge that the majority of my friends did disagree with me. My therapist told me when I talked to her about my loneliness that self-discovery really is a very lonely process and that only when I was more sure of who I was would I be able to step into relationships in that real way again. It helped to know that some of that loneliness was to be expected, but it was still hard.

There were hurts during that time as well. Because of my changing perspective on LGBTQ issues, I was asked to step down from leadership in the mothering group that had been so life-giving to me before. And that still hurts. Even now, I get tears in my eyes thinking about it. A group of women I respected, who had respected and valued me, now looked at me differently. A church I had grown up in and felt at home with had rejected me. I felt that I was suddenly not trusted, not respected, and not valued. Some of the women in that group have made it clear to me since then that they do not feel that way, but my emotional reaction to what happened made it very hard to find community where I once had.

My family, thankfully, welcomed me back easily, but my relationship with them was a bit more distant as I allowed myself to question all the assumptions I was raised with and found myself moving down a different faith path than the one they were on. Self-discovery meant recognizing that I am not my family and they are not me and learning to be ok with that.

We also left the church we had known since childhood, which was understandably very hard. I realized very quickly how much of my socialization happened in church. We were attending a church I loved. In fact more than ever I loved being at church for the service, but I felt a bit like a stranger in the midst of these people who were so new to me. Despite being an extrovert, I have learned that I do not start conversations easily. Start a conversation with me and with very little encouragement I will reveal my deepest soul secrets, but expect me to initiate and you will hear very little from me. Plus, I feel like mothering littles on a Sunday morning greatly restricts your ability to interact with adults. And so I felt that my relationship building was very slow. It was happening, but it was also happening in what we knew was probably a short term stay in Arkansas, which meant always questioning whether friendship was worth pursuing for such a short time.

I did have a little village there though. There was a small group we met with weekly for a time. People who were also looking for friends to truly live with. And my husband and I entered what I consider the best part of our married life thus far. We were closer, more honest, open and vulnerable with each, than we ever had been. And as a result we truly enjoyed each other’s company. We still dreamt, though the dreams were all over the place, so the plans were fuzzy and incomplete.

Eventually, we left Arkansas to go to Virginia. I was supportive of my husband’s desire to pursue an MDiv and possibly ordination. I believed in him and so supported our move even in the midst of uncertainty of how I fit into all of it. I didn’t want to lose myself after having finally found it. Ironically what met us here in Virginia was a life seemingly all set up and ready for me and the kids, and disappointment, disillusionment, and depression for my husband. We had moved for him and everyone was thriving except for him. I had no idea what we were supposed to do now.

About halfway through our first year here he received a diagnosis of major depression, and suddenly a lot of the last few years made a lot more sense to me. The diagnosis was good because now we can focus on treatment. But it was hard too, because ever since that moment I think I have struggled to see my husband as something separate from the depression. Every conversation, every interaction seems to be tainted by it. The happy, unbelievable, and unexpected almost honeymoon period of the year before has been replaced by a constant internal swing in me between deep raw emotion and terrible numbness. I’ve learned to live in the present. I’ve learned to be strong. But I am sometimes very sad, and my loneliness right now not only has to do with the fact that I have very little energy to put into finding a village here, but also because I feel like I’m living a life parallel to my husband, but not WITH. Loving work, hobbies, children, life while my husband just survives beside me. It is the oddest juxtaposition I’ve ever experienced. To be so joyful in my daily life, while simultaneously feeling deep sadness at the fact that my husband is not able to share in that joy. He supports me in it, but he doesn’t feel it for himself.

And so loneliness is becoming a close friend these days. I do still believe that a village can be found everywhere, no matter what the circumstances. But sometimes it does take finding, and I’m not always sure I have the energy to pursue it. I sometimes wish it would just find me.

The gift of mystery.

kidswarmemorialIt’s interesting how much of my parenting is shaped by my experiences as a child. I struggled a lot with doubt, questions, and guilt as a child. I wanted to know the truth and rest in it, but was frustrated that my mind did not always cooperate, that I was plagued always by questions instead of certainty. It took a long time for me to accept the questions as part of my experience. And it took even longer for me to see the value of uncertainty. And because I never want my children to feel guilty for asking questions, I tend to encourage those questions.

Even before my recent faith shift away from evangelicalism towards a more progressive form of Christianity, I didn’t like to answer my kids questions with too much certainty. For one thing, I recognized that I am never sure enough myself to give them a definitive answer and for another thing, I wanted them to be ok with knowing that there were multiple answers to any one question. So when asked about science, faith, and life, I would often answer them with: “Well, some people believe a, others think b, and I tend to agree most with c.”

As I become more and more comfortable with my own questions, I have been able to be even more relaxed about theirs. I think when Elise was young, there were definitely some questions I felt that she needed a very clear answer to. If she asked about God or Jesus or salvation, then I was definitely going to give her the black and white answer I believed was necessary for salvation, even while at the same time feeling anxious over my own lack of certainty. Since my understanding of salvation has completely moved away from assertion of facts, I no longer mind allowing uncertainty in even those things that I once considered the essentials of faith.

Kids have a lot of questions, even while accepting the oddest things as truth. But Elise has always been incredibly tied to reality. She hates uncertainty and even in the course of imaginative play always wanted to know where the line of reality was. It frustrated her to no end a few years ago when Will was convinced that his stuffed animals were alive. He would not admit that he was just pretending, but stubbornly resisted her every attempt to teach him the truth. She would get so angry about this that she would try to bring me into the argument. “Mom!” she would say, “Will you please tell him that stuffed animals are NOT alive!” And I would never step in. This was more about Elise than it was about Will. I truly didn’t care if he believed his animals were real. Possibly, deep down, he knew they weren’t, but liked to rile up Elise. But I wanted Elise to be ok with letting go of control over the minds of those around her. I wanted her to be ok with uncertainty.

As the kids have gotten older, the dynamics have changed. Both Will and Seth love to believe the impossible. Or pretend that they do. I can’t always tell where the line is in their play, and that is ok. They like to live on the edge of mystery. But they don’t always like to allow the other to be comfortable there. Sibling dynamics are such that there will be teasing surrounding each one’s chosen fantasy. Will also likes to try to convince Seth of fantastical creatures’ existence because Seth so wants to believe, even when his logical side tells him this probably isn’t true. You can hear the struggle in his voice as he argues back. “That isn’t real, Will! Is it?”

The other day Will was giving Seth a hard time about Santa Claus. Seth has tried to believe in Santa Claus for years, even though we have never really “done” Santa Claus in our house. This has actually been one of those areas where my child has taught me to let go of controlling what another person believes, and now I only really step in when the naughty or nice part comes up, but that I addressed in another blog post. (If you read that blog post you’ll probably notice my lack of an emphasis on mystery in celebration. I have definitely evolved since then.)

But back to the conversation of a few weeks ago. Will asked, partly in seriousness, and partly to annoy his brother, who was sitting next to him: “Why do people believe in things that aren’t true, like Santa Claus?” “That’s a good question, Will,” I answered resorting to my tried and true parenting tactic of answering a question with a question. “Why do YOU think that people believe in things?” “Because they’re dumb?” Will answered (actually I can’t remember his exact reply, but this is most likely what he was thinking even if he didn’t say it out loud.)

Wanting to encourage Will towards self-reflection rather than attack, we brought up one of Will’s favorite fantasies. Against all evidence and in the face of opposition all around him, Will believes in dragons. So of course we brought that up. And in comparing Santa Claus and dragons (who knew those would ever come up in the same conversation?) we were able to actually ask some meaningful questions about the nature of belief.

sethtreeI don’t know if that conversation was marinating in my kids’ heads at all over the next few weeks, but I think maybe it was. Because on the way home from church a few days ago Seth asked a very serious question: “Why do people believe in God? I mean you can’t see him, we don’t know if he’s actually real. He might be or he might not be. It’s a mystery.” And rather than going into panic mode, wondering about the state of my child’s soul, I merely said: “Yep, life is full of mystery.”

My thoughts on guns, violence and racism.

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.

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.

More of more and less of less

IMG_2869I spent some time trying to think of a creative title to this that somehow made sense and I think I just ended up with something confusing, but oh well.

Have you ever noticed that the more time you have, the more time you waste? Is that just my problem, or does everyone deal with that? We say that we need more time, if we just had more time we could get so much more done, but is it really true? Looking back over my life I can see that there are definitely times in my life where I had a lot of time, and I really wasn’t that productive with it. Case in point, 15 years ago, I was a newlywed, halfway through my college career. John and I lived in a little tiny two bedroom duplex on campus. We were full-time students, and yes that took quite a bit of time, but realistically I didn’t have a whole lot of other stuff to keep up with. Cooking and cleaning and laundry for two really wasn’t that big of a deal other than the fact that I was responsible for a whole household for the first time in my life. I didn’t even have facebook then, but I know that I wasted a lot of the time I did have.

Or take for instance, three years later, when we welcomed our first baby. Having a baby is hard and the amount of work involved is astronomical, and yet, two years later I did it again now with a toddler as well. And then again two years after that and again and again, each time with more kids and new responsibilities. And each time I looked back and wondered what I did with all the time I must have had and not realized it. I know part of it has to do with the learning curve, that we fit more in as we learn how to handle the new responsibilities, but there always seems to be enough time to do what has to be done, it’s those things that don’t have to be done that get pushed to the side.

There are lots of other time periods in my life that I can point to that are similar. Whatever my responsibilities at the time, they were nothing compared to what I do now, and yet I still struggled to find time to do the things I “really” wanted to do. Sometimes it was legitimately due to exhaustion. There are a lot of years of a mother’s life that really have a cloud of sleep deprivation hanging over them. And because of that, I think we have to give ourselves and others in the same situation a lot of grace. And yet, there is something else, and I think it has to do with how we fill our time.

John sometimes recommends a book for me to read and I just look at him and say, “I never have time to read.” His reply is that I don’t make time to read, and he’s right. I can find time to read if I really want to. For instance I recently bought an e-book on potty training and spent most of the afternoon reading it all in almost one whole sitting. It’s just that in most of my days, reading drops pretty low on the priority list, and if I move it up, something else has to slide down there. And so I don’t often choose to move it up. But the troubling thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I will very regularly move time-wasting activities (like facebook, logic puzzles, checking the weather for the umpteenth time, and so on and so on) to the top of my list and then complain about all the wonderful things I want to do but that I never have time for. Just making time for these activities is not always the answer because I still sometimes use the time differently than I had planned.

This became very apparent to me a few weeks ago. I was cooking breakfasts and lunches for my grandma, which takes a lot of weekly prep, but is also a very rewarding task for me. In March, I knew I was taking off from this responsibility because we were going to do rice and beans month, and my grandma didn’t really want rice and beans meals all month. I was looking forward to the break and all the extra time it would give me. March started and with it my more simplified meal planning and prep. But just a couple weeks in I found myself having a fairly extreme emotional breakdown that had been building for several days. I needed a break from responsibilities, and thankfully my husband was able to step in and give me that break. But it was odd to me that this happened during a time when I actually had fewer responsibilities. And that is when it dawned on me that it wasn’t the number of responsibilities that mattered, but that it was the quality of those responsibilities and the amount of readily apparent return on investment that affected my emotional stability. I also realized that sometimes having more time meant that I accomplished less, which then also fed into my lack of visible results to my day.

OK, before we go on, let me add a side note or disclaimer of sorts. I in no way want to devalue the work that I do as a stay-at-home mom. And I definitely do not want anyone else to think that I am devaluing it for them either. I understand that the investment I put into my kids is extremely important and that hopefully down the road I will see tons of return for that investment that will go way beyond many of the other things I spend time on. But just knowing that is not always enough to give me the emotional strength to find complete fulfillment in the present, because let’s face it, right now in the trenches, it is hard, messy, and often just not fun. And we get very little recognition for what we do each day, on the contrary, a lot of what comes out of our kids’ mouths is actually the opposite. Not all the time. There are plenty of great moments, and I do think we should try to focus on the amazing beauty in this stage of life. You can read more about that in my advent posts. So, please, please do not think that I am trying to say anything negative about the positive and important impact a mom has on her young kids. I’m not. This is about how a mom (particularly this mom) learns how to cope with the mundane while striving to impact the spectacular. Hopefully that makes sense.

IMG_0755So, back to my realization of the HOW I spend my time affecting the HOW I feel about life. So, I’m in this emotional breakdown of sorts, but I’m thinking quite clearly. This didn’t seem to be totally due to a hormonal surge, but rather a cumulation of circumstances, and I very deliberately figured out what I needed to make it through that day and asked for it. And, because I am so wonderfully blessed in the husband that I have, I actually got what I asked for and more. He came home early and before he released me into the freedom of a walk all by myself, he brought up the possibility of a job. Not for him this time, but for me. “Would you be interested in this,” he asked and then proceeded to describe a not terribly exciting, but very well-paying job that I could actually leave the house all by myself and do. We spent a week discussing this possibility and the logistics and trying to figure out if we could really make it work before deciding that yes, I would take the job.

Now, I know that this seems counter-intuitive. Why would I add in one more responsibility when I already have so many and am struggling to keep up with them all while keeping a positive frame of mind and a good attitude? But my hope is that by adding in something very deliberately that would provide me with very visible positive results would flow over into the rest of my life and help fill that deficiency that I feel in areas where I struggle because I am not seeing the immediate results to my actions. We’re still working out details as it is true that with school, cooking, and work I am ultra-busy now, but it is having many positive effects already. When I leave my house to go to work, the whirling to do list in my head seems to shut down immediately. I sit at my desk and I am at work. My kids are being cared for, I’m being paid to do a job, and I can focus on that. And those of you in the same life stage as I am don’t have to have me tell you how amazing it is to sit down and work on one thing, with no interruptions. I’m still getting accustomed to the “re-entry” shock when I return home, but the overall effect seems to be a good one. I also find that even though a day when I go to work will be quite full as there are still many other responsibilities to get done before and after work, I focus more and waste less time because I have less of it to waste. I don’t want that busy schedule every day, I still enjoy my days of less responsibility, but having some really busy days does make me feel pretty good about my capabilities, which adds to my confidence, which helps me in all my endeavors. There are obviously things that will have to slide down on my priority list, and some of them are things I wish I could spend more time on, but this means I have to be more intentional about it and that will hopefully lead to reorganizing things so that I am spending the time on things that really matter and less time on those things that don’t.

It’s a work in progress. I’m still figuring out how much down time I need for relaxing within my busy schedule, because I do still realize the importance of that. But I’m also realizing that there is a decent amount of satisfaction that comes with going to bed tired because of a full and productive day. It means even the emotional drain seems less because I’m being filled in a different way. And my hope is that all this will positively affect my parenting as well, since regular breaks will help me win the battle to stay consistent in the face of interminably long weeks. So hopefully, the title makes sense now. I am striving to have more of the more important and less of the less important. At this particular time in my life, this job seems to be a good step in that direction, I’ll let you know if it continues to work out that way.

My reflections on Lent.

Having been raised in a tradition that doesn’t routinely commemorate the season of Lent, I have found myself a little confused on what this season really means. I had heard of Lent, usually in the context of friends giving up a food item, or facebook, or something else for Lent. This was my only frame of reference to go off of.

Last year we began some Anglican traditions during the period of Lent. We didn’t start attending an Anglican church though until right around Easter, so I still didn’t have a clear explanation of what Lent was. So, the only thing I added to my previous small understanding was that certain words, like Hallelujah, were not said in worship during Lent.

This year, I have found myself full of curiosity on what this season is truly about. We are now part of an Episcopal church and I’ve enjoyed following along with the church calendar, learning more about these exciting traditions. But for some reason, the meaning of Lent, seemed illusive to me.

I’ve tried to take in the descriptions, invitations, liturgy and everything else in the church services and discussions, and every time I think I have it figured out, a new element is added. There are layers here, layers that go so much deeper than I am used to going in church worship. They are layers that are not bright and light and cheerful, but rather dark, deep, and somber. At first I thought that meant that it was sad, but it isn’t sad. Our deepest hope and our greatest joy are found in the dark. That is a truth I already knew, having experienced it as we walked through the valley of the shadow of death with Emma.

So, let me attempt to write what I have learned so far. This is by no means an in depth explanation of the season of Lent, but rather just glimpses into a season that I have never looked at closely before. I’m still figuring out how it all fits together and I’m not even sure I have it all right, but that seems to be the best part of living our life in the path of the church calendar, we learn by doing, and we learn more by doing it again the next year, and the next, and so on, and so on.

Lent is a recognition of the truth that we are human beings and that one day we shall die. Last Wednesday, I attended my very first Ash Wednesday service. I knelt at the altar rail as the priest put ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross and said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. As we recognize the truth that we cannot save ourselves from our eventual death, we begin to look for the hope of something beyond the physical. Our soul longs for the life eternal, the spiritual truths that go beyond our physical bodies. As our rector says, “We are not God.” And when we recognize that we are not God, then we are ready to look to the One who is God.

Lent is a time of repentance. Repentance literally means “changing our minds.” I get really confused about repentance. I don’t think I’m very good at it. Oh, I’m really good at confession: saying I’m sorry. I’m also really good about intending to do better in the future. But that actual real changing of my mind so that practical change ensues is harder. I haven’t really learned how to DO this. But I know this is part of what Lent is for, recognizing where we have gone wrong, and deciding to return to the way of life.

Lent is a time of spiritual discipline. Many people practice the discipline of fasting or giving up some of our luxuries during this time. When done with the right intent, I think this is a good way to focus our attentions on what truly matters in life. As Jesus said when he was tempted in the wilderness, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Our rector encouraged us not to think so much about what to give up for Lent, but rather to ponder on what areas of our life God would have us work on. Once we discover that, then we can decide if giving something up or adding something in will help us accomplish that growth.

Lent is a communal season. Together we feast on Shrove Tuesday. Together we kneel on Ash Wednesday. Together we worship on each feast day (Sunday). Together we pray. Let’s not approach Lent alone, but rather draw close to those around us. We are all on this journey together. We all share the same sorrows, face the same temptations, and search for the same joy.

Lent is a season of hope. Through all the prayers of repentance, the words of mortality, and the songs of fasting, there is an overwhelming sense of hope. We don’t ask for forgiveness not knowing whether or not we will be forgiven. We don’t sacrifice our luxuries in order to appease an angry God. We don’t focus on our mortality with no hope of a life after death. Even as we recognize our need for a Savior, we turn and worship that very Savior. Christ has come, he has risen, he is triumphant. We begin the season of Lent already knowing that what comes after is the celebration of Easter. Even the ashes that touch our foreheads come from the palm leaves of the previous Palm Sunday. Everything we do is always tied to that hope that Jesus has given us.

IMG_2833I think there is more, but this is a good start. As I’ve pondered these things, I found that the beginning of Lent overlaps with Emma’s heaven birthday. This has been incredibly appropriate as I’ve learned more of what Lent is supposed to be. Emma’s death stands as a stark reminder of our mortality and our inability to evade death, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Even though I wasn’t fasting for 40 days, I have been fasting from my computer and TV every February 21st since Emma died. And I’ve seen firsthand how sometimes God can use this time to speak truth into my life. This year, on February 23rd (the day after Emma’s heaven birthday) a dear friend had to say good-bye to their daughter, just as I did to Emma. Knowing that they were facing this pain for several days before it happened has reminded me what a blessing it is to be able to share this pain with others. Because I have known the pain of loss, I can face theirs with them with confidence. I can’t really lessen their pain, but hopefully I can walk beside them as they walk the path of grief. And there is HOPE. Emma’s death has been possibly the greatest encouragement in my life to hold on to hope. Without hope, it is meaningless, but with hope, it is full of meaning.

Epiphany – Beauty in ourselves.

So, despite my best intentions, the rush to get Christmas presents completed overwhelmed my desire to keep up with the blog during the advent season. But even though I wasn’t writing about it, I did still notice beautiful things in my day. And it surprised me how many of those things had to do with people. But I guess that shouldn’t really be surprising at all.

imageAnd during my advent and Christmas days I realized that I shouldn’t just be watching for the beautiful, but I should also be beautiful to those around me. This concept first tickled its way into my brain during prayers in the church service one Sunday morning. The prayer was comparing ourselves to Mary. Mary was the bearer of the Christ child to the world, and in the same way, we also are supposed to be bearers of Christ to the world. For some reason, this phrasing really stuck with me as I had never compared myself to Mary in this way.

After the service in Sunday School we were discussing the “Magnificat,” which is the prayer or song that Mary sung after the angel visits her with the news that she will be the mother of the Messiah. As we discussed what it means to magnify the Lord, I realized that it all ties together. Just as a magnifying glass helps us see things more clearly, I should be helping others to see Jesus better. Do those who are close to me get a better view of Jesus or are they just more confused? Am I bearing Jesus to the world, to the whole world, everyone that I come in contact with?

Epiphany is when the church commemorates the revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, beginning with the magi. Not only am I supposed to magnify Christ to those around me who are like me and agree with me, but I also should be a representation of him to everyone, no matter their background, culture, nationality, or beliefs. And this is not necessarily about what I say I believe, but more importantly about who I am.

And so, my challenge to myself and to you, is to be the bearer of Christ to the world, every single person you come in contact with. In that way you will be beautiful.

Advent Day 16 – Beauty in Prayer


As promised (even though a little bit late), I will share another daily tradition that we have started in our family. This tradition is the daily hours (or offices) of prayer. The tradition of set hours of prayer dates back to pre-Jesus times. This is a Jewish tradition that the first Christians continued as they developed their Christian practices.

imageThere are several different ways of observing this throughout the day as well as several different ways of actually practicing it. The one we use with our kids for both morning and evening (vespers) prayers is a set of books called The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. It’s fairly short and is based mostly on Psalms and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, but with a few other early Christian works and short passages of Scripture. There are several repeated pieces (like the Lord’s Prayer) that my kids now have memorized, which is nice.

I also use Phyllis Tickle’s book for noon-time prayers that I do myself after getting all the kids situated for naptimes. John and I also use the compline (which are said right before going to bed) together at our bedtime. It’s the first time in our marriage that we have stayed consistent with praying together each day as a couple. Recently I started also trying to do morning and evening prayers directly out of the Book of Common Prayer. The main difference with doing this is that I get a better chunk of Scripture reading, so I use this for my “quiet time” each day. I have been very consistent with morning prayers, evening prayers are hit and miss depending on how our day goes. But what I like about doing this is that it has been encouraging me to actually be in prayer daily (when I do it individually I can take time to really pray for those needs around me) and to read my Bible each day. For some reason I find it easier to be consistent with reading the Bible when it is interwoven into my prayer time. And because there is an actual reading program built in, I don’t like getting behind, so I am more likely to keep up each day.

I have to admit that these prayers are not always beautiful, especially when we are trying to do them as a family because my boys are not always well-behaved and in a prayer mood each time. But I am hoping that consistency will bring long-term benefits in the end. And as an adult I find a lot of beauty in the prayers themselves and in the renewing of my mind that happens as I continually fill it with these good and pure things. I used to pray almost entirely only my own words. But I am enjoying adding in this other tradition of praying both prayers directly from the Bible and well-crafted beautiful prayers written years ago by others striving to live out their faith. When I pray these prayers I am joining with believers around the world in a whole new way. This tradition is enriching my spiritual life. Therefore, I find beauty both in the words themselves and in the effect they have on my day.

Advent Day 12 – Beauty in Tradition

One of the things we are using Advent for is to build tradition. We are very blessed to have lived the majority of our lives (all but our year and a half in Germany) near our families. So, Christmas is spent celebrating with everyone, and I love it. But it has also been hard for us to begin our own traditions, to define what Christmas looks like for us. So even though this will be our 15th Christmas as a married couple and our 12th as parents, in many ways I feel like we are still sorting this out.

We tried for a few years to do our own little Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve. But since we already have two other Christmas celebrations and admittedly it’s more fun to open presents with larger groups, we’ve cut back on that a bit. Now I’m trying to concentrate a little more on the whole season of Advent to build our own traditions, and this has the added benefit of helping us keep the important parts of Christmas more in focus.

imageI shared our little Advent tree last year when we started it, but here’s another picture in case you missed it. I had a moment of panic when I couldn’t find the tree even though I was positive I’d packed it in Germany. But John produced it in seconds. I still haven’t asked him where he found it. The ornaments are hand-embroidered, but pretty simple. We add one each night when we read the corresponding Bible story. This year we are using Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift for our readings. I haven’t decided which I like better, just reading the passages straight from the Bible or reading her narrative. But it’s fun to have some variety.image

I wanted to also share with you another everyday year round tradition we started since this is about finding beauty in the everyday, not just in the Christmas season, but I’ll save it for tomorrow so this doesn’t get too long. Thank you to all who have been reading these posts and letting me know that they are meaningful to you. Please feel free to share your own moments of beauty in the comments.