The Ninety-Eighth Letter: Seasons Change

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Dear Daughters,

I probably overuse the word “season.” Seasons of the calendar year. Seasons of the church year. Seasons of life. Seasons of parenting. TV shows. Growing seasons. Canning seasons.

Repetition. Change. Growth. Death. Winter. Advent. New Life. Planting. Premieres. Easter. Sowing. Learning to read. Summer. Harvesting. Finales. Canning. Frost. Fall. Repetition.

Yes, I do love that seasons change. I’m especially partial to autumn and all of its cliched crispness in the air and stunning leaves. Even the satiny red leaves of our sweet gum tree out front almost make up for the annoying sweet gum nuts that litter our driveway the whole year long.

Seasons change, and some seasons come back around, but we’re never quite the same as we were the last time through.

That encourages me.

I mentioned in my last letter that I was recently asked to share about my faith journey and vocation by a professor friend who teaches theology at our local college. When I asked her what she was expecting from me during the hour I was to share, she mentioned that I might want to read some of my writing and display some art.

The art part was relatively easy to decide, especially because I knew I wanted to share the logos and graphics I’ve designed for local organizations. (That fits into vocation, right?)

But the writing part wasn’t as obvious to me as I started sifting through the myriad places my writing about vocation exists: on my computer, in notebooks of all sorts, in these letters, of course, in the collection of poetry your dad and I published last year.

I started reading and reading and reading.

And, I’ll be honest, what I should read to the class didn’t become much more clear.

What did become clear was just how quickly seasons can change.

When I started writing letters to you online, I was working through a lot of issues related to mothering and vocation and survival. I was just beginning my creative journey and hadn’t started making art yet. I was in my early thirties but trying to figure a lot of things out. I was dissatisfied but probing. And I certainly would have never imagined the life I have now, especially the homeschooling part of it. I even wrote an early letter about how excited I was for you to be going to school some day. That I would rejoice to see you go.

This was only four years ago, girls.

In the poems I skimmed, I uncovered so much wonder and hope, conviction and transformation, grief and anxiety. I have poems from before you were born, often saved in Word documents in a monthly file I used to email to my writing group. I have poems of pregnancy, poems of labor and delivery. I see glimpses of both of you as babies in those words, a life deep with metaphor even in those exhausting, mind-numbing months of postpartum haze. Your own growing vocabulary and ability is sprinkled throughout many of the poems, too, as well as references to the toys strewn across the floor, so many cups of tea, my Pyrex bowls, and our fixer-upper house. There are lots of poems about your dad, and also poems about relatives we’ve lost over the last decade.

Through it all, girls, I can trace my growing appreciation for what life is now, in this current season.

This current season.

And I am grateful that seasons change.

That you didn’t stay babies, for example. (I mean, I’m seriously grateful on that one.)

That I’ve released a lot of the weight I initially felt about mothering and the cynicism I felt about others who seemed to find holiness here.

That I now call myself an artist and a writer and not feel awkward about it.

That my life is full to the brim with vocation and meaning.

In rereading my own words, I can recognize how I myself have changed in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

There was a time when I couldn’t manage to take you both to the grocery store at the same time, but I now know I can single-parent on airplane flights and 10-hour road trips.

Girls, I wonder sometimes how you will remember this season of life, what glimpses you’ll remember from childhood that will carry you through later seasons. I can’t know, of course.

But I do know that at least you’ll have these letters.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

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The Ninety-Seventh Letter: Sacrament and the Trinity

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Dear Daughters,

One of our professor friends recently asked me to be a special guest in a theology class she teaches called “Women in the Christian Tradition.” All of her other special guests this semester have been ordained ministers, but she asked me, a non-full-time-minister, to come and talk about how faith informs and shapes my vocation — as artist, writer, mother, wife, daughter, friend. Every part of my life.

Basically, she knows I’m a thinker, even an over-thinker, so she knew I would have plenty to say.

And of course she was right.

I certainly talked about my vocation in descriptive terms: writer, poet, novelist, handletterer, painter, copyeditor, liturgist, logo-designer, homeschool teacher, small group leader, ordained deacon, after-school program volunteer, INFJ, Highly Sensitive Person, collector of stray people.

And I shared my faith journey, how experiences in both conservative, progressive, charismatic, and liturgical communities have enriched my spiritual life and given me important signposts that keep me on the path. How I’ve learned that at the heart of our faith is a radical call to love, and if we say we take Scripture seriously, we can’t get around that.

And then I talked about how my faith has given me some important lenses through which I see the world and my role in that world as part of the Kingdom of God.

Girls, it wasn’t until I sat down before the class and started jotting down notes to organize my thoughts (in my normal non-linear free-writing way) that I began to articulate some of these connections. And those connections surprised me.

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly write a lot about faith and vocation. I write it, I think it, I say it. 

I write a lot about attentiveness and why it matters.

I write a lot about sacrament and how fruitful it can be to see grace in ordinary, mundane moments.

And I also write a lot about the Trinity. When I pray in church, I pray Trinitarian prayers. When we light our three candles at home on the dining room table, I’ve taught you to say “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” or “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

(In church last week, one of the hymns had the words “Holy Spirit” in it, and so I leaned over to the Bean to whisper, “Holy Spirit, like in the Trinity,” and you looked at me, confused, and said, “Um, yeah, I know that.” As if of course you know the members of the Trinity like they’re your BFFs.)

But still, still, I was surprised, even knowing that I write on these topics all the time, I was still surprised as I jotted down notes to share with this class how intertwined these ideas are. I was surprised at the extent to which how I see my vocation is shaped by the particular ideas of sacrament and the Trinity, and all of this is wrapped up in attentiveness.

When I use the terms ‘sacrament’ and ‘sacramental,’ I am circling around the definition of capital-S Sacrament, that is, a visible sign of invisible grace, but I don’t mean that exactly.

I mean more a sacramental imagination, a way of seeing the world and all of my ordinary, lived experiences as places where I can point to the grace of God breaking through. Because, of course, I believe that God does break through into normal, ordinary experiences. And so this idea of seeing the world with sacrament-tinged vision really has shaped me and continues to shape me.

A sacramental understanding of lived experience is, I’m pretty sure, how I survived those early years of motherhood, and is the reason I have written nearly 100 of these letters. I want you to see that this lived and ordinary life we live is worthy of notice. It’s holy. And it matters.

But maybe it’s harder to see how I instinctively connect the Trinity to this idea of vocation. I mean, let’s be real, a lot of Christians say they “believe” in the Trinity but most of us are actually trying to explain it to our children using heretical ideas that got people killed in the early centuries of the faith. Because the Trinity is hard to get. Hard to understand. Harder still to articulate. Anyone who pretends otherwise hasn’t really spent much time in the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John. Besides, even the Eastern and Western Churches have disagreement over the doctrine of the Trinity.

I have struggled for a significant portion of my adult life to understand why it matters at all as a doctrine and instead have taken on faith the idea that it mattered to the early church so clearly it must matter.

In recent years, I’ve taken to using Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer as a way to help me understand the Trinity. And I promise you that it’s not solely as a way to avoid using gendered words for God, though you know these things also matter to me.

No, it’s more like this: when I think about God as Creator, and God as Redeemer, and God as Sustainer, it makes it more clear to me what it means that we have the image of God, the imago dei, in us. 

When I pray to a God who creates, who redeems, and who sustains, I better know how to live in the world. I better know how to fulfill my vocation as a little-c creator, a little-r redeemer, a little-s sustainer.

When we see that our calling is to be creators, we recognize a call to create beauty from chaos. That is the story of Genesis. That is what is needed as we look at the chaos in our world today. Do you feel overwhelmed in the chaos, girls? Create beauty.

When we see our calling to be redeemers, we recognize a call to work for justice, for restoration in all its forms, but especially on behalf of those least able to work for it themselves. The most vulnerable. Just as, in our vulnerability, Jesus came to show us how to live and how to offer our lives. But even more: he came to set things right.

When we see our calling to be sustainers, we recognize a call to restore community, to reach outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that we do not serve alone, we do not get by alone, we cannot turn inward to find God but outward. God is community.

And we cannot do any of this–we cannot see the glimpses of grace in the ordinary, we cannot be the people of God in the world living fully into the imago Dei--without attentiveness.

We must be attentive to God’s work (yes, as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer) in the world.

And we must be attentive to see the work that needs to be done–where beauty can rise from the chaos, where there is injustice and unjust systems, where our own conveniences and privilege stand in stark contrast to the lives of the most vulnerable, where there are broken communities in need of healing, of hope, of love.

So, girls, I am convinced that even as we witness God’s grace breaking through into ordinary lived experience, the call to action remains great.

Because it is a call to love.

When we pay attention, that’s what we find is at the center of our vocation as the people of God.

A call to love.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Ninety-Sixth Letter: For the Morning of an Election

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Dear Daughters,

It’s the mid-terms, and I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what the day holds nor how to feel about it.

(Let’s just say I’ve been surprised before on Election Day.)

Last week someone asked me why I liked the month of November so much. I can go ahead and tell you that it has nothing to do with the political season. I’m sure you’re not surprised.

It has everything to do with the liturgical season though.

November kicks off with All Saints Day, reminding us of those who have gone before us, who lived faithful lives. It offers us a reminder that there is a calling in this life to live radically, to love fully, to seek God faithfully. As we remember the legacy of those who’ve gone before us, All Saints Day is also a reminder that others will follow behind us.

And if that doesn’t get you thinking, I don’t know what will.

We get to leave a legacy.

(Which is maybe a good message for Election Day, come to think of it.)

This year, the last Sunday in November is Christ the King Sunday, which somehow feels like a perfect way to end any month that has an election hanging out in the middle.

Christ the King–or Reign of Christ–reminds us that there is only one King, now and forever, and, well, in the face of nationalism and divisive political leaders and the inability to have fruitful, let alone compassionate, dialogue with people who disagree with us, I think it’s a reminder we all need to hear.

Reign of Christ.

Christ the King.

Christ is King.

Girls, I know you know that it’s how the liturgical cycle ends every year, even when there isn’t an election. The Reign of Christ is the culmination of everything that begins every year during the darkness of Advent. Christ the King is always the Sunday before the first week of Advent. And it’s one of my favorite Sundays.

Every year.

It’s also one of the most overlooked Sundays, in my experience. Our Baptist church doesn’t mention it. It definitely doesn’t have the hype of Christmas or Easter, or even Epiphany or Pentecost. Maybe it’s because we’re so tired after the long, oh so long, season of Ordinary Time (the long season between Pentecost and Advent). But then out of nowhere we have All Saints Day–which doesn’t often get mentioned in Protestant churches either because everyone is so focused on our Trunk-or-Treat and Fall Festivals–and then a few weeks later, oops! here’s Christ the King. And since Christ the King often falls after Thanksgiving, everyone’s moved on to Christmas music by then.

Don’t even get me started about Christmas music.

But girls, the message of Christ the King Sunday is exactly the reminder I need to hear, and believe, and live.

Right now. This month.

This day. Election Day.

Yes, I’ll walk down the hill to the electric company where our precinct votes, and I’ll probably take you with me as usual. I’ll vote with the paper ballot, and then I’ll feel anxious off and on all day. I’ll make cookies. I’ll probably try too often to check in on the results of the election.

And then tomorrow, I’ll wake up, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember why I wrote this letter.

Because every year:

Christ the King.

That’s the end of the story.

And all God’s people said–

Thank goodness,

Your Momma

The Ninety-Fifth Letter: School Is All the Time

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Dear Daughters,

And just like that, we’re sixty days into the school year.

The “official” school year.

That is, the part of the school year where I keep track of what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. It’s when we have our official math curriculum and spelling and reading and writing and grammar. It’s when the community for our classical community meets weekly.

But it’s not exactly accurate to say that the school year “starts” at a given time, because school really is all the time. Even Saturdays are full of reading and learning and playing the piano and constructing your snap circuits and making art and singing and reciting and making connections.

A few weeks ago, I was explaining to you why it’s important to your dad and to me that we always try to answer your questions thoroughly, always try to connect new information to information you already know: that’s how you learn to love learning itself and how to cultivate a life of curiosity. But I ended with, “School is pretty much all the time in our house because your dad and I give good answers.”

You replied, “Well, yes, but also because I ask good questions.”

And that’s true. You ask good questions. You love to learn.

Girls, if asking good questions is important later on, surely it’s important today: this afternoon while you’re working on a puzzle, and tonight after dinner, and then later while brushing your teeth, and then even later as we’re tucking you in and saying prayers. So many questions.

It’s all learning. It’s all questions. It’s all answers. It’s all school.

But since the day I had you hold up the chalkboards that announced your first days of PreK and 1stgrade, we’re staring down 60 days of school already.

All summer long, we fielded the annoying questions I’m sure all homeschooling families get: Are you homeschooling again next year? Do you homeschool year-round? When are you starting back?

Most of these are asked with a glazed-over look because most of our friends do not homeschool and they think we’re probably just little bit weird because we do.

But girls, I am confident that homeschooling is what is right for us and our family in this season. And I articulate those reasons all the time.

To myself. In my head. Like every day.

Because at some point every day, I need to talk myself off the ledge. That’s a good metaphor.

So is this: every day, I have a come-to-Jesus moment about homeschooling.

What I mean is, it’s hard.

And yet somehow, miraculously, it is so totally normal and makes sense and fits us and fits you and fits me so much that I forget that others don’t feel this way about schooling. I forget, that is, until I see that glazed-over look in their eyes. Which is often followed by, “I could NEVER homeschool my kids,” the “never” emphasized with groans and hand gestures and eyes bulging.

The things is, I don’t feel like homeschooling is hard work. It is fun. It is flexible. And it really doesn’t feel like it is swallowing up my whole life. It is one part of my life, sure, and it is kind of like a thread that follows us through everything we do during the day, but it isn’t a burden or an obligation.

And when I am working on a painting project in the afternoon and listening to a song of the first and second Latin declensions, it feels normal.

When I am driving in the car and quizzing you about the parts of a plant cell or the seven wonders of the Ancient World, it feels normal.

When the tooth fairy brings you a book about Madame Curie and it talks about her Nobel prizes for discovering two new elements, I can remind you about the Periodic Table of Elements song we learned last year, and you make another connection, and it feels normal.

When you are working on your snap circuits with your dad and design a spinwheel that you can write on and see lines when there aren’t lines, I can remind you about ‘persistence of vision’ and we can talk about how amazing God’s creation is, and it feels normal.

When we collect fall leaves to trace in your Hello, Nature! book and we talk about the variety of leaf shapes that we learned last week in our memory work, it feels normal.

When we’re talking about Beatrix Potter and her love of nature journaling and we print out photos of birds that visit our own bird feeder right outside our window so we can sketch them, it feels normal.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s also hard in normal and frustrating parenting ways. I lose my temper. You cry while practicing your piano. You get a sassy tone in your voice and I nip it in the bud. My to-do list is too long and I don’t want an interruption for the seventeenth time during a quiet hour in the afternoon. Welcome to the life of every parent ever.

And I admit that in my low moments, I certainly contemplate all of the good things I could be doing with my time if you went to normal school. I think of all the nonprofits I could serve, all the ways my hands and feet could be Jesus’s in the world, all the books I could write, all the meals I could deliver.

But then I think of how rich our days are, and I think of how much I love that in our current life, you actually get to see me being the hands and feet of Jesus.

And, what’s even more amazing, your own little hands and feet get to be Jesus’s too.

So, I guess what I mean is, it’s been a good, full year so far.

But I still can’t believe we’re nearly 60  days in.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Ninety-Fourth Letter: Withered like Grass

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Dear Daughters,

I hope when you are adult the word “hashtag” doesn’t really exist, or rather I hope at least that English language speakers have moved on to some other bizarre way of articulating their feelings. But hashtags are indeed a thing right now in this strange world where social media influences language choices.

There’s one hashtag in particular that’s been annoying me: #bloomwhereyouareplanted.

That is, bloom where you’re planted.

At first glance, it probably seems like something I’d endorse, doesn’t it? No matter your circumstances or current situation, find and live a beautiful life. Yada yada yada.

The thing is, flowers don’t control their blooming. And just because they’re blooming doesn’t mean they’re healthy.

(For example, trees and plants that are under stress often bloom and go to seed in a desperate attempt to survive. Our large maple tree that was completely rotted at its core was still producing helicopters this spring.)

Now, if the focus were on roots, that I could potentially get behind. I do think we need to work on sending our roots down deep to find nourishment. But whether that results in blooms? I’m not sure. Sometimes it doesn’t rain, girls. Sometimes the sun is scorching hot. Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.

Today I picked up my Bible and read a Psalm in which twice—TWICE—the psalmist mentioned feeling “withered like grass.”

When I read that, it really rooted itself in my heart. (See what I did there? What can I say, I amuse myself.)

I thought, YES, that is how I feel. That is how I have been the last few days. Withered. Exhausted. Run down. Unsettled. I’ve not been sleeping well and I’ve been unfocused. I can’t pinpoint a cause, but probably hormones, because that’s life. One of my friends suggested maybe it’s related to the lunar cycle. Who knows. But “withered like grass” felt like a good way to describe how I have been feeling.

Except—and this is the problem with overthinking everything—I’m pretty familiar with grass these days, so I really started thinking about what it meant to be withered like grass.

There are two different reasons why grass “withers,” as far as I can tell. One is because of lack of nourishment. Not enough rain. Too much heat. Grass will stop growing and then turn brown. It gets hard and scratchy. (When we lived in Texas, one time when your dad fell while playing ultimate frisbee in the grass, he had a huge gash in his leg because the grass cut his leg open. The grass!)

But grass also withers in the winter time.

That’s just seasonal, girls. Winter is dormancy, and it’s heading toward Spring, and lots of beautiful things are happening under the surface, but it’s STILL BROWN AND SCRATCHY AND UGLY.

So a seasonal withering doesn’t necessarily feel good but is totally a normal part of the spiritual life. It’s worth acknowledging. And it probably hurts, but there’s beauty coming.

But back to that first kind of withering—that lack of rain and too much sun kind—the withering that comes from being undernourished? Well, if one thing this summer has taught me from mowing the lawn is that as soon as the rain comes, that grass can shoot right up. It doesn’t seem to matter just how long it’s been. That grass will grow more than an inch a day. It will crowd out the vegetable plants growing in the raised beds. It will need to be mowed twice a week and still look shaggy.

There is so much metaphor packed in here, girls. You know I love a good metaphor. And I don’t even care if my unpacking of the metaphor is poor exegesis.

Because I’m feeling withered.

But that’s not a hopeless place to be. That’s what I’m trying to say.

Love,
Your Momma

The Ninety-Third Letter: Make Space for Stories

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Dear Daughters,

A friend I’ve gotten to know this last year wept beside me yesterday as she shared about her mom’s death and the dark times that followed the loss. We were sitting in our homeschool practicum training together—not exactly the space you’d expect vulnerable sharing to take place—and I ended up needing a tissue, too, just sitting beside her, touching her shoulder, listening to her words.

The thing is, I hadn’t known that piece of her story until yesterday, because even though we’ve shared classroom life together for the last year, even though I’ve been to her house and bought eggs from her and eaten weekly packed lunches across the table from one another, there was never really an opportunity to share our stories. There was always lots of chaos and kids and chatter and distraction and pretty much no vulnerability.

Girls, today is Fathers Day. I could write about how amazing your dad is or how amazing my two dads are or about God the Father, but instead I want to talk about our stories and why we need to do better at offering them, listening to them, and providing space to hear them.

This morning I saw the daughter of a friend weeping in church, and because I do know a piece of her story and the pain related to fatherhood in her testimony, my heart felt heavy for her. So heavy. I wanted to say, it’s okay, this is a heavy day, it’s a complicated day, go ahead and cry in church, you are welcome here. I wanted to say so many things.

Then I started looking around our sanctuary and my heart felt even heavier because even though I saw folks I see every single week, I realized how many people’s fatherhood stories I don’t know—mourning fathers, absent fathers, broken families—and how much pain there certainly was right alongside me in the pew. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there was plenty of joy alongside me, too, but on Hallmark holidays, the silent stories are usually sad and complicated ones.)

Girls, I’ve been thinking about this idea of not knowing others well enough to really know their stories.

But if we don’t know people’s stories, we can’t be part of their story. We can’t rejoice with them. We can’t mourn with them. We can’t remember with them.

We can’t do life with them. Not really.

And we certainly can’t be the Kingdom of God to them.

One of the (unexpectedly) best things about being a writer is that when I share something personal in a public forum, I’m nearly always tracked down afterwards so folks can offer me a “me, too” story in response. Sometimes it’s a text or an email or a direct message. Sometimes it’s catching me in the hall at church or sending me a letter in the mail.

But I’ve found that by going first, by being vulnerable, especially in a public way, it provides an opportunity for others to share the hard things.

It might seem like everyone wants to keep private things private—I myself am a pretty private person and it doesn’t come naturally to me to share vulnerably—but when someone realizes that you’ve been through the same thing, cried the same tears, felt the same frustrations, prayed the same prayers, they often do want to tell their story.

Because we’re never as alone as we think we are.

It is hard though.

It’s hard to share the hard things. It’s hard to even make the space for the relationship that leads to the conversations that enables the honesty.

It’s so much easier to just say we’re okay.

But please don’t, girls.

Please make the space for the hard conversations. The honest conversations. The relationships that empower others to be vulnerable.

There’s no easy how-to for any of that, of course. It’s not something I can do for you, and I don’t know how it happens.

But I do know that those relationships, those stories, are where the Kingdom of God is.

I’m sure of it.

Love,

Your Momma

The Ninety-Second Letter: Cowbirds, Toilets, & Trinitarian Motherhood

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Dear Daughters,

I once heard a youth pastor use the metaphor of an overflowing toilet for the love of God. As in, I kid you not, “God’s love is like an overflowing toilet.”

Even as a teenager, I thought that was a strange metaphor, and certainly a strange way to connect with teenagers, except for maybe on an awkward shock-value level. Regardless, I was thinking about it yesterday morning, and as it’s probably been at least twenty years since I heard the metaphor, I guess it was successful to some extent. It sure stayed with me.

That said, our toilet overflowed yesterday morning. Just after your dad left for commencement, of course.

From the bedroom, I heard a weird glup-glup-glup sound while I was getting dressed, and when I went to check it out, the toilet was completely full. The sound was the overflow drain trying to keep pace. (It wasn’t.) By the time I ran downstairs to grab the plunger (and some rags), the whole thing had spilled out onto the floor.

It was a great morning, let me tell you.

As I cleared everything out of the bathroom, soaked up the standing water, and disinfected the whole floor—twice—and paused to cut a door in your cardboard playhouse and help rig a blanket for the other fort and overall was continuously interrupted by both of you who had no concept of what a disaster an overflowing toilet is, I had a lot of time to think. And that’s when the whole God’s-love-as-a-toilet crossed my mind.

Because of course, I cleaned up the mess. I plunged the toilet. I paused to answer your questions and help you with your fort and your house and talked about why the bathroom was now smelling like the public pool. Yep, I got down to business and took care of the problem.

Because an overflowing toilet is a problem. And it doesn’t take much human intervention to stop it. And then it’s super messy to clean up.

So the metaphor of God’s love being like an overflowing toilet only goes so far. Because God’s love isn’t a problem, right? It can’t be plunged out of existence.

I’m going somewhere with this, trust me.

It’s Mothers Day weekend, you know. And I did not particularly want to spend my Saturday morning disinfecting a poopgerm bathroom floor. I did not want to move furniture out of the bathroom by myself. I did not want to pause in my efforts to help you. But I did it, because I’m the mom.

*

If God’s love is like anything, it’s like the love of a mother.

Because of course it IS the love of a mother.

The Bible is so chock-full of images of God as mother that it’s surprising to me how often Christians ignore them and focus instead on God the father. Creator God birthed the world into existence. The image of protection in Scripture is often maternal—the mother hen, the mother eagle. The image of provision in Scripture is often maternal—the Psalmist finds nothing uncomfortable about talking about God’s followers nursing at God’s breast or as weaned children sitting on God’s breast in peace. In fact, that is held up as the highest peace there is—a weaned child on the breast of her mother.

Oh, girls, how I wish it weren’t radical to hear God talked about as mother, because it hasn’t always been that way! Early Christian mystics mixed gendered metaphors for Godall the time—and even for Jesus, who was literally a man—and it isn’t awkward. It’s beautiful and mysterious and everything that God is.

*

We found a cowbird egg in a finch’s nest outside on our front porch, so our science project Last week was researching cowbirds and learning about this parasitic bird species. We learned that if the cowbird egg hatches in this nest, the purple finch momma bird is going to raise it as her own, even though the cowbird is so obviously not her own in size. It’s a much larger bird.

I’ve been thinking about how hard that momma finch is going to have to work to provide enough food for this baby that isn’t hers. It’s going to be dominant in the nest. Her other babies will suffer. (The truth is that they will likely die from malnutrition or are pushed out of the nest.)

It’s heartbreaking.

Some bird lovers say that you should remove the cowbird egg from the nests of other birds. But cowbirds are actually protected under the Migratory Bird Protection Act, according to the wise internet, so you aren’t allowed to. But even if you were allowed to remove them, it isn’t an easy call, at least for me, to remove the cowbird egg.

The cowbird momma bird placed that egg in another bird’s nest because that is what she does for her species to survive. She doesn’t have her own nest. She watched the nest and at the perfect time of another bird laying her eggs, she placed her own into that safe and snug home to be hatched and raised by another momma.

That’s heartbreaking, right? It isn’t just me?

Girls, the story of motherhood is often heartbreaking.

*

God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.

As a mother who has experienced loss, I read this verse as a testament to the fact that God knows intimately the loss and pain of miscarriage.

If God indeed knows life before it is formed in the womb, then that same God is well acquainted with grief. Because the womb is a place of grief and loss for many women.

God mourns with those who mourn.

It seems to me that Scripture is heavy with images of God understanding the burdens of motherhood. Both the Old and New Testaments speak about God’s children, adopted children, wayward children, barrenness, broken promises, heartbreak. It’s all there.

*

My next-door neighbors have a robin’s nest above their front door.

On Friday, they told us that the robin used to fly off the nest and yell at them every time they came out on their front porch but that they they were worried because they hadn’t seen her in a few days. They were debating what to do about this nest, not knowing if the mother would come back, not knowing if it had already been too long since she’d been there.

My neighbor reached up and brought the nest down so we could see into it.

And there they were—Four bright blue eggs. Amazing, perfect, motherless eggs.

*

I was thinking about my momma this morning and all the other women I know who’ve lost their moms.

I was thinking about friends with fresh infertility grief while the children’s choir sang this morning.

I was thinking about my single parent friends who are mothering alone day in and day out. Those with spouses who travel the majority of the week. Those who share custody.

Those who feel heavy with the burden of failing marriages and uncertainty about the future, about their children’s futures.

Those who are waiting for fostering relationships to become permanent through the courts but already feel permanent in their hearts.

Those who feel like failures at parenting. Those with wayward children. Those with chronically sick children.

Those who are mourning.

Those who feel alone.

*

Girls, the story of motherhood is not just one of using the plunger when you don’t feel like it or the constant stream of questions that interrupts any sort of productive and coherent writing project.

It’s not just about hand-print art projects brought home from preschool or getting your favorite meal one day of the year that has been arbitrarily chosen as a day to appreciate you.

The story of motherhood is also one of heartbreak.

Real life tells us that.

The Bible tells us that.

But the Bible also tells us something else if we take seriously the metaphor that God is our mother.

Because the God revealed in Scripture is also a mysterious Trinity.

God is community.

God the mother does not stand alone.

God the mother does not provide alone.

God the mother does not grieve alone.

And that is the Mothers Day message on my heart today.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Ninety-First Letter: Birthdays Are Not the Most Important Thing

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Dear Daughters,

Flashback to the morning of the eldest’s birthday:

Bean: My birthday is the best day of the whole year.

Me: What about Christmas?

Bean: Jesus was born.

Me: What about Easter?

Bean: Jesus rose from the dead.

Me: Yeah, so I think you won’t be getting your birthday into the top two days of the year any time soon. Sorry.

And then you told me that your dad had basically said the exact same thing to you last night.

So he and I are on the same page. #parentingwin

Girls, you’ve both had birthdays in the last few weeks. I love that you have them less than two weeks apart. And they’re bookended by birthdays of one of your grandpas and one of your grandmas. It makes it feel like this is “birthday season,” in addition to the Kentucky Derby, the college graduation, your piano recital, Mothers Day… sigh. So. Many. Things.

We didn’t have a party, but I did try to go out of my way to make sure you felt special, because I know we don’t do a lot of gifts. (Intentionally so, but more on that later.)

You got to drink chocolate milk in the morning, which is unusual for house, even though I’m pretty sure you know other kids get it regularly. You got to pick your birthday dinners and the colors of your birthday cake—hotdogs and macaroni and cheese and grapes and a purple cake with pink icing; pancakes and egg casserole followed by vanilla cake with white icing—and we had our sweet friends over to share it with us. We had small presents for you both—plastic dinosaurs and playdoh; artsy science books and a nature journal—and our friends made themed birthday hats for us related to your interests of dinosaurs and birds. In fact, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there is still a giant dinosaur helium balloon floating around the ceiling on the first floor that your crazy aunts brought us. Also, we did a family trip to a local animal reserve on the weekend between your birthdays; on the eldest’s actual birthday, we met some friends at the local orchard.

My point is this: we do celebrate birthdays. I feel like we celebrate them and celebrate you a lot. Just not in the presents and party sort of way that has unfortunately become the norm. (I’m not talking just in a social media out in the wide world kind of norm, but in our very own community kind of way.)

And so also this point: birthdays are not the most important thing, and if I’m going to fault on the side of anything, it’s going to be under-celebrating, rather than over-celebrating.

Not all of my mom friends agree with me. In fact, I’m pretty sure they think I’m weird on this thing.

Recently the eldest announced matter-of-factly, “Some people get hundreds of birthday presents.” It actually really bothered me that you’d said this, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I asked what you meant. You gave me the example of one of your friends’ birthday parties from a few years ago. Though there weren’t hundreds of presents at the party, it did seem excessive to me at the time, and I remember having to explain to you that there are lots of ways to celebrate birthdays. I tried to make excuses for the excess. There was an entire table of presents, a small cart of presents, presents piled under the table, and a new bicycle.

Girls, let me just clear the air: don’t ever think I’m going to let you open that many presents at one time.

That will never happen. Not on your birthday. Not on Christmases. (Okay, maybe someday if you have a baby shower or a wedding shower, but I kind of hope that I’m raising you to never want so much stuff.)

I love you very much, and your community loves you very much, and of course I’m teaching you that God loves you very much, but I promise you this: you are not that special.

In addition to being opposed to the consumerism of birthdays, the excess of the parties and gifts, I am worried about how that center-of-attention, open-all-the-presents type of party shapes children’s understanding of themselves, of how love should be expressed, and of how God calls them to live in the world among hurting people.

And I have once again crossed the line into preachiness. Sigh.

Girls, I don’t know how you’ll feel about our family traditions once you’re older. You might remember pangs of jealousy when you see others opening a ton of presents on their birthdays, when you hear how much your friends got for Christmas. (I actually look forward to being able to chat with the grown-up you about these things in the same way my parents occasionally ask me how how I used to see the world when I was a kid.)
But there’s one more thing I want to write down for posterity’s sake, so that you can get a peek into my heart.

I would actually love to buy you all the presents and give you all the presents. I see things all the time that I know you would love. They are not crappy toys made overseas by slave workers. They are learning activities, art supplies, books and books and books, solid and well-built equipment, seriously beautiful toys. When I see things I know you would love, it is hard for me not to buy it for you. But I don’t buy it for you.
I don’t buy it for you for many reasons. One, because you really have enough, and I want you to learn what it means to have enough. Two, because I truly believe that your creativity will thrive when you are free to make and do and run and design and write your own narrative. Three, because I want you to love libraries, to love playing outside, to consider the possibilities of a cardboard box, rather than read instructions on a put-together toy. Even if that toy is amazing.

What I mean is this: I love to give you gifts. Don’t ever think that it’s because I don’t like shopping that you don’t have a lot of birthday presents. (I mean, I don’t like shopping, but that’s not the reason. We do have Amazon, after all!)

And for the record, I did buy too many gifts for you this year, but after wrapping them, I decided to put them aside to save. Some of them will be given by the tooth fairy over the next year. Some of them will go with us on an upcoming trip as a special travel treat. Some of them might make it until Christmas. We’ll see. But you didn’t get them for your birthday.

So you see, I do need to keep myself in check as well. There is a tendency when you love someone to want to give them more.

Always more.

And in our world, that “more” is usually more stuff. And fancy parties.

I’m working really hard for it not to be that way in our house. It does take work. And I’m guessing you’ll have a lot of things to say about that some day.

Love,
Your Momma

The Ninetieth Letter: Sunshine & Being Brave

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Dear Daughters,

I sat on one of our plastic Adirondack chairs this afternoon while you were having quiet time. The sun was shining—hot enough that my jeans started to feel prickly—and the breeze was blowing gently, kindly, so I sat and listened to the birds, to the dripping of melting snow under the deck, to the animals scurrying around the yard, to car doors slamming and traffic sirens in the distance. I thought maybe I could even feel my freckles getting darker.

I exaggerate, of course.

I knew the warmth was short-lived because even though the seasons changed over to Spring this week, we have a winter weather advisory scheduled for tonight, and tomorrow will likely be unpleasant. I wanted to enjoy it while I could.

That’s not the whole story though.

Two days ago, and for a few days before that, I would not have been able to appreciate the sun or the birds or the distant traffic and the hot jeans.

The first part of this week felt heavy on my chest, metaphorically and literally. My chest did feel weighed down, like it was difficult to breathe. I was tired and close to tears—oh, who am I kidding? I was actually in tears—quite a bit. I made myself do the things I had to do, I showed up when I had to show up, and I tried to be honest when my friends asked how I was. But life was hard, girls. Very hard. Some days, weeks, seasons are like that.

I have a lot of good people who care about me and are vulnerable with me and support me when I’m able to say that I’m having a rough go.

But it’s still hard to say it.

To really say it.

And, honestly, sometimes I don’t want to say it out loud because I would rather just pretend things are okay. Sometimes that is the easier option, I’ll admit.

It’s one thing to have a bad day and to say, “Today is a bad day, tomorrow will be better,” but it’s another thing to be able to say, “This is more than a bad day, and I don’t have hope that tomorrow will be better.”

That’s how I felt earlier in the week.

Getting a shower on those days was a huge achievement. I didn’t do any writing. I set my goals low and often didn’t achieve them. I was glad when things were cancelled for the weather. I didn’t sleep well, didn’t feel well.

And then yesterday, I woke up and something had shifted. It was just a little shift, but homeschooling felt manageable. We got a lot done, and we had fun. We ran an errand to WalMart after preschool pickup, and you know how I feel about WalMart, which means that surviving that errand helped me feel like I was WonderWoman and there was hope I could get through anything.

That little glimmer of hope made a big difference in the day yesterday.

Today, as I sat out on the deck in the sunshine with my eyes closed, I was thinking about bravery.

I’ve read a lot of books recently about brave women, in both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve read you a lot of books about brave women, because I’m making an effort to get nonfiction books from the library for you. And your dad reads real-life-hero stories to you from the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls before bed each night.

And when I’m thinking about real-life brave women, I wonder if I am brave like them.

I wonder if I would have courage in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

I wonder if I would continue to send you to school in Pakistan and risk your safety when girls were forbidden to be educated.

I wonder if I would be brave enough to point to injustice and say NO.

I wonder if I would be brave enough.

Girls, I wonder if I am brave.

My normal day-to-day life doesn’t require much bravery, to be honest. Not in any of the big ways. Not in any of the life-at-risk ways. Not in a Nazi-occupied Europe kind of way.

But sometimes, sometimes, just living life is brave.

Just trying not to be afraid is brave. Just the trying. Even if not succeeding.

Just showing up is brave.

Just sitting in the sunshine and finding gratitude for a day that does not feel too heavy is brave.

Just reading a novel is brave, picking up a paintbrush is brave, chopping vegetables, opening your front door, answering “How are you?” honestly.

Just writing these letters is brave.

And sometimes, sometimes, that is enough.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Eighty-Ninth Letter: Juice & Crackers

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Dear Daughters,

One of my favorite vignettes from Anne Lamott’s memoir Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith is this passage:

Our preacher Veronica said recently that this is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken—those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said that the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.

You bring them juice and graham crackers.

I was thinking about the life-as-trauma-unit-waiting-room again this morning as I wrote a letter to God, working through the weight of the world I was feeling. I wrote about my friends who are in dark seasons, in despair and crisis, illness and loss, sadness and frustration.

When I make prayer lists, there is no shortage of concerns to jot down. Everywhere I look, it seems, every time I pick up my phone to catch up with a texting conversation, there is a burden to help shoulder, to help lift, to come alongside.

And in striking contrast to those struggles and suffering is my life of relative ease.

That’s what I was writing about this morning: life isn’t fair.

My day was bursting with accomplishment yesterday because I crossed off myriad items from my to-do list and even did a few extra things I’d been wanting to make space for but hadn’t managed to in weeks. I was light and joyful and grateful. But my phone buzzes every hour to remind me to pray for my loved ones. And, in addition to those interruptions, my mind kept drifting to the news I’d received yesterday morning of a close friend’s loss and sorrow.

So my day kept swinging back and forth between helium balloons floating into the sky and boulders rolling off the edge of a cliff.

Those are strange metaphors, I guess, but that’s kind of the point. I struggled to process the paradox of life and grace in this broken and beat-up world. And I was still processing it this morning when the juice and crackers quote came to mind.

It doesn’t seem fair that my life is full of good things and opportunities to use my vocation and glimpses of the holy in the ordinary while my friends are struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

It doesn’t seem fair that I can write about beauty in this life and seeing grace in the clutter of childrearing and homeschooling and writing creatively—and really see it and feel it and know it—while my friends are processing death and illness and the NICU and hospice.

I am not more deserving of grace.

They are not more deserving of suffering.

This I know for sure.

So how am I to live in this tension of grace and suffering, being attentive to beauty while also coming alongside dark and difficult journeys? What right do I have to speak life into seasons of death when my commitment to writing about the sacred butts up against the lived reality of so many of my friends?

Well, girls, this morning as I remembered Lamott’s trauma unit metaphor and jotted it down in my notebook again to try to inspire myself to be one of those “more or less OK” people who shows up to “sit with people,” who brings “them juice and graham crackers,” I thought of something I’d never noticed before.

Juice and crackers are communion.

The body and blood of Jesus.

When we show up, we don’t just bring ourselves.

We don’t just bring snacks.

We bring Jesus.

How have I never noticed that before in all the times I’ve referenced this quote?

We are Jesus in those moments, those moments when he seems the most far away, when we feel like all we are doing is showing up and waiting, the body of Christ is there already.

And it is sufficient.

And as if that weren’t enough of an epiphany for one day, girls, you helped me connect it back to my sacred ordinary life, outside of metaphor, a few hours later.

You asked for graham crackers for your snack this morning during read aloud.

You called them the “yummy crackers.”

But I knew what you meant, even if you didn’t.

You meant Jesus.

Because he’s here, too.

Love,

Your Momma