The Hundred-and-Fifth Letter: Christmas, Birth Narratives, & Being a Rockstar

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Dear Daughters,

“Why is their nativity empty?” you ask about a neighbor’s creche today as we walk around the block to stretch our legs. Their stable is still on display in their yard but the three-foot tall plastic figurines of Mary, Joseph, and the whole kit and caboodle have been put away for the year.

“Because most people take down their Christmas decorations by New Years Day,” I tell you. And you stop in your tracks.

Literally, you stop, and look at me like I have just said the craziest thing you’ve heard all day.

Today is the ninth day of Christmas, girls. Nine ladies dancing.

This year, we stayed home for Christmas and had family in and out at various times. It was good to see folks, and good to have so much down time, especially because we have all been passing around a virus and not always feeling our best. We got some house projects and organization done. We opened little presents each day of Christmas (and will for three more). We’ve read So Many Books and played So Many Games of Guess Who? and Spot It! and Uno. Also, Legos. We’ve had a great Christmas.

And still it drags at times, girls, I’m not gonna lie.

On Sunday, I told your dad that I wasn’t feeling very Christmasy. That I was kind of frustrated because we did so many special things for Advent and I had such a rich Advent season but then here was Christmas and I felt blah. Why wasn’t I more celebratory? And how do you make it feelmore celebratory, apart from more presents and pizzazz. How do you celebrate quietly and still feel celebratory? I didn’t know, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

Just after that confession, I picked up an Advent devotional we’ve had for awhile but I haven’t read in a few years. It is meditative and thoughtful and, I noticed as I grabbed it, has readings through Epiphany (January 6). I thought I’d start there to reinvigorate Christmas.

The introduction to the book considered the deep theological implications of birth and its connection to our creation theology. I’ve always found the connection between birth and creativity fascinating, so I wanted to read more. Among other things, the introduction talked about how significant the “begats” are to the Gospel story—the generations of births—that happen long before Jesus was born, but then, of course, the culmination of his birth, the significance of the incarnation and what that means for us today.

Girls, birth itself is significant—at once significantly risky, significantly profound—but that’s true for anything we birth, not just biological birth.

Still, putting the book down, I thought I would try to shift my less-than-Christmasy attitude by focusing on the obvious births in my lives: your births.

I guess maybe it’s strange but I turned to the pages in an Advent book to try to “feel” more Christmasy, and I came away from them contemplating birth narratives.

About a year after each of you were born, I tried to record your birth narratives as honestly as I could. Both narratives—in Word documents—are long and rambly, like much of my writing, and both reveal me to have felt quite traumatized by the experiences.

Girls, hear me out: I could hardly get through them. Tears were streaming down my face as I relived the births through my own words and memories.

I think it’s important for you to know that I do not sentimentalize childbirth in the least. I do not say it is the most beautiful experience. Not at all. It was easily the hardest thing I have had to endure, and maybe precisely because of that, I felt like an absolute rockstar for having survived it. (I mean, an absolute rockstar combined with postpartum hormonal mess, but still: rockstar.)

And here’s what I wanted to say today, girls: I had forgotten that I was a rockstar.

As the years have gone by, childbirth has seemed like a normal kind of thing.

I had forgotten that I had done this really, really hard thing because quite honestly the difficulty of those particular moments has over time faded into the background with a lot of other difficult circumstances connected to life in a broken and wounded world.

But as I reread those birth narratives this weekend, I let myself cry, and then I closed my laptop and said to myself: Self, you are a Rockstar.

Actually, what I said to myself was more along these lines:

Self, why are you so bogged down by the tasks you have in front of you? Why are you finding the finishing of your first novel so difficult? Why does that feel like it is looming? If you can survive unmedicated labor with trauma—twice—and make it through with fistbumps, you sure as heck can draft some more words. Nothing else you have on your to-do list can even come close to what you have already survived—and survived with grace.

You have birthed human beings.

You have birthed an intentional, sacramental life.

You have birthed creative projects.

You have birthed community.

But of course, I haven’t really birthed anything.

Not on my own.

Which is how we get back to Christmas and creation.

It’s God’s work that we are privileged to birth into the world. We partner with God, every time we create, whether we are creating human beings, or books, or cookies, or love.

Which is a miracle, right?

That we get to partner with God?

That God chose to come down as a baby and live as a human being and partner with us?

Yes.

It really is a miracle.

And in your birth narratives, there’s a miracle, too.

Not just that your dad and I survived them, but that we have you.

(I know, I know, it’s a little sappy to say so, but it’s Christmas for a few more days.)

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

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The Hundred-and-Fourth Letter: Christmas Rolls Gently In

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Dear Daughters,

Yesterday was the fourth Sunday of Advent, and today already is Christmas Eve. Tonight you will play Silent Night on the piano at church and dress up like an angel in the children’s nativity. Tomorrow you will find your stockings full.

But today, it is not yet Christmas.

Yesterday we got out the last of our Christmas decorations. I unpacked our full ceramic nativity set that was painted by your Grandpa Troutman’s mom, my special grandma Ginny, who passed away when I was in high school. I set out all the pieces—even baby Jesus, even the Magi. Because I want the set to be complete, and I want to remember Ginny, and I want you to be mesmerized by the beauty of the angel, which you tell me is your favorite piece of the set.

Yesterday I moved our journeying Mary and Joseph and their donkey over to our empty creche, to prepare for their son’s arrival. This evening the shepherds will arrive.

Yesterday we lit another candle in the yule log. We read a story from our Jesse Tree book. You made special cards for each of us during quiet time.

We have one ornament left to color today.

This morning, your grandma and grandpa left after a visit for the weekend. The day after Christmas, another set of grandparents will arrive.

But right now, we are in the in-between.

There is so much fullness in the in-between, girls, and so much broken-heartedness in the in-between.

I mean “in-between” in the larger sense, of course.

Advent is about the already/not-yet. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. But the truth is, all of life is the already/not-yet. Our life of faith that we share together and practice together is just an expression of the deeper truth at the core of all that is: God created the world, God broke through into time in the most humble and surprising of ways, God offers us hope and salvation, and God wins at the end of the story.

But we live before the end of the story.

Which is why we keep telling the story and living the story.

The liturgical year is one way of remembering the most important things, of telling the story of our faith over and over again, of helping us live the story even when we don’t feel like it because everything we see around us seems to contradict it.

Notice I said “seems” to contradict it—I sure don’t believe it actually contradicts it. I believe that if we have God’s eyes, we see grace and hope breaking through all around us in miraculous ways every single day. But it doesn’t feel like that a lot of the time.

On Christmas Eve, I think of my Pappy Lehman, who passed away in 2015 on Christmas Eve while gathered with family in Pennsylvania. I was states away, here in our house with you, when I got the call. That loss will always be wrapped up in Christmas Eve for me.

And so will the loss of Ginny every time I unwrap the ceramic nativity she painted or place on the tree the angel ornaments she gifted me.

But there is also so much joy and wonder on this day as Christmas rolls in gently, on candle light, on the notes of the piano I can hear coming through the floor as you practice your carols again and again just for the fun of it.

It is Advent and it is Christmas and it is beautiful and difficult.

It is joy and it is loss.

It is beauty and it is chaos.

It is light and it is dark.

Because that will always be life in the already/not-yet.

Always.

Merry Christmas, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Third Letter: On Repetition and the Pink Candle (Advent 3)

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Dear Daughters,

You helped me rake the leaves this week.

That we were still in need of raking our leaves this third week of December is surprising. And that you were able to be so helpful for much of the task is also surprising, given how wet and heavy the leaves were and that we had to rake them from the back of the driveway out to the road. But you do love to help, and I am appreciative, even if you did prefer the big, nice rake with the squishy handle that I bought for myself last year.

After a certain amount of time, though, you were happy to go play in the treehouse with our neighbor girl while I furiously raked to try to finish up before your dad got home and (or?) before my shoulders gave out.

Oy. Raking is hard, thankless work.

Pretty much every time I rake, I think about the desert monk Abba Paul from the early centuries of the church. One of the stories passed down in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is that Abba Paul would weave baskets and then, after a day of basket-weaving, he would take the baskets all apart and start over again. (Depending on the story, sometimes he burns them all.)

The baskets weren’t the point for Abba Paul. The task was the point.

The task was valuable in and of itself.

Even though it happened day after day.

Maybe even because it happened day after day.

That’s what I was thinking about while I raked this week.

When our leaves first begin to fall from our old, tall trees, we mulch them into the grass. And then they fall a little bit more and we pile them into our compost bin. And then they fall a little bit more, and we pile them into our raised beds that have been put to sleep for the winter. We rake and we mulch and we pile and we still end up with lots of leaves to deal with. So we rake them out to the road and eventually a big leaf-sucking truck comes by and takes them away.

But sometimes the truck doesn’t come. And sometimes the leaves blow away. And sometimes they blow back down the driveway after we have spent so much energy raking them out to the end of the driveway.

Alas.

It feels like we’re burning up the baskets we just finished weaving.

But here’s the thing, girls: the fact that we have to do it again and again doesn’t make it less valuable of a task.

There are lots of things we do that we know we will have to do over and over again.

Dishes. Laundry. Mowing the grass. Setting the table. Reading Tyrannosaurus Rex versus Edna the First Chicken. Disciplining children. Practicing the piano. Braiding your hair.

Also: praying.

Practicing the liturgical calendar is also an exercise in repetition (and, I’ll be honest, frustration). The pink Advent candle was lit this week, and there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background as to why, but one of the things is that the joyful, pink candle reminds us that we’re halfway through Advent. It’s a reminder that HEY, YOU MADE IT THIS FAR. It’s the promise that we can make it the rest of the way until Christmas. Don’t get discouraged, the pink candle says. It’s coming. It came last year. You made it last year. It will come next year. You’ll make it then, too. But keep on going, friends, because Christmas is coming.

Again.

And again.

And again.

That’s the pink candle.

A sign-marker on the repetitive road that is the cycle of the liturgical year to say—here it comes again, y’all! Be joyful!

And in our case, it means, go ahead and get out the rest of those Christmas ornaments. And it means go ahead and turn on that Christmas playlist, you’ve waited long enough this year.

So there’s meaning to this whole repetitive liturgical calendar.

And there’s meaning to the whole repetitive life we live.

Because so much of life is repetition.

To be honest, I believe that the most important things in life are repetitive. I’m serious. The spiritual practices of prayer and reflection and attention? The care-for-people things? The how-we-love-better things? All repetitive.

And the repetitive things are the things that shape us, our habits, our bodies, and even our souls, girls.

Do you know why my grandma was able to sing the old hymns and pray lovely and heartfelt prayers long after her mind was no longer living in the present?

It’s because she sang the old songs and prayed heartfelt prayers her whole life.

Her whole life.

Girls, that is the life I want for you. A life of the daily repetition of grace. The daily and boring and humdrum and yet absolutely astounding practices that cultivate a life of grace.

Of accepting grace.

Of offering grace.

It’s still Advent, girls. But Christmas is coming.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Hundred-and-Second Letter: Love Wins (Advent 2)

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Dear Daughters,

This week, I’ve been thinking about love.

That is, I’ve been thinking what it means that God is love.

Silent night, holy night. 
Son of God, Love's pure light.

I’ve also been thinking about what it means for us to love.

People look east and sing today: 
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

I’ve been wondering what it means that God created us to love and showed us how to love selflessly, and that the testimony of Scripture absolutely never lets God’s own people off the hook when it comes to loving others.

And wonders of his love,

I don’t know, maybe it’s because you’re playing all the Christmas carols all the time on the piano, so our typical moratorium on Christmas music during Advent has been a little flexible.

and wonders of his love, 

Or maybe it’s because in Advent we live in this already/not-yet time of believing Jesus came once as a baby and will come again at the end, and in the middle we get to be his Body, the hands and feet of Jesus, as I have maybe said once or twice or a thousand times. We get to do the works of love. We get to be love. We get to be Jesus to the world.

and wonders, wonders of his love.

Girls, I’m also thinking about love a lot because there is so little love coming across the news feed these days. There’s lots of talk about walls and rules and danger and fear. There’s lots of talk about systems getting abused and people not pulling their own weight. There’s lots of talk about guns and money and campaign promises and security and who is going to pay for what.

And into this, girls, we also proclaim that Love, the guest, is on the way.

Love, the Guest.

We’ve actually had a lot of guests in and out over the last two weeks. We made special treats for them. We sat out hot cocoa and coffee and made little signs about the heavy cream being in the frig. We turned on music, lit candles.

We made our space welcoming.

And of course we’re getting ready for overnight guests next weekend and then also the following weekend. Your dad washed the sheets. I made the bed. Tomorrow you’re going to pick up all your toys in the guest room. We took our guests’ preferences into account at the grocery store, as we planned our meals, as we thought about scheduling and logistics.

We want our guests to know they are welcome in our home.

But what does it mean to welcome capital-L Love as a guest? That’s part of what I’m thinking about.

God is love.

Love, the Guest, is on the way.

In addition to our normal Advent activities this year, we’ve been reading about work being done by our denomination’s missionaries all around the globe and right here at home. I picked up a booklet at church that is a year-long prayer initiative, and every day during meals, I try to read to you about a particular missionary family in a particular place doing particular work.

Given the worldwide refugee crisis, I shouldn’t be surprised at what I’m about to tell you, but I’ll admit I have been. Almost every single missionary we have read about–those in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, as well as those in Virginia and North Carolina and Texas–nearly every single one works with displaced peoples, refugee settlement and advocacy, building community with the least of these, for the least of these.

In this day and age, with millions of displaced persons around the globe, this is so obviously to me the work of the Gospel.

Every day, I am talking with you about immigrants and refugees. We talk about those who choose to move and those who are forced to move. We talk about why it’s hard for them to find new homes. We talk about some very big, very hard-to-understand issues. You ask a lot of good questions, and sometimes there are no good answers.

Every day, we are talking about how difficult it would be to have to move and restart our own life somewhere else.

We are praying for these displaced families, and for those who work with them, and when I hear your little voices pray for such big things, every day I can’t help but wonder, here in my own little world, in my own little town, in my own little house: what does it mean to love the least of these?

What does it mean to make space for Love?

What does it mean to live the Gospel?

And specifically, this week, what does it mean to love during Advent? What does it mean to love as we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a baby, and also the coming of Jesus at the end of calendar time?

Because that’s kind of the best thing about Advent: that it’s both. It’s what connects the last week of the church year–Christ the King–with the baby in the manger and with  God’s plan of love from the very beginning.

Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” of course.

And the well-known refrain from the early church is right at the heart of all three “comings” of Advent:

Christ has come. Christ is coming. Christ will come again.

You know what God’s creation of the world teaches us? That Love is at the beginning of the story, searching for us, asking where we are when we most want to hide.

You know what God’s coming into the world as a most-vulnerable baby born to an oppressed people in the “fullness of time” teaches us? That God’s love is perfect.

You know what Christ the King Sunday taught us? That Love wins.

Love’s pure light was from the beginning.

The wonders of God’s love are echoing all around us.

Love will win.

Girls, it already is winning. I see it in you.

Turn off the news.

Love,

Your Momma

Big News!

we live here announcement

P.S. If you enjoy reading the letters I post regularly to my daughters here on the website, I hope you’ll consider helping me spread the word about my most recent book project. It’s the second fifty letters in a tidy 180-page paperback. It makes a great Christmas present!

The Hundred-and-First Letter: Personality Types & Praying in Walmart (Advent 1)

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Dear Daughters,

I have long given up pretending that I am not an introvert. I tell people all the time that though I masquerade as an extrovert—I am fine with public speaking, for example, and am friendly with strangers and crowds—the truth is that I am introverted at my core and all those extroverted outward-focused activities completely wear me out. My energy comes from being quiet. In my quiet, restful house. Writing. And drinking tea. With a stack of novels nearby. And probably some paint splatters.

What I sometimes fail to tell people, because it doesn’t come across as very polite, is that I would pretty much always prefer to stay home than go out. And I would pretty much always prefer to be alone, or with your dad, or just with you, than to have anyone else in my personal space. Even my friends. Because friends are still other people, and other people wear me out.

And so, you might be thinking, why the heck do I insist on inviting people into my personal space? And not just theoretically but actually. Why do I not just leave invitations vague instead of nailing them down or, what’s worse, keeping them open as standing invitations? These are good questions, and I’ll tell you the answer.

The Kingdom of God.

You see, I don’t think our personality types let us off the hook when it comes to the Kingdom of God. I’ve been kind of preachy about this lately.

The truth is, the Kingdom of God requires a lot of us. It requires all of us. It requires the things that are hard for us, and the things that are easy for us.

Some parts of Kingdom work are hard for extroverts. Sabbath-keeping, for example. Contemplation and introspection and a radical prayer life.

Sabbath-keeping is not so hard for me, girls. I require rest and set-aside time to function. So that part of the Ten Commandments? Easy-peasy for this INFJ.

But you know what is hard for introverts? Opening our front doors. Putting down our novels and our journals and maybe even pausing in our prayers to look someone in the eye and let her know she is valuable to the Kingdom. Or how about leading a women’s Bible study in the middle of every week that is already full? Or inviting neighbors over for a St. Nicholas Day party after your daughter’s piano recital? Or inviting your writing group in for a Christmas-card-making get-together the same week?

Or all three, because that was last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday?

When I am in my thoughtful Advent groove, I’m all peace, joy, contemplation, isn’t the Kingdom of God wonderful, and oh that’s right I should invite people over to show them the love of Jesus, and so I do.

But then it comes down to it and I really don’t feel like having people over. I really don’t feel like showing up. Again. I really don’t feel like it because I know I will be exhausted and I don’t even care, God, that it will be fun and worthwhile and holy because these are Kingdom tasks.

So there you have it.

Advent blessings. Doing it. Not wanting to do it. Doing it anyway. Rewarding Kingdom work. Still needing a nap, please go home.

And after those three days, we had choir practice Saturday morning and then I needed to go to Walmart to finish up some Christmas shopping. (There are two parts of that errand that I resented—going to Walmart for anything, and doing my Christmas shopping when I have been in such an Advent groove.)

So I went to Walmart and wandered patiently around even though there were workers restocking in the aisles I needed in and one aisle was completely closed for cleaning purposes (and wouldn’t open for 24 hours—at Walmart! On a Saturday!). I still kept my cool and even made chitchat with other shoppers to help defuse everyone’s stress. Your dad would have totally made fun of me for being a busybody but I don’t care because I am sure God shows up when I talk to strangers.

But I couldn’t help myself, girls, and eventually the frustrations of being in a place I didn’t want to be, doing an errand I didn’t want to do, started to get the best of me. Picture this: I had a fifty-gallon Sterilite tub propped on top of my cart. I know this sounds ridiculous and unbelievable, but you’ll have to trust me. Your dad needed a giant plastic tub thing with a lid for storing firewood in the basement, and I had a 36-roll or some kind of giant number of toilet paper rolls in the cart on top of all the art supplies and blinking tooth brushes I’d grabbed you, and the 50-gallon tub is big enough for both of you to sit in it, and that was blocking my view as I pushed my cart around. Yes, this is funny, I understand. But my mood was not amused at this point. I made it to the checkout and the woman in front of me had so many items. I couldn’t see how many at first because of the tub (obviously), but she just kept loading her items on the conveyer belt. The cashier had to go and get a second cart to start loading with filled bags because even though the conveyer belt was overflowing with items—everything from baby bouncer toys to groceries—the woman’s cart was still relatively full of other items. (I kid you not, more than twenty minutes passed from the time I texted your dad to say I was checking out until I was actually checking out.) All of that to say, I kept taking deep breaths and every time I thought, I should change check-out lines, I said to myself, no, you’re fine, you’re not in a hurry, be patient. But my frustration finally, finallystarted to get the best of me, and I started to think unkind thoughts toward this person who was taking so long to check out.

This is not a big deal, obviously. Except for this: it is a big deal.

What I mean is, it’s totally normally to get frustrated and judgey at the person in front of you in the checkout at Walmart.

We’ve all been there, done that.

But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Not Kingdom-of-God acceptable. Not all-people-are-made-in-the-image-of-God acceptable. Not as-much-as-you-have-done-it-to-the-least-of-these acceptable.

And as I was standing there and thinking about how this woman was intruding on my time to be all thoughtful and Adventy and taking me away from my family and making me feel bitterness about Christmas shopping and Walmart when I was having such a good, full, loving-others week, well, I knew I was in dire straights.

So I started praying for her.

Your dad teased me about this later when I told him I had no other choice but to pray for her. But whatever.

Of course, I didn’t know that woman’s story. Without knowing her, I prayed for her to have peace, and to know the fullness of this season, the beauty of Jesus. I prayed for her to know what it was to be loved, and for her not to feel the stress of Christmas. But I mostly just prayed for her heart.

Girls, I still don’t know her. I didn’t suddenly meet her and find out her life changed because I prayed for her. There’s no miracle here. I will probably never see her again.

But that time (more than twenty minutes!) I spent waiting in the Walmart check-out line? It was Kingdom work, girls. I promise. It was Advent work.

It changed me and my little INFJ heart.

And that’s what I wanted to tell you this first week of Advent.

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundredth Letter: One Hundred Letters

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Dear Daughters,

And here we are: one hundred letters into this journey of motherhood. One of the first letters I wrote to you was called “Everything Is a Letter,” and I do still believe that. But I confess that I also feel a real sense of accomplishment that I’ve hit one hundred in the series.

I thought to mark the occasion I should write something momentous, but, well, nothing momentous happened today.

Like most days.

It started early, long before you woke up. It will end late, long after you go to bed. In the middle there is school and creativity and food and people in our space. It’s a Thursday.

Right now, I’m sitting on our blue-striped couch, with my feet propped up on the little wooden paint-splattered desk we are still using as a coffee table. I have a half-empty cup of tea beside me, and through the archway I am watching the two of you eating a graham cracker snack. You’re listening to your Christmas CD, practicing for the church children’s program, and I’m trying not to grimace at the “for all mankind” lyric in this chipper, upbeat music.

It isn’t Advent yet, girls, but it’s close. Your gratitude pumpkins are still on the table. We’ve got pine cones hanging from the mantle.

Tonight is our theology reading group, so we’ve got soup in the crockpot and bread rising. I tossed some cinnamon, nutmeg, and coconut milk into the soup to try to make it seem special and autumnal. I’m hoping the potatoes cook through.

As sometimes happens, I hadn’t planned ahead for the soup, which means that about halfway through the morning when I remembered about our weekly group meeting here tonight,I started looking around to see what we had available. I found onion, sweet potato, regular potato, and a large butternut squash. I grabbed a can of diced tomatoes from the cupboard, frozen corn, and some ground meat from the chest freezer, where we store the half cow we bought from a local beef farm.

While I chopped the vegetables, you worked through your math lesson. I was still chopping when it was time for your spelling quiz, so you sat at the dining room table and wrote out your words while I read them to you.

Because it was taking so long to make the soup, I had a lot of time to think in between my interactions with the two of you. I often tell people that some of my most generative creative time is when I’m doing repetitive and mundane household tasks, especially chopping vegetables. It’s why I don’t listen to music or podcasts during those times. Today was no different. While scrubbing and peeling and chopping and sautéing and thawing, I had an idea for this 100thletter.

And it was all about the soup.

These letters are the soup.

Because the letters, like the life that we’ve made here in this quirky 1950s home, are kind of a hodpodge. They’re made with what we have available. They’re full of the old standbys like potatoes. And like the onions, they make me pull out a tissue. They’re full of surprises like the nutmeg and cardamom. Sometimes the best parts come from tasks I abhor like peeling the butternut squash. Sometimes I get a little preachy and add too much salt. There are glimpses of the extravagant, like a locally raised and butchered cow by a family who knows us by name. And all mixed together, filled right to the brim of the crockpot, the soup cooks slowly. Sometimes I worry that there won’t be enough time before folks arrive to get those potatoes softened. Sometimes I worry that there won’t be enough time, period.

But there always is.

In about an hour from now, we’ll dish it up into bowls. We’ll offer what we’ve got. And it’ll be enough.

Because there’ll be leftovers.

Yep, there’s always more than enough to go around.

Which is what these letters are kind of about, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Love,

Your Momma

PS Also, the soup, like life, all goes better with a side of carbohydrates.

 

The Ninety-Ninth Letter: Hospitality (Worth Saying Again)

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Dear Daughters,

I’ve noticed that there are two areas of normal life practice that I approach in significantly different ways than many of my friends.

One is stranger danger — this idea of seeing others as potential threats to my children.

The other is hospitality — the idea of welcoming others into our space.

They’re two sides of the same coin, as the cliche goes. Because hospitality applies to welcoming strangers in as well as friends. And if we are constantly in a defensive mode related to strangers, how can we ever welcome them in?

Recently it came up in conversation with a friend that she definitely doesn’t have folks into her home unless it is clean. And not just picked up a bit, but clean clean. Whether it’s family or friends or whathaveyou, she and her husband always clean if people are going to come over, even if they’re just stopping in quickly to pick something up.

I, too, understand the desire to present a clean house to others. I absolutely do. It’s why I make you pick up your toys before we have a planned gathering of friends.

But our house is never clean. Not in a thoroughly clean-clean sort of way. Your dad and I don’t make cleaning a priority, and we don’t plan to any time soon.

And not inviting others in is not an option for me.

Not only do we have folks regularly over to our house for meals and book discussions and I have friends in at least weekly to share a cup of tea or talk about our creative journeys, but we are also often opening our door to neighbors stopping by spontaneously for a chat–and then staying awhile.

Recently while we were preparing to host a group for a meal and theology discussion, I was just finishing up getting food together and standing before a sink of dirty dishes, knowing that there was a mess elsewhere in the house that needed to be dealt with. I heard one of you say that a neighbor and her two kids were at the door.

“Well, let her in!” I hollered from the kitchen.

So they came in, and I chatted while I finished washing dishes and putting dry ones away, and the green linoleum stayed sticky, and the only vacuuming that had happened in awhile had been done by the six year old.

But it didn’t matter.

We talked about preschool evaluations, buying organic food, Halloween candy, and she offered to take your astronaut costume back to our other neighbor who lent it to us. When she got ready to leave, one of her children wanted to stay and help with your puzzle instead of leaving. Which was fine with us, and he so he stayed.

Girls, that’s what neighbors do. We open the front door, even when we have a sink of dishes and a group of people arriving within the hour. We don’t pretend we’re not home. We don’t make excuses for why our homes aren’t clean.

We say, hey, y’all, welcome to real life! 

A messy house is the best way to make people feel welcome in your space.

Also, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: the Gospel doesn’t let you off the hook.

There’s nowhere that you can find in Scripture where God says, “Yeah, this care you must provide to the exile, widow, stranger among you? Don’t worry about doing that if your house isn’t clean. I totally understand messy houses. You’re off the hook.”

No, God says, welcome them to your mess.

Hospitality is about the mess.

If you are only welcoming others into a clean house, you are not welcoming them into real life.

I know a lot of people believe there is such thing as the “gift” of hospitality. People say that sort of thing to me, as if hospitality comes naturally to me. But this idea that some people are good at it and some people aren’t? I don’t see that in Scripture either. Hospitality in Scripture is the default of the people of God. There’s no choice.

And there are whole treatises and books written on how early Christians were known for their hospitality because it was so countercultural. The earliest inns and orphanages and hospitals were Christian people caring for people that the rest of the world thought were sketch. (Obviously, right? Look at the word “hospital.”)

We offer hospitality because God has offered us hospitality by welcoming us to the Table. There’s a reason some traditions call the bread of communion the “Host.”

I have said this so many times, girls, but every time I feel the urge to make an excuse for the state of our house, I know I need to hear the message again.

I am preaching to my own heart.

Because, even for me, the easy option is not to open the door. It’s what I would prefer. I am not an extrovert. I would rather not invite people over. I would rather just say “we should get together sometime” and leave it open and be noncommittal, rather than “how about coming over for tea at 10 am tomorrow?”

But if we’re not welcoming others in, well, there’s no other way to say it: we’re not welcoming Jesus in.

Love,

Your Momma

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

 

 

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