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

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 Eighty-Third Letter: The Stranger Is Jesus

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Dear Daughters,

I woke up this morning with the weight of a nightmare still hanging around me. I was glad it was nearly time to get out of bed because there was no sleeping to be had after that point. I had dreamt that one of you had gotten abducted out in front of our house. It was strange to watch the whole scene unfold in my dream, and as I woke I was determined to talk to you about stranger danger. I got out of bed, went to the bathroom, headed downstairs, squeezed a lemon into my water, and I was still thinking through the best way to approach the subject with you without making you afraid.

The thing is, I don’t want you to be afraid.

I don’t want you to think every person you don’t know might kidnap you.

I don’t want you to fear the stranger.

This whole stranger-danger thing? I’m just not convinced it’s a good way to raise you, even as my nightmare tapped into one of my own deepest fears–not being able to keep you safe.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being honest and forthright with you about the struggles of life in our broken world. In our house we talk about injustice and poverty and racism. But there’s always a pressure in my chest when I think about trying to talk to you about stranger danger.

And I’ll sound a little preachy on this point, but it’s because of Jesus.

The narrative of scripture reinforces that idea that the stranger is Jesus. From the old Testament story of Abraham welcoming the angels, to Jesus talking about himself being served when we clothe the poor, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, it seems to me that the vocation of Christians is to love even in the face of potential dangers. That when we welcome those who are other, those who are different, those who are most in need of hope, we welcome Jesus.

I’m convinced this is not a metaphor.

Today in Sunday school, we talked about the last chapter of Luke, the resurrection appearances of Jesus, including one of my favorite narratives of all of the Gospels: the road to Emmaus. There is such richness to the story, which reads like a parable because it is so full of meaning. The two disciples are met by Jesus on a 7-mile journey, but they don’t recognize him as the risen Christ. Still, he walks along with them. Jesus asks them why they are sad and discouraged, and they respond with surprise,

"Are you the only stranger 
in Jerusalem who has not heard...?"

Are you the only stranger…?

Today, when I read this passage aloud, I heard this line differently than I have in the past. I heard the irony of the question.

Because, of course, Jesus is the stranger.

And then a few verses later comes the revelation of his true identity. How, how is it revealed?

Girls, it is only because the disciples have insisted on being hospitable to the disguised Jesus! They insist on him staying with them because it is late, they welcome the stranger, and then they let the stranger be the one who breaks the bread.

They let the stranger become the host.

They let the stranger offer something to them.

And the stranger is revealed as Jesus in one miraculous moment of bread-breaking. That means bread-sharing, girls.

A shared table. With a stranger.

The choir sang a rendition of O Holy Night today in church as part of the cantata. The line

Chains shall he break, 
for the slave is our brother

gets me every time.

It’s so radical because the slave is the complete other, right? Someone at the bottom, oppressed, at the mercy of captors. It is a good reminder that someone we would recognize as completely other than us is our sister. That the vulnerable is our brother. That the poor is our sister. That the broken and abandoned and lost is our brother. That the lonely is our sister.

That the stranger is our brother.

The stranger.

Jesus is our brother.

Jesus is the stranger.

You know what else is a refrain of scripture, right up there alongside the stranger being Jesus? The command to fear not.

Fear not.

And get this, Jesus had to say that to his disciples, his friends, even when they did recognize him. Because he was showing up in ways they didn’t expect.

Think about that for a minute.

 

Truly, He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

So, yeah.

I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of love, rather than fear.

I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of kindness, rather than distance.

Girls, I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of welcome and hospitality, rather than avoiding the stranger.

Love,

Your Momma

The Eighty-Second Letter: Advent, Action, Deportation

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Dear Daughters,

This morning I wrote a letter in support of a young man in our community who has been notified that his application for asylum has been denied. Soon he will be deported.

He is a hard-working young man who came to the United States while still a minor. He has been in school, is active in his church, and wants to go to a four-year college.

One of our closest friends is the ESL teacher at the high school where this young man attends, and it’s through our relationship with her that we’ve met a great group of kids, including this student. These young people often get lost in the system, fall through the cracks. But because of people on the front lines—public school teachers are amazing, girls—this young man has thrived.

Girls, political questions about citizenship, illegal immigration, amnesty, DACA: I won’t pretend these aren’t difficult and murky and complicated. I’ll be honest. I don’t know any easy solutions. I don’t. But attempts to simplify the conversation down to illegal-immigrants-have-broken-the-law-case-closed twist my insides into a knot.

Because we are talking about people with stories.

Because we are talking about people with difficult journeys.

Because we are talking about laws that are not always fair and just.

Because we are talking about a system that is broken.

Also, this:

At the very center of my faith, the very center, is the acknowledgement that I as a human being am unable to keep God’s law, that I am in need of grace, and that nothing I could ever do can earn that grace. It is pure extravagance, this love that I believe has been offered to me and to you. It is unconscionable. It makes no sense. I am unworthy.

That is the message of this Advent season. Or rather, it is one of the messages. That in this season of waiting and expectation, we come to realize just how dark the world is without a savior, just how great our need is. How little we are able to do to help ourselves. It’s the opposite of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. The absolute opposite.

Another message of the season is that we are in an already/not yet period of waiting for the second coming, and in this transitional time, while we wait, we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. The compassion that God extends to us is to be extended to the world. The light of the world—the light that we believe arrives on Christmas morning—is already lit within us, and we are to shine that light to the world.

Oh girls, I can’t deny that the older I get, the more I see my faith as deeply intertwined with my political convictions. I wish it weren’t the case. I wish I were getting more complacent. Sometimes I think that would make life easier.

But having stronger convictions doesn’t mean I know the political answers. I don’t have solutions, so there are people who will see my opinions and actions as naïve and unhelpful. These are the people who can be heard to say, “Well, do you have a better idea?”

No, I don’t. Sorry, girls. I read my Bible. I pray. I act. I love. And I am convinced the whole system is broken.

And I am convinced that I am undeserving of the grace that has been offered to me.

And I am convinced that I am called to offer that grace to others.

I am called to be compassionate, called to love, called to seek out and serve those with no voice. The least of these.

And I am convinced that anyone who is in relationship with people who are different from them—anyone who is in community with refugees, illegal immigrants, struggling single moms, dads working two or three jobs, teenagers working full time hours after school, elementary students in an after school reading program who go to bed hungry every night—if you are in relationships with these people, these people who are as created in the image of God as you are, then you, too, will not see the world in simple terms.

Because you cannot vote in favor of cutting funding to children’s health insurance if you work in a free children’s clinic, like the one hosted by our church. You cannot make blanket statements about “illegal aliens” being criminals if you visit the trailer park to hand out cleats to children involved in an intramural soccer program. You cannot talk about lazy homeless people if you become friends with the women and children at your local transitional home. You cannot vote against restoration of felon’s voting rights if you have spent time alongside ex-cons trying to find housing and jobs that aren’t substandard. You can’t make arguments about the fairness ordinance at your city council meeting, unless you have had LGBTQ folks sitting at your dinner table.

I can see that I’m getting preachy here, girls, but I don’t apologize. Because I promise you, if you build relationships with people who are different from you, you will be changed. I’m not saying you’ll know how to proceed, but you will be changed.

You will see story. You will see journeys. You will see struggle. You will see love. You will see hope.

And you will offer it. You will love and laugh and smile and offer yourselves and your gifts. And you will write letters to your legislators when the opportunities arise.

You will act.

But, even more important, you will act in love.

That is the call of Advent. Not just to wait but to act.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Fifty-Sixth Letter: Enough Space in the Manger

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Dear Daughters,

Your dad offered the children’s “moment” today at church.

(Yes, we are still old-school enough that we have a children’s sermon, but at least we try to sound a little less old-school about it by calling it a “moment.”)

Your dad is amazing, and I love how excited the eldest was to go up front with your daddy up there. You always love these weeks.

Your dad had all the children lean way back, as far as you could, and look up at the sanctuary ceiling. Then he had you rock back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, while he SHHHH‘d into the microphone.

SHHH. SHHH. SHHH.

Then he asked you what it felt like.

You see, the ceiling of our church is solid wood. I don’t know anything about wood building materials, but the visible ceiling is completely wood, with wooden boards one direction, all lined up, and then these big wooden beams, like a rib cage, across it.

Because of the shape of the sanctuary, it’s actually, incredibly, quite reminiscent of the inside of a boat.

SHHH. SHHH. SHHH.

Like the wind during a storm.

The church is a boat.

You kids got there really quickly. I was impressed. The church is a boat.

The capital-C Church is a boat, too. Or it should be.

The Church is a safe place in a storm, when Jesus is present; it is large enough to hold all of us, all who crawl on board.

That’s pretty cool.

And then your dad said something else, looking up at the ceiling again. Those wooden beams, the wooden structure, was a lot like a manger, too.

That SHHH. SHHH. SHHH. might be Mary’s voice, calming a baby.

And just think: we’re in the manger with Jesus.

It’s like the baby Jesus, this God-man, who was lying down on straw in this wooden framed manger, jumped up and flipped the manger on its head, to protect us, to keep us safe.

And there is space enough for all of us. Radical, upside-down, safe space, for all of us.

Enough space for the believer and the doubter, the cynic and the faithful, the college professor and the jobless, the worn-out mamas and the aging grandmamas, the teenagers who are less than pleased to be present and the elderly man taking a nap in the back pew.

And for those folks we are hesitant to include? Those who make us uncomfortable when we read about Jesus’ call to love our neighbors? Those people who are different than we are?

There is enough space.

In the manger.

In the boat.

That’s the message of Advent.

That is the message of the manger.

That is the message of our faith.

And that was the message of Faith Baptist Church this morning, during a children’s moment, with the kids lying on your backs, rocking back and forth, back and forth.

SHHHH.

SHHH.

SHH.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Fifth Letter: Paper Chains and Gratitude

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Dear Daughters,

One of our daily Advent activities last week was to make paper chains, the old-school kind made out of strips of construction paper. When I wrote that entry on our Advent calendar a few weeks ago, I didn’t have anything brilliant in mind. I thought it would be a fun way to decorate a little bit for Christmas, since we do it progressively throughout the season, but that was about it.

Then, the day we were to make it, I thought, I know! We’ll write down the names of people we’re grateful for, one on each strip. And I gave myself a little metaphoric pat on the back for being such an amazing mom.

And it was a good idea. We’ll probably make some sort of annual tradition out of it.

On the day we made the chains, though, I also said that we would pray for everyone as we wrote their names down. This did not really happen. And, quite honestly, “writing down people we are grateful for” turned into “listing everyone the four-year-old knows.”

It took a lot of prompting to just get the important folks written down–grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles–because the list got a little cluttered with the names of parents of the eldest’s friends, the names of children of my friends, the names of teachers and random people who go to church with us. Yes, it’s a pretty eclectic group of folks listed inside these paper chains that hang in the living room.

But there is beauty here, in the hodgepodge.

As I was prompting the eldest for names, I mentioned the girls’ great-great-grandmother. As it so happens, the youngest shares a name with this amazing woman. We love Great-Great-Grandma Troutman. She’s one of my favorite pen-pals, and we write back and forth every few months. She even sent me some money to buy some little gifts for the girls for Christmas. Great-Great-Gram is in her 90s.

We wrote her name down, and then, not to be left out, the eldest suggested we also write down the name of my maternal grandmother, with whom the eldest shares a name. I paused momentarily, thrown off-guard, because she passed away before you were born, and I had only been thinking in terms of friends and family members who are living. But the eldest didn’t notice my pause. She kept repeating it: “Momma, Grandma Clara, write her down, I’m grateful for her too!”

And, of course, we did write her down.

Because, of course, I am grateful to this beloved woman. I’ve written a lot about her, and think of her often. I miss her and, in some ways, am surprised sometimes to realize she is gone, surprised that my girls have never met her, surprised that she never knew me as a mother.

A few months ago, when I was asked to share my faith journey at church, I began thinking about my spiritual inheritance. I thought of my grandma and I thought of others who’ve nourished me on my journey. It’s so important to consider these things, girls. It’s important to know our roots.

And water our roots.

I think we do that by remembering and telling stories. I think we do that by loving other people in the ways we have ourselves been loved. I think we do that by realizing we are not special, we are not deserving of the love that has paved the way for our journeys, but we are fortunate that the love did indeed do just that.

Because it did. It does.

Yes, I am so grateful to my grandmother, to all of my grandparents and great-parents who’ve passed on but left pieces of them behind for me to ponder in my heart. There’s Ginny’s chocolate chip cookies and tapioca pudding. Grandma Woodward’s drawn out “niiiiiiiiice.” Pappy Sands’s Twin Tamarack campground and coach bus. Pappy Lehman’s Uno-playing and swiping of the shot glass from that bourbon tasting when he visited us in Kentucky. Jeanie-Beanie’s signature on our birthday cards that included her imaginary friends. Doc’s “slow, Catholic way” of parking his boat. I can hear him saying that.

And those are just the first few that come to mind.

There are also my friends, too, who have passed, who remain with me in real and special ways. I think of Katy, especially, with her teapot and cookies and linen napkins. Don reading his love poems at the church talent show. Marilyn always coming over to greet our guests at church, saying she was my Kentucky grandmother.

I have been fortunate to know and to love so many people, fortunate to have been loved by so many peopleAnd so have you.

It would be impossible to make a paper chain that captured all of this love, all of this gratitude.

But it makes me happy that we’ve got a small reflection of that love strung up in the living room. 

Two more weeks of Advent, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

 

The Fifty-Third Letter: It’s Not “Almost” Christmas

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Dear Daughters,

My family didn’t have a lot of Christmas traditions when we were growing up. Is it because my parents were divorced and we had to be flexible about shared holidays? Maybe so. I don’t remember ever minding, and the lack of tradition has led to some funny stories.

One year, at my dad’s house, we didn’t even have a tree, just presents piled in the living room. Your Uncle Stephen and I decided this was unacceptable, so we snuck down on Christmas Eve and built a Christmas tree out of cardboard. We strung it with lights and everything. I think we were mostly amusing ourselves.

Even now, your Grandpa and Grandma Sands have a “kerplunk” tree–a small artificial tree they keep fully decorated in their attic, covered with a garbage bag, that they can pull out during the holidays, remove the bag, and just “kerplunk” it down in the living room.

I tell you all of that to say, I am not someone who, generally, has tradition flowing through my veins.

Okay, so we did have a few traditions with my mom–we often picked out a real, live tree, and we usually decorated it the Friday after Thanksgiving, the same day we would celebrate Stephen’s birthday. Stephen usually wanted shoo-fly cake as his birthday cake. Your Grandpa Troutman’s mom, my grandma Ginny, would buy us each an ornament. After she died, my mom took up that tradition.

So there was some tradition, to be fair to my mom. And I appreciate that.

But I also like to chuckle about the cardboard tree. It makes a good story. Maybe it’ll make it into a novel someday.

No, I was not raised to particularly cling to tradition, which might surprise you, and might surprise most everyone who knows me now as an adult. Because I care a lot about the way our little family observes the liturgical calendar. Your dad and I spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, working toward living into this crazy thing called the church year. We think it can shape the way we live out our faith. And we think it can shape the way we do family together.

That’s the background I needed to give before I got to this part:

This week is Thanksgiving. Today was the Thanksgiving feast at the preschool.

Last week, as I tucked the eldest into bed one night, you whispered to me excitedly, “Momma! It’s almost Christmas!”

Oh, girl, it is not almost Christmas.

But I understand why you might be confused.

Some of your friends’ parents have fully decorated homes already. On the drive home from church last night, we noticed a lot of Christmas lights out in the neighborhood, complete with lit-up candy canes lining the road. You’ve started practicing songs for your Christmas program. People are starting to ask you what you want for Christmas.

Let me say it again: this week is Thanksgiving. Sunday marks the first week of Advent.

Advent is four weeks long.

Then it will be Christmas.

In our house, we spend a lot of time talking about Advent, as we head towards Christmas. We decorate our Jesse Tree, reading the messianic stories every night as we approach Christ’s birth. We light candles. On the first Sunday of Advent, we set up our Christmas tree, but we leave it undecorated for a week, and then each Sunday in Advent, we add a little more. Our nativity stays empty until Christmas Eve.

You love this as we do it.

Every year, you get so excited.

And this year, you’re old enough to know that other people are already excited about Christmas.

So that’s where the problem comes. In this season before the season before Christmas, I don’t want you to rush to the end of the story.

And it’s hard to wait. I’ll be the first to admit it.

I myself love Christmas carols. It may be true that I bug your dad about singing them before our agreed-upon time each year. It may  be true that I occasionally agree to read one of the Christmas books you bring to me throughout the year. (Your dad does not.)

But–and this is important to point out–we don’t skip the nativity story in your children’s Bible when it crops up every few weeks with nightly reading. I love those stories. The earth waiting for the Messiah. The magi. The shepherds and angels. Mary’s journey. No, we don’t skip those stories the rest of the year. We read through them because they are part of the grand narrative of Scripture, but they are not the whole story.

We don’t get to skip ahead to whatever story we want because some stories are more fun than others. We can’t skip over the creation story, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Leah, David and Goliath. We can’t skip over Isaiah and Ezekiel.

Just like we can’t skip from the birth of Jesus straight to his death and resurrection. We don’t get the complete story if we don’t talk about the feeding of the five thousand, the calming of the storm, the healing of the bleeding woman who was brave enough to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.

I really think we miss out on something significant when we rush to what seem like the most important parts of Scripture.

The same is true with the liturgical calendar, girls.

This last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday. 

I was thinking that in this political season, it might be the most important Sunday we could be celebrating, reminding ourselves who we serve, who “has got the whole world in his hands.” (You came home from church practicing that for your Christmas program. For the record, I’m okay with this as a “Christmas” song.)

Most Christians I know didn’t even know about Christ the King Sunday. Most wouldn’t care even if I did point out it is always the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, and that Advent is the first Sunday of the church year. Every year.

Most of my friends are already talking about Christmas trees, about hanging up their outdoor decorations before the cold front came through.

And that’s okay.

But that’s not our family’s tradition.

Our tradition is to wait.

And waiting is hard.

I love your excitement about Christmas, and it was hard for me to tell you the other night, “Actually, sweet girl, no, it is not ‘almost’ Christmas. We’ve got a lot of waiting before Christmas. We’ve got the Jesse Tree, remember?”

And you were okay with it.

But I’m thinking that someday maybe you’ll be writing a letter to your own daughters about your holiday traditions growing up, and maybe you’ll say something like, Dear daughters, my mom was kind of crazy about a couple of things, especially with the liturgical calendar, let me tell you…

Love,

Your Momma