The Hundred-and-Seventeenth Letter: Small-Town Church Life in the Midst of Covid-19

Dear Daughters,

I probably seem like a normal Sunday-school-born-and-raised kind of Christian. But the truth is, my church experience didn’t consist of one single congregation throughout my childhood, and often didn’t include regular Sunday school attendance at all.

Because of the travel we did with the Family Circle, the gospel singing group my family was part of when I was little, we worshiped in many different churches on many different Sundays.

So, basically, when I was your age, my church experience looked a lot different than yours does.

As a family, we still attend the church that you were both dedicated in–both on the first Sundays of Advent the years you were born. In your Sunday school class at church are some children who were born the same month you were, who crawled in the nursery alongside you, who have been at VBS and Wednesday night activities alongside you your whole lives.

I didn’t have that kind of longstanding, substantial, consistent church community when I was your age.

And later, when I think about the church experience that shaped my teenage years, it was a wholly different kind of church life as well: large, charismatic, Spirit-led, and energetic.

Also, loud.

Girls, we don’t attend a fancy or flashy church. The loudest part of the service is probably the peals of the pipe organ. Many of the people who go there have gone there for a long time. In fact, many of the members my age were born and raised in this community.

As churches go, I guess ours appears relatively traditional from the outside (and relatively progressive on the inside, but that’s a theological treatise for another letter). I’m not a fan of the traditional/contemporary divide because it fails to capture the complexity of church in America, so I like to think of our church as creatively liturgical. If you pay attention, you can see the nuance and thought behind what we do, but you have to pay attention. You can’t assume because we sing from hymnals that you know what’s going to happen next.

Honestly, sometimes it feels like we attend a church straight out of a movie about small-town America, in all the good ways.

And most of those “good ways” are the people.

In the midst of Covid-19 due to social distancing regulations, churches are not meeting in person, and it seems like everywhere I look, I’m reading about folks worshiping online. Our church has even been live streaming through Facebook.

I love that the church in America is trying to figure out how to have church in the midst of a crisis–and also how to be church in the midst of a crisis.

It’s not the same thing, of course, and it’s always good to be reminded that the church is not a building.

Our church is doing a lot of good in the community, girls, by actively partnering with nonprofits and seeking opportunities to help those outside our walls, but, let’s face it, also to help those within our four “walls” even when we aren’t meeting. Because our church is an aging church, and the aging are particularly at risk during this health crisis.

And one of the things our church does best is to rally around the hurting, the grieving, the vulnerable. We know how to show up, take food, send notes. We know how to make sandwiches, send cards to the reading camp kids, say “I can” when the text asks who can help.

We do this all the time, girls.

And we are still doing it.

That gives me hope.

I actually find comfort that we won’t ever have the flashiest online service or the most spectacular YouTube channel. Sure, we will learn those things and adapt as it makes sense to do so–but more importantly, we will keep people connected in the ways we already know how, with the habits and practices we have already been cultivating, by serving our community and refusing to stop loving our neighbors.

That gives me so much, so much hope.

And when your Sunday school teachers–two retired grandmothers from our church who have cared for you every Sunday morning this year–texted and told me they’d recorded a Sunday school lesson for your little class on YouTube, I nearly wept. Not because it mattered to me that you had Sunday school, but that the love shown was so simple, so straightforward, and so lovely. In the recording, they sang your Sunday morning greeting song, read a Bible story, taught the motions for Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and taught you how to make a Resurrection Garden as we prepare our hearts for Easter morning.

I watched you bow your heads and pray solemnly along with the video, sing Zacchaeus, and get excited about the stone rolling away in the Resurrection Garden on Easter morning.

Easter morning.

There is much loss for me as I think about not having Holy Week and Easter services with my gathered church community. We have such lovely traditions–bell ringing, carrying Easter lilies down the aisle to recognize each family who has lost a loved one over the previous year, beautiful music. Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.

Gosh, I tear up just remembering what it is like to be present in that space.

But it has helped this week as I’ve thought through all the ways our local community is reaching out and being the hands and feet of Jesus in this season, all the ways I am grateful that we already practice such sincere and selfless community, all the ways that the light is shone to you girls by a whole community that loves you and prays for you and has committed to journeying alongside you, through every season, Covid-19-social-distancing-live-streaming season or otherwise.

Yes, I am grateful for this small town church in the middle of America.

And I am grateful we planted a Resurrection Garden here in the middle of Lent.


Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Sixteenth Letter: Marking Time & Social Distance

Dear Daughters,

With all of our activities cancelled, it has been difficult to keep track of our days, especially for you two. Normally, each day heads toward whatever the plan is for the afternoon and evening. A good example is Thursdays: on Thursdays, all day, you often say “it’s TRG day” because we co-host a theology reading group on that evening and you get to eat with and play with the kids of our co-hosts. You love TRG days and talk about it all day long. But we rarely call them Thursdays.

Without those markers, you’ve been a little disoriented.

It’s not that every day has been the same; it’s just that we have lost our weekly pegs to hang our schedule on. I can imagine it’s even more disorienting to children who normally head off to a classroom every day and are suddenly finding themselves at home. But even for us homeschoolers, it’s been hard.

We’ve lost our ways of marking the days.

As soon as our church cancelled two weeks of services–and I’ve really appreciated how proactive our church, local community, and Kentucky as a whole has been with setting high standards for social distancing–I looked at our Lenten calendar and knew.

I knew it would be disorienting, girls.

This year, only a few short weeks ago, I downloaded a free printable Lenten coloring calendar and printed 3 copies on cardstock so we could use our watercolor colored pencils every day. I wanted us to mark time together throughout the season.

I have always loved the liturgical concept of marking time, and your dad and I often try to get you to help us mark time throughout the liturgical year. Throughout the full year’s cycle, we have our weekly wooden “clock” of the wall, and we let you turn the dial one little dash every week. And during Advent and Christmas we have lots of ways to mark time, but we’ve not often cultivated a Lenten family practice that visually shows us that journey of Lent.

And so, when the two week service cessation was announced, and I looked at our Lenten calendar, my heart felt a bit heavy. I saw with my own eyes how close to Holy Week that would bring us–only one week before Palm Sunday–and I knew I wouldn’t get to see you wave palms this year. I also knew, as pretty much everyone does, that two weeks of social distancing wasn’t going to cut it. The likely scenario was that services would be cancelled straight through Easter.

It hasn’t been announced yet, but I wanted to write this before I know exactly what Holy Week and Easter will look like this year.

Because the truth is, whatever it looks like, however we honor the season, it will still feel disorienting. Because we’ve lost our pegs to hang our liturgical coats on. For now.

But it will be okay.

I’ve taught classes about and written often about how one of my favorite things about the cycle of the liturgical calendar is precisely that it happens over and over again. And when we honor it as a community, we get to walk alongside others and remind them, even when circumstances suggest otherwise, that we are still on the journey. That it’s okay to not “feel” a season. Some years, people die on Christmas Eve. And some years, babies are born on Good Friday. And it’s okay. We keep marking time and pointing to the work God is doing in the world through us and through the church.


I wanted to say this, here on this fourth Sunday of Lent: It doesn’t feel like Lent to me.

Days go by sometimes, and apart from coloring this little piece of a broken cross on our printable calendar–you’re the ones who realized that every four shapes make a cross, by the way–apart from this calendar, I can go days without reflecting on Lent.

But the truth is, it doesn’t matter whether I “feel like” Lent or not. The liturgical calendar isn’t about how we feel.

Because the truth also is this: we are currently living through what is perhaps the most Lenten of seasons the world has known in my lifetime.

So there’s that.

And it will be okay.


Your Momma

The Sixty-First Letter: Why Not All of It?


Dear Daughters,

I’m a stickler about a few things.

One of them is tithing.

It is not a cool thing to talk about, especially not in my circles, but I was raised to take tithing seriously, and so I do take it seriously. When I was little, I’m pretty sure I was made to tithe off of my allowance and even off of the money we got in birthday cards. Yes, growing up, there was a strong sense of this money not being mine to begin with and so we gave back to God a portion, a tenth, in order to remind ourselves that it really all belongs to God, that none of it really belongs to us.

In today’s world, I think most of us could use a little more of those reminders that what we have is not really ours. That it is all gift. That we deserve none of it.

It might help us stay away from the what’s-mine-is-mine mentality that not only keeps us from helping our neighbors but also makes it difficult for us to see them as equally deserving of our own way of life.

It’s not polite to talk about money though, so I don’t say these things out loud, don’t say them in public.

But let me tell you a story.

The eldest has been joining us for “big church” for some time now, and I was reading an article recently about the importance of children seeing their parents–literally seeing us–give of our time and our resources. The article specifically mentioned letting children see their parents put money in the plate at church, if the family attends a church that passes the plate. It talked about the potential correlation between children who witness their parents giving of time and talents and tithes on a regular basis and those who grow up to be regular givers themselves.

After reading this article, I realized that it probably didn’t send the best message that I was often passing an empty plate. As I said, I do tithe, but I write a check once a month, because it’s our habit, instead of once a week. So the majority of weeks, we don’t drop something in.

As a result, I decided, if it’s a symbolic gesture for you anyway, I’ll start giving you a little bit of cash to put in the plate yourself. In the past, this always seemed a little silly to me.

And that brings me to the story for today.

On Sunday, I had grabbed some cash from my wallet that was all folded up on itself. I pulled two dollar bills off of the wad–there was only ten dollars in the wad, but it looked big to you–and I handed you the two single bills. You saw that I was putting the rest back in my wallet.

“But why not all of it?” you whispered to me.

I tried to shush you.

“WHY NOT ALL OF IT,” you whispered louder, assuming I hadn’t heard you the first time.

I tried to shush you again, and gestured toward the plate as it approached.

You really didn’t want to let it go. “But why? Why not all of it?”

And it was about that time that I heard those words in a new light, not as a literal question about that wad of cash, but a question to me about life and what it means to offer ourselves to the Kingdom of God.

Why not all of it?

Why are we not willing to give all of ourselves?

Why are we so quick to pull the two easy dollars off the wad and toss them in the plate and assume we’re good to go, that we’ve done our part?

God isn’t asking us to do our part. God is asking us to give our lives.

Why not all of it?

When we get mad about politics, we think it’s enough to start calling our representatives. But God wants all of us, not just our phone calls and emails.

When we get frustrated at broken institutions like our school systems, we think it’s enough to just protect our own interests and make sure we (and ours) succeed. But God wants all of us, not just our feeble attempts at safety and provision for our own families and neighborhoods.

When we look around at our empty sanctuaries, we think it’s enough to lament the absence of young people and resolve to make our services more relevant. But God wants all of us, not just our work to make Sunday morning more fun. God wants us to to be loving people, offering our whole selves to our relationships, inviting people into our lives, not just our sanctuaries.

When we look around and see that all of our friends look just like us and live in houses just like us, we think it’s enough to go serve in a soup kitchen or donate our leftover and used goods to a local shelter. But God wants all of us, which might hurt a bit. Actually, it will hurt a bit. I promise. It might mean selling that house. At the very least, it means inviting people who are different from us into that house and joining together over food and fellowship. It will take all of us.

Or, let’s take it to the real, everyday annoyances of life. Because that’s where we can really get uncomfortable. It’s too easy to shrug off the general, big problems.

What about when I get frustrated at the frequency with which the neighbors’ dog has been escaping their yard? I want to think it’s enough to put him back in the yard and grumble about it to your dad. But God wants all of me, all of my relationships, all of my time, not just my mediocre attempts at community.

What about when I lose my temper with you? I think it’s enough to say, well, that’s the way life is with young children, right? It’s tiring and exhausting and mind-numbing, and you really should have just listened the first time. But God wants all of me, not just my good days and prayer times and Bible reading. We should be growing in those tough moments too. We should be learning grace and offering grace.

What about when the stranger walks by our house in the middle of the day, when the kids with heavy backpacks get off the bus down the street and look discouraged, when the neighbors have forgotten yet again that it is trash day: am I just doing the minimum? Or am I offering my whole life?

Why not all of it? you asked.

And I guess what I’m trying to say is this: you’re asking a good question.

The Gospel requires all of us. 


Your Momma

The Fifty-Sixth Letter: Enough Space in the Manger


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.


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.


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.





Your Momma

The Forty-Eighth Letter: I Need Reviving


Dear Daughters,

Tonight our church is kicking off a revival weekend: three evenings of dinner and revival services that culminate in our Sunday morning worship service and potluck after church.


I should probably say up front that I wasn’t raised Baptist, and I feel a bit ambivalent about these planned revival events in general.

Probably because of the charismatic strain of my childhood—in which we said we expected the spirit to move any given Sunday—it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around a planned-out revival. Though I’ve been told that these are totally normal things for a church such as mine, I’ll confess it’s hard for me not to be doubtful.

Over the last few days, though, I’ve been feeling a good old Pentecostal nudge about it. Here’s what that nudge is telling me:

We need reviving.

And, what’s more:

I need reviving.

Last week, during a meeting with one of our ministers, I broke down in tears because the church feels broken to me. Like we’ve got it wrong and I don’t even know how to change things. Like I don’t have the energy to even imagine how church could be different, how new life could be breathed into dry bones. (Look at me getting all Scripture-quotey.)

Hear this, girls. I’m not trying to be down on our particular local church. This is a community who loves you and teaches you and smiles at you and can’t believe how big you’re growing.

What I’m trying to say is that I have this gut feeling, this uneasiness, that the church as a whole is broken.

The way we tend to do church—and by “we,” I guess I mean everyone who has experienced church as I’ve experienced it, which certainly isn’t everyone, not even everyone at my own church, but I would guess is a lot of thirty-something Americans who grew up broadly evangelical—the way we do church doesn’t seem to be getting to the heart of Kingdom-of-God work. We make due with how church is because it’s always been like that. We are used to it. We don’t even expect it to be more, to be the place where we experience the presence of God. Yes, the presence of God. Look at me getting Pentecostal.

I think a lot of us do a lot of good in our individual lives, a lot of us have these hands-and-feet-of-Jesus convictions, but I rarely see faith communities living out being the body, being a community that draws people to God, that welcomes the stranger, that cares for the orphan and the widow, that feeds the hungry, heals the deaf and the mute. I don’t see us doing much of that literally or metaphorically.

Sigh. Maybe I just don’t have eyes to see. Or ears to hear.

As I said, I could use some revival.

I’ve been studying Mark lately, and Jesus is just so radical.

And so I was crying tears of frustration and sadness and broken-heartedness, because I want a community that selflessly and radically gives to one another and to the world, a community that is vibrant and happy to join together on a regular basis because we are Just So Darn Excited to be gathering and worshipping, to be learning and teaching, to simply be sharing in the presence of God.

That presence of God would call us to radical lives, girls, not just shuffling-kids-to-soccer-practice lives.

That presence of God would draw the stranger to us, and we could be welcoming angels without realizing it, rather than weighing the pros and cons of snappier music during our services. (Don’t get me wrong–I wouldn’t mind a little more toe-tapping myself.)


Here’s the truth. When I try to get you excited about church on Sunday mornings—yay! Sunday school! Yay! Nursery! So fun!—it’s a show. A show.

I don’t feel that excited on Sunday mornings, truth be told, and by the looks of most people in our church—the harried parents, the lonely widowers, the distracted businesspeople, the college professors, the worn-out staff, the kids running to get donuts—I don’t think most of them are excited about being present either (except maybe those kids who really want the donuts, you two included).

Most of us are there because we are there.

And so… revival.

Seems like a good idea to me.

Let’s go get us some.


Your Momma

The Forty-Fifth Letter: Funerals & Eulogies


Dear Daughters,

I’ve been to a lot of funerals in the last few years. Between your dad and me, we’ve lost six grandparents since moving to Kentucky. That’s a lot. And our church community has lost a significant number of members in recent months.

So I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life.

And I’ve heard a lot of eulogies.

A friend of mine who is a few years older than I am–so she’s in her late 30s–told me she has never been to a funeral.

Talking with her got me thinking back to the funerals of my childhood. The first one I remember was the funeral of my maternal great-grandmother: Grandma Ebersole. My memory of her is mostly of the later years of her life, when she was small and frail and lived with my grandma. She dressed plainly, I believe with a head-covering. Her hair was white. She was little in stature, and for me to think that, given that I was a child, albeit a big child, is telling. She must have been small.

I don’t remember much of that funeral, except that there were distant relatives around and it’s the first time I remember becoming aware that my mom had cousins and used to be a kid once, just like I had cousins and loved to play with mine.

My great-uncle “Woody” died when I was a little bit older. He was my paternal grandma’s brother. And also my great-grandma Woodward, my paternal grandma’s mom, passed away. Because they both had lived in Ohio, and I used to visit them both in the summers along with my cousin Angela, those funerals run together a bit. But I was old enough to feel those losses as someone who, well, as someone who remembered.

At Grandma Woodward’s funeral, the Family Circle sang. My dad offered the eulogy. I remember hearing my dad’s voice breaking, and realizing again the way intergenerational relationships work–he had been this woman’s grandson, and she had been his grandma, and he had been a boy once, and that meant that my grandparents would die, and I would be a grown-up with my voice cracking as I remembered their lives, too. Some day.

I am now that grown-up.

I still tear up when I try to talk about my grandparents who have passed away.

I’m tearing up now, just writing about it.

(This probably won’t surprise you, when you’re older, because already you see my cry all the time, over books or articles or sad news or happy news, and you come over to me and rub my arm or my back to offer comfort in the only way you know.)

I’ve attended funerals as a family member of the deceased, and I’ve attended funerals as a friend of the deceased, and I’ve attended funerals as a mere acquaintance, which makes it sound less than what it is–a member of the community that did everyday life alongside the deceased.

The last two funerals I’ve attended have been that kind–funerals of folks I know through church, who have had an impact on me because of their service to our congregation and to the wider community. I knew these women as strong and courageous and independent. I knew them as encouragers who always asked how I was feeling when I was pregnant, who checked in on me when you both were born, who always commented on how big you were getting.

But I didn’t realize how little I really knew them until I went to their funerals. I only witnessed, in my years here in Kentucky, a small glimpse of their whole lives. It was an inspiring glimpse, but it was only a small fraction of their story.

They had both lived such incredible stories.

And we live in a small town, so their stories affected so many other people’s stories.

That’s what you find out at funerals.

You go from knowing how a person interacted with you to knowing how she changed your whole community.

My friend who has never attended a funeral told me she feels a little morbid about attending funerals, like when people she knows lose loved ones and she wonders about whether she should go. She feels like it’s kind of weird to watch others who are mourning.

I don’t feel that way. In fact, as I sat in a funeral at our church last week, listening to the stories of a life that had worked to bring about the Kingdom of God, I thought to myself: I should really attend more funerals.

Maybe that’s how we can learn to be better human beings.

Maybe that’s how we can witness the genuine loss that every death brings to a community.

Maybe that’s how we participate in the beautiful heartache that is life in community, the sacred ordinary of life lived alongside others, the scars we feel on the hands and feet of Jesus as we offer our own hands and feet to the world.

And maybe that’s how we start thinking about what our own eulogist would say about us.


Your Momma



The Forty-First Letter: On Getting Comfortable & Why I Love College Students


Dear Daughters,

Your dad and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary last weekend. And by “celebrated” I mean we got take-out blue cheese and bacon burgers from a local foodie place and ate them during your quiet time on Sunday afternoon.

Twelve years is kind of a long time, considering I am a pretty young person.

And then I realize that I turn thirty-four next week. Thirty-four years young.

Most of my friends are older than I am, so I’m not really shocked by my age. What surprises me, sometimes, is how I’m settling into this life, how I still don’t feel like a “grown-up” but I’m beginning to be content not being one.

Settling-in is a good thing.

Mostly. I’ll be the first to admit it.

It is also a bad thing. Because my life has been pretty easy so far, I’ve felt myself getting pretty comfortable, not holding myself to as high of standards, letting my convictions slide as convenience (mine, as well as yours) takes center stage. Things that are more work, which I would have always thought “worth it,” don’t always seem so anymore.

It feels weird even to admit it, because that is so not me. I have always been overflowing with conviction. Not necessarily motivation, I’ll confess, but to the extent that I have not been motivated to make a change or be the change I saw necessary, I have always been aware of the way that I was not living up to my convictions. I think I’ve always favored clarity and naivety and idealism to being practical.

Because, let’s face it. The gospel is naive, girls. Jesus is pretty naive when he calls us to give up everything, isn’t he? That’s impractical, isn’t it? We don’t hear that very often from pulpits.

I don’t think others sense it yet, this tension I’m feeling as I get comfortable in my life.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m still seen as young and a little too idealistic at, say, church committee meetings. I attend an aging church, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by me that often when I make suggestions to folks who’ve been in the church for decades, I still hear the whole “Well, fourteen years ago, we had a committee that did such and such and that’s why we don’t do it that way any more.” That just warms the cockles of my heart, as you can imagine.

Or not.

But the thing is, when I’m honest with myself, I can admit that sometimes, now that I’m in my thirties, I simply want to do the easy thing, too.

Because I can, gosh darn it.

And I don’t like the hard work and I don’t really like change.

I hate that.

But here’s something I’ve been thinking about this week: this sliding toward comfort and conservatism is precisely why I love being involved in the lives of young people. College students. Seminary students. Young people who think that they can change the world–believe that the world can be changed–take seriously their role and their convictions.

They hold me to a higher standard.

They hold all of us to a higher standard.

And yet we so often discount what they have to say, without really listening. We look down on young people because their existence among us is often transient, and they seem too idealistic, and besides, what do they know about what it means to save for retirement or pay for health insurance?


They don’t know. And so they can be a lot less jaded than we are. We who have so much invested in our comfort, we who have worked hard for stability. Someone’s gotta pay the electric bill in our air-conditioned churches, right?

Ah, now I am getting preachy. There’s that old soapbox feeling again.

I imagine that when you read these letters, you yourself will be a young person. That’s why I wanted to write this one. I was imagining you as young women with conviction, with articulate voices, calling me to a higher standard. And I wanted to give you permission to stand firm, even when others say that you are young and naive and impractical.

I really hope you call me to a higher standard. I really hope your voices are charged with dissatisfaction with the way things are and hope at the way things could be. I hope you read scripture and see the disconnect with the way it is so often lived in this world. I hope you see a path forward, and I hope you are lights on that path for others.

For the old folks.

That is, for me.

I hope I will be able to hear you. I hope I will be challenged by you. I hope you’ll make me a little bit uncomfortable.

Because that is how it should be.

Thanks in advance, girls.


Your Momma