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.

Love,

Your Momma

The Eighty-Sixth Letter: Changing Seasons

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Dear Daughters,

Today is Fat Tuesday.

Where I grew up, we called it Fastnacht Day, and even the secular world ate donuts in those parts. Seriously, radio DJs across central Pennsylvania broadcast from outside fire houses and various hometown businesses selling “fastnachts” as fundraisers on this particular Tuesday morning every year. (The senior women in my mom’s rural Methodist church took pre-orders in the weeks leading up to Fastnacht Day, and you could request the cinnamon sugar variety or just regular old boring ones.) Fastnachts are a particular kind of donut, and truth be told I didn’t really like them that much.

But I do feel a bit nostalgic about donuts on Fat Tuesday, and I’m a fan of enjoying a little splurge on the day before we head into Lent, as it was in the earliest custom of celebrating Mardi Gras.

Oh, hey, I guess I should mention that I’m not eating grain, dairy, sugar, or legumes right now. Yeah, it’s a sad day for me. Probably been my least-fattening Fat Tuesday on record.

But I have been thinking a lot about seasons and how they change.

I’ve been thinking about how your dad and I try so hard to live the liturgical calendar in meaningful ways, but every time it circles around, life keeps circling around, too, keeps making the experience richer but also, some years, more exhausting.

This year mostly feels full, rather than chaotic, but full to the brim, and my shoulders, I’ll admit, are a little tired with helping my loved ones bear burdens. In all the good ways, I mean.

It’s what life is like when you’re living the Kingdom, living the seasons alongside others, witnessing the mountains and the valleys of the journey.

So many journeys.

Seasons change.

Life changes.

But we keep putting one foot in front of the other, whether or not we ate donuts on Fastnacht Day.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.

Tomorrow is also Valentines Day.

Friday is Chinese New Year.

Your cousins are coming to stay with us this weekend.

A week ago, a friend had a tiny, tiny premature baby who weighed less than two pounds.

Yesterday my amazing friend came home from the hospital.

Today, one of you woke up with pink eye.

Next week is our homeschool co-op’s Spring Break.

The week after that, a friend is scheduled to have her fourth C-section.

Another dear, sweet friend is embarking on an adoption journey that will take many months and much hard work.

One of your dad’s cousins is getting married in a few weekends, and we’ll get to spend good time with the extended Wise clan.

Your grandparents will be here the following weekend.

One of my childhood BFFs is changing jobs and moving to a new state at the end of Lent.

Right now, as I type this, multiple friends are praying for parents with late-stage cancers, waiting, seeking peace.

Friends I’m journeying alongside have chronic illness, mental health struggles, children making difficult decisions.

A friend is beginning her dissertation.

A friend is working on her marriage.

A friend is starting a business.

So many friends with so many seasons and so much change.

Life changes.

And we keep on going, together.

Sometimes eating fastnachts. Sometimes gathering for prayer.

Sometimes just showing up, or sending a text, or opening your door to your neighbor, looking that stranger right in the eye and asking how she is doing.

Sometimes just breathing, putting a stamp on a postcard, closing your eyes and enjoying the sunshine on your face.

Welcoming in a child with pinkeye, celebrating Chinese New Years with a dancing dragon while eating Thai food on Fat Tuesday.

This is how you live community.

This is how you love your people.

You live in the season you’re in.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Seventy-Third Letter: First Fruits, Time, & Hospitality

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Dear Daughters,

At the beginning of the growing season, every leaf of oregano feels extravagant. The first snap peas, the early lettuce and spinach, and then later, that first red tomato or first summer squash. But as with most things, by the end, when it’s hard to keep up with the produce, when you can’t even give the extras away because everybody has too many tomatoes and too much zucchini, when I am already snipping large handfuls of oregano every day to eat on my eggs, well, at that point, it’s hard to be appreciative of what is before us.

I’ve been thinking about first fruits, about God’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy to bring a basket of the first fruits of their harvest to recognize publicly God’s faithfulness to them in the fulfillment of promises. I read that passage this morning and I heard it differently than I’d heard it before, maybe because we’re still savoring every fresh green bean, still astounded at Kentucky tomatoes showing up already at the farmers market. We’re in a season of first fruits.

Girls, it’s hard to give the first fruits away. They’re what you’ve been waiting for. They don’t even taste the best, to be honest, usually those first fruits are picked too early because we are impatient, but we savor them nonetheless, not really wanting to share. So giving them up willingly and publicly? That’s sacrifice.

And then I began to think of the less-literal “first fruits” of my life. Like, say, tithes. I’ve preached this before, being raised in a home that took tithing seriously, tithing off the top, even tithing off my birthday presents and allowance because I was taught that none of what I had was mine to begin with. It was God’s. So yeah, I get that. Financial first fruits.

I am a generous person with my finances. I am also a generous person with food. I love to bake things and give them away. I like to deliver goodies to my neighbors, and I like to involve you in the process.

Already you know the joy of giving. I have also sorted through your belongings: your toys, your clothes, divvied them out among folks we know with younger children, who would want what, where to donate.

We talk about the least fortunate in our house and I want you to know that it is important to give as if nothing belongs to you. These are all interpretations of first-fruits. (Though I suppose hand-me-downs sound like last-fruits, the truth is that most of what you have is also hand-me-down, so we’re going with the analogy anyway.)

But, I’ll confess, I did come up with a doozy of a first-fruit that isn’t so easy to quantify and isn’t so easy to say I’m a pro at giving away. Know what that is? My time.

Seriously, girls, am I willing to give the first fruits of my time?

Let’s go here:

How about when I’m tired and grouchy? When my to-do list is long? When the neighbor swings by unexpectedly? When we get that text inviting us to come and splash in the kiddie pool? When a friend needs a ride to the bank? When the mailman wants to chat? When I really want to go for a run? When, for crying out loud, I really just want to go to the bathroom by myself or drink my hot tea hot?

Is that too much to ask?

I usually feel this well up in my soul in capital letters, but I’ll scale back here, though I do think this needs to be said again.

Is it too much to ask to keep some time to myself?

Well, I cry a little bit inside when I pause and consider it, because guess what?

The answer is yes. It IS too much to ask.

My time isn’t mine to begin with. So when I squeeze a few minutes extra out of a day, metaphorically speaking, am I using it for me or for others? (To be clear: It’s not that I’m down on self-care. Sometimes I do need a nap. Self-care is important. That’s a topic for another day.)

But I know that I personally need to be careful because it’s not my instinct to give time away. It’s my instinct to turn inward, to look at all I need to do, and see others as an interruption, even to see you as an interruption sometimes, when I’m being honest.

And people are not interruptions.

Your dad and I decided to host weekly picnics this summer. It won’t be convenient. Community rarely is. Sometimes people won’t show up. Sometimes people will show up and there won’t be enough food. Sometimes you’ll get sand in your hair because one of the littler kids dumps it on your head. Sometimes it will be hot and buggy and nobody will want the fire to be lit for s’mores.

When I sent out the email announcing the picnic to a variety of folks we know from around town, church, the college, our neighborhood, one of my friends emailed back: “I’m so impressed by your energy!”

Say what?

What is this energy of which you speak?

Me? I don’t have energy. Not enough, that’s for sure. And it’s not my instinct to not invite people in. (Okay, that’s not true. My instincts are pretty spot-on: I’ve got the instinct to invite people in. It’s just that I usually can talk myself out of it for all kinds of practical and very good reasons. Which is why we decided on the standing invitation, because you can’t talk yourself out of it once it’s been put out there into the universe.)

Girls, I really believe that if we had a first-fruits view of time—that it isn’t ours to begin with but that symbolically the little that we do have, that first bit of extra and abundance we are lucky enough to harvest in our too-busy lives, needs to go back to God for kingdom work and community building—well, the kingdom of God would be a much more hospitable and welcoming place.

We would have real community. We would have relationships with people who are not like us. We would welcome the stranger into our midst and that stranger would become a friend. We would not hoard our time into vacations and extravagant hobbies but into conversations over fences. Church wouldn’t just be a building on the corner (and definitely not across town from the suburbs where we reside) but also a front porch swing where our shared stories transform into holy moments.

Our tables would be more often shared than not shared. Bread would not be broken in front of a television but over a firepit. Cookies wouldn’t be eaten in seclusion in a closet so children didn’t hear the chewing (no idea who does that) but delivered to the neighbor who just had the new baby or the mom trying to get by while her husband is on the nightshift.

Girls, we all have people in our lives who need a bit of our time. And I’m not saying we need to squeeze community and hospitality into already busy lives. I’m saying we’ve got a certain amount of time allotted to us and the first-fruits don’t belong to us and our binge-watching Amazon and Netflix.

And that’s not the message I want to hear most days.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Sixty-Seventh Letter: A Tale of Two Friendships

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Dear Daughters,

So the thing is, once you’re a grown-up, and especially a mom, it’s really hard to make tried-and-true friends. Most conversations devolve into talking about your children: how big ya’ll are, how sick you are, quirky things you say and do.

I’ve never liked playdates for this very reason. I don’t like to sit and talk with other moms about being a mom.

Additionally, I don’t think that kind of chatter leads very often to friendship because there’s so much more to my life (to anyone’s life) than being a mom. For another thing, it’s plain old boring. Oh, and it’s also just annoying to walk that line between competition/judgement and appreciating one another’s experiences. Maybe that’s a mom thing, maybe that’s a woman thing, or maybe that’s a human nature thing, but it’s ridiculous. I think I was over that before you were even born.

Yes, it’s hard to make friends as a grown-up.

I have two close friends from childhood. Seriously, from elementary school! And we’re still good friends. I’ve actually texted with both of them multiple times today, believe it or not. Sure, we’ve had close seasons, and we’ve had seasons when we’re not that close, but when I finally emailed them to tell them I’d had a miscarriage but that I was now pregnant again and anxious and didn’t really want to talk on the phone about it but please pray for me, you know what they did? They said, “We’re coming.” And they came. Both of them. From different states. Because that’s what friends do.

And I have two other close friends from college. These women and I have shared quite a bit of grown-up life experience, and in the fifteen years since we’ve been friends, there has been some serious heartache and trauma in our lives. The change-your-life, knock-you-down, give-up-hope trauma that is hard to talk about, hard to witness your friends living through. But these are also the kinds of experiences that shape relationships and draw us into forced openness and vulnerability. This is how we heal, I think. And this is what friendship is: life through the dark hole of suffering, offering to shine in a flashlight when our friends are ready.

But since graduating from college and stepping outside the intensive relationship-building that can happen during that unique season, I got married and moved to two different states in twelve years. Two homes and new cities where we had to plant our own roots and make community and didn’t have family to flee to when we were lonely and wondering whether we would ever find anything in common with “these” people. (If you didn’t know this, people from Texas are really into Texas. People from Kentucky are really into Kentucky. So neither place felt like home.) I felt like a stranger.

But in both of those places, as my roots went down deeper and deeper, as we invested in our neighborhoods and churches and relationships, even as I felt alone, I grew friendships. It surprised me.

It’s hard for me to figure out how this happened. I would call up one of my old friends and feel like she really “got” me, and then look around at my relationships and think “nobody here gets me” and feel really, genuinely discouraged.

But I did grow friends. I still am growing them. And I think I’m getting pretty good at watering that soil and sprinkling on the MiracleGro or compost. (Let’s face it, sometimes you need the poop to get things growing.)

The more I’ve gotten to know women in my community, the more I’ve realized that lots of us are lonely and in need of true, deep, vulnerable relationships. It’s gotten me thinking a lot about friendship.

And I’ve decided adult friendships are hard for two reasons:

  • they take a lot of intentionality
  • they require longterm shared experience

What I mean by the first reason is that friendship does not grow by accident. If you aren’t working on a relationship (and by “working on,” I mean being intentional with keeping in touch, remembering what’s going on and following up, reaching out, showing emotional support, being transparent and vulnerable when you yourself are hurting and broken, and not being crabby when she doesn’t offer back what you think you deserve–there’s the rub), your friendship will not last. I’m not saying that if you do these things, this is friendship magic, but well, it kind of is magic. Be the friend want to have. That’s how grown-up friendships work.

What I mean by the second point—that friendships require longterm shared experience—is that you shouldn’t discount the value of staying put.

When I moved to the middle of small-town America eight years ago, I was planted (unwillingly!) right into the middle of a deep and long-lasting and multi-generational community. It was easy to feel sorry for myself as an outsider who didn’t understand all the inside references to major life events of folks I was living and worshipping alongside. But I stayed put. And I stayed put. And I stayed put. And soon I found myself living alongside an amazing community of women who, simply by being here in community with them, became my friends and support system and biggest cheerleaders.

Some of my closest friends in Kentucky have grown out of two separate groups I’m part of. One is a women’s small group at church that meets weekly, and usually at least one of us is crying at some point during our time together. (It’s also important, in growing friendships, to carry tissues.) We read books and study scripture together and talk about ideas together, but I think our sharing about real-life pain and being vulnerable when life is hard is why the soil has been so fertile for friendship.

The other group is my community of creative friends. (Some women overlap these two groups.) I meet monthly with a group of women who share our writing and our lives. It goes hand-in-hand, because we write what we know and experience. In the years we’ve been meeting, there have been losses of love and family, serious illness, empty-nesting, and both of your births. We’ve been through a lot, and we write about a lot, and we continue to gather even when we haven’t written anything because that is what friendship is.

Let me tell you two quick stories of friendship as examples of the surprising ways it can grow.

The first is relatively recent, but one that feels like a soul-mate friendship. A woman visited our church the Easter before I was about to have baby girl number 2, literally the Sunday before I went into labor. I must have been huge and uncomfortable. I saw her and her family across the aisle from me and took note of her little girl’s hair because it was so cute. A few weeks after my delivery, I ran into this woman at the library, which I had braved because my mom was in town. We chatted briefly. But then, you know, I had two kids at home and didn’t leave the house for months. Nearly a year later, I ran into her again at the library and mentioned church to her but she said she was going elsewhere, and I didn’t push it. A few weeks after that, I was about to start a new women’s ministry at my church and was pretty sure the Spirit was nudging me to tell her about it. I’m pretty good at ignoring those nudges, though, so I did. But then she came over to me and asked me straight up about church, that she was looking for a community. So I told her about the ministry after all. That was more than two years ago. She’s now active in our community, one of my closest soulmate friends, your Sunday school teacher, and part of my weekly women’s group. Her daughter is one of your sweet friends. As it turns out, she confessed to me after we’d been friends for awhile, that whole year when I was MIA and not going to the library very often, she was trying to track me down. She was feeling in need of community, and remembered my funky glasses, short hair, and Keen boots, and thought I might be someone she wanted to get to know. I say all of that, girls, to to point out that you never know how the Spirit will nudge you, and you never know how much the folks around you need a community until you reach out.

This second story is one of friendship that grew between me and an older woman in my church over many years. She is one of my close friends now. The first time I saw her was while she was giving a children’s sermon at church about recycling paper bags. She struck me as quirky but not someone I’d have much in common with. She wore fancy hats to church. She was a science and nature teacher and made funky art. (This makes it sound like we would be fast friends, but you’ll have to trust me that we weren’t.) At some point, she joined the monthly writing group I was part of, and I slowly began to get to know her. She loved the gentle stories and poems I wrote about my family, especially about my maternal grandmother who suffered from Alzheimers and had failing health, and my friend always encouraged my “sacrilegious religious” poetry. When Grandma passed, before you were born, I was touched at a card my friend sent me about the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren. She remembered losing her own grandmother, and knew the pain I was feeling. Then, after you two were born, she showered me with support, with handmedown gifts, with love, with encouragement to write my own story for your sake. It was through those interactions that our friendship really grew roots. I credit her with my writing to you so regularly, though she denies it has much to do with her. In the years I have known her and lived life alongside her, we have shared loss and illness and brokenheartedness, but we have also shared stories and hope and the healing that comes through articulating grief and pain. I also got my first pimento cheese recipe from her. We’ve organized public combined poetry readings and I love the way our stories intertwine so well. And that can all be traced back, I think, to her reaching out to me when I felt such a deep loss after my grandma died.

So I’ll say it again: grown-up friendship is hard. It takes lots of work. But when we have the courage to cultivate it, it is worth it.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is my prayer for you:

May you have soul-friends. May you have old friends. May you make new friends. May you have friends who have walked through your season of life before you. May you have friends you can pull along on the journey. And may you have flash-light holding friends when you need them.

Because you will need them

You will need all of them.

Love,

Your Momma

The Forty-Ninth Letter: Sharing Our Table

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Dear Daughters,

A few days ago, the preschooler told me that we needed to invite some people over for dinner because we hadn’t had anyone over in such a long time.

This was said very dramatically, as most things you say are these days.

I told you that you were right—we really should invite people over for dinner because it is always good to share our table—and I told you that you were wrong—because it hadn’t been a long time. Just last Thursday, we had a table full of college students here eating vegetarian chili and cornbread. And the week before that, we’d shared Thai food with your crazy aunties, some of our best friends. And on Wednesday nights we eat dinner at church with a room full of people.

We share our table pretty frequently. Maybe it’s more than the average family. I don’t know what is “normal” for other people.

Still, I think you’re on to something.

Because we don’t share our table as often as we should.

Back before we had children, your dad and I went through a phase of setting an extra place at the table at meal times. I think this was when we had a friend living with us, but even so, the extra place was intentionally extra. What I mean is, if our housemate was joining us for a meal, we’d set two extra places.

The extra plate was symbolic. You could say it was the place set for Jesus, who offers us hospitality as the Host and comes to us as the stranger, but I’ll admit that sounds a little cheesy.

I’d rather like to think of that extra place setting as a symbol of our willingness to share our table, as an act of faith saying there will always be enough, as an act of flexibility in hospitality, being “light on our feet” as our old church used to say. There was a lot tied up in that extra plate.

But it always felt a little forced, a little too symbolic maybe, and we didn’t keep up the tradition.

And now a few years have gone by.

When your dad and I are being thoughtful and deliberate in our home life these days, when we aren’t too overwhelmed by the chaos of life in general, we share our table pretty often. We invite people in, we deliver food out.

But when life happens and we get busy and less thoughtful, less deliberate, when we have weeks like the last few, it gets really hard to even notice when the table is empty. When it’s just the four of us. When deciding what to make for dinner feels like a chore. It’s easy to forget how much excess we are keeping to ourselves.

It’s in those seasons of chaos that your dad and I decide to do outrageous things like schedule a new college ministry—a weekly reading group—to meet at our house on Thursday nights, and commit to offering dinner to the students who come early for it. Every week.

We knew when we kicked off the reading group last week that it wouldn’t always be convenient, and that was kind of the point. The things that are important aren’t usually convenient, because they take time, and they force us to focus on other people. Not ourselves. Not just our little family.

Probably most weeks I wouldn’t feel like standing in the kitchen for an hour chopping vegetables to put into a crockpot of soup or using quiet time to make fresh bread, but we have this conviction, even in the chaos, that it is important to do the inconvenient thing, to allow ourselves to be inconvenienced for the sake of community, for the sake of cultivating relationships, of being hospitable, of saying, yes, you are welcome here, alongside us, even when we are tired from insomnia or harried from a long work day or scattered because our children are in pajamas and running around like crazy animals or we haven’t packed any of our suitcases yet and we are leaving the next day for a weekend in Pennsylvania. (Sigh. Let’s pretend those are all theoretical situations.)

And so the crockpot is full of potato soup as I type this.

And I’m pretty tired.

And here I sit, looking forward to an evening of table sharing, and I still don’t think we share our table often enough.

Because these are the questions I can’t get away from:

How often did Christ share a table with others? How often did he break bread and bless it and provide nourishment? How often did he eat with the unlovely, the broken, the most in need? And, maybe most convicting, how often does he welcome me to his Table? 

That’s how open our dining room table should be, girls. That’s how open our hearts, our lives, our homes should be.

But the potato soup is a start.

And there will be fresh bread this afternoon.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Forty-Eighth Letter: I Need Reviving

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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.

Sigh.

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.)

Sigh.

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.

Love,

Your Momma

The Twenty-Seventh Letter: Funerals, Faith, & 2015

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Dear Daughters,

My grandfather died on Christmas Eve. He was 92, a decorated World War II veteran, and an overall former badass.

Yes, I can say words like that even though you aren’t allowed to.

In my memory, he was a calm, pinochle-playing, itchily-mustached, white-haired handyman who, right on cue, hollered “What?” whenever I declared “Red” was the color I wanted to play in Uno. I never knew the tough guy he used to be: the red-haired, hard-drinking, angry, physical beast he was before he met Jesus. Those were a lot of the stories we heard at the funeral—stories that woven together spoke of a life of transformation.

During the service, some of my cousins shared poems they’d written about him, and afterward an old friend of the family approached me. “I was surprised we didn’t hear anything from you,” she said. I hadn’t shared anything because I hadn’t written anything.

The truth is, I haven’t written much this last year.

I’ve painted and colored and brainstormed and blogged and read lots of really good novels, but my own creative writing has been a struggle. It’s been a difficult year to be present and attentive, to cultivate the practices necessary for introspection and revelation and seeing the world sacramentally.

Whew. This last year. It was a doozy.

I’m sure it was a beautiful year, too—your first school year, first haircut, first flower girl dress for the eldest; first words, first steps, first birthday for the baby—but it’s hard to remember all those moments of grace. As much as I hate it, the beautiful moments are not the ones that stand out in my memory. It’s the heartache I most remember, I most carry with me. It’s the sobbing on the phone with friends and family who are hurting. It’s the texting conversations about mental illness and unspeakable pain, the sitting in doctors offices to try to share burdens, the taking food to friends who have suffered so much this year. It’s the insomnia and what-if’s and not understanding how yet another person in my close circle of friends could possibly be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, could possibly be carrying this pain for so long, could possibly…could possibly…could possibly…

That was what 2015 felt like to me, girls.

And then Pappy died Christmas Eve and I went back to Pennsylvania to be with my family, to give hugs, to be present. And in the midst of mourning, I heard stories of hope and transformation, stories of courage and Coca-Cola, stories of heartache, loss and love, fatherhood and forgiveness.

These were stories of faith.

Of faith.

I hear those stories and I’m a little bit jealous.

It’s not that I don’t have faith. I do.

And it’s not that I find it harder to believe in, say, the tenets of my faith or God’s faithfulness or the redeeming narrative of scripture, when I am confronted with the world’s pain, with my loved ones’ pain. No, my instinct is still to believe.

It’s just that, well, some days it’s hard to remember how to have faith. Hard to know what that looks like.

Sometimes, I think it simply looks like surviving the day.

Sigh.

2015 was full of a lot of those days. Days of mere survival.

And that’s okay. We made it through, girls.

We made it.

Love,

Your Momma