The Ninety-Seventh Letter: Sacrament and the Trinity

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Dear Daughters,

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

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

And of course she was right.

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

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

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

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

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

I write a lot about attentiveness and why it matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it is a call to love.

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

A call to love.

Love,

Your Momma

 

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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 Seventieth Letter: Taking Off the Sunglasses

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Dear Daughters,

Last week, at breakfast, the three-year-old announced, “When you wear sunglasses, it looks like rain. But when you don’t wear sunglasses, it looks sunny.

She was referring to our walk home from preschool pick-up the day before, which was a relatively sunny day with a few whispy clouds scattered across a bright blue sky. She had looked up from her stroller to say that it looked like it was going to rain. Since this was clearly not the case, I told her it only looked like that because she was wearing sunglasses.

A few hours after her profound announcement at breakfast, I was pushing that stroller again on a run, and I began to hear those words as a metaphor:

When you wear sunglasses, it looks like rain.

When you don’t wear sunglasses, it looks sunny.

I started thinking about how, sometimes, when we wear sunglasses to protect our eyes, to protect our vision, our skin, ourselves, we mis-see. We see the sky as threatening when it isn’t.

Apparently I get philosophical as I’m pushing forty pounds of kid up hills during my running intervals.

I started wondering: How often do I innocently attempt to protect myself and my children and my world–in the guise of what’s best for the girls, what’s best for our budget, what’s practical or impractical about the radical command to love our neighbors when there really isn’t anything practical about that kind of love? When I do that, when I try to be safe, well, then I end up seeing a threat where there is none.

Sometimes we see stranger-danger instead of who-is-my-neighbor. We prefer to see friendship with likeminded folks rather than awkward conversations with those who are hurting. We prefer to see a cheery “I’m fine” instead of an honest answer to how-are-ya’ll-today. We prefer to see new and glossy rather than hand-me-down or recycled. We prefer to see how expensive that local organic tomato is rather than the slave-industry-riddled cheaper off-season tomato in the grocery store.

We see and we do not see, while we are protecting our eyes.

Yes, this feels like a metaphor. And now I find myself preaching.

Sigh.

This week, your new baby cousin was born. She came early and quick. She’s a beauty. Sunday will be mothers day. Yesterday, a friend told me she was unexpectedly pregnant. Also yesterday, another friend told me she was disappointingly not pregnant.

There is so much depth and pain and joy wrapped up in these things. So much sunshine. So much rain.

This week, I dropped my iPhone–gently! It barely fell from waist height!–and the back of it splintered into myriad pieces. I shouldn’t have felt so broken inside when I saw the damage, but I did, I’ll be honest. I felt the frustrations of things and accidents and what-the-heck. And then a friend told me her daughter is unaccounted for this week, and my annoyances are put in perspective.

But loss is hard. It weighs us down. And there is so much heartache. So much brokenness. So much frustration of living in this broken world.

This weekend we went to IKEA and ate meatballs and bought some shelving and stuffed animals and water pitchers. While there, I got a text from a friend with a history of trauma and mental illness. It’s striking to be so #IKEAFORTHEWIN and yet so utterly grounded in conversations of brokenness and sadness and pain.

This week, the college students wrap up their semester and some of our sweet friends are graduating. And these young people give me hope. They are strong in their convictions. I know a twenty-something about to leave for the Peace Corps. These friends don’t just think they might change the world–they actually are changing the world. They inspire me, with their offerings to the broken world.

This week, I got overwhelmed by world events and national news. As I do a lot these days. It seems to be compounding. And so this week we once again turned to late-night television (that is, a day after it airs, on YouTube, because ain’t nobody staying up that late in this house), and your dad and I laugh together because we might otherwise cry, but laughter is good for the soul.

Girls, sometimes the problems seem so big.

And sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes I think all I need to do is take off the sunglasses.

And sometimes I can actually see the world the way it is.

The way it was meant to be.

Created. Holy. Pure grace.

Well, I think I can see that sometimes. That grace. That voice of God.

I can hear it in your words, for sure, as they echo in my heart when I’m still enough to listen.

I can hear it in my friends’ voices shared in mom groups and Bible studies, over texts and e-mails and Facebook messages. Sure, it’s easiest in the laughter and joy and friendship and wholeness.

But I want to be able to see it in the broken places.

I’ll confess that I’m not there yet, not this week. I’m struggling to see it.

But grace is there, too, in the struggle. That’s where it is most evident, I think.

So I’ll keep looking. And, of course, I’ll keep listening to your voices.

I definitely need to hear them.

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 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

 

The Third Letter: The Important Things

Dear Daughters,

I really like lists.

Before trips I make lists, we keep a running grocery list, and my journals have always consisted of lists upon lists—gratitude, to-do items, prayer requests, essay and blog and poem ideas. I write them on post-it notes, on the backs of envelopes and scrap paper, in the margins of books, on graph paper I keep on a clipboard. If you look in my purse, books I have only half-read, my striped go-everywhere bag, back pockets of unwashed jeans, under the seat in the car, you’ll probably find some of my lists.

When I was pregnant the first time around, I went on a retreat with one of the women’s groups from our church, and the theme of the weekend was “Of This I Am Certain.” Prior to the retreat, we were encouraged to think about the things that are most important to us and, what’s more, the things we hold deeply and with certainty.

I made a list:

* The red sock will always turn pink if you wash it with your 
    load of bleached whites.
* It is always better to invite someone in, to share food, 
    to listen, to cook from scratch.
* Few things in life are as rewarding as freshly baked bread.
* There will always be enough food at the potluck, so don’t 
   hesitate to invite more into your home.
* Exercise is never a bad idea.
* Checking your e-mail will always take longer than the 
   few minutes left on the oven timer.
* Community is hard work.
* Memorizing Scripture is always a good idea.
* Recording what you are grateful for will make you more grateful.
* Thank-you notes will never go out of style.

That’s it. And that’s the order the items came to me at the time. You’ll find the original list handwritten in the first pregnancy journal.

Maybe you can tell, but my train of thought has always been nonlinear (so less like a train and more like a… traffic jam), and I almost never number my lists—just bullet points, or check marks, or arrows. Actually, lots of arrows. And squiggles. And underlines and asterisks and usually multiple colors of ink, as I’ve gone back and added more items.

I’m really good at the brainstorming stage of the writing process, by the way.

When I was pregnant the second time around, I decided to write a second “Of This I Am Certain” list, without going back and reviewing the first. Only two years had passed, but I was curious what would strike me as worthy of being called “certain.” In that pregnancy journal, you’ll find these goodies:

* Hand-written notes are always a good idea, and 
   making them personal is important—thank yous, 
   condolences, encouragement, love.
* Coffee is good to drink for social reasons, but 
   tea is better.
* An item's value and quality is more clear after it’s been 
   handed down—that new leather couch might be fake leather 
   but you wouldn’t know it until it flakes off.
* Sitting, resting, reflecting, and making lists of 
   gratitude, of prayers, is what mental health is.
* Crying is okay. Never feel bad about it.
* Having friends who are older than you, who have 
   made it through, will get you through.
* Keeping in touch with people is all your responsibility. 
   If your friendships fade, blame yourself and do 
   something about it.
* Always invite someone to eat—there will be enough.
* Making bread for other people is never a bad idea.
* You shouldn’t write things down you don’t want other 
   people to read. Ever.
* You don’t need to clean up for guests, but organizing 
   the clutter might make you feel better, let’s be honest.
* There are always things you can do to help people.
* Public libraries are great resources.

It’s now a year after I wrote this list, three years after the first one. Are these the certain things?

You’ll notice that neither time did I think to put religious belief on these lists.

Why is that, I wonder? It seems strange, considering I am a Sunday school teacher, have been in the pew all my life, even when it was a folding chair at youth group, have been ordained as a deacon. You know. I’ve got the street cred of Christianity.

And I am happy to confess the creeds, which are, of course, lists.

Does an “Of This I Am Certain” list need to include an “I believe” statement? Should it all be “I believe” statements?

Huh.

Maybe the reason I didn’t include religious belief or faith issues here–didn’t even think to include them either time–is that I take the lists of religious belief for granted. That you’ll believe, too. That those are the easy things to believe.

The hard things to believe are the nitty-gritty people-in-your-home kinds of things, the dirt-on-your-floor kinds of things, the being-real-people-in-the-real-world kinds of things.

The being-hands-and-feet-of-Jesus kinds of things.

Which is really why we confess those other lists, right? We do these things because we believe those things.

At least, I hope you will do these things. Because they really are important.

I’m certain.

Your Momma