The Ninety-Eighth Letter: Seasons Change

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Dear Daughters,

I probably overuse the word “season.” Seasons of the calendar year. Seasons of the church year. Seasons of life. Seasons of parenting. TV shows. Growing seasons. Canning seasons.

Repetition. Change. Growth. Death. Winter. Advent. New Life. Planting. Premieres. Easter. Sowing. Learning to read. Summer. Harvesting. Finales. Canning. Frost. Fall. Repetition.

Yes, I do love that seasons change. I’m especially partial to autumn and all of its cliched crispness in the air and stunning leaves. Even the satiny red leaves of our sweet gum tree out front almost make up for the annoying sweet gum nuts that litter our driveway the whole year long.

Seasons change, and some seasons come back around, but we’re never quite the same as we were the last time through.

That encourages me.

I mentioned in my last letter that I was recently asked to share about my faith journey and vocation by a professor friend who teaches theology at our local college. When I asked her what she was expecting from me during the hour I was to share, she mentioned that I might want to read some of my writing and display some art.

The art part was relatively easy to decide, especially because I knew I wanted to share the logos and graphics I’ve designed for local organizations. (That fits into vocation, right?)

But the writing part wasn’t as obvious to me as I started sifting through the myriad places my writing about vocation exists: on my computer, in notebooks of all sorts, in these letters, of course, in the collection of poetry your dad and I published last year.

I started reading and reading and reading.

And, I’ll be honest, what I should read to the class didn’t become much more clear.

What did become clear was just how quickly seasons can change.

When I started writing letters to you online, I was working through a lot of issues related to mothering and vocation and survival. I was just beginning my creative journey and hadn’t started making art yet. I was in my early thirties but trying to figure a lot of things out. I was dissatisfied but probing. And I certainly would have never imagined the life I have now, especially the homeschooling part of it. I even wrote an early letter about how excited I was for you to be going to school some day. That I would rejoice to see you go.

This was only four years ago, girls.

In the poems I skimmed, I uncovered so much wonder and hope, conviction and transformation, grief and anxiety. I have poems from before you were born, often saved in Word documents in a monthly file I used to email to my writing group. I have poems of pregnancy, poems of labor and delivery. I see glimpses of both of you as babies in those words, a life deep with metaphor even in those exhausting, mind-numbing months of postpartum haze. Your own growing vocabulary and ability is sprinkled throughout many of the poems, too, as well as references to the toys strewn across the floor, so many cups of tea, my Pyrex bowls, and our fixer-upper house. There are lots of poems about your dad, and also poems about relatives we’ve lost over the last decade.

Through it all, girls, I can trace my growing appreciation for what life is now, in this current season.

This current season.

And I am grateful that seasons change.

That you didn’t stay babies, for example. (I mean, I’m seriously grateful on that one.)

That I’ve released a lot of the weight I initially felt about mothering and the cynicism I felt about others who seemed to find holiness here.

That I now call myself an artist and a writer and not feel awkward about it.

That my life is full to the brim with vocation and meaning.

In rereading my own words, I can recognize how I myself have changed in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

There was a time when I couldn’t manage to take you both to the grocery store at the same time, but I now know I can single-parent on airplane flights and 10-hour road trips.

Girls, I wonder sometimes how you will remember this season of life, what glimpses you’ll remember from childhood that will carry you through later seasons. I can’t know, of course.

But I do know that at least you’ll have these letters.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

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The Eighty-Seventh Letter: Lent & Unseasonable Weather

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Dear Daughters,

“It’s not SUPER cool, Mom. It’s AWESOMELY cool.”

That’s what the 5 year old said, watching the storm clouds moving in this morning while we sat outside on the deck in the unseasonably warm weather before the rest of the family was up. We were listening to the birds, admiring the colors strewn across the sky, watching the squirrels dance in the trees.

What is “unseasonable” weather anyway? Well, probably 80 degrees in February with your kids playing in the sandbox in shorts while you sit out at the picnic table trying to finish up a freelance project.

That was us yesterday. Obviously.

But I’m not complaining about it.

What I have been complaining about in my heart is how unseasonal my heart is feeling about Lent.

But then I had an epiphany in my letters to God this week.

I was asking what it’s means to be thoughtful during Lent, to be intentional in this season of life and this season of liturgy, and this is what I started to write:

Lent — it comes from words about lengthening, about Spring, about lengthening days.

Lengthening days mean plants leaning toward the light. The ground and the world waking from slumber. Our hearts awakening from winter.

Is it somber? Sure, we acknowledge our own finitude and our utter dependence on God, that it isn’t all of our striving and achieving that brings the trees to blossom but God’s utter transforming, life-giving, ever-creating, ever-new power.

And God doesn’t just do the minimum. God doesn’t just create a world in which water and sunlight miraculously cause plants tho break out of their seed pods and burst up through the mud of early spring, but a world in which the byproduct of human breath is the exact thing plants “breathe in” and vice versa. And the same word for that breath is the Holy Spirit, not coincidentally.

No, God remains graciously able and willing to transform ash into green palms, while we are only able to live a life of the opposite—green palms turning to ash. We are unable to keep the world spinning. We are unable to burst forth blooms. We are unable to turn death into life.

We are unable.

But we live the season of Lent, and that is not only ash and death and sin and mourning. That is a season of lengthening days and new life and hope and giving up our independence in favor of unseasonably warm weather and rain storms and barefoot-in-the-sandbox.

Lent is not just singing “Were You There?” at the Ash Wednesday service, it is also learning “What Wondrous Love Is This?” as a new bedtime hymn.

Lent is not just a finger sliced open from the serated bread knife yesterday, it is also the tulips bursting through the ground over the weekend.

Lent is not just the broken egg in the carton leaking all over the frig, but the beauty of the thwp-thwp-thwp of the flock of birds circling overhead this morning.

Lent is not just the anxiety and pink eyes and snotty noses and allergy medicines and children’s nightmares and waking to find Billy Graham had passed away, but a child who loves our current readaloud book because, she says, “I can picture everything that is happening!”

Lent is ash, but Lent is palms.

Lent is death, but Lent is life.

It’s a both/and.

Every year.

No matter the weather.

And there’s nothing unseasonable about that.

Love,
Your Momma

The Eighty-Third Letter: The Stranger Is Jesus

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Dear Daughters,

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

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

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

I don’t want you to fear the stranger.

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

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

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

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

I’m convinced this is not a metaphor.

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

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

Are you the only stranger…?

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

Because, of course, Jesus is the stranger.

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

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

They let the stranger become the host.

They let the stranger offer something to them.

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

A shared table. With a stranger.

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

Chains shall he break, 
for the slave is our brother

gets me every time.

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

That the stranger is our brother.

The stranger.

Jesus is our brother.

Jesus is the stranger.

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

Fear not.

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

Think about that for a minute.

 

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

So, yeah.

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

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

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

Love,

Your Momma

The Seventy-Sixth Letter: Afterthought Seeds & Garden Confessions

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Dear Daughters,

Deep breath.

I went out to pick veggies in our garden this afternoon and when I saw a weedy-looking tree sapling growing by the carrots, I pulled it out vigorously and tossed it into the yard with some other weeds. (I was a little surprised a sapling had grown up without my noticing it before, but I was pleased with my effort to rip it out.)

A minute later, I noticed another one just like it on the other side of the carrots, and that’s when I realized I had just yanked one of our two baby blueberry bushes.

Sigh.

Because it has been one of those days, the whole episode feels like a metaphor somehow:

Trying so patiently to grow something beautiful and then in a moment of carelessness, long before the seasons it will take to bear fruit, yanking it out by the roots.

And then haphazardly trying to bury it back down in the ground again, digging down to the good soil with your fingernails, watering deeply and thoroughly with a gallon-jug from the recycling bin.

Praying you haven’t done too much damage.

So much metaphor.

Girls, your dad and I have a reputation for being gardeny people, and I will confess to you that much of that reputation is decidedly undeserved. Clearly.

Sure, he grew up on a farm, and sure, I remember weeding at Grandma Lehman’s house in the summers, trying to learn the difference between weeds and flowers that she seemed to just know instinctively. I never could figure it out. Clearly.

But much of what your dad and I do know about gardening comes from trial-and-error-flavored conviction, and it started in some rather not-garden-friendly soil in Waco.

Since those early days of gardening as newlyweds in the Texas heat, we have gardened on and off, more or less, depending on the year. Some years we tilled up a huge plot in the yard. One of those years the whole plot flooded during heavy rain and our seeds washed away. Some years we helped out with our church’s community garden. Some years we’ve supported local farmers rather than grow our own veggies.

But we have this reputation as foody, gardeny, earthy people. Probably because your dad taught food ethics and had the students involved with a garden on campus property. And probably because people in Kentucky all know who Wendell Berry is. Probably also because I’ve written articles about the unexpected blessings of community gardens. And probably because I can be kind of preachy about things like fresh foods and cooking from scratch and the Mennonite cookbooks and, well, you know. You know I’m preachy.

Still, I confess to you, I feel like a newbie every time I plant a garden. Why can’t we ever get zucchini and squash plants to grow? Why do we never get enough cucumbers to pickle when other people we know have prolific harvests? Why did our cabbage shoot to two feet tall and then get eaten by bugs? Why does the basil planted at our house never grow to the heights of the same basil we plant at the community garden at the church?

I will never know the answers to these questions. (Except the cabbage one. I asked a farmer at the market about that and he gave me some advice.)

And also, I feel like an amateur because no matter how much we do end up growing, no matter our successes and failures, I am completely astounded by the miracle of every single flower that appears on our plants. And when it comes to harvesting actual vegetables we can eat? I mean, girls, I am as excited about it as you are. It feels so undeserved. It feels like privilege. It is.

I mean, how the heck do these seeds work? How does good soil and some watering and some sunshine produce such undeserved bounty? It’s no wonder so many parables are about seeds and growing and provision and the Kingdom of God.

If I’m not careful, I’m going to start preaching again.

And you get so excited about the green beans in particular. You’re proud of yourselves that you can take your little red sandbucket over to the garden and find yourself a snack.

This year, we have a raised bed the length of the house. We’ve got the aforementioned blueberry bushes, which will hopefully remain plural, and I did buy some other veggie plants on sale late in the season, but much of what is growing out there right now in the muggy heat of this late-July day was from afterthought seeds dug out of our freezer, tossed into the ground without much planning.

Without much planning and without expectation that they would grow. (We didn’t know if the freezing had preserved the seeds or not. It was trial and error in that regard too. We don’t remember when the seeds were originally purchased.)

The dozens of beans you’ve picked this year all came from those afterthought seeds.

I’m astounded.

I’m serious. Every time that something grows, I am astounded at the miracle of it.

I really am.

Today, after pulling out that blueberry bush and chiding myself—half embarrassed and half angry, I’ll admit—the garden yielded a half-dozen carrots, a cucumber, a handful of beans, and four cherry tomatoes.

It’s not much but it’s still hope incarnate.

It’s the Kingdom of God, right here in our garden.

It’s God’s faithfulness exhibited in the goodness of creation, the goodness of wonder and taste and dirt and roots.

It’s poetry, girls. Poetry.

And so, I’m clinging to that goodness, that faithfulness, that hope: maybe the blueberry bush will make it.

Maybe.

Because this whole gardening business is just chock-full of metaphor. Even the mess-ups.

Love,

Your Momma

The Seventy-Fifth Letter: Shame on Me

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Dear Daughters, 

I am tall, brown-haired, freckled, and strong-willed. I am a writer, a poet, a blogger, and an editor. I am a friend, a mother, a Christian, and a Baptist, begrudgingly. I am a sister, a daughter, a painter. I am creative, a runner, hungry, tired, and thirsty. I am thirty-three, glasses-wearing, not showered, and relatively comfortable in my own skin. I am a reader, not an athlete, a tea-drinker, empathetic, and a complainer. I am someone who sees people, a lover of school supplies, a sender of notes through the mail, and a Subaru Outback driver. I am good at memorization, an academic at heart, someone who gets furious at injustice, and impressed by the things a three-year-old can learn. I am a lover of fresh paper. I am in a tiring season of life, trying to find balance, and trying to figure out what balance is. I am kind of phobic about people germs on grocery carts and not phobic about actual dirt. I am annoyed easily and not as patient as I should be. I am a pretty awesome mom. I am talented, smart, and healthy. I am a texter.

What a random list, right?

It almost reads like a poem. (Well, maybe except the last add-on one about being a texter.) It’s not a poem, though. It’s actually a list of fifty “I am ____” statements.

I grouped the bulleted list of fifty items into sentences so there was less repetition as I typed them up, but this is otherwise exactly the order the statements came to me during a brainstorming and freewriting exercise while sitting in an Artist’s Way class session back in the fall of 2015.

A few months after making this list for the Artist’s Way, I was on a guided retreat and tasked with the exact same thing: jotting down fifty “I am ____” statements as quickly as possible.

And then this last spring I made the list yet again—not fifty this time, but twenty-five—for a different writing project.

Yes, three times I’ve done this basic exercise in three years.

Try it a few dozen times. Fill in the blank: I am _____. And then do it again and again and again.

Are you curious how similar my three lists are, over that amount of time?

I sure was, so I just dug out those old notebooks and compared them. (This is the benefit of keeping old notebooks of nonsense writing.)

Of the fifty, only eleven items made it onto all three “I am ____” lists: tall, mother, daughter, sister, friend, tea-drinker, poet, empathetic, freckled, glasses-wearing, and driver of an Outback.

Seriously. Those are apparently some of the things that come to my mind when I need to make a long list of things related to my identity, especially if I have to make the list quickly. That I’m freckled. The type of car I drive. That I drink tea. That I’m empathetic.

You know what didn’t show up on any of the lists?

The glaring absence from each of the lists that I’m feeling convicted about?

It’s so obvious and so absent that, I’ll confess, it makes me a little unsettled deep in soul.

That I’m white.

Not once did it cross my mind to include “white” on these lists.

Girls, I’ve been thinking about race a lot lately, and I’ve been really convicted about the fact that I have the privilege to not think about it if I don’t want to.

I don’t know how to go about writing this letter, but I know I need to write it. I need to write it because I want you to know that even in my determination as a parent to provide you with books and movies with non-white, non-male protagonists, even in my attempts to be open and welcoming to our community, even in the ways I teach you that Jesus tells us to care for those who are not in positions of power, yes, even in all the ways I parent you so that you see every person as worthy of your time and attention and love, you are coming into the world to a place of privilege. I don’t want you to take that for granted or pretend that it’s not the case, and I don’t know how to go about talking about it without feeling awkward and embarrassed. I don’t know how to talk about it except to talk about it.

And keep talking about it.

This year, it’s been impossible for me not to think about race, and I’m not only referring to media coverage and the general socio-politico-cultural climate that has so polarized discussions in the media. Race and ethnicity played a huge role in the election last year and continue to play a huge role in recent months—discrimination, charges of reverse discrimination, immigration, refugee policy. And I can see with my own eyes the way race divides our country—it divides our town, it divides neighborhoods, churches, friend circles, accessibility to education and healthcare and myriad things I can’t possibly take into account because I am so blinded by the ways my race protects me. From talking to your grandfather who witnesses on a regular basis the way racism plays a role within the prison system, I know our justice system is struggling, too, though it’s easy to pretend America has all that justice-is-blind stuff figured out.

Girls, because so many systems are broken, and because we are broken people, race divides us.

Achingly and painfully.

And I’ll be honest: I’m embarrassed about my lack of thoughtfulness on the subject.

Achingly and painfully.

I’m embarrassed that I take my whiteness for granted, that it’s not even an afterthought. It’s a three-years-after-I-write-the-list-thought.

What I mean is, I didn’t even notice the absence on all three lists.

What I mean is, shame on me.

I guess what’s even more embarrassing is that what’s gotten me thinking about race this year is not current events so much as the books I’ve been reading for pleasure. Because I’m a literary nerd through and through, I think about the books I read a lot. Story is the way to my heart.

Of the twenty-one books I’ve read this year, just over half have been explicitly about race. After the first handful of them, I began to think that it wasn’t just a coincidence. Every time I opened a book, the dividing power of race was leaping off the page, and it’s been convicting. I’ve been wondering in recent weeks if the universe was trying to send me a message about race and my place of privilege.

The most recent selection was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but I’ve managed to read books—selected by my two non-overlapping reading groups—about the modern African American experience (both fiction and nonfiction), the Nigerian immigrant experience in the USA and the UK, race in the 60s, the Vietnam War, growing up Chinese in the USA, a leper colony in Hawaii, the slave trade and Ghanaian tribal warfare, and apartheid in South Africa.

Most of these books have been excellent. And most of them have challenged and convicted me, especially the way I take for granted the extent to which my own whiteness protects me.

I have no idea what it is like to not be white.

And I’ll say it again: shame on me for not even noticing.

Shame on us for pretending we know what it is like to be “other,” when we have never experienced otherness, when we are surrounded by people like us, in the pew, on our streets, when we—I’m talking about our close community—are more educated than the average American, healthier than the average American, with a safety net of community and family, with an inherent trust that the system has got our back and that justice is blind.

That this is how I experience the world—and I’m sure you will too—is, plain and simple, privilege.

Let’s not shy away from the shame of privilege.

It should make us uncomfortable.

But—and hear this, too, alongside the shame—it should not swallow us up.

I have a friend who always quotes Mr. Rogers on this: “Look for the helpers.”

That is, look for those folks who are working already to remedy injustice, to shine light into the darkness, to bring justice to the powerless.

Remain convicted, girls, that the world needs changing, and do not let yourselves off the hook, but also, also do not give up hope that it can be changed.

Though we have a long way to go for any of this brokenness to even begin to be healed, a long embarrassing heartbreaking overwhelming way, I promise you that there is hope to be found even now in the small cracks of light shining into the darkness.

There is always hope to be found in the midst of brokenness and injustice.

I’m not naively optimistic when I say the healing of divisions is possible.

I see the message of the Gospel—the clear, impossible-to-ignore message—of the Kingdom transforming the powers of this world, flipping the systems of injustice and holding those in power to account for the mistreatment of the less privileged. I believe that the church has a role to play in preaching the light into the darkness, and I think we can see prophetic voices in our own day calling for justice and, what’s more, tangibly working for it in towns across our nation.

I also see hope in the work of nonprofits trying to bring a fairness ordinance to my town and petitioning for the rights of ex-convicts, those organizations tutoring young elementary children in reading and other basic skills and offering mentorship relationships, my friends who are unflinching in their calling and petitioning of politicians who aren’t walking the streets of neighborhoods and seeing firsthand the effects of poverty and prejudice on their constituents. There is hope in these books that I’m reading, these books that won’t let me off the hook, that force me to see a world I can so easily ignore, that send story deep into my bones.

And I see hope in you.

I see how free you are of the cultural baggage of fearing the stranger. I see how it breaks your heart when we talk about people being treated unfairly. I see how you can’t fathom why people are mean.

Last night, we were watching a Charlie Brown movie as a family, and there were some bullies being mean to Charlie and his friends. You kept asking if they were really being mean or just pretending, and so your dad told you that they really were being mean, but if you would look closely, you would see that usually mean people are really just sad inside. He wanted you to have empathy, even for the unjust, and yet be aware of the reality of brokenness and cruelty.

You took this to heart, and I know you kept thinking about that because you asked me about it this morning, about how people can be so sad that they are mean to other people. I didn’t know what to tell you. But your lack of understanding in the face of injustice and sadness offers me a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Girls, the world is so broken. We can’t shy away from identifying injustice, even if it means calling out our own privilege and shame at the way we have benefited from the broken system. I want you to call a spade a spade, and to see me doing the same.

Don’t be discouraged by how broken the world is. See that brokenness, call it out as the injustice it is, and work to fix it. And when your are most frustrated, most broken-hearted, most anxious and afraid, I want you to look for the helpers. Gather them around you. Encourage one another to keep going. They need you.

And I need you.

Keep me on task, girls. Don’t let me off the hook.

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

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Dear Daughters,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, girl, it is not almost Christmas.

But I understand why you might be confused.

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

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

Advent is four weeks long.

Then it will be Christmas.

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

You love this as we do it.

Every year, you get so excited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true with the liturgical calendar, girls.

This last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday. 

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

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

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

And that’s okay.

But that’s not our family’s tradition.

Our tradition is to wait.

And waiting is hard.

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

And you were okay with it.

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

Love,

Your Momma

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 Forty-Seventh Letter: What You’ll Be When You Grow Up

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Dear Daughters,

When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher told my friend Katie and me that she hoped her daughter would grow up to be like us one day.

Señora actually said that.

Her daughter was probably in early elementary school then, which means she is now older than we were when we were in high school. Sigh.

But on that day, we were staying after school to help with something in her classroom. It might have been when we were seniors and our classes were officially over but we were there hanging out before graduation. Taking bulletin boards down. Filing away books. We were nerds like that, so it’s imaginable.

And we’d had Señora for a few years. She knew us pretty well.

Still, I remember being surprised at her comment, surprised that she thought so highly of us. That she wanted her daughter to be like us.

That’s huge, right?

Well, I know now what it is like to be a mother with daughters.

I know what it is like to see strong, smart, beautiful women, so confident and courageous and determined to make a difference in the world, so full of conviction and love, to see those young women and think of you and of what you will be in the world, do in the world, how you will live in the world, how you will love in the world.

Because that’s what Señora was really saying. She was talking more about her daughter than about us.

Sort of like how in these letters when I’m talking about myself and telling my random stories, I’m really talking about you, my dreams for you, writing my stories for you.

Because you are the words of my stories, the strokes of the brush in my paintings, the captions in my photos, the tap-tap-tap of the keys right here in front of me as I type this.

I can’t believe there have been nearly fifty letters so far. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, I think of an idea for a letter. But life usually gets in the way, so I tuck those ideas down into the pockets of my heart, or if I’m lucky the pages of a journal, and hope to revisit those thoughts some day.

And some days I do.

I’m still friends with Katie. She’s got two little girls herself, her youngest almost exactly the same age as you, Goose. Less than a week difference in your birthdays, I think. I’m guessing she knows what it’s like to wonder about their futures, because that’s what we moms do. On our lesser days, we think of all the bad things that could happen. But on our better days, it’s not worry. On our best days, it’s all dreams of grace and courage and confidence and love.

That’s the you I want you to see as you read through these letters. The you that I can already see you to be, the you that embodies all the wonder and sacrament and joy and heartache of being the hands and feet of Jesus in the word.

You know what?

Katie texted me a picture the other day. The caption for the photo came through before the photo itself did.

Guess who I found at Panera today?!?!? Katie exclaimed, with her typical excitement. And when the picture popped up, you know what it was?

It was Katie standing beside Señora.

And that’s when I remembered what she had said those sixteen years ago to a younger version of myself.

And that’s when I wanted to write you this letter.

Love,

Your Momma

The Forty-Fourth Letter: I’m Still Patriotic

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Dear Daughters,

A half dozen years ago or so, I received a phone call from a federal agent because a friend of mine worked for the government and needed security clearance. The government was looking into her history, which had involved much time spent overseas, and so the agent wanted to ask longterm friends about her. I was happy to chat with him because my friend is top-notch: brilliant, amazing, compassionate, and talented.

In the midst of our long conversation–it was a lot more thorough than I had expected it to be–the agent asked if I would use the word “patriotic” to describe my friend. Patriotic.

“They asked me if you were patriotic,” I told her later.

“They did?” she asked me. “What did you tell them?”

It’s such a strange thing to evaluate about someone else.

Because my birthday is just before Independence Day, I’ve always had a soft spot for fireworks and the red-white-and-blue combination of colors.

Whenever I’m in an airport going through customs, I feel a little twinge of pride to be able to queue up in the “U.S. Passport Holder” line.

My grandfather was a 101st Airborne paratrooper in World War II, and he earned a Bronze Star for defending a bridge with a bazooka. By himself.

I was raised in a family that votes, and I vote.

As a kid, we went on myriad Washington DC daytrips from central Pennsylvania and saw the famous monuments, went to the Smithsonian Museums. I remember my dad lifting a woman up so she could trace someone’s name from the Vietnam War Memorial.

I remember singing “Danny Boy” as part of our high school honors choir concert at a local church for Veterans Day.

I never had a problem saying the Pledge of Allegiance in high school. I was, however, less than thrilled with my fellow students who not only did not say the Pledge but refused even to stand.

Here’s a random side note: because our high school principal, who led us in the Pledge over the loud speaker every morning, didn’t pause after “nation” in the typical way of most Americans (“one nation [pause] under God [pause] indivisible [pause]….”) and instead said “onenationunderGod” quickly, I still say it differently than most people.

 

Though I don’t come across as very political, these days, I’ll confess I’m still sentimental about songs like “Proud to Be an American.” My Uncle Larry always sang it back when we were part of the Family Circle, our family’s traveling gospel group.

The thing is, I am proud to be an American.

The other thing is, I think Americans get a lot of things wrong.

But it doesn’t mean I’m not patriotic, not a good citizen.

I am patriotic.

And I’m a political moderate. At least, I assume I am a moderate because about half of what I hear from one side sounds crazy and about half of what I hear from the other side sounds crazy.

To listen to the news, you wouldn’t think that I exist. You’d think there were only extreme views of conservative or liberal. I even hear this among my friends who feel strongly about politics, by the way. Everything is us versus them.

I don’t know what happened to an America that allowed for a diversity of voices, but it’s not today’s America as far as I can tell.

Girls, there is a lot of unpleasantness in the political news cycle these days.

That’s the understatement of the year, by the way.

Many months of political campaigning has culminated in the Republican National Convention this past week. The Democrats will have theirs next week. The upcoming fall is guaranteed to be nasty and cruel. We’ve succeeded in choosing two of the most polarizing candidates in American history. So many accusations. So much hostility.

So much unhappiness.

 

I’m tempted toward fear and anger sometimes, embarrassment sometimes, sometimes just paralysis because a remedy seems impossible.

But then I hear the preschooler recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I’ll confess it had never crossed my mind to teach you. You learned it last fall at your twice-weekly preschool at a local Baptist church. You pause after the “one nation” like all good little Americans do. One nation. Under God. Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.

And then at the end, right after “justice for all,” you raise your voice and begin singing.

AMEEEEEEERICA, AMEEEEEERICA,

God shed his grace on theeeeeee,

and crowned thy gooooood

with br00000otherhood from sea to SHINING SEA!

 

And in the in the midst of that off-key loveliness–especially since for many months you sang “motherhood” instead of “brotherhood”–how can I not be patriotic?

How can I not think about my grandfather risking his life with his bazooka poised to take out a tank singlehandedly? How can I not be grateful?

How can I not think of the woman on my dad’s shoulders, tracing a loved one’s name? How can I not be grateful?

How can I not remember the Lincoln and Washington Monuments, the Smithsonians? How can I not be grateful?

How can I not hear Uncle Larry singing “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free”? How can I not be grateful?

I am patriotic. I am a political moderate. And I know that the double stroller doesn’t fit through the door of our polling location–because I vote.

But I always give you the sticker.

Love,

Your Momma