The Ninety-Third Letter: Make Space for Stories

51559AC2-876D-48B4-833A-5B8CF2025406

Dear Daughters,

A friend I’ve gotten to know this last year wept beside me yesterday as she shared about her mom’s death and the dark times that followed the loss. We were sitting in our homeschool practicum training together—not exactly the space you’d expect vulnerable sharing to take place—and I ended up needing a tissue, too, just sitting beside her, touching her shoulder, listening to her words.

The thing is, I hadn’t known that piece of her story until yesterday, because even though we’ve shared classroom life together for the last year, even though I’ve been to her house and bought eggs from her and eaten weekly packed lunches across the table from one another, there was never really an opportunity to share our stories. There was always lots of chaos and kids and chatter and distraction and pretty much no vulnerability.

Girls, today is Fathers Day. I could write about how amazing your dad is or how amazing my two dads are or about God the Father, but instead I want to talk about our stories and why we need to do better at offering them, listening to them, and providing space to hear them.

This morning I saw the daughter of a friend weeping in church, and because I do know a piece of her story and the pain related to fatherhood in her testimony, my heart felt heavy for her. So heavy. I wanted to say, it’s okay, this is a heavy day, it’s a complicated day, go ahead and cry in church, you are welcome here. I wanted to say so many things.

Then I started looking around our sanctuary and my heart felt even heavier because even though I saw folks I see every single week, I realized how many people’s fatherhood stories I don’t know—mourning fathers, absent fathers, broken families—and how much pain there certainly was right alongside me in the pew. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there was plenty of joy alongside me, too, but on Hallmark holidays, the silent stories are usually sad and complicated ones.)

Girls, I’ve been thinking about this idea of not knowing others well enough to really know their stories.

But if we don’t know people’s stories, we can’t be part of their story. We can’t rejoice with them. We can’t mourn with them. We can’t remember with them.

We can’t do life with them. Not really.

And we certainly can’t be the Kingdom of God to them.

One of the (unexpectedly) best things about being a writer is that when I share something personal in a public forum, I’m nearly always tracked down afterwards so folks can offer me a “me, too” story in response. Sometimes it’s a text or an email or a direct message. Sometimes it’s catching me in the hall at church or sending me a letter in the mail.

But I’ve found that by going first, by being vulnerable, especially in a public way, it provides an opportunity for others to share the hard things.

It might seem like everyone wants to keep private things private—I myself am a pretty private person and it doesn’t come naturally to me to share vulnerably—but when someone realizes that you’ve been through the same thing, cried the same tears, felt the same frustrations, prayed the same prayers, they often do want to tell their story.

Because we’re never as alone as we think we are.

It is hard though.

It’s hard to share the hard things. It’s hard to even make the space for the relationship that leads to the conversations that enables the honesty.

It’s so much easier to just say we’re okay.

But please don’t, girls.

Please make the space for the hard conversations. The honest conversations. The relationships that empower others to be vulnerable.

There’s no easy how-to for any of that, of course. It’s not something I can do for you, and I don’t know how it happens.

But I do know that those relationships, those stories, are where the Kingdom of God is.

I’m sure of it.

Love,

Your Momma

Advertisements

The Seventy-Eighth Letter: To-Do Lists & Kingdom Work

IMG_0609

Dear Daughters,

I’ve jotted lots of notes to myself in recent weeks listing items I want to write to you about. Memories I want to capture. Nuggets of wisdom that seem worthy of recording. What I’m learning about life, about mothering, about myself.

The problem is that I know that the things I manage to record for you in these letters and in your individual journals take on significance. Those writings begin to outweigh actual memories—in a way they become the actual memories in this season.

And that’s okay, but it makes it hard to start writing sometimes. Especially when what I want to write feels ordinary, a brief glimpse of the sacred in the midst of what is an otherwise ordinary life.

For example, Tuesdays are exhausting. I’m writing this on Tuesday. I’m exhausted. I had a rough night last night insomnia-wise, and this morning our weekly homeschool class met, which means I lead two and a half hours of activity for a group of nine 4-6 year olds. They are a sweet bunch of kids, and I’m enjoying it significantly more than I expected to (or than anyone who knows me at all expected me to). Even the rowdy kiddos are charming and kind and I have such compassion for them.

There is probably nothing short of providential intervention going on there, by the way, stepping in and giving me patience, offering me glimpses of the holy in the midst of squirming and interrupting. I believe in providential intervention, even on this small scale.

That said, Tuesdays still exhaust me, even though it’s fun and rewarding Kingdom work.

We got home this afternoon, and I painted while you had some brief quiet time. After that, I offered to let you go outside and play. I’m convinced that unstructured full-body creative play is key to your brain and body development as well as your creativity, and it’s one of the reasons I homeschool.

As usual I have a long running to-do list, but I decided to put it aside and rest myself. I made a cup of tea, grabbed a book I’m reading, post-its, a pencil, and my planner-prayer guide-journal, and sat down on the back deck. As I breathed and reflected and enjoyed my tea, I decided I did want to write you a letter after all, so I went inside to get my laptop.

I began to write.

And then I was interrupted.

As usual.

The youngest came over to announce that her sister “FOUND AN ANT CAWWYING SOMETHING WIWWY WEIRD! YOU HAVE TO COME SEE!”

Seriously, child? (This is what I thought to myself.) I do not want to come over there to check out an ant. I’ve seen ants. You’ve seen ants. They’re kind of all the same. I’m doing some important meditative work here. Also, I’m writing you a letter. You will appreciate this someday. Sigh.

And then, and then I felt this little nudge I’ve been feeling a lot the last two weeks. It’s a small and quiet question that I feel deep in my heart:

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

I’m serious. I can feel that question in my heart. What is important to the Kingdom of God? It comes in striking contrast to however I am feeling. And you know what I always hear as the answer? It’s always clear as day. It’s this, as cheesy and obvious as it seems:

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

It’s like a little catechism question that just pops up out of nowhere.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

Okay, let’s be real. It’s decidedly not out of nowhere. It’s been popping up whenever I’ve been frustrated or worn out or just want to do what I think is important. Because if it’s on a to-do list, it must be important, right?

It has happened when I’m all set to work on a big project and a text comes through from a friend asking if she can stop by.

It has happened when I’m outside and a neighbor walks by who wants to talk.

It has happened at book group meetings, reading group meetings, church meetings. (Maybe it’s because of my general distaste for meetings that makes me in need of the Spirit’s nudge.)

It’s happened often enough that I told your dad about it. He and I have long kidded about my ability to collect “stray people,” as he calls them. Whether they are strangers or friends or neighbors, people I encounter in my ordinary life often stop and talk. And I mean talk about serious things, not just fluffy chitchat.

Why is that?

And why is my instinct always to be a little bit annoyed on the inside, even when I know it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be?

Well, that’s probably why I am continuing to learn this lesson, here in my thirties. And that’s probably why the nudges aren’t slowing—if anything, they’re coming more and more often.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

I had a meeting a few weeks ago and it was running long and I really just wanted to go home and go to bed but clearly someone needed to get something off her chest and needed someone else to listen to her. I heard the question again. What is important to the Kingdom of God? People…

I came home from that meeting, apologized for being late, and posed the question to your dad: What is important to the Kingdom of God? We chuckled and sighed. Yeah, yeah. We both knew the answer.

The thing is, you are people. You are the Kingdom work in front of me. So are my neighbors. So are strangers who cross my path. So is my friend whose mother is dying of cancer out of state, my pregnant friend in Texas, my grandmother who deserves another hand-written letter.

And yes, of course my art and my writing and my editing and my long to-do list are ALSO kingdom work. They are. Using my gifts for the Kingdom is Kingdom work.

But this. I keep hearing it.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

I can’t get away from that still small voice nudging me to this conclusion:

Interruptions are as important to the Kingdom of God as the to-do list is.

It happened yesterday when the five-year-old really wanted to make a craft out of your Solar System coloring page you’d brought home from the library last week. You had conceived of the whole idea yourself and brought me a paper towel tube and the string, but you needed me to cut holes in the tube, figure out how to fish the string through, look up the order of the planets which I should know but don’t. It was a minor request but I was planning to finish up my class prep and begin dinner, and the craft was not urgent but I had already put it off twice when you asked me before. I also knew it would take longer than you thought. I knew it would eat up the rest of the afternoon until your dad came home. Because these things always do.

But then came that nudge again.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

Sigh.

So we made the Solar System with the blue sun. And it did take the rest of the afternoon. And we ate dinner late.

But it is such a privilege to see your mind figuring things out, dreaming up crafts, seeking answers to questions you are barely able to articulate yourself. If I can’t pause and acknowledge the beauty of you, of life alongside you, I probably shouldn’t be preaching a Gospel of sacramental living to the world.

And now back to the “wiwwy weird” thing that the ant was carrying this afternoon.

Well, I got up, put down my laptop—which by the way was down to 4 percent battery and I just hadn’t realized it—and she was right. It was pretty weird. It was a yellowjacket. The ant was carrying a yellowjacket up the trunk of a large tree in the corner of our yard. We watched it together for awhile climbing on the tree bark, and we wondered about God’s creation and how we never cease to be amazed.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

Love,

Your Momma

The Seventy-Seventh Letter: Hatred, Privilege, & the Kingdom of God

IMG_0179

Dear Daughters,

Yesterday, while hatred and violence were trying to force the last word in Charlottesville, Virginia, things were relatively normal for a Saturday in our little town.

Your dad and I had quiet time on the deck while you woke slowly, drank milk, watched your goofy Wonder Pets show. We all ate breakfast at the pace of grace, chatted about our plan for the day: mowing the lawn and working outside, making a second batch of tomato sauce, sorting through your clothing and changing out the hand-me-downs that have recently been showered on us, organizing an upstairs closet to fit in some of the keepsakes we brought home from Pennsylvania last week. It looked to be a normal and uneventful yet productive Saturday.

I drove the Bean to the market to buy a cantaloupe, our 3 dozen eggs, two quarts of peaches, and a large box of canning tomatoes. As you strapped yourself back into the car—you love that we’ve finally permitted you to start sitting in a booster seat and can buckle your own seatbelt—you asked me what the tall brick building was over there. Our weekly farmer’s market takes place in a large parking lot downtown, behind the courthouse. The building you were asking me about was the detention center.

I wasn’t sure how to answer you because I know from other conversations that you get anxious when I talk about police officers arresting people, about folks breaking the law and going to jail, about the various reasons that people make poor decisions and end up getting in trouble. In general, I think honesty is the best policy in these conversations, but when possible, I try to keep your eyes from filling with tears.

You are both my sweet, sensitive girls, and you get your teariness from your momma.

So I heard myself explaining in the simplest terms possible that it was a detention center and that it was where police officers brought people who had broken laws, where those people came while the officers and detectives tried to figure out what happened and why it happened. (I don’t exactly know what goes on in a detention center, quite honestly, but this seemed like an okay answer to me.)

You started to get nervous about people getting arrested—this always seems to haunt you, that someone you know and love will get put in jail. I don’t know where these fears come from, especially since you’re pretty much in a bubble with no media exposure and don’t really understand what “jail” is, but those fears are there.

And so, yesterday morning, as we drove the half-mile home from the market, only a few hours before the violence would come to a head in Charlottesville, with me completely unaware of what was happening a few states away, I assured you and reassured you that you didn’t need to worry.

You didn’t need to worry because everyone you love follows the law and respects all people, I said, because it’s only people who don’t obey the law who get in trouble, because a police officer’s job is to enforce the law, and there is nothing arbitrary about that. The message I was telling you to calm your fears is that our system is trustworthy.

And yet, even as I said those things, I could feel the weight on my chest growing, that sense of foreboding, knowing that the world I described is not the real world.

Well, the thing is, it is the real world for you because you are privileged. You are white. You have hyper-educated parents with huge doses of social capital not just in this community but in the world at large. You live in a white-dominant town and nobody sees you as a threat. I can assure you that you have no reason to fear the police, to fear jail, because it is only a slight exaggeration when I say that you do have no reason to fear.

But

But

But

The world is a broken place.

And what is true for you is not true for all children.

There are streets in our very own small town where children do have reasons to fear that their parents may well be victims of crimes and also perpetrators of crimes, where they may even be suspected of crimes simply because of their poverty or their skin color.

This is the world we live in.

And it is absolutely unacceptable, girls.

It is absolutely unacceptable that in our country of freedom and “blind” justice and equal opportunity, you–we–have a special place of privilege because of our skin color and economic class.

You are my beloved children, but I will tell you this straight up: you are not more special than any other child born to any other parent anywhere on this planet. You are not more special than a child in a refugee camp in Syria or a victim of sex-trafficking in the Philippines. You are not more special than a Black child in Charlottesville or the son or daughter of a white supremacist in Kentucky.

You are all—we are all—children of God.

This morning in church we heard a sermon that was quite unusual for our (let’s face it) mostly-boring, mostly-white, mostly-old, hymn-singing church. Our pastor denounced injustice publicly and articulately, condemned all perpetrators of violent crime, criticized those within the church and our government who excuse violence as a means to peace—even on the national level, and challenged us to never be silent in the face of injustice. Our pastor was riled up, and rightly so.

And then our church, this mostly-boring, mostly-white, mostly-old, hymn-singing church, stood and clapped and I’m pretty sure even cheered a bit when he was done.

Girls, our church pretty much only claps for children’s choir performances. And we definitely don’t give standing ovations.

But we did today, and it wasn’t because we were applauding for our pastor. We were standing and clapping because HE SPOKE TRUTH. The Kingdom of God that Jesus tells us about in the New Testament—over and over and over again with word pictures and stories and miracles and healings—that Kingdom has NO ROOM FOR HATRED.

That Kingdom is real and it is here and as long as we call ourselves Christians we better be breaking the bonds of injustice that have tied up communities all across this world.

I have so many words and all the feelings and I don’t know what else to do but preach to you and to anyone else who will listen.

If a sermon on justice can get my church on its feet, well, you better believe it’s a message worth shouting from the rooftops.

Violence is unacceptable.

The message of the Gospel is peace.

In Christ, there is no longer male nor female,

Jew nor Greek,

Black nor white,

American nor refugee,

North Korean nor South Korean,

gay nor straight…

we are all children of God.

We are all children of privilege.

We are all children of peace.

Love,

Your Momma

The Seventy-Sixth Letter: Afterthought Seeds & Garden Confessions

imagejpeg_0

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