The Hundred-and-Second Letter: Love Wins (Advent 2)

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Dear Daughters,

This week, I’ve been thinking about love.

That is, I’ve been thinking what it means that God is love.

Silent night, holy night. 
Son of God, Love's pure light.

I’ve also been thinking about what it means for us to love.

People look east and sing today: 
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

I’ve been wondering what it means that God created us to love and showed us how to love selflessly, and that the testimony of Scripture absolutely never lets God’s own people off the hook when it comes to loving others.

And wonders of his love,

I don’t know, maybe it’s because you’re playing all the Christmas carols all the time on the piano, so our typical moratorium on Christmas music during Advent has been a little flexible.

and wonders of his love, 

Or maybe it’s because in Advent we live in this already/not-yet time of believing Jesus came once as a baby and will come again at the end, and in the middle we get to be his Body, the hands and feet of Jesus, as I have maybe said once or twice or a thousand times. We get to do the works of love. We get to be love. We get to be Jesus to the world.

and wonders, wonders of his love.

Girls, I’m also thinking about love a lot because there is so little love coming across the news feed these days. There’s lots of talk about walls and rules and danger and fear. There’s lots of talk about systems getting abused and people not pulling their own weight. There’s lots of talk about guns and money and campaign promises and security and who is going to pay for what.

And into this, girls, we also proclaim that Love, the guest, is on the way.

Love, the Guest.

We’ve actually had a lot of guests in and out over the last two weeks. We made special treats for them. We sat out hot cocoa and coffee and made little signs about the heavy cream being in the frig. We turned on music, lit candles.

We made our space welcoming.

And of course we’re getting ready for overnight guests next weekend and then also the following weekend. Your dad washed the sheets. I made the bed. Tomorrow you’re going to pick up all your toys in the guest room. We took our guests’ preferences into account at the grocery store, as we planned our meals, as we thought about scheduling and logistics.

We want our guests to know they are welcome in our home.

But what does it mean to welcome capital-L Love as a guest? That’s part of what I’m thinking about.

God is love.

Love, the Guest, is on the way.

In addition to our normal Advent activities this year, we’ve been reading about work being done by our denomination’s missionaries all around the globe and right here at home. I picked up a booklet at church that is a year-long prayer initiative, and every day during meals, I try to read to you about a particular missionary family in a particular place doing particular work.

Given the worldwide refugee crisis, I shouldn’t be surprised at what I’m about to tell you, but I’ll admit I have been. Almost every single missionary we have read about–those in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, as well as those in Virginia and North Carolina and Texas–nearly every single one works with displaced peoples, refugee settlement and advocacy, building community with the least of these, for the least of these.

In this day and age, with millions of displaced persons around the globe, this is so obviously to me the work of the Gospel.

Every day, I am talking with you about immigrants and refugees. We talk about those who choose to move and those who are forced to move. We talk about why it’s hard for them to find new homes. We talk about some very big, very hard-to-understand issues. You ask a lot of good questions, and sometimes there are no good answers.

Every day, we are talking about how difficult it would be to have to move and restart our own life somewhere else.

We are praying for these displaced families, and for those who work with them, and when I hear your little voices pray for such big things, every day I can’t help but wonder, here in my own little world, in my own little town, in my own little house: what does it mean to love the least of these?

What does it mean to make space for Love?

What does it mean to live the Gospel?

And specifically, this week, what does it mean to love during Advent? What does it mean to love as we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a baby, and also the coming of Jesus at the end of calendar time?

Because that’s kind of the best thing about Advent: that it’s both. It’s what connects the last week of the church year–Christ the King–with the baby in the manger and with  God’s plan of love from the very beginning.

Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” of course.

And the well-known refrain from the early church is right at the heart of all three “comings” of Advent:

Christ has come. Christ is coming. Christ will come again.

You know what God’s creation of the world teaches us? That Love is at the beginning of the story, searching for us, asking where we are when we most want to hide.

You know what God’s coming into the world as a most-vulnerable baby born to an oppressed people in the “fullness of time” teaches us? That God’s love is perfect.

You know what Christ the King Sunday taught us? That Love wins.

Love’s pure light was from the beginning.

The wonders of God’s love are echoing all around us.

Love will win.

Girls, it already is winning. I see it in you.

Turn off the news.

Love,

Your Momma

Big News!

we live here announcement

P.S. If you enjoy reading the letters I post regularly to my daughters here on the website, I hope you’ll consider helping me spread the word about my most recent book project. It’s the second fifty letters in a tidy 180-page paperback. It makes a great Christmas present!

The Ninetieth Letter: Sunshine & Being Brave

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Dear Daughters,

I sat on one of our plastic Adirondack chairs this afternoon while you were having quiet time. The sun was shining—hot enough that my jeans started to feel prickly—and the breeze was blowing gently, kindly, so I sat and listened to the birds, to the dripping of melting snow under the deck, to the animals scurrying around the yard, to car doors slamming and traffic sirens in the distance. I thought maybe I could even feel my freckles getting darker.

I exaggerate, of course.

I knew the warmth was short-lived because even though the seasons changed over to Spring this week, we have a winter weather advisory scheduled for tonight, and tomorrow will likely be unpleasant. I wanted to enjoy it while I could.

That’s not the whole story though.

Two days ago, and for a few days before that, I would not have been able to appreciate the sun or the birds or the distant traffic and the hot jeans.

The first part of this week felt heavy on my chest, metaphorically and literally. My chest did feel weighed down, like it was difficult to breathe. I was tired and close to tears—oh, who am I kidding? I was actually in tears—quite a bit. I made myself do the things I had to do, I showed up when I had to show up, and I tried to be honest when my friends asked how I was. But life was hard, girls. Very hard. Some days, weeks, seasons are like that.

I have a lot of good people who care about me and are vulnerable with me and support me when I’m able to say that I’m having a rough go.

But it’s still hard to say it.

To really say it.

And, honestly, sometimes I don’t want to say it out loud because I would rather just pretend things are okay. Sometimes that is the easier option, I’ll admit.

It’s one thing to have a bad day and to say, “Today is a bad day, tomorrow will be better,” but it’s another thing to be able to say, “This is more than a bad day, and I don’t have hope that tomorrow will be better.”

That’s how I felt earlier in the week.

Getting a shower on those days was a huge achievement. I didn’t do any writing. I set my goals low and often didn’t achieve them. I was glad when things were cancelled for the weather. I didn’t sleep well, didn’t feel well.

And then yesterday, I woke up and something had shifted. It was just a little shift, but homeschooling felt manageable. We got a lot done, and we had fun. We ran an errand to WalMart after preschool pickup, and you know how I feel about WalMart, which means that surviving that errand helped me feel like I was WonderWoman and there was hope I could get through anything.

That little glimmer of hope made a big difference in the day yesterday.

Today, as I sat out on the deck in the sunshine with my eyes closed, I was thinking about bravery.

I’ve read a lot of books recently about brave women, in both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve read you a lot of books about brave women, because I’m making an effort to get nonfiction books from the library for you. And your dad reads real-life-hero stories to you from the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls before bed each night.

And when I’m thinking about real-life brave women, I wonder if I am brave like them.

I wonder if I would have courage in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

I wonder if I would continue to send you to school in Pakistan and risk your safety when girls were forbidden to be educated.

I wonder if I would be brave enough to point to injustice and say NO.

I wonder if I would be brave enough.

Girls, I wonder if I am brave.

My normal day-to-day life doesn’t require much bravery, to be honest. Not in any of the big ways. Not in any of the life-at-risk ways. Not in a Nazi-occupied Europe kind of way.

But sometimes, sometimes, just living life is brave.

Just trying not to be afraid is brave. Just the trying. Even if not succeeding.

Just showing up is brave.

Just sitting in the sunshine and finding gratitude for a day that does not feel too heavy is brave.

Just reading a novel is brave, picking up a paintbrush is brave, chopping vegetables, opening your front door, answering “How are you?” honestly.

Just writing these letters is brave.

And sometimes, sometimes, that is enough.

Love,

Your Momma

 

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-Sixth Letter: Changing Seasons

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Dear Daughters,

Today is Fat Tuesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So many journeys.

Seasons change.

Life changes.

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

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.

Tomorrow is also Valentines Day.

Friday is Chinese New Year.

Your cousins are coming to stay with us this weekend.

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

Yesterday my amazing friend came home from the hospital.

Today, one of you woke up with pink eye.

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

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

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

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

Your grandparents will be here the following weekend.

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

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

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

A friend is beginning her dissertation.

A friend is working on her marriage.

A friend is starting a business.

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

Life changes.

And we keep on going, together.

Sometimes eating fastnachts. Sometimes gathering for prayer.

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

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

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

This is how you live community.

This is how you love your people.

You live in the season you’re in.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Seventy-Fourth Letter: The Me I Want You to Be

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Dear Daughters,

Last week, the five-year-old announced that you wanted to be just like me when you grow up. You were watching me hand-letter a sign, as you are prone to do, standing there mesmerized, and so I knew what you meant: that you wanted to be an artist like me, that you want to learn to hand-letter, that you want to be a painter who makes beautiful things. Some day.

But, I’ll be real, when you said you wanted to be just like me, my first thought was about all the ways I hope you are not like me. I thought about how often I lose my temper, for example, how I can be unreasonable with my expectations. How I worry too much, get anxious and listless and unsettled inside. How I need to self-talk myself down off the ledge. How I’m selfish and prideful and really want to flee some days. Maybe even every day at some point, if I’m honest with myself.

Sure, I would love for you to be an artist or a writer, or an academic like your dad, but more than that, I want you to be many other important things. I want you to be brave and vulnerable, courageous and compassionate, calm and trustworthy and loving, truth-seeking and honest, full of conviction and kind, articulate and dissatisfied with the status quo.

I am some of those things, but I am not all of those things.

I’m not saying I’m a failure when I get worried, when I snap at you and scold you and am unreasonable. I’m a good mom, and I know I am. But I wonder sometimes how to teach you to be brave when I myself do not feel brave, to teach you not to worry when I myself am worried, to teach you to love strangers when I myself want to be by myself.

And the truth is, I can only take it one day at a time, one moment at a time. And in some of those moments I will fail.

Right now I am sitting outside at the picnic table and the two of you are playing explorers in the yard. (I want you to love being outside, even though it’s not my favorite thing.) You’re picking green beans and putting them into your sandbucket. And you’re eating them. (I gave you permission. I want you to love the garden and fresh food and crunchy beans.) You’re hot and sweaty already. (I want you to know it’s okay to not always be comfortable.) You’re crawling up the slide backwards. (I want you to know it’s okay to be creative in interpreting the rules.) You’ve got bug spray on your legs and sneakers on your feet. (I want you to know how to care for yourself.)

Yesterday you were barefoot and sliced your foot open on a broken walnut shell. I was working on a poem up on the porch but you began screaming and sobbing about blood, and that was the end of poetry for the day. I was annoyed, even as I cared for you, but I want you to I know that I will always choose you over any project in front of me, even if I do it begrudgingly some days. I am still becoming my best self; there is still work to be done. Your foot is still hurting today.

In recent weeks, I’ve had some opportunities to show you in small ways what brave and courageous looks like, even when I have not wanted to. I flew with the two of you to visit your grandma at her beautiful island home. The trip requires two flights to get there, and two flights with two children and one adult is not exactly my favorite traveling situation. (Also, less importantly, I played with you in the ocean despite my ridiculous and unaccountable fear of sharks.) And then last week, I drove the two of you to Pennsylvania so you could see your new cousin, two sets of grandparents, a great-grandma, and your great-great-grandma. Girls, this kind of trip, no matter how many times I do it and no matter how many times it turns out okay, is tough for me. On Wednesday night before we left, I lay awake in bed for hours and tried to think of all the reasons I could to back out of our trip. For hours.

But we went and we got to see some loved ones. We got to meet your brand-new cousin and get baby snuggles, finally got to meet my college friend’s husband. We went to Perkins with Great-Great-Grandma and she gave you each four quarters. We ate candy and peanut-butter-banana sandwiches with Great-Grandma and her dogs made you cry. I got to see a childhood best friend and her girls, and we took a picture with our matching Subarus.

In other news, I also turned the wrong way on the turnpike and had to go thirty miles out of my way. I went west instead of east on interstate loop in bumper-to-bumper traffic and made an already-too-long trip even more interminable. I kept my cool both those times. I really did. Outwardly.

But this is life: I did lose my temper a few times in the car, by the end, especially on the way home when interstate construction extended our drive by four hours. I yelled and even cried more than once. Literally cried. I was not at my best, but I’m a work in progress.

I feel like I’m still recovering, two days later. Maybe it’s because there had been so much weight following me around while I was trying to be brave for you and pretend I was not as overwhelmed as I was. I don’t single-parent well.

Yesterday, I didn’t unpack and do laundry. (For the record, the basement flooded twice while we were gone, so laundry would have been impossible given the furniture piled up in the laundry room. Your dad is the real superhero who vacuumed up dozens of gallons of water twice, moved furniture, propped up carpets, made myriad Lowe’s runs, and now has fans blowing on everything.)

By the end of the day yesterday, the sink was full of dirty dishes and I did not wash them. I did not even look at the to-do list from before the trip that I knew was mostly incomplete. I did not pay the stack of bills, even though I knew that the end of the month was approaching. I saw the pile of crafts and artwork that had accumulated at the end of the school year and planned to take photos of all of them so I could finally, finally toss them out. But I didn’t. I left the table and the buffet covered in art and mail and craft supplies.

But you know what I did do? Your dad and I said morning prayers together. I took a shower. I took you to gymnastics class and then to the playground to play just for the fun of it. While on the playground I surprised myself by showing you how I can still hang from my knees on the monkey bars. When we got home, I cut a jar full of day lilies, a few branches of rose of sharon, and flowering thyme to put on our dining room table. I did not clear off the table first. Not a bit. I chose to add beauty instead of organizing the chaos. Then I went back outside and cut three jars of fresh oregano and basil to keep them from flowering, and I brought them inside to the windowsill above the sink. Then I went back outside and cut some fresh mint to brew sun tea on the back porch. During quiet time, I hand-lettered some postcards. You followed me around and commented on everything I did.

And I did not mention to you how I was feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. I did not tell you about the things I was not accomplishing.

Instead, I helped you see that life is in the one-moment-at-a-time experiences of cutting flowers and pinching basil and picking green beans and making beauty.

Because I really believe that if I show you that often enough—what bravery feels like, what beauty feels like, what love and compassion feels like—even if I’m floundering inside, well, I really believe that I will someday become those things myself.

And then you can be just like me when you grow up.

I’ll be okay with that.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Ninth Letter: Am I Sheltering You?

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Dear Daughters,

Sometimes I worry that I am sheltering you too much.

Okay, actually, I worry about this a lot.

You really got bothered by the Ghost of Christmas Future in the Mickey Mouse version of A Christmas Carol this last Advent. The Mickey Mouse version. Your dad and I did not see that coming. But, of course, it’s about dying as well as greed, hostility, selfishness, and callousness, and you take those things to heart.

Because you are sensitive souls. Especially the eldest.

Sometimes I worry that you are sensitive because I am protecting you from Bad Things. Because you don’t know how the world “is.”

I look around at my community and it looks pretty homogeneous, and so even though we make an effort to buy books for you with diverse protagonists, and we even ask others to buy them for you, I still think sometimes, Am I sheltering you too much?

Yesterday, after we marched with our small town to remind others and ourselves that we stand for equality and that there is still work to be done, I talked to you about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started out by talking out about how we are all children of God, created in the image of God. This you understood. This you embraced. Because this you know.

But then I told you that there are some people who don’t believe this, and that before I was born, there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who helped us to see how unfair it was to treat people differently because they looked different from us. He was a preacher and people listened to him. But not everyone was happy with what he was saying. People said bad things and did bad things.

As your eyes welled up with tears, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. You cannot wrap your brain around someone being mistreated because she looks different than you do. You get sad when you see sadness. You cry when I cry, even if you don’t know why. I know this about you, and I saw it in your eyes, but it was important to me that you knew the truth of this story.

Still, I didn’t know how much truth to tell. When you asked if Dr. King was still alive, I told you he was not. You wanted to know what happened, and so I told you.

This was too much truth, and I could see it in your expression as you processed, in the change in your breathing. You got nervous.

I switched gears and talked about Old Testament prophets instead. And we talked about people in the Bible who died because others got upset when they preached truth, when they preached the message that God needed us to hear.

I kept circling around to the message that we are all children of God, how important it is to remember that we are all created in God’s image. This seemed like the thing to focus on. It’s also on my mind because of a Desmond Tutu book I’m reading.

But your little brain was still working, and despite your insistence that you were okay, those blue eyes were filled with tears.

That’s when I realized it. It is scary to you that people have died because they believe we are all children of God. It is scary because you believe we are all children of God. Because your dad and I believe we are all children of God.

I checked again to see if you were okay because you have this habit of trying to be brave. You say things like, “I’m fine, but my eyes are just watering,” when you are not fooling anyone. Your heart is so sensitive.

You asked to be excused from the table, and you went into your room to play.

A few minutes later, you began to sob. Loudly. You came out of your room, sobbing. Sobbing. Sobbing.

I sat down on the big gray chair in the living room to hold you, to offer comfort, knowing what it is like myself to be overwhelmed with emotion at the pain of the world. I asked you if you were afraid, and you told me, No.

“Just sad,” you said.

Just sad.

This morning, awake at 4 am with insomnia, I began to think again about whether you are too sheltered from the bad of the world.

The thing is, on a lighter note, it’s hard for me to get too worked up that you find Disney bad guys scary because you haven’t yet been made numb to the archvillain cartoon type. The fact that you haven’t been exposed to the bad guys means you also haven’t been overly exposed to the “good” guys, the princes saving the princesses, or the princesses themselves, which are to some degree just as dangerous, given the concerns they introduce regarding self-image, cultural biases, and understandings of what happily-ever-after love looks like. So I don’t care that you find caricatured scary dudes scary. The fact that you’re sheltered in your media exposure is fine with me.

But what about real life?

Well, I know that your dad and I have gotten a lot of things wrong in the last four years of “real life” parenting. I know that our faith calls us to love more, be more vulnerable, live less selfishly, speak truth more openly–and to teach you to do the same. We often fail at this. Over and over and over again, we fail. We are aware of these failings most days, and I hope we continue to challenge ourselves to live more faithfully to our callings.

But when it comes to sheltering you, to worrying about whether you’re exposed to enough “bad” things, well, I think I need to let this worry go.

For example, not many two- and four-year-olds have attended, in the last six months, their town’s first gay pride festival and picnic, witnessed their mother heading to the polls–twice, actually, given that the first time I went our precinct had run out of paper ballots–attended a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth fundraiser where we heard about state environmental and political concerns, and marched in an MLK day parade sponsored by our NAACP.

That’s real life, girls.

When you ask questions about people watering their lawns, we talk about water supply issues in Africa. (I’m not above a little indoctrination.) We talk with you about the great work your grandpa is doing with ex-convicts in Pennsylvania, and how he studies the Bible alongside inmates and visits those who don’t have friends or family members to visit them. When you talk about Christmas presents and Santa, we talk about the least fortunate. We make you sort your belongings and give things away on St. Nicholas Day. When we collect items for a Christmas Share-the-Joy family in our community, we talk about how there are very real people living in our neighborhoods who don’t have enough food to have a Christmas dinner, who don’t have fun things like brightly colored toothbrushes and yummy watermelon fluoride-free toothpaste. You walked with your preschool class to the food bank on Main Street and took a tour.

And the truth is, it’s not all words. You have been exposed to people who are different from us, but I work really hard, even when my heart isn’t in it, to not let you know that they are different from us.

We have friends and acquaintances with a variety of incomes, but we treat them all the same. We have shared our table with folks on fixed incomes and government assistance, who otherwise eat in soup kitchens, and we share our table with college professors. We try to treat them all the same. You have shared your goldfish and your sandbox with neighborhood children who don’t have milk in their homes to eat with their breakfast cereal, and you’ve shared your sandbox with children of dual-income earning parents. I try to teach you to treat them all the same.

When there are shady characters passing us on the street, and I have that stirring of fear so enculturated into me, that distrust of the stranger, it is important to me that you see me greet them with a friendly “Hello.” I refuse to teach you stranger danger, because I do not think that is the gospel message. (Many of my mom friends disagree with me on this. But we disagree on a lot of things. Like princess movies.)

All of that to say, when I read the Gospels, especially the words of Jesus, I know that we have miles to go before we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. I know that there is work to be done inside these four walls, and there is work to be done in our neighborhood, and there is work to be done in our city, our state, and our country. There is a lot of work to be done. I could be loving better, offering more hospitality, making more deliberate strides toward repairing the divisions I see in this world. We have not yet done enough.

Still, I do not think you are sensitive because you are sheltered, because you haven’t been exposed to enough bad things, because your world is curated and protective and safe. No, quite honestly, I think you are sensitive because I am sensitive. A lot of it is genetic.

But to the extent that it isn’t genetic, I want to affirm your sensitivities, your quickness to feel the pain of others, and not unwittingly numb it out of you by overexposure. I want to affirm your sensitive soul because it shows me you are on the road to compassion, journeying toward a heart breaking over the suffering of this world, toward an awareness that this world is not the way God intended it to be, toward a vocation to love.

And that is right where you should be.

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 Fifty-Fifth Letter: Paper Chains and Gratitude

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Dear Daughters,

One of our daily Advent activities last week was to make paper chains, the old-school kind made out of strips of construction paper. When I wrote that entry on our Advent calendar a few weeks ago, I didn’t have anything brilliant in mind. I thought it would be a fun way to decorate a little bit for Christmas, since we do it progressively throughout the season, but that was about it.

Then, the day we were to make it, I thought, I know! We’ll write down the names of people we’re grateful for, one on each strip. And I gave myself a little metaphoric pat on the back for being such an amazing mom.

And it was a good idea. We’ll probably make some sort of annual tradition out of it.

On the day we made the chains, though, I also said that we would pray for everyone as we wrote their names down. This did not really happen. And, quite honestly, “writing down people we are grateful for” turned into “listing everyone the four-year-old knows.”

It took a lot of prompting to just get the important folks written down–grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles–because the list got a little cluttered with the names of parents of the eldest’s friends, the names of children of my friends, the names of teachers and random people who go to church with us. Yes, it’s a pretty eclectic group of folks listed inside these paper chains that hang in the living room.

But there is beauty here, in the hodgepodge.

As I was prompting the eldest for names, I mentioned the girls’ great-great-grandmother. As it so happens, the youngest shares a name with this amazing woman. We love Great-Great-Grandma Troutman. She’s one of my favorite pen-pals, and we write back and forth every few months. She even sent me some money to buy some little gifts for the girls for Christmas. Great-Great-Gram is in her 90s.

We wrote her name down, and then, not to be left out, the eldest suggested we also write down the name of my maternal grandmother, with whom the eldest shares a name. I paused momentarily, thrown off-guard, because she passed away before you were born, and I had only been thinking in terms of friends and family members who are living. But the eldest didn’t notice my pause. She kept repeating it: “Momma, Grandma Clara, write her down, I’m grateful for her too!”

And, of course, we did write her down.

Because, of course, I am grateful to this beloved woman. I’ve written a lot about her, and think of her often. I miss her and, in some ways, am surprised sometimes to realize she is gone, surprised that my girls have never met her, surprised that she never knew me as a mother.

A few months ago, when I was asked to share my faith journey at church, I began thinking about my spiritual inheritance. I thought of my grandma and I thought of others who’ve nourished me on my journey. It’s so important to consider these things, girls. It’s important to know our roots.

And water our roots.

I think we do that by remembering and telling stories. I think we do that by loving other people in the ways we have ourselves been loved. I think we do that by realizing we are not special, we are not deserving of the love that has paved the way for our journeys, but we are fortunate that the love did indeed do just that.

Because it did. It does.

Yes, I am so grateful to my grandmother, to all of my grandparents and great-parents who’ve passed on but left pieces of them behind for me to ponder in my heart. There’s Ginny’s chocolate chip cookies and tapioca pudding. Grandma Woodward’s drawn out “niiiiiiiiice.” Pappy Sands’s Twin Tamarack campground and coach bus. Pappy Lehman’s Uno-playing and swiping of the shot glass from that bourbon tasting when he visited us in Kentucky. Jeanie-Beanie’s signature on our birthday cards that included her imaginary friends. Doc’s “slow, Catholic way” of parking his boat. I can hear him saying that.

And those are just the first few that come to mind.

There are also my friends, too, who have passed, who remain with me in real and special ways. I think of Katy, especially, with her teapot and cookies and linen napkins. Don reading his love poems at the church talent show. Marilyn always coming over to greet our guests at church, saying she was my Kentucky grandmother.

I have been fortunate to know and to love so many people, fortunate to have been loved by so many peopleAnd so have you.

It would be impossible to make a paper chain that captured all of this love, all of this gratitude.

But it makes me happy that we’ve got a small reflection of that love strung up in the living room. 

Two more weeks of Advent, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

 

The Fifty-First Letter: Love vs. Fear

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Dear Daughters,

Three or four months ago, I had a conversation with friends who are a few decades older than I am. Politics came up, because it always does. I made the comment that, although I realized the political situation seemed dire with so much at stake, I was pretty confident that in the scheme of things, the turmoil of this moment too would pass. And, I continued, no matter the outcome, it wouldn’t end up being as dire as it seemed right then.

My friends disagreed.

This was dire, they said. We are in desperate times, they said. So much is at stake, they said.

They made it sound end-of-the-world apocalyptic-ish, and these are not apocalyptic-predicting folks. (Trust me, because I know some of those kind of folks, too.)

Well, girls, let me be candid. When I read Scripture, that’s not the message I read.

Recently, your children’s Bible poignantly paraphrased Jesus’ words to his disciples after he calmed the storm. Jesus asked his friends, “Why did you believe your fears instead of me?”

I heard your dad read that question out loud, and I’ve heard it dozens of times before as we’ve paraded through these stories, but for some reason it really settled into my heart that night.

Why did you believe your fears instead of me?

I’ve been trying to avoid writing anything political in any sort of public place, and though it is an impossible task, I’ve tried to avoid reading what people I love are saying about politics. Because these well-meaning, Christian people whom I love dearly are saying some very unloving things (or at least sharing links to words that are very unloving).

The thing is, I am blessed to be friends with folks of all political convictions, people who hold their convictions tightly and have well-thought out reasons to support the political parties they support. It’s good to have friends with varying perspectives and life experiences. In fact, I feel fortunate to have friends with whom I disagree, because it does help me to think more objectively about difficult issues.

But lately, in trying to be honest about their own convictions, many of my friends have said unkind things.

Girls, they are saying these unloving things because they are afraid.

They are saying these unloving things because they believe that much is at stake. Too much is at stake. It seems they think everything is at stake.

And yet I read the gospel, and I am studying the history of the early church, and I hear Jesus saying to me, “Why are you believing your fears instead of me?”

I remember being taught as a young evangelical child that the basic message at the heart of the New Testament was to love God first, neighbors second, and ourselves last. JOY was the pneumonic used to drive it home. I’ll probably teach it to you, too. Jesus. Others. Yourself. JOY.

As an adult in this season of life, raising children in my thirties, being a leader in my church, sending down roots in this place we call home, every single time I open the Gospels, I am convicted that I am not loving others enough.

I am convicted that the call to serve Jesus and serve the Kingdom of God is a radical and difficult journey of love. Love is hard. All the time.

That journey of love is one of vulnerability, not security. That journey is one of hospitality, not fear of the stranger. That journey is one of healing, not sowing division. That journey treats all life as sacred, even those we see as dangerous, those who seem threatening to our way of life.

That journey of love? Well, it challenges our way of life.

Because that’s the point. There shouldn’t be any “our” in what we are trying to protect.

This life was never “ours” to begin with.

And so I ask myself frequently, what is the way of life the Kingdom has called me to, still calls me to?

What I know is that it is pure grace that pulls me along to see in scripture, to see in my neighbor, to see in your bright eyes and compassionate souls what I know to be true even when I am tired and scared and worried about your future.

What I know to be true is the gospel.

It’s a gospel of hard, vulnerable, compassionate love.

It’s the gospel of this-world-is-not-your-home.

It’s the gospel of nothing-is-as-dire-as-it-seems.

It is the gospel of the-least-of-these are at the heart of the Kingdom.

I hope you see this radical love at the heart of the gospel message, girls.

And I hope you don’t believe your fears instead of Jesus.

You’ll have fears, girls, lots of them. I know I do. But that’s when I turn to the words of Jesus. It sounds so cheesy, but there you have it.

In the life I see him leading, I can’t find any reason to make excuses about my safety, my financial security, even the safety of my family.

It’s reassuring to me to know that you won’t read these letters for at least another decade. By that time the crazy political season of 2016 will just be a blip in the history of our country. You might not even be able to remember who the candidate was that lost the election. (This is hard for me to imagine, but I’ve been amazed at how little the current college students know or remember about events that seem so pivotal in my own memories. Then again, they were your age when the Towers fell in 2001.)

Yes, I am confident this election’s anger and hostility and everything-is-at-stake chaos will fade.

But you know what won’t fade?

The way of love you are called to. The way of life I am called to.

And if you hear me in ten or twenty years making excuses about why I can’t love my neighbor as myself, you can remind me of that question Jesus asked his disciples, these friends who had already seen him feed the 5000, cast out demons, and heal the sick: “Why did you believe your fears instead of me?”

You can ask me that, girls. I will need to hear it.

Love,

Your Momma