The Ninety-Seventh Letter: Sacrament and the Trinity

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Dear Daughters,

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

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

And of course she was right.

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

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

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

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

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

I write a lot about attentiveness and why it matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it is a call to love.

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

A call to love.

Love,

Your Momma

 

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The Eighty-First Letter: Busyness & Keeping the Lights Along the Shore

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Dear Daughters,

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy 
from his lighthouse evermore, 
but to us he gives the keeping 
of the lights along the shore.

This morning began at 4 am when the fire alarm in the downstairs hallway began to chirp. After the third chirp, I woke your dad. He stumbled into the hallway to wait with me for the sound because I can’t reach the alarm in the upstairs hallway. After another chirp, it was obvious that it was coming from the downstairs hallway, which I could have reached.

After a drink of water, we went back to bed. I tried, at least. A little while later, I heard crying in the hallway, and knew it was you. Whenever you need to go to the bathroom, you wake up your big sister and ask her to come with you. Half asleep, she agrees, crawling down out of her bunk bed. She always wants to deposit you in front of our door, but you don’t want to be left alone in the dark. That’s where I found both of you this morning. I sent number one back to bed and accompanied number two to the bathroom, and then you asked to crawl into bed with us.

When I am struggling to sleep, I like having you there to focus on. I rub your back. Listen to your breathing. Accept the arms you reach toward me. I often fall asleep deeply to your steady breathing at that point, and my back aches as a result the next day. This morning was no different. You and I slept that way until long after your dad and big sister got up. I woke to the Bean practicing her piano, which I assume was your dad’s way of gently waking us up.

Let the lower lights be burning! 
Send a gleam across the way! 
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, 
you may rescue, you may save.

Mondays always feel like they are full of promise to me. I’m good at to-do lists, and this week’s is long, as we head toward Thanksgiving next week. There’s art to work on, some pieces that need to be finished by this weekend, writing deadlines fast approaching if I want to meet some personal goals, and normal homeschooling and church commitments, of course, which are myriad this time of year. There’s company at the end of this week, and other company next week. The preschool Thanksgiving feast is Tuesday. Wednesday night is the community-wide meal served at the elementary school. There’s our own potluck Thanksgiving meal, followed by a regular Thanksgiving meal tailored to our own preferences. And more pie, because, pie. Always pie. There’s deacon family communion next Sunday. Today is the last day of the after-school reading camp I volunteer with, but that means a special program on Wednesday to celebrate the students’ achievements. Tomorrow night we’re celebrating birthdays with friends and Thai food, so there was cake to be made, cake I hadn’t planned to make until 4:30 pm when I realized if I were to ice it tomorrow, it would need to be cooled tonight. Tomorrow morning is our weekly co-op, and there is no time in the morning. Friday is your dad’s birthday. Sigh.

The promise of Mondays? Well, it usually fades at some point while jotting down my lists and checking the calendar and texting back and forth with your dad about the to-do items we forgot. Signing up for health insurance. Renewing the car registration. Ordering more contacts. And we still haven’t decided about the organic, heritage breed turkey.

Dark the night of sin has settled, 
loud the angry billows roar. 
Eager eyes are watching, longing, 
for the lights along the shore.

Girls, there is always more to be done than I am able to get done. More than anyone is able to get done. People are busy, and everyone says so, and everyone is tired. The more I think about real relationships and being vulnerable and cultivating a community that supports one another, the more convinced I am that the go-to answer to “how are you?” being “busy, busy” is really hurting our communities. It’s pretty much as unhelpful as “fine” in shutting down all conversation. Yes, I know, life is busy. Everyone is busy. But how are you?

And what I want to say is this: I’m at the point in my life where I’ve decided to embrace busy-ness as an opportunity to only focus on the lighthouse light, to focus on keeping the lower lights burning.

What I mean is, because there is always going to be more to do than I can do, I’m going to go ahead and say yes to lighthouse things. And not worry about items that fall off the list. (Or rather, that get put on next week’s list and the week after and the week after.) Instead of saying no, today I agreed to help with worship planning. I agreed to think about new banners for our sanctuary. I said yes to texting and keeping in touch with broken souls and loved ones in transition and doing happy dances alongside those who are rejoicing.

And today I decided to take you to Starbucks for cake pops after piano lessons. Because YES. Cake pops. Snowperson cake pops. And peppermint mocha. After sitting for twenty minutes in the drive-through line, listening to “Oh, Babylon,” “Lower Lights,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “This Little Light of Mine” at your request, I’ll have you know, from the hipster hymn compilation CD we have in the car. (Yes, we still have a CD player.) And as those songs played, and you conjured up sweet dreams of cake pops, and analyzed the behavior of all other cars in line, including the SUV with the enormous dog in the backseat, I started making a list of all the beautiful and ordinary things filling up my life. Some are to-do list items that are now checked off. Some are just extraordinary ordinaries. Some are just grace-in-the-mundane altars-in-the-world. But this list is much more life-giving than a to-do list of items that won’t be getting done this week.

Let the lower lights be burning!

It’s a list of things like that we always holler and clap when we drive under the railroad bridge in our town.

Like that today when we left the house, there was a leaf plastered to the hood of the car with its stem sticking straight up in the air, and it cracked both of you up the whole drive to piano. It never blew away.

Like watching the five year old learn to draw a Treble clef in her piano theory book.

Send a gleam across the way!

Like how I overheard child number one helping child number two get dressed this morning: “No, you need to sit up in that chair. No, this chair. Give me your foot. Okay, here’s your first sock.”

Like that your babysitter today helped you draw and cut out an assortment of animals for a pretend zoo. It includes but is not limited to a goldfish and a blue whale, a worm and a cow, a baby chicken and two goats.

Like that I came across the three year old this morning sitting in front of the frig playing with letter magnets humming her nursery rhyme songs to herself.

Some poor fainting, struggling seaman…

Like knee-high polkadot socks.

Like snowboots with crunched up leaves inside them.

Like using coconut oil on my face instead of lotion.

you may rescue…

Like finding a small Tupperware of buckeyes and bourbon balls I froze last Christmas in the freezer.

Like avacados being eighty-eight cents at the grocery store.

Like sitting across from your dad, while he reads Dorothy Sayers, and I drink a hot toddy and write you a letter.

you may save.

Like life.

A busy life. A full life. A beautiful life.

Say yes, girls. There is always time for lower-light things. For lighthouse things.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Eighth Letter: Holy Ground

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Dear Daughters,

I’ve been thinking about this calling to a sacramental life—a calling to seek the holy in the everyday humdrum and monotony of raising small children, of serving our neighbors, of loving our community or at least trying to, and in finding the cracks to shine the light in. This search for the sacramental keeps pulling me forward and revealing itself to me as the vocation that gives my life meaning.

Don’t get me wrong.

I like my—what should I call it?—“day job.” I love writing poetry and making art. I feel called to it. Most of the time I like proofing and writing articles, and I even know the joy of a nit-picky copyediting job well done, of the intense focus needed for InDesign formatting and layout. And, of course, many days, I love raising you and seeing you grow and learn and create and ask difficult, insightful questions. That’s part of my day job too. I even love chopping vegetables. Sometimes.

But all of these pieces of my life, as much as I am called to them, make up what continues to feel like the larger picture that is my vocation: seeing where the sacred breaks through.

Maybe that’s everyone’s vocation to some degree or another, I don’t know. But it feels real to me, this calling.

Your dad and I are making an intentional effort this calendar year to cultivate a habit of morning and evening prayer. The book we use, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, has already walked us through some well-known Old Testament passages this first week of January.

A few days ago, we had Jacob discovering that “surely the Lord is in this place.” And he wasn’t even aware of it.

We had Moses being told to take off his sandals before the burning bush because the land he was standing on was holy ground.

The Lord was in that place.

That place was holy ground.

That place.

This place.

I remember learning in Introduction to Christianity, one of our required undergraduate courses at Houghton College, that a “sacrament” is a visible sign of invisible grace. (Google tells me that this definition is attributed to Augustine. Maybe so.)

A visible sign of invisible grace.

So the thing is, Jacob’s dream and his wrestling with the angel sound like exceptional moments of God’s interacting with humanity. Serious exceptions to the general, widespread experience of being a human being in the world.

And Moses before the burning bush sounds like a crazy thing that only happens in the Old Testament. It’s unusual to say the least. Even for the Bible.

History tells us that these are sacred stories. These are sacred stories of sacred places. Moments when God’s presence broke into our world. These are stories worth telling precisely because they are exceptional. The people of Israel told and retold (and still do tell) these stories to their children.

But you know what?

I’m not convinced these stories are exceptional, at least not in God’s presence breaking into our world, our time, our lived experience.

I’m convinced that God breaks through and reveals God’s grace to us all the time. It’s us. We’re the problem. We’re in the way. The stuff of life is in the way. The clutter is in the way.

I’m convinced that even our everyday mundane moments can be conduits of God’s grace, can be sacraments, can teach us something about God and the way God works and will continue to work in the world.

What we have to do is look for it.

What we have to do is see it.

What we have to do is proclaim it.

There’s an old-fashioned word for you. Proclaim.

Surely the Lord is in this place.

The place we are standing is holy ground.

Girls, I don’t know how else to say it.

That’s what living sacramentally means. That’s what I want you to see, to know. It might be one of the most important things I teach you. This place is holy ground.

It’s what enables us to love our neighbors. To welcome the stranger. To see that those who drive us the most crazy and make us the most angry are made in the image of God. Just like us. To understand that we aren’t special or privileged but as deserving of God’s grace as everyone else. Which means we are undeserving of it. And yet, God’s grace breaks in.

So I will proclaim it. Over and over and over again, I will proclaim it.

This place where we are learning to do life together? Yes, that’s what I mean. This place. It’s holy.

This community.

This neighborhood.

This shared driveway.

This dinner table.

This couch.

This swing set.

This dollhouse.

This snow-covered sidewalk.

All of it.

Holy Ground.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Fourth Letter: These Are Not the Best Moments

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Dear Daughters,

While on the road last week, enroute to Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, we stopped at a Panera for dinner in West Virginia. (The two of you are always more happy with a bowl of macaroni and cheese than just about any other quick food options.)

As we waited for our little buzzer to light up and signal that our food was ready, I noticed an elderly couple looking at us from a nearby booth. I’m used to people looking at us when we are out as a family because, well, your dad and I are really tall.

Let me just say as a sidenote that I don’t feel abnormally tall most of the time, but given the number of strangers who comment on it, and the number of people who stare without commenting, and the number of strangers who obviously look down at my feet to see if I am wearing heels, well, I must look pretty tall out there in public, especially when I am with your dad, who is six inches taller than I am. And after bold strangers ask how old the two of you are, they are typically in disbelief at your height as well. Sigh. We’re a tall bunch.

My point is, when these strangers were studying us in Panera, I didn’t pay much attention to it. But then, after our food came, in the chaos of trying to make sure everyone had what they needed and dishing out the bowls of mac and cheese onto the plates so it would cool faster and tearing the top off the squeezey yogurt so you could eat them, the older man spoke to us, and he started off by saying something very strange.

“I really don’t like you,” he said.

Now, that is not normally how one strikes up a conversation with strangers, but I could sense that he was someone who needed to talk, and though his words were awkward, I had this hunch that maybe he was trying to be friendly, not abrasive, so I acknowledged him and encouraged him to continue.

“I seriously don’t like you. You know why?”

I didn’t, but I was sure he was going to tell us.

“I’m old.”

And by that, he meant that we were not old.

He proceeded to remind us, in a rambly sort of way, to enjoy these days when we are young and have young kids because he used to be young too and one day he woke up and he was old. He missed being young. He missed having his family around. He knew we couldn’t imagine it, but trust him, we needed to enjoy being young. We will be old before we know it. And, by the way, Happy Thanksgiving.

His wife came back, we wished him Happy Thanksgiving, and then they left.

My first internal reaction was sadness: I was sad that this man was sad, that even despite his attempt at humor, he was emanating regret.

But then, well, my sadness turned into less-than-compassionate annoyance. Here’s the deal, girls: as a mom of young children, I hear this message all the time.

All. The. Time.

And while I know it sounds ornery, I just need to get something off my chest.

One of my pet peeves is being told by strangers to “enjoy these days,” to appreciate the time I have with my children while they are small, to count my blessings because time goes by so quickly, before I know it my kids will be grown and out of the house. So enjoy it. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Blah blah blah.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t young folks who need to hear this message, who would find it encouraging. But I kind of resent the assumption that I am not already doing this, that I am not already able to live in the moments and appreciate the beauty that is here.

Granted, I will be the first to admit that there have been times when I have not wanted to appreciate the beauty of these days–there have been times when I have wanted to flee (on the worst days) and longed for the minutes to pass more quickly (on the best days).

But right now, in this season, I am doing a good job living alongside you, enjoying the stunning and creative human beings you are, even as you exasperate me and I lose my temper more times than I like to admit. And so, when I am told to appreciate these days, I kind of resent the idea that any stranger feels like she needs to pass on this wisdom of a life well-lived, when implicitly this person is admitting that she did not do a good job of appreciating life when she was young. That really does sound ornery. I guess this is one of my buttons.

I work hard to live a life of gratitude and grace. It’s a daily struggle. And I often fail. But I’m on the path, girls. I’m on the path.

I see the hunt for the sacramental in these ordinary moments as one of my primary callings right now, not just as an example for you of a well-lived life but as an encouragement to others who need to see that hope is possible in the drudgery of the ordinary.

The other thing I resent when someone tells me in a chipper voice (or a somber voice, because, let’s face it, it can go both ways) to appreciate these moments because I will someday wake up and I will be old and have all these regrets–well, what I resent is the suggestion that these moments, here when you are young, are the best moments, the moments I will most miss later. These are not the best moments. And the future moments are not the best moments. All of the moments are the best. All of the moments are moments we are called to live fully, to love fully, to be aware of grace and live sacramentally. All of the moments. All of the seasons. Sometimes it is harder than at other times, and I’ve often suspected, even after talking to older moms, that in the extreme exhaustion of raising small children we have to work the hardest to find grace, but it is still here.

What I want to say to you, girls, today is this: I am living in this moment, right now, alongside you, and I am loving you and appreciating this life we share. I am feeling the late-afternoon sunshine dance across my laptop keys as I type this, and I see how beautiful it is. I am listening to an episode of Daniel Tiger in the background, hearing a deep belly laugh from the eldest, watching the youngest drink her milk with crazy bedhead. I’m sitting beside an empty mug of tea. Our white Christmas lights are glowing on our bare tree. I’ve still got my boots on because we are heading to some friends’ house for dinner, but I took my big earrings off to try to motivate myself to go outside and rake some leaves.

These are the silly details of a life that make me smile.

These are the details of the life we share.

These are the details of a life of gratitude.

I will not wake up surprised to be old one day.

I will not wake up surprised that you are old enough to read these letters one day.

Sure, the time is going quickly, quicker than I can even believe sometimes, but the moments, well, they’re the same every day. They’re full of promise. They’re full of grace.

Love,

Your Momma