Make Room

Judah pulled out a Star Wars jigsaw puzzle as I read his literature selection from Parables from Nature. I do not mind him keeping his eyes and hands busy during read-aloud because he is an auditory learner and listens best when his other faculties are occupied. Seraphina, following her brother’s example, reached for another puzzle from the shelf and immediately begged for help. So, there I was, reading aloud, toddler on lap, assembling a puzzle of construction equipment.

I forgot how much I enjoy jigsaw puzzles. Jason even asked me a few weeks ago while Christmas shopping why I never do puzzles anymore. They have always been one of my de-stressors, like baking and hiking. These are my ways to wind down and reset my mind.

I don’t do puzzles because I have three small children. I have no time, much less space that is untouched by six grubby hands.

There is a big, wooden desk downstairs we use for school. It is a catch-all for everything else, it seems: coloring books, bills, random hardware, books, binders, toys. I rarely see the wood of that desk. Today, I thought, if I just put some of these things away; if I just deal with the clutter, I can make room for a puzzle. I began to clear and stack and re-organize. I found a box of beautiful puzzles my mom gave me years ago, largely unopened.

(I realize I am revealing my nerdy old-lady-ness hardcore here. We will call it “being vulnerable.”)

The joy I felt at the prospect of making room for something I love was surprising.

Sometimes we forget how much relief there is in uncluttering our lives;

our minds;

our hearts.

Advent is about making room. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, there was no room for them. No one could make room for this young man and his heavily pregnant bride. The story reminds us all to check our lives for room for Jesus.

Modern life is the definition of distraction. It is clutter personified. Busyness is a virtue and occupation is how we identify ourselves.

My heart looks like my desk – a functioning space, to be sure, but also a catch-all for every wayward, unresolved issue of life. I do not realize when I have run out of room for the things I love, that give me peace.

My prayer for this Advent is that we can all make room for the thing we love, our first love. I do not mean our hobbies or our relationships or our religion. I mean the Lover of our souls. I mean the Wonderful Counselor. The Prince of Peace.

I like to tell my children that we have time for what we make time for. We have space for what we make space for. Help us all to choose to make room.

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“You know the tree by the fruit,

but just between me and you

I never do what I want,

I do what I’m taught

and I’ve been learning a lot

about the violence I’m capable of.”

– Derek Webb, “I Don’t Want to Fight”

 

I turned on the computer to set up school this morning. Another day, another disaster. Today it is an earthquake in Mexico. Tomorrow Hurricane Irma will hit Florida. If it isn’t the storms, it’s a fire. If it isn’t a fire, it’s a war. If it isn’t a war, it’s a riot. On and on and on. The whole world is under water or on fire, and I don’t just mean natural disasters.

My son’s Bible reading came cane from Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek; those who mourn; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. If you hold anything against a brother or sister, make it right quickly. If you hold hatred in your heart, you are as guilty as a murderer.

As I stand on the sidelines and watch the world burn, I cannot help but hear Jesus asking me, “Did you learn to love?”

Is my opportunity to live a life of love running out? In this world of turmoil, is my heart truly right towards others near me? Do we take Him seriously when He says, “I tell you the truth”?

Do I say nice, Christian things with my mouth while operating in judgement and criticism in my heart?

Are we bringing our offerings to the altar while holding resentment against our brothers and sisters?

The earth is quite literally shaking, and we the Church are being given a wake-up call.

This is not a fire and brimstone sermon – it is a desperate call to believers to stop playing nonchalant, self-serving church and start living lives of sincere compassion. This is an opportunity  to remember that our world is fallen and our time is fleeting. We must daily check our hearts and and pursue love with our whole selves.

Our moment of truth has arrived, Beloved. Let us be called Children of God.

Know Myself

“I must first know myself, as the Delphinian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my business, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.” – Socrates

Why does it matter, that statue, that name,
Not yours?
Why do you seek to save that which was lost already
In spirit and in truth;
Not yours, or your father’s, or his father’s,
Not even?
Why grasp burning straw, say right, might, fight,
Blight?

Alright?

Why does it matter, that statue, that name,
Not yours?
Why let someone’s else’s past haunt your future;
Shadow your stride and your pride?
Stone is stone.
Why not let it be your victory stand, your remembrance post, your reference point?

Art is in the beholder. Meaning in the reader.

Dear reader.

Make your meaning.

Play Rooms, Peanut Butter Crackers, and Graceless Exits: The secret life of ministry moms

If you empty the contents of every bag I own, you will find peanut butter crackers: unopened, mostly crushed packages; opened, half-eaten ones; even (gasp) the lone naked cracker slowly coating the bottom of the bag with salty, oily film.

As I write this, one arm around the toddler on my lap, I am being crusted like a chicken casserole.

We are a ministry family, a missionary family, who can spend as much time in the car and in meeting houses as we do our own house. Three kids means food must portable. PB crackers are life.

There is a small group of mothers like me. You can see us if you look closely. We stand in the back at the conferences swaying a baby on our hips. We walk the halls of the churches to wear out little legs and loiter the bathrooms because, well, potty training. We scope out playrooms and cry rooms like cat burglars on the hunt. We mark perimeters around tent meetings and pray the loud one gets it all out of his system during worship.

Shushing and chasing. Shushing and chasing.

My oldest is getting old enough now to engage in some of what is going on, but it has been a long time coming. And with one still in diapers, I have a long road ahead. Time for some real transparency.

When I talk to people about what we do, I get a variety of responses, ranging from awe to condemnation and the ever-welcome advice in how to do it the right way. I am no expert on this life – I just met a pastor’s wife with her seventh on the way with nary a gray hair in sight – but I have started to find purpose in the placement.

The realization hit me hard on a recent out of town ministry trip. I  laid down the expectation that the children would spend an allotted amount of time in worship, either dancing and singing or sitting and meditating.

All arrangements hit the fan when they found out there was a children’s room.

There was weeping and wailing until I said we would look at the room. Then there was weeping and whining until we relented and stayed.

I realize this makes me look like a pushover mom, but with a packed crowd trying to worship, I was trying to be polite. Judge if you like, but hang with me.

So they played, and I strained to hear through the door. I was about to send my oldest in to worship with his dad when he started complaining of a stomach ache.

Yup. We went back and forth to the bathroom until worship was over.

Memories, let me tell you.

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Wearing out of legs in progress

It was about the time I collapsed back into a tiny children’s chair that one of the children’s workers walked in. She was just there to take care of some business, and we chatted for a few minutes before she left again. Then I heard the familiar voice whisper, “Why didn’t you pray for her?”

I don’t know. It should be my natural response, right? That is who we are – we are intercessory missionaries. We pray. But I was so absorbed in my mommy frustrations, I did not think of it.

I righted my wrong, even if she was gone. I prayed for her, her team, her family. I looked at that room where my children played and I saw prayer all around me. I laid hands on each of those tiny plastic chairs. I prayed over the changing table, baby swing, bassinet. I blessed the toys as we put them away (and as Seraphina pulled them down again). For an hour, that room was my assignment.

I know so often, we weary mothers feel on the sidelines of the world, standing on edges and back rows and hoping to contain the circus.

We forget that God has no sidelines, only front lines. We are always on His front lines.

So this is my resolution: that no matter where we land on mission, be it a prayer room, play room, or even a bathroom (yikes!), I remember I am placed. God can and will use me and the children to love others, speak life, encourage, and bless if I will be conscious enough to engage with the Holy Spirit.

Even if I have to dole out the peanut butter crackers. Peanut butter crackers for all. Make it rain.

Careful Words

“… a careless word is like the thorn of the honey locust thorn tree – it can cause a deep wound that can lead to the ‘infection’ of bitterness…” – Wally Armstrong, Practicing the Presence of Jesus

“All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God forgave you in Christ.” – Eph. 4:31-32

I have been on the receiving end of bitterness, anger, slander – spiteful words. I am quite certain we all have. As a young person, these words damaged me to my core. Thankfully, I have healed from these wounds and walk free from their pain. As an adult and a believer, I have felt mostly compassion and sorrow for the unbelievers who rage against me or my worldview. I cannot expect those who do not understand me or my views to accept them, and their opinions do not injure me.image

 

However, there is one party from whom careless words continue to hurt – fellow believers. While there is not typically shouting involved, or even discernible anger, careless words from believers can cut a person’s confidence, self-worth, and spirit. They can cause a person to question his/her calling or even leave the church. This pain has not been my experience alone, but the story of many people I have walked with over the years. Careless words lead to a wound of offense, which can easily become bitterness. Tragically, I have seen many walk away from friendships, from churches, and even from the faith, over offenses rooted in careless words.

I am talking about hastily delivered criticisms.

I am talking about sarcasm;

about gossip;

about jesting;

about snarky side commentary;

about words said out of earshot,

because they weren’t really out of earshot. These things have a way of getting around.

I am talking to myself. I used to pride myself on my sarcastic humor. You know what sarcasm means? To tear the flesh. And I gloried in it. Now my six year old son calls me out on it, and I realize my foolishness.

Careless words break trust. As believers, we should be covenanted to one another, preferring one another in love, anxious to honor each other.

“But I’m speaking the truth in love!”

Is it in love? Is it patient and kind? Is it rude or self-seeking? Does it always protect and always trust?

“People are too easily offended! That is their problem!”

We have a responsibility to forgive offense, yes. We have an equal responsibility to guard our words, to be slow to speak. The Bible charges us to use our words to encourage, heal, and extend grace.

If we find that offense tends to follow us, perhaps we are the problem.

If I am to dwell in unity with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I must carry slow to speak and quick to forgive in equal measurings like offerings. Then I can give in trust the words of grace which build and heal.

 

The Story

“All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am.” – Brandi Carlisle, “The Story”

I read something recently that said, “Thank goodness we do not look like what we’ve been through.”

I look in the mirror and have trouble relating to that statement. I look every bit of what I’ve been through.

I have never been the beautiful girl. I have not even been the pretty girl. I’ve been the marrying kind, as some say. Of course, I thought I’d be the “live alone in an apartment with too many cats” kind.

And that has always kind of bothered me. We women have this innate need to be lovely and adored, and, if we do not get that need filled, we likely become either lowly, desolate, and bitter; or over-bearing and attention-seeking (see Stasi and John Eldridge’s book Captivating for more on this topic). I became the former, often depressed and self-deprecating with regard to my appearance. Cerebrally, appearances should not define us, should not matter that much, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, we know. Every one of us knows. We tell ourselves all the time. But, the facts do not matter much in a world revolving around image.

I hear your thirties are supposed to be that magical time when we stop caring as much about what others think. But instead, I have found myself more critical, mainly due to my inability to maintain (you know, the oft-spoken “she let herself go”), in addition to the marks of life upon my body.

So, when I read the statement above, about looking like what I’ve been through, I had to step back for an assessment. On the bridge of my nose is a scar from years of wearing glasses, often having those glasses hit by flying sporting equipment in P.E. classes. My cheeks and chin are bumpy from the blemishes of youth, years I spent fielding taunts and sarcastic comments from the bullies and the cool kids.

Those marks, however unsightly by cultural standards, remind me that I made plans to end my life, but I survived.

My abdomen has a probably permanent bulge and dark vertical line from carrying three babies. I have scar tissue in my side from their kicks and residual pain in my tailbone, which broke when I delivered the first. I have literally been torn apart and put back together.

But it is the back together that matters. And those children are alive and healthy and beautiful.

I have gray hair and split ends and unpainted nails because those things are low on my list of priorities (no shame if that’s your thing, it just isn’t mine). I have bruises on my legs from carrying car seats and kicking children. I have freckles on my arms and sun spots on my feet from days spent outside ministering on mission trips or making memories with my family. The veins of my hands protrude, and my knuckles are growing knobby from nights writing out whatever is heavy on my heart. There are lines between my eyes, across my forehead, around my mouth – all the remnants of emotion and thought. There are a dozen other stories on my body too personal to tell.

My body is a testament to the depth of my soul, and I must learn to love it for its imperfections, not in spite of. If I love “in spite of,” I will always resent those flaws and diminish their stories.

Yes, my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Temple of God in Jerusalem was lovely and ornate. However, let us not forget that God’s presence also resided in a tent, and it was glorious. As Momma always said, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Ladies, sisters, love your story. Love the evidence of a full life that is written on your body. You are not your body; it is simply a precious, ever-changing portrait of your story.

After all, nobody ever says at a funeral, “Look at that beautiful corpse.” They will say, “Look at her beautiful life.”

Religion

My favorite color is yellow.

Not screaming circus or smoky mustard,

But butter-sugar-eggs yellow

in a bowl, with a mixer;

The promise of something sweet and rich.

 

Baking is a beautiful religion;

Not the flash-bang of cooking,

but a rhythm of slow steps and measurements,

sensory indulgences, childhood memories.

 

The restoring beat,

like a tea ceremony with delicate cups,

fly-fishing in a stream,

a waltz from a record player,

paint strokes across a canvas,

the pace created by words

and spaces

on

a

page.

 

Rhythmic by design,

beating heart and sleep,

work and rest,

sun and moon.

Practitioners with meditative hands

reset meditative hearts,

winding and synchronizing

to keep time –

steady our souls

again.

Boston Hymn, Revisited

The word of the Lord by night

To the watching Pilgrims came,

As they sat by the seaside,

And filled their hearts with flame.

 

God said, I am tired of kings,

I suffer them no more;

Up to my ear the morning brings

The outrage of the poor.

July 3rd, and the fireworks boom outside, and my son cannot sleep. “It’s a holiday.” I reassure him it will not last long and only for a few days. “Close your eyes and think your happy thoughts.” He shuffles off to the darkness of his room.

The fireworks boom because 240 years ago the cannons and muskets boomed shouting our need for freedom from the binds of a system that did not represent us. It was not enough to declare it; we had to make more noise.

I lie in bed skimming the news and its commentary, the echoes of bomb blasts and gun fire, of fingers and tongues wagging, shouts of anything reverberating off the endless corridors of our connected world. And I cannot sleep.

I am not the first to decry the noise of our present lives to be too much. I will not be the last to be accused of burying my head in the sand for walking away, but I must, for a moment, walk away. There is such a din of needing to be heard, and for every opinion there is another opinion, for every claimed injustice, a counter-claim. We are a people desperate to find a solution to the hurt of this broken world, and we are desperate to be heard.

My angel, – his name is Freedom, –

Choose him to be your king;

He shall cut pathways east and west

And fend you with his wing…

 

I will have never a noble

No lineage counted great;

Fishers and choppers and ploughmen

Shall constitute a state…

 

Lo, now! If these poor men

Can govern the land and sea,

And make just laws before the sun,

As planets faithful be.

A few days ago we hiked along a portion of the Trail of Tears that runs through Port Royal. I tried to stand there and imagine all the emotion of being forcibly removed, told where to go and what to do; herded up like cattle for whatever ill-informed or self-serving reasons offered by those in charge.

The next day we walked through a state-run housing development where the murder rate is among the fastest growing in the country. We handed out bags of food and talked to children and mothers, and I tried really hard not to see a parallel.

Even watching a movie with my family, I could not help but see a common theme: that we are all desperate for justice and liberty, that we want to be heard and understood, and that is why we shout.

I break your bonds and masterships,

And I unchain the slave:

Free be his heart and hand henceforth

As wind and wandering wave.

 

I cause from every creature

His proper good to flow:

As much as he is and doeth,

So much he shall bestow…

 

To-day unbind the captive,

So  only are ye unbound;

Lift up a people from the dust,

Trump of their rescue, sound! (From “Boston Hymn,” Emerson)

I will not add to the noise with my rhetoric on the practical solutions to our pain. There is but one answer, one hope, and that is trusting in Him Who holds the world. He commands us to love, and to watch and pray in these days. In case you need a refresher on love, see 1 Corinthians 13.

It applies to everyone.

True freedom is found in surrendering one’s life wholly to the only One with the power to change hearts. That is a liberty I will shout.

 

Freedom!

 

Pruning

“Don’t give up on it yet,” the atheist landscaper said.

image

I am a born skeptic. A squinty-eyed, head-cocked doubter. Look at Amy, in her natural habitat, assuming the worst.

We decided to update the landscaping of our new home, an older house with plentiful, long-established greenery: shaped bushes which reached almost to the eaves, ivy rippling from ground to gutter, mums the size of hay bales, and every type of perennial flower imaginable.

We gutted it all.

For two weeks the front of the house sat like a shaved dog in the sun, and the ditch by the road heaped high with dying branches.

Thankfully the truck showed up with hollies and roses and who-knows-what little bushes. And mulch, of course. Lots and lots of mulch.

To bookend the space, we had two trees planted. They were small little guys, but fast growers, said the landscaper. “Water twice a day for the first week. They’re good after that.”

Two weeks later we left for a ten-day trip. Upon return, the trees were not good. The leaves were dry and brown. Mr. Landscaper came to inspect them. “Don’t give up on them yet.”

We managed to water one back to life, and life more abundant at that. It shed the dead leaves, greened and grew. Darling tree, that one.

The other drooped more, dropped more, dried more. We watered and watered and watered again. Then, I gave up.

I didn’t pull it up, out of busyness, I guess. My mother-in-law, Persephone of the greater Nashville area, who touches dirt and makes it bloom, inspected it. “Don’t give up on it yet. There’s some life in these bendy branches. Just prune off the dead stuff.”

I gave her my signature squint. “Sure, sure.” But I obeyed.

Today, while lopping off a few dead blooms from another bed, I checked on the pitiable tree. Hidden along the base branch were tiny green leaves; signs of life from the dry brown sticks.

Hope springs eternal.

There are two great metaphors for life. One is a river; the other a garden. I have written about a river, and today I write about a garden, or, a bed of shrubs, at least.

Forgive me for painting with broad strokes, but we are much like a bed of shrubs, or a garden, or a field.

Quite often there are things in our lives that have become overgrown, allowed to go on too long unchecked until the roots break into our very foundations and we must clear them away and start afresh.

It is a principle of nature that land stripped of its resources must rest. It requires a sabbath.

And after the clearing away, we too require a sabbath.

Of course, I will extend my metaphor. Thankfully, these total clearings away needn’t happen often in our lives. But, there are frequently enough little things which need our attention. If we earnestly examine our hearts we can see little piles of dry brown sticks.

Don’t give up on them yet. Just prune off the dead stuff.

“‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and head as well!’

Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.'” (John 13:9-10)

How many times have I looked within myself in disappointment at a familiar sin or shortcoming? I’ve turned my squinty eyes on myself and questioned my faith and my worth and my purpose because of those issues.

But I obey the truth of the Word. I submit to the pruning of God, and Jesus comes in the room and wraps a towel around his waist and brings the basin to my feet.

And hope springs eternal. Verdant life grows where we humble ourselves to His care. Once again creation reflects the divine Creator. I can sit on the front porch and witness His order unfold under the June sun.

 

An Understanding

You’re so difficult

and demanding

and inconvenient

You call me to rise,

while others rest.

You implore me to toil,

while others play,

to fast

while others feast,

to give, go without, go further.

And for what?

 

I dread the push and pull

of Your call,

the waves beating my skin,

knocking my feet from under me,

The work of the work.

 

But I know,

Beyond what I feel,

 

When I rise, You meet me.

When I labor, You come along side.

When I push through the pull,

When I beat back the waves,

Lift my feet and swim

You match my effort,

You make me stronger,

I reach You, and You give me rest

 

You are not safe, no,

but You are good,

and You make me better.