7 Reasons Why I’m Not Faking Illness and Skipping Church Today

7 Reasons Why I’m Not Faking Illness and Skipping Church Today

I actually did think about it while I was peeling the potatoes for our soup last night. I could take a ‘mental health day’ and skip it. “Or, maybe I’ll get lucky and wake up with a headache.”

But, it’s 4AM on Sunday morning and I stumbled out here by the woodstove to write down my reasons for going. I smiled when I sat down in my chair and saw the full moon shining down at me through one of the loft windows. Once, I wrote a story about how the church loves like moonlight- a gentle reflection of the full sunshine glory of the love of God. So, here I am in this stream of morning moonlight, feet in my slippers and warm by the fire, to tell you why I’m not skipping church.

  1. My pastor has been working all week on his sermon. He has lost sleep and time with his family and fought personal battles we won’t see when he’s preaching. Those forty minutes he’ll be standing in front of us are the condensed blood and sweat of the long hours spent studying and praying and the squeezing of his own heart. And, this man isn’t a professor; he’s a shepherd. This isn’t a message he’s come up with to share his smarts with the world. This is a message for the people he’s prayed over and wept with. This is a message for me. I could fake illness and listen to a great online sermon, by a super mega-church preacher. That would be like heading to McDonald’s for dinner when a home-cooked meal, made with love and thinking about my tastes and nutritional needs, had been placed on my very own table. I’d be crazy to leave what has lovingly been prepared for me, with great sacrifice and love, to eat alone food that’s mass produced. So, I’m going to go local, pull up a chair and listen with ears to hear what this man has to say.
  2. My kids need to be there. They need me to be there. They need to hear their daddy and mommy’s voices singing, together with the church, their love to the One who is bigger and stronger and wiser than us. They need to see us pray. They need to see us be hugged and give hugs. Our children have seen our church. They’ve seen meals being shared and babies passed around and wood being stacked and boxes moved. And, they have seen, for almost every single Sunday morning of their lives, that we gather together on Sunday mornings. That this is more important than resting up for Monday or running those errands we didn’t get to on Saturday. Because something happens when you just show up week after week after week. It’s this miracle of belonging. My kids have the security that comes with being connected to, and part of, something bigger than just us. Here are people they trust and will go to for help or advice when they get older and would rather not come to me. Every Sunday reinforces that they are loved and called to love big because they are part of a really big family.
  3. My church connects me to historical, Biblical Christianity. We still recite creeds and confessions of faith at my church and some of them date back to the early centuries of the church. Something happens in me when I stand up and hear our voices speaking the truth that has been spoken by those that have come long before. It grounds me. I’m small. But this is so big. I’m drawn up into that great cloud of people who have been and still are confessors of God’s mercy and grace.
  4. Also, I am a natural born idolater. I have one limited mind that filters truth through my own personal experience and knowledge of the world. If left to myself, I’d create a God that fits with what makes sense to me. I’d put God in a little Lara-understands-now-box and put a tidy lid on him. Make a personal idol that sort of looks like him in some ways, but is my own twist on what divinity should be. When I go to church, I’m brought in contact with doctrine that has passed through thousands of years’ worth of brains, living in different cultures, times and places. This is not my own personal Christianity, this is a Christianity I need to personally come to and have my mind be sharpened by. And, my ideas are also challenged by the contemporary saints. Those sitting and standing around me during our morning service, with lifestyles and politics and parenting methods and perspectives on the world that are different from my own. The church isn’t like a club where we pull in the people we have a lot in common with and keep out the people who make us feel insecure. It’s more like the emergency room, where we find ourselves stumbling in with a diverse group of people sporting their own aches and pains. We’re brought together by our need for the same Physician. Our differences also sharpen us, scraping off the edges of personal preference and clearing our eyes to see what is at the true heart of things, which is Christ and faith working itself out in love.
  5. People will know if I don’t show up and I’d have some explaining to do. That week after week showing up, and being known, means that I have accountability in my life. It means if I’m struggling, and would like to stay in bed with the covers over my head, I can’t do it in secret. I’m going to church because if I skip it I’m just prolonging the question, “How are you doing?”, and will have to answer for it anyway. This hasn’t always been true. In college, before marrying ‘the man who will never skip church’, I was less consistent. I would bounce around some and take little church sabbaticals. I’d head to the ocean with my Bible and call it good. Call it better even. But, that meant that people weren’t always tuned in to where I was and I could hide under the radar. And the funny thing about hiding is that it starts out feeling safer than being known, but it ends up feeling like you are forgotten and uncared for.
  6. Going to church is a way that I love others. I need to be there to notice and see the faces of this church family. If they are going to experience a hug, and tangible love, it has to be arms that are present to embrace them. If they are going to hear a word of greeting and encouragement, there needs to be a voice there to speak it. My arms and my voice and my eyes are needed there.
  7. Going to church is a way I experience the love of Christ and renew my faith. Our church passes the bread and wine (err… grape juice) every single Sunday. It makes the service ten minutes longer. Every week. It means I’m trying to balance a cup of grape juice and trying not to spill it while handing crayons to my restless kids. Every week. But I need this. Every week. This broken body of Christ, for us. This new covenant in blood that speaks a better word, for us. Every week, I ask myself a question. “Is this really true? Can this really be for me, Lord?” And it’s by faith that I give thanks. It’s by faith that I take this bread and juice in my mouth and swallow it into my own flesh and say “Yes, Lord, this is for me”.

Now, as I still sit by the fire, that full moon is setting red and rich behind the hills to the west. The sun will soon be rising.

And, before long, I’ll be off to church.

Blessings on you today, friends.

Lara

A Pool of Water in a Pavement Desert

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This night came slipping in like the world was pulling a dark blanket up over her sleepy head. I left the children in the yard at sunset, the dog bounding along beside me into the woods. I chose music loud and fast. “Stress to strength, stress to strength” has been my determined chant this fall. And I ran, trying to only think the things that would make me run hard and steady, while the sun slipped behind the trees and then the hills. The dark came creeping silently in behind, claiming its bed between the trunks and branches, settling into all the crevices of the woods.

I stopped and turned off my music in front of three pointed pine trees. They stood still and quiet, their branches without definition in the dark, like paper cutouts reaching their tops into the blue-blackness of the sky. There below, I became as quiet as they were and I was reaching, too.

This fall I’ve felt my limitations. Homeschooling five middle children and keeping up with my oldest in high school and not forgetting about the preschooler trying to slide between the books and other kids to make his way into my lap. And, still a wife, too, discovering that even after seventeen years of holding one man’s hand, there’s room to know him more and love him better. And, beyond our family in the woods, there’s our family around the country and concentrated in little Maine towns. There are the people in our church and in our town and at the school and in the store and I just want to do well by them all. And, sometimes, as I near forty, I wonder about myself. There’s a little restlessness that sets in and I question, as this world keeps turning and waking and sleeping and waking again, am I as awake as I can be? It’s like my head has suddenly poked out of the baby years, with the sleeplessness and round belly and knowing exactly where I should be. Sometimes I even think about taking some classes (in something?) or creating a part time job (doing something?). But then, that restless peering ahead seems silly, like I’m trying to grab something else with already full hands.

Once, a little over a year ago, I lamented with God about my limitations. I woke to an email from a woman I’d met after she visited our church. She’d been recently diagnosed with cancer and she was being crushed by fear. She wrote, “Will you pray with me today?” I wanted to drop everything and drive to her house and hold her in a hug and pray hard. But the day was already planned, dotted with things I couldn’t get out of and with my kids needing me, too. I could only briefly write back and tell her, “I will try to call you later today.”  And, that felt so lame and I drove to town and toward my commitments in what felt like the wrong direction.  As my three youngest kids chattered in the back seat, I prayed for my friend and I prayed for me, too. It was with an overwhelming sense of being too small in this world, and too helpless, and too caught in mundane things, that I prayed, “God, please bring encouragement.”

The last thing on our list that day, that felt small in comparison to praying with someone struggling with fear and cancer, but huge to a seven year old, was a promised stop at the pet store to buy a fish. My daughter had kept her room clean for a month to show that she was responsible enough to care for a pet. This was the long awaited day and I needed to be faithful to my word and to this little one. It was just after we’d paid and little hands were full of fish supplies and the fish himself, swimming in his plastic bag, that I turned and saw a miracle from our limitless God.

In a town I don’t usually shop in, in a store I rarely visit, at an hour that wasn’t planned, I turned and saw the woman I’d most wanted to hug that day. She was talking to someone who worked at the store, her parrot on her shoulder, his claws freshly clipped. When I said her name she looked at me, the surprise and disbelief I felt mirrored in her face. We laughed and spoke of providence as we stepped outside the store and into the late morning sunshine. The pet store is in the middle of town, surrounded by cars and people steadily flowing through the patterns of traffic lights. But, in the midst of that chaos, we found a holy place. Just outside the front doors of the pet store was a landscape display to encourage the sale of plastic ponds and waterfalls. Inside a man-made pool, large fish were getting fat from the treats a quarter could buy from a dispenser. My friend and I both pawed through our bags and found quarters to push into the eager hands of my little ones. While they fed the fish and watched them swim, the two of us sat on rocks at the edge of the water, looking at the waterfall tumbling down and feeling like we had found a tropical oasis in which to rest together. Most of the world disappeared and the only real place was this pool in the middle of a pavement desert. I couldn’t have planned this experience, sitting with my friend beside the water, her parrot perched on her hand, my little ones content. We had a moment to really share and to pray together and that moment was big enough to stretch forward and reach me again tonight in the woods.

Sometimes I feel like I’m grasping for something high and beyond reach. Something ethereal. But, God is not just a wisp in this world. He’s not a self-improvement plan or an answer to a midlife crisis. He’s not just a comforting Bible verse or an emotional response to a praise song.

He’s real.

Sometimes I’m just pounding out life, trying to run hard and fast and turn my stress into strength. To fill my head with thoughts that will keep me moving and not let me slow down or quit. Craning my neck to peer ahead and figure out what I can do to make this life I’ve been given significant.

But, stop. Slow down. Turn off the loud distractions. We’re limited but we’re cared for by a limitless God.

He’s real.

Do you see with me the weight and the hope in that?

Oh, Lord, may we learn to see you in our mundane and to be peacefully faithful.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29

 

 

Faith Hatching: God, Depression and Our Broody Hen

Faith Hatching: God, Depression and Our Broody Hen

I’d never actually seen a hen go broody and hatch out chicks. We’ve always tried to collect the eggs before a good cache formed that would tempt a motherly chicken. Anyway, most of our girls were bred purely and heavily for egg production and don’t have strong instincts left to do anything other than let us take their eggs away each day. But, this spring, my daughter needed a science project and her beloved bantam hen seemed desperate to raise a family. So, we let the hen collect some eggs and we let her sit.

A chicken changes when she goes broody. She has a job to do and she takes it very seriously. Her body stops making eggs and she needs less food and water. Her usually placid temperament can become fierce. She is immovable from her nest. For twenty one long days she is focused on nothing but keeping those eggs and the chicks growing within, warm and close to her breast, her feathers fluffed out as a covering.

Yesterday, we arrived home after a long day of activities. My daughter came home with a friend and, both being chicken loving gals, the first thing they did was run out to the coop and check on the hen. To their joy they found that the four eggs were perfectly pipped and zipped and four beautiful little chicks were nestled under the mother hen.

I went out to meet the new additions and I was surprised at how much this new life stirred up in me a sense of wonder. Maybe a hundred chicks have made their way through my hands to the coop or broiler pen and none of them have struck me with quite the same awe. Those chickens all arrived in boxes, a day old, after having been hatched in an incubator and shipped from some industrial producer. These ones appeared as if by magic, from the very ordinary eggs that make their way to my kitchen each day. Only, there was one significant difference. They had been tended. They were chosen and set aside and given the loving, all-consuming care of a broody hen. These fuzzy little chicks with bright eyes and strong beaks appeared out of the ordinary, miraculous event of being brooded upon.

I had the thought after stroking the back of one of those soft baby chicks, that I can be like that mother hen. There is potential for life all around me but the things that will grow are the things that I tend.

As I put more words to my thoughts I realized that this is a pondering that’s already been done by some other English speaker. Hidden in our language is proof that someone else watched a hen and her chicks and saw the power therein. We humans are brooders, too. We take thoughts and we nestle them and coddle them and keep them fresh and warm in our minds. Life grows out of our broodings.

I took this old English truth and I felt guilt creeping in with its accusations. Its own kind of brooding.

That struggle with depression, it’s all your fault…

You just need to think on what is true…

Memorize more Bible verses…

You need to control your thoughts and make them happier and more thankful…

I remember as a teen in Maine being chosen as a delegate to the American Legion’s Girls’ State. Girls from high schools around the state spent one week learning about government and how to be a patriotic, good citizen.  One of the first things the older ladies taught us (and the only thing that I remember) was a little chant: “To be enthusiastic we must act enthusiastic. Oh, boy, am I en-thu-si-astic!” I thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world.

But how often do I feel guilty for not living this way? I should just get out of bed in the morning and act enthusiastic. Just Be Happy. Make thankful lists to brood on. Count it all joy, baby.

And on the days when I just want to collapse from exhaustion and sadness, let’s add failure to be en-thu-si-astic as topping on the self-hate sundae.

Last night I sat with dear people, in a sweet little circle, as we gathered for our church’s community prayer time. And, I prayed maybe the least en-thu-si-astic prayer ever. It was good and long but consisted of something like, “Lord, life feels super hard right now. Would you please bring joy into these things? But actually, I don’t even know if you want to answer that prayer, because you might just want things to be hard. So, anyway, I guess I trust you. Amen.” Thankfully, the saints picked up where I left off, and they hoped and they had faith and we prayed, together. They even prayed for joy. Like the real thing. Not the en-thu-si-astic kind.

Earlier this week, recognizing that low place I am so prone to sink to lately, I pulled out Martyn Lloyd-Jones old book of collected sermons entitled ‘Depression’. Cheery title, eh? Sometimes cheery isn’t what is needed. This is what he said about depression and I would guess at least the start of his take on ‘brooding’:

“The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’- what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’- instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’… The essence of this matter is to understand that this self of ours, this other man within us, has got to be handled. Do not listen to him; turn on him; speak to him; condemn him; upbraid him; exhort him; encourage him; remind him of what you know, instead of placidly listening to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you.”[1]

In the throes of feeling down and depressed, there are a million thoughts that run through my mind and want to sink me. Most of them are related to how much of a crummy failure I am. Lloyd-Jones says during those times I need to take myself firmly in hand and speak truth. There are a lot of true things we can speak, and be thankful for, like how comparatively good our life is (because it is extremely good when looking at the rest of the world’s struggles, right?). Being thankful and counting blessings are great acts and like exercise, strengthening even if we don’t immediately feel the benefits. But sometimes, if you are like me, counting blessing when you are feeling really low can produce an immense amount of guilt over not feeling more en-thu-si-astic. How crummy do you have to be to feel so crummy when life is so good? Let’s just crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my miserable, blessed head for a while.

But, according to Lloyd-Jones, the truth we are to speak is not about ourselves and our circumstances but about God. Not me. Not life circumstances. God.

Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.

But, honestly, this morning, when I thought about these words, and went to brood upon the truth of God Himself, it was hard to get there. It felt a little flat because my faith in the reality of God was kind of shaky. This is what happens sometimes, when I start sinking. It was hard to feel genuine while thinking about God and how good He is.

But… I could think about chickens. Throughout the day my daughter brought me updates on what those little chicks were doing. And, with a full and genuine heart I thought about those little miracles of tender care. I thought about how small they are and how their mother is keeping them covered with her wings. I brooded on the sweetness of that relationship between the helpless chicks and their passionate mother hen.

And that is when a miracle broke into my heart.

Suddenly, it hit me. My hope isn’t in my ability to brood over God; it is in the truth that He broods over me.

The first verses in Genesis describe God as hovering over the earth before His work of creation. Did you know that this word can also be translated as ‘brooding’? The same word is used later on in the Biblical narrative to describe how God cares for his people like an eagle hovering over her young.

“In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.”[2]

The very first image of God, the first story He tells us about Himself, is that he is brooding over His creation. We were born out of that hovering and when he calls us his children we know that he is hovering over us still. God loves us with the immovable love of a broody hen; a love that sacrifices and a love that tends and protects. He loves us with a love that waits us out, and sees us break through the hardness and walk into new life. His tenderness is mighty. A two pound little bantam hen will puff herself up and with fierceness chase away a full sized dog when she senses her chicks are in danger. Our almighty God is hovering over us with all the passion of that hen with her brood.

I shall yet praise Him!

God’s people once sang a song praising his faithful care and again, called to mind the image of a bird protecting her young. Psalm 91, verse 4, says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In talking about this Psalm, my sweet friend, Brooke, writes about being so close to the Lord that she is “smelling the feathers.”[3] Isn’t that a beautiful image? Can you breathe deeply and smell his pinions that surround you? What if you are in a desert land, maybe even the barren and howling waste of depression and anxiety? Can you smell them then?

I breathed deeply today and I could smell the feathers.

When I couldn’t quite manage to chant my way into being en-thu-si-astic and when even my praises seemed flat, God met me exactly where I was. He met me in the chicken coop. I love this God. I’m so thankful for the reality of His hovering presence, and I pray that you would know it wherever you are and however you may be feeling today. Praying you, too, would breathe deep and smell those feathers.

Peace to you~

Lara

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[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, p. 21

[2] Deuteronomy 32:10, 11

[3] Brooke Mercier, https://smellingthefeathers.com/my-heart/

The Only “Expert” Parenting Advice I Give To New Moms

I will never forget that first bedtime after we brought our first baby home. My husband was downstairs cleaning up and I was finally in my own bed holding this precious child who only thirty hours before had been hidden in my body. There she was on the outside. Her perfect little fingers held in a fist, her sweet nose breathing air and her beautiful eyes looking into mine. I had never known love could feel so much like fear. It was as if my womb had poured out the most vulnerable part of me. There alone with her, without the nurses to help me, her eight and a half pounds in my arms seemed like nothing compared to the weight I felt in my chest. As the feelings of love and pride and an intense need to protect her filled me, along with fear like I’d never known, I knew in a primal way that I was her mother. Her absolutely in-love, absolutely terrified mother.

A few days later my friend, Caron, brought me a meal and sat with my daughter in her arms. She had three children of her own so was in my ‘mother expert’ category. I was eager to hear anything she had to share. Her advice was completely unexpected.
“Lara, you are the expert here. No one else has ever had this baby. No one else is her mother. No one will know her the way you do. You are the expert on your baby.”
She then went on to answer my questions about nursing and sleep and gave me information that was helpful. But first, she had handed me this gem of mothering wisdom.

I think it was with the same wisdom that, as I sat in the pediatrician’s office with frightened first mom eyes, an older doctor near retirement asked me the first question. He took my girl onto his lap, smiled at me, and said, “Tell me about her. What’s she like?” Because I was the expert on my baby. And at the end of that visit he gave me his final bit of advice. “Just one more thing I need to tell you. When people ask if she’s sleeping through the night, just tell them that she’s sleeping great.” He smiled again and was out the door.

This wise doctor knew that our world is full of well-meaning people eager to be helpful experts.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was approached by an expert on vaccinations. He’s a really nice older guy, but out of the blue he asked me if I vaccinated my kids and proceeded to tell me why I shouldn’t have done so. I so love not being a young mom. It didn’t even in the remotest way make me feel any angst. I was glad that he had said something so that I could share my own story of growing in my trust of God through all of the difficult decisions I’ve had to make as a mother. But, there was a time when that question would have sent me into the throws of insecurity.

Today, if you are a mother reading this and feeling that tremendous weight, may I share with you the same and only advice I freely give to new moms? You, dear mother, are the expert. This son or daughter grew in your womb or your heart. You have labored and you have known and you have loved. That is all you need to do. Stay there. Your labor is to know your child and to love your child. Whether they are brand new, a messy toddler or a messy teen, you have the same job description and you are the perfect woman for the task at hand. You’ve got this because you are a mother and you are an expert.

And, unfortunately, while you’re working hard at knowing and loving, you are going to have to get used to being judged. That’s just the sad reality. When you walk into the grocery store there will be experts in every aisle. When you are celebrating holidays with extended family, there will be experts passing you the mashed potatoes. At the playground, in mom’s groups, at church, in yoga class. You will find experts everywhere. They will be experts at getting babies to sleep through the night and at co-sleeping or crying it out. They will be experts about what are the healthiest foods for brain development and how to discipline (or not) and if vaccines are safe and if food coloring causes autism and if boys should have toy guns and of how much technology use there should be in your house. They will know whether you should go to work or stay home. They will be experts about whether you should send your kids to public, private school or homeschool. There will even be complete stranger experts that feel free to share with you while waiting in line at the post office their expert opinion about whether or not you have too many children or maybe you need another one because being an only child is hard.
Moms, don’t let them kill your confidence. Please. You are the expert. Know and love your kids and trust yourself.

There will be times when you need knowledge to grow your knowing and your love. You are the expert but the best experts know that they don’t know everything. They understand how vast their field of study is and they become experts at seeking out help when they need it.

You will need other people as you expertly parent your child.

But, sweet mom, seek out the people who will give you what you need while building you up, not tearing you down with their expert opinions. Look for the people, whether parents or not, that are seeking to do the same thing you are doing, knowing and loving.

One of the most supportive women in my life, as I’ve entered the (once again insecurity producing) teen years with my kids is my friend, Jessie. She’s a fifth grade teacher and on her vacations, when she could be kid-free, will often take a day to spend with my oldest daughter. She just takes her out and knows and loves her. And once a week, after working all day at an exhausting job, she drives down our long dirt road to pick my teens up and take them to our church youth group. She brings dessert and, so that they won’t be left out of the fun, leaves it with the younger crowd here. She loves us so well. And, when I’m at the end of my mothering rope, she’s one of the first people I seek out. She doesn’t play expert with me. She just knows us and she loves us. She reminds me that we are known and loved by God. And, she prays for us.

I know that sadly not every mother has a Jessie in their life. You might feel like you and the experts at the park are all you have. But, don’t give up. Pray for the gift of these kinds of friends. And then, go to the playgroup and the store and church and seek them out. Look for the woman who has been humbled by life, the one who has the security of knowing she doesn’t know.

If a woman tries to help by giving you a book about her favorite parenting method, run for the hills. But if she tells you her own stories of failure then pull her close. You need that kind of woman.

Don’t listen to the expert that tells you how to feed your baby, listen to the woman who offers to make you tea and hold your baby.

And, if you need to share truthfully how the sleeping at night thing is going, maybe look past the woman with the tried-and-true method and talk to the neighbor who has offered three times to watch your baby while you take a nap or go for a walk. And after admitting how tired you are, take her up on it and hand her your baby.

There are people out there who get it, Moms. They’re the ones that have been through the fire and have been humbled and transformed by it.

Don’t let the expert in the grocery store that glares at your toddler ruin your day. Just be thankful that you will never be that person. You’ve been there now. You are an expert. When you see a mother in the store with an out of control child and even if you see a million things she’s probably doing wrong, you aren’t going to judge. You’re going to break inside for them both because you know how hard it can be. You’re going to choose the checkout line that they’re in instead of avoiding it and you’ll hope that you can make eye contact. And then your smile and kind look will communicate, “Mothering is such a rough job, isn’t it? I’ve been there.” And with your voice you’ll say something along the lines of, “What a beautiful/smart/handsome child you have. I can tell s/he is really special.” And for the thirty-seven seconds you have, you will do the best you can to know and love this mother and this child.

In that moment that woman doesn’t need expert methodology. She needs to experience grace, just like you and just like me. Grace gives her the kind of peace inside that allows her to labor without fear. It frees her to do her job of knowing and loving without being blinded and hindered in that by guilt and insecurity.

Press on into the grace of being imperfect, lacking in many ways, doing the best you can even when it feels like not nearly enough and knowing that it is actually totally enough. The moment you are broken open and overwhelmed with the knowing and the love you have for your child, you are a mothering expert.

Much grace and peace to you in the journey, sweet mommas~

Lara

PS After I published this post I was driving to town and my thoughts went back to all the times *I’ve* played expert with other people. Before the fires of parenting burned some of that away I was much more free with my advice. For those of you who still remember those days (and maybe have books I gave you still on your shelves), I’m sorry. Truly. So thankful that there’s plentiful grace for the ‘experts’, too. 

152 Paper Hearts, 7 Kids and 45 Emails (so far): A Valentine’s Day Story

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I remember the very first Valentine’s Day gift I gave to my husband. When I’m putting our laundry away, I can still see it tucked in his drawer beneath his socks. Inside a small box covered in red construction paper, there are 152 red and white notes cut in the shape of hearts, one for each day leading from that first Valentine’s Day until our wedding day in July. Numbered like an advent calendar, each note expressed my love for him, a funny memory or my excitement about soon being Mrs. Jonathan Mather. I took the box out this afternoon and those notes made me smile. I still think that man looks cute in camouflage. And, it’s just as nice as I imagined it would be to hear him breathe at night and to be tucked in close.

Seventeen years have passed since I sat in my college apartment, love and excitement bursting out of me as I wrote those 152 notes. A lot has happened since we exchanged our Valentine’s Day gifts in the parking lot of his dorm. This summer our junior bridesmaid and smallest flower girl are both getting married themselves. We’ll be in the crowd, some of the ‘old married people’ with years of experience that have both sobered us and made us truly excited for the journey these sweet couples are just beginning.

There is nothing in this world like marriage. Nothing. And, just like when God brought Adam and Eve together, I would affirm that marriage is part of what is ‘very good’ in this world. I would also say that there are times when marriage is very hard.

A while ago, Jon and I were talking about a couple we knew that were breaking up. Thinking of the rejection and pain my friend was experiencing I said to him, “Thank you for never hurting me.” He turned from what he was doing and looked at me. “I’ve hurt you many times.”

And, it’s true. He’s hurt me. Many times. And, I’ve hurt him. There have been hurts that I never would have believed during those red and white heart writing days.

Tonight, Jon walked in the door after working all day. I said hello and showed him what I’d left on the stove for dinner before I kissed him on my way out the door. I ran through the blustery February air to my car where our oldest daughter waited to be driven to a friend’s house. But the car didn’t start. So, he came out to the garage and to my rescue and jumped the dead battery. Saying goodbye again, I drove off in one direction not long before he drove off in another for a fire department meeting.

After dropping my daughter off, I drove slowly over narrow roads that plow trucks had been working hard to keep clear. Banks of snow on either side rose chest high. I thought of my brother-in-law, in Maine, who’d just gotten home after eighteen hours of driving a plow truck in their most recent storm. He gets to rest for now but this fight to keep the roads clear of snow doesn’t end until mud season. More snow will come and if it isn’t cleared away traffic will stop. The goal can’t be to remove the problem of snow in general but to keep dealing with it as it comes.

And, I thought, isn’t this like marriage?

When I first met my husband we started making paths back and forth between our hearts. It started with small conversations and getting to know each other. Spending more time together and making more discoveries caused that path to be well-trodden. Soon, it was the one most walked. He became the person I wanted to run to first with both the joys and troubles of life. In the most gentle way possible, we awakened to the truth that a road was growing between our hearts. There was a connection, a bond, a knowing. And we wanted to keep traveling towards each other. By the time he placed a ring on my finger, traveling that road to connection was the most natural thing in the world. It was easy to say ‘yes’ to him. It was so easy to imagine growing closer and older, together. But, just like the roads of New England, it takes work to maintain routes to that kind of closeness.

We have not always done well at this work of maintenance. When we had a houseful of babies and toddlers I would hear people talk about ‘date nights’ with their spouse and to amuse myself I’d try to figure out how many years it had been since our last date. Usually I’d get caught up on whether or not spending time alone at the hospital (before a baby is born) counts and then just give up. Getting out of the house together just wasn’t happening. Missing out on dates wasn’t a problem by itself. Certainly watching my husband become a father made that road between our hearts a highway, paved over, with multiple lanes. We have watched each other work very hard, whether as parents or in the other goals we’ve had as a family. I’ve seen my husband grow professionally, pouring himself into his work, as a student the first year we were married and continuing through the ups and downs toward a job he loves and success as an engineer. I’ve seen him create a farm, digging post holes, planting fields, and building barns. And, when we left the farm, we took on the challenges of living off the electric grid, deep in the woods where he literally keeps our home working as well as our forest managed. This man works hard. And, he’s seen me labor as well.

But, in all that laboring, it is so easy to forget to maintain our relationship. Lately, I’ve thought about what advice I might give to this year’s June brides. But truthfully, I think it might be more important for me to learn from them. Something my marriage needs after all these years is something that comes so easily to these young women; I need to truly see and appreciate and delight in the man I get to do life with.

Jon probably won’t be getting a box of paper hearts for Valentine’s Day this year. But the last day in December he asked me what my New Year’s resolution was going to be. And, he probably didn’t expect my answer. The last year had been a hard one for us. It was full of storms that blocked roadways and both of us sometimes felt like we were shoveling alone and in vain, unable to get anywhere.

But, my new years resolution was a renewed commitment to express my appreciation for my husband. Instead of a paper heart in a box, these days Jon gets a note in his email inbox. Daily, I’m writing down something I see in him that makes me thankful. This is a simple little thing, but it’s been significant. Writing down 152 things you’re excited about 152 days before the wedding is easy. After years of marriage there can sadly be seasons and days when it is hard to think of one thing to be grateful for; those roads between our hearts can feel impassable. But daily, I’m remembering that this is one road that is worth the work to maintain. In order to be thankful, we need to slow down and see. I’ve had to pause in my day to think about my husband and all that he is and does. Just in that act of seeing and thinking, of knowing him, my love is renewed.

I am so thankful for my Valentine of seventeen years. He is still the funny, smart, hard-working, faithful and servant-hearted man that girl fell in love with so long ago. But, he’s also the man that has grown up with me, living out our marriage vows. Even when marriage is hard work, I love him more each day, and deeper. There is no doubt that God brought us together, with more good purposes in that than we ever could have dreamed.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Jonathan. I’m so thankful to be shoveling snow and walking these roads to and with you.

God has been so kind to us~

Lara

Hoping in the Smallness of Christmas

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I lost my faith yesterday while driving to the grocery store. It happened while the sun shone on sparkling snow and my favorite Christmas music filled the car. While hearing songs about the Jewish Messiah, long awaited, and at last come, I realized how much I wanted it to be true. I longed for this messiah. And, strangely, in the face of my need and longing, my faith faltered. I saw my heart, so small and needy, and I thought I must just be imagining that it’s true. Suddenly, Christmas was just a story. Just a porcelain nativity set with fake gold trim.

My mind has done the work of belief. It’s researched and studied. It’s questioned and sought answers. As answer after answer after deeper answer has come, I’ve started to trust with my intellect that the Bible is true. That Christianity, with its explanations and historical accounts, is factual. My mind doesn’t cause me to doubt.

But it’s my heart. It’s my little heart that wants so much to believe that causes me to lose faith.

So yesterday, as an agnostic, I walked into the grocery store to buy the last of my Christmas supplies. Somewhere, I thought, there’s something higher. There’s another world around and mingled with this one, with spirits and powers and things I can’t see. But, I can’t know it. It’s impossible to know what’s true. We’re too small to hold it. We’re all just needy guessers.

And, I walked through the aisles with other souls around me filling their carts. There was the mother with tired eyes. The baby in a car seat was sleeping, a knitted hat circling the little head that I could just see through the quilted cover. The mother studied with hurried and tired exactness the fruits and vegetables. An elderly couple smiled back at me as they moved slowly and took their time, choosing their holiday foods and scratching things from their list. I stood in line next to a well-dressed middle aged man. He had a bachelor cart, filled with some locally brewed beer, a rotisserie chicken and some items from the salad bar. I wondered if he had children, even though his cart had nothing to indicate he’d be feeding any, and if so, if he’d be seeing them this Christmas. I hoped that the sweet lady that bagged my groceries, as she managed the busy day shift, would be spending Christmas at home. She has a new baby boy, just a few months old. I know that while she smiles and places my eggs and bread so carefully in bags, that her heart is somewhere else.

I left this store that’s always full of hungry people, and I drove again through the white world. And, I wondered. What is true? I see beauty and brokenness everywhere, all mixed together and shaken up. I know that there’s love and hate and anger and sadness and laughter and joy and self-sacrifice and selfishness and it’s all contained in each one of us. Ancient, orthodox Christian doctrines would also tell me that this is true. We were created by God in His image… we have the fingerprints of the divine on our souls that make us valuable and beautiful beings full of worth. The people in the grocery store are so beautiful. I see that. And yet, there’s something wrong. I can feel it when I’m doing something as simple as standing in line to pay for my groceries. There’s something heavy weighing on us and it’s not just when we’re watching the latest heartbreaking crisis on the news that we know it. Even in the mundane, or celebratory moments, there’s an ache in our humanity. Weeds have sprung up in the garden of our hearts and pain has poured into the labor of our relationships. In smallness we toil. In the shadows of Eden, there’s an ache for an old glory. A restoration. For something to make it all better.

Once, I stood in my farm kitchen with some ladies who’d come to save my soul. I looked into their eyes and I saw their sincerity. But, when I told them that we could never agree because of this one thing that I believe, that Jesus is God, they admitted it. They pleaded their case with me and, looking aghast at each other, exclaimed, “Why! If Jesus was God that would mean that God would have had to sleep and eat just like us. God would have even had to use the bathroom! Don’t you see? God could never do that! He’s too holy, too majestic.”

And, as they spoke, the truth of what they said came washing over me. If Jesus was God that would mean God would have had to … be just like us.

…Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

God. Emptied, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of men. In human form, humbled, hanging on a cross. God in the smallness of human life and the humiliation of death.

Christmas is hard to take in.

It’s so much easier to imagine a God that is far away. He’s somewhere in the sky separate from us. He set things in motion and then took a hands-off approach. He might be keeping tabs on what we’re doing, and he might hear our prayers sometimes, but he’s big and we’re small. He could never be one of us.

But, Christmas says differently. It says God doesn’t think the way we do. His story is so big that he can enter our smallness.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12

This year, my thoughts turned to Christmas early. My very first Christmas card came in October. The dear friend sent it before Halloween, not knowing if she would be alive this week before Christmas. I spoke to Tamie a few days ago, from her hospice room in a nursing home, and she sounded embarrassed about sending her cards so early. She said, “I just didn’t know…” and her voice trailed off. My heart ached with that familiar pain of knowing that my friend is going to leave us soon.

In October, she had already decorated her room for Christmas. The nurses called it ‘Christmas village’ and paused by her bedside a little longer to stand by the small lit tree and listen to Christmas music. Tamie told me, “I know it’s early but I’m going to enjoy Christmas. And, I’m going to leave everything just the way it is until I’m gone. I won’t pack everything in boxes. It’s going to stay Christmas.”

I want it to stay Christmas, too. I want Christmas to sweep over this hurting world and to make it all better. And I want it to stay. I want it so much that I feel like I’m asking for a fairy tale ending. I’m begging for a ‘happily ever after’ but this broken down world tells us over and over again that those don’t exist.

As a child, it used to be so easy to believe in Santa and to hang my empty stocking for him to fill. I wasn’t cynical. I didn’t think about my smallness in the face of a big world of empty stockings on Christmas Eve. I went to sleep with faith. I rested, knowing that in the morning I’d see my hopes fulfilled. And, without fail, my stocking was near bursting when I woke. Do I dare to hope that there’s a real version of this story?

Can I bring my small and needy heart to be filled at Christmastime?

Maybe we’re not just imagining because we’re weak and needy, but our weakness and our needs point us to something real. We long because we are made to long. Maybe in our smallness He’s seeking us.

Driving home from the grocery store, with all these thoughts going through my mind, I started to pray. I prayed like it was all true. I prayed like there is a God who became man and understands our weakness. I prayed like He cares about me and my children and my husband and my hurting friends and family and the strangers I saw in the grocery store.

And, as I prayed, belief came sweeping back in. I took Christmas in my hands, held it tight and let it be mine. And the God who doesn’t despise smallness was there. One holy night, He took the hope of the world, wrapped it in swaddling clothes and placed it in a manger. This was the sign he gave to the humble shepherds and it’s still the sign he gives to us if we believe it. He’s willing to enter into a stable or a car full of groceries and He’s even willing to fill up a human heart. What makes it so hard to believe is the very thing that makes it genuine. It’s the longed for true ending of every story we’ve ever hoped to believe.

May our hearts be full of the smallness of Christmas, friends.

Grace to you and peace~

Lara

Being the Church in 1838 and Today

There weren’t ghosts but there were often echoes. Most of my babies learned to walk in that old house. Small bare feet padded across wide floor boards; pine holding the curves of settled ground and over two-hundred years of footsteps. In the kitchen, I washed dishes and looked out the window, surveying the hayfield, wondering how many other mothers had stood in this spot, with their feet planted and their eyes rising to the same blue sky. There were other babies, other children. I could close my eyes and hear generations of life that grew up in the shelter of the walls around me.

And, sometimes, the walls held more than echoes. Upstairs, in a bedroom that faced the faded barn, my husband was replacing one of the old windows. Behind a plaster wall, his hands found papers that had not been touched for nearly one hundred-eighty years. He came down the stairs, calling for me, his arms full of history. Carefully, afraid they would crumble in our hands, we started unrolling and smoothing newspapers from the 1830s. At the tops of front pages in beautiful cursive handwriting was signed the name Joseph Comings. There were papers with local news and ads for tonics to cure diseases with names I didn’t recognize. There was a handwritten account of expenses for the Baptist church down the road; the name of a pastor and his salary. A pamphlet published by the New-York Female Moral Reform Society in 1838; “‘A Plea For Moral Reform’, by a lady”.  On the cover we read, “As prejudice is an unexamined opinion, so the mind can only be freed from its influence, by carefully weighing in the balance of truth, every subject presented to its contemplation.”

And then, with a weight of significance pressing on my heart, I ran my hand gently over another pamphlet.

PROCEEDINGS

OF THE

ESSEX COUNTY ANTI-SLAVERY

CONVENTION,

HELD AT DANVERS, OCTOBER, 24, 1838

WITH AN

ADDRESS TO THE VOTERS,

ON THEIR
DUTIES TO THE ENSLAVED.

It was with sobering awe that I thought of my home standing in the days before the civil war, the air filled with conversations about duties to the enslaved. Suddenly 1838 didn’t seem so long ago. Not when day had just followed day and these papers had rested in our walls. History was no longer far away but instead leaning over me as I poured over these papers.

I pulled out my History of Cornish, New Hampshire [1] and inside I found a picture of Joseph B. Comings. His parents, David and Phoebe, along with their six children, moved to Cornish in 1806 and settled in our little farmhouse.  Then, Joseph was only a year old and his feet may have padded out their first steps on those same pine boards. It was surreal to read about the family that once filled my house. Three more babies were added and I imagined again the echoes of laughter and mealtimes and hard work. And, I could almost hear their prayers.

The Baptist church was erected just a stone’s throw away to the South. Sadly, the very year it was finished, in the early spring, David Comings and his nineteen year old daughter Phoebe both passed away. The History of Cornish said, “It is noteworthy that the father, with a loved daughter, were the first two whose remains were carried into the new Baptist church on Cornish Flat, after it’s erection in the spring of 1819, and that 27 years later, in 1846, the mother with a devoted son were the first two whose remains were borne into the same house after a complete remodeling of the same.”

On a walk to the post office, I took a moment to look for their stones in the graveyard. There, the family names were in a row, with dates to say when they were born and died. And, time seemed so thick and so vaporous all at once. On the father’s stone were the words, “Within this sacred bed of rest, a tender father lies, But he shall live among the just, when Christ shall bid him rise.”

And that night, as I washed dishes in the Comings’ home, and my home, I sang, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”, and I looked forward to the day when I’d meet these people whose steps I crossed in place but not in time.

When I lived in Cornish, the Baptist church was still standing but empty. Every other Saturday, my husband would take his turn to climb a set of rickety stairs and wind the clock. In a tower above a small green filled with war memorials, the hands still kept time, and a bell would ring out the hours.

But, when those newspapers were first stuffed in the walls around the old window in my upstairs bedroom, the church was still a place where Christians gathered. They came to worship God and they struggled through what it meant to follow him faithfully. Reverend David Burroughs became the pastor of the church in 1837 at only twenty-seven years of age. During this time the anti-slavery movement was growing and ripening in the north.

In school, I felt a little northern pride over the fact that we were opposed to the enslavement of human beings. I imagined a line separating the north from the south, not just physically, but in our deepest sentiments as well. But, as I learned more about the church in my front yard, I realized that lines in geography and in human hearts are never that clear and easy. The Reverend Burroughs had a battle to fight in Cornish, New Hampshire, of all places.

Most of the congregation believed in the abolition of slavery, but there were some individuals in the church who did not. As the Reverend Burroughs became more outspoken about things, some in the community joined in protesting his views. One Sunday, according to The History of Cornish, “the pastor ascended the high pulpit stairs and found the pulpit already occupied by a black ram. He retraced his steps down the stairs and occupied the deacons’ station as a pulpit for that forenoon. He made no allusion to the matter in his discourse, but the black occupant above, occasionally responded during the service, beside occasionally rising and standing on his hind legs, looking over the pulpit at the audience and causing much amusement for the children and the less seriously disposed part of the congregation.”

One Sunday, in protest of the denunciation of slavery, the white doors of the church were marked up with black paint. As the parishioners walked through the entrance to worship, the anger of the world outside, and the pain of the suffering, would follow them in their thoughts and make their way into prayers. And, they were a praying people. Reverend Burroughs started out with two faithful attenders of the weekly prayer meetings but it grew to over a hundred saints gathered together.

When history comes close, and leans over me, breathing into me the realness of people and makes time feel like an illusion, it quiets me.

I feel like I’m living in especially confusing, contentious days. But, as the war memorials on the green in front of the Cornish church display, most generations have lived in confusing and contentious days.

But in the past and today and until it’s finished, a house is being built on a foundation of people. And, we are growing into the frame and walls and floors. The empty building in Cornish isn’t the church; this house being constructed is the church. And, our foundation has a solid cornerstone.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

When days feel confusing, my eyes are to be fixed like plumb lines to the cornerstone of Jesus. To build well, every word, thought and action is to be measured and made to align with his example. This house is board upon board of truth and service, heartfelt prayer and mercy. And, when days feel contentious, I’m to listen to the echoing voices of the apostles and prophets, the saints at rest, remembering that the church isn’t built on political victories but through long-suffering and in bringing hope to the enslaved and captives. (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

I’m writing these words from my new house in the woods. It doesn’t have any echoes. It’s walls are filled with store-bought insulation. But seven little ones are sleeping peacefully as I sit here in the early morning hours. Like all mothers, I think about their futures. But more than what the world will be like, as they grow up, I think about what kind of echoes they’ll leave behind. This life is a breath. We’re here for a moment. If we choose to build on the cornerstone of Jesus, we’ll have to use whatever time we have to bend low and wash feet. We’ll listen to pain and suffering and be moved to compassion. Often, when we hold to truth, we’ll encounter black paint on white church doors. But, we can pass through them into worship and open wide the windows of the church so that this hurting world can hear our songs of hope and restoration and welcome. May the gospel be what echoes from us, his church, his dwelling place.

~Lara

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Church in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, image taken from waymarking.com

[1] Child, William Henry, History of Cornish, New Hampshire with Genealogical Record, 1763-1918,  (Concord, NH, Rumford Press, 1911), 124