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

 

 

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

Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

“Well, eventually, I’m sure you will.”

Swimming lessons had actually never crossed my mind. My oldest was four years old, and I had two others still in diapers. After telling my friend that we weren’t signed up, her words kept cycling through my mind. ‘Eventually, I’m sure you will…’

What else was I supposed to have my kids involved with that I hadn’t thought of yet? I never had swimming lessons as a child; I just spent hours and hours in lakes and the ocean. I had just assumed that they would learn the way I did. But, as I pondered ‘I’m sure you will…’ I realized that there were all sorts of other assumptions about what it meant to raise competent, happy, socially adjusted children. It starts with swimming lessons, moves along toward t-ball and then by high school it’s a blur of activities and taxi-cabbing. That seems to work well for lots of families. But was that what we wanted for ours?

As I thought, and discussed it with my husband, we both really wanted to be intentional about how our family spent time, and not just get swept up in the wave of what is expected.  What if we threw out the playbook and dreamed bigger? What if our activities weren’t centered on our children, but what if instead we chose activities that helped our children become others’ centered? We started to brainstorm.

And that is how we met Grammy Wanda.

We lived in a town with a lot of young or middle-aged families and went to church with young families and college students. But, we wanted ‘socially adjusted’ to mean more than getting along with our peers or people like us. Our family, and grandparents, lived far away, and I realized that there was a huge gap in my children’s socialization… they weren’t spending time with anyone with gray hair! I remembered my days in college volunteering in a nursing home. I thought of how lonely some of the men and women were and how eager they were to just have someone sit beside their bed and hold their hand, or talk about the photos on their bureau with them. I had a priceless commodity to bring some cheer to a place like that… babies!

It was close to Saint Patrick’s Day the first time we drove across the long covered bridge into Vermont and visited the Davis Home. The owner was excited to have children coming to visit and told us to come after lunch when many of the residents were still in the common room. She brought out leprechaun and four-leaf clover crafts and my oldest two sat with some lovely gray haired ladies and a cheerful staff woman who helped them all stick pieces together the right way. I walked around the room with the baby and said hello to some of the other residents just finishing lunch or sitting quietly. There was one woman in particular who seemed excited to see the children. She quickly became known as ‘Grammy Wanda’.

Grammy Wanda had several children and grandchildren but they all lived a distance away. Her son visited her once a week, took her out to eat and shopping. She showed me pictures of her beautiful teenage granddaughters, saying sadly that she only saw them once a year because they lived so far away. She said she had been a physical education teacher before she retired.

She also told me that she loved us, and that she was adopting us.

We went to the Davis Home almost every Tuesday for the next three years.  I had hoped that visiting a nursing home would teach the children the joy of serving others. I realized pretty quickly that in reality they were just learning the joy of getting spoiled by Grammy Wanda. On her weekly shopping trips with her son she would buy goldfish crackers, stickers, candy and lots and lots of bubbles. Going outside and blowing bubbles together was a favorite activity of Grammy Wanda and all the kids. She would blow bubbles and the kids would chase and try to pop them, and then the kids would blow bubbles and she would chase and try to pop them, and we would all laugh ourselves silly.

There were difficult moments (like when one old lady was in a bad mood and called my kids all kinds of swear words…), but the far majority of the time, bringing the children to a home with lots of older people afforded lots of fun and sweet times. We celebrated a lot of birthdays at the Davis Home, with my two or three year olds being sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by staff and residents and everyone having the fun of watching a little one blow out birthday candles. I found that preschoolers and some of the residents  with dementia enjoyed the same types of puzzles and board games. They liked the same snacks (it was the only time of the week my kids got Kool-aid with graham crackers… they loved that!!). And, just having my children at a table coloring pictures seemed to be entertainment for the residents.  Watching a pudgy little hand placing a fresh crayon drawing in a wrinkled hand, and seeing the smiles on two faces, was precious to me.

I had another baby during those three years and he was admired by all, but especially by Grammy Wanda. She wanted to hold him right away; I wasn’t sure how strong Wanda was so I shot a glance at a staff lady as if to say, “Do you think this is safe??” She nodded back reassuringly and I handed my tiny bundle to Grammy Wanda. She held him close and breathed in that sweet baby smell. She closed her eyes and soaked him in. Then she carried him around showing off ‘her new grandbaby’ to all the residents in the room that were too frail to walk over or hold him. I held my breath the whole time and was thankful to get him back safe and sound. The rest of the day, and many Tuesdays after, he smelled like Grammy Wanda’s perfume. She was his biggest cheerleader when he was learning how to walk. Maybe it was the PE teacher side of her coming out, but she told him all sorts of motivating things and clapped with joy and to his delight at his efforts.

For those three years Grammy Wanda was part of our family (and we were part of hers). I’ll always regret that those three years didn’t stretch into ten or fifteen. It was just before I had my fifth baby that we stopped making that daily Tuesday visit. I had a seven year old girl and boys aged five, three, and one and a half. I was round and full of my soon to arrive baby girl and having trouble keeping up with my active boys, especially as the winter kept us inside. And, Grammy Wanda was going through some difficult times with her health. It was harder for her to get out of her room and I could tell she felt badly that she wasn’t up for chasing bubbles or playing games. I confessed to the owner that I was having trouble making it over with my active bunch and tired pregnant body every week. She understood. She said maybe this was the natural time to take a break, and that we could come back anytime. Grammy Wanda understood as well. She said, “Just know that I love you.” I brought the baby to meet her when she was a couple of months old. I could tell Grammy Wanda was tired. My oldest daughter came along as well and they visited but I was glad that I’d left the younger (wilder) boys at home. Life got so busy after that. I sent a couple of cards to Grammy Wanda, and children’s drawings, but even that eventually got forgotten in the rush of changing diapers, making meals, running the farm and homeschooling.

A year or so later I ran into one of the ladies that had worked at the Davis Home. I quickly asked her how Wanda was, but she didn’t know. Grammy Wanda had been moved to another facility; she wasn’t sure where.

I likely won’t see her again until Heaven. There’s something both grievous about that and something okay about that. I thought that visiting a nursing home would be a good activity for my children to do; I could teach my children to serve and to be others-centered.  In reality, we didn’t find a meaningful activity or a place to give sacrificially. What we found was a person to love and to be loved by. Something like that never goes away. A skill might be learned for a season, and fade, but loving someone will always change us forever.

Sometimes Grammy Wanda would go on little field trips with us. Ironically, one summer she came along to swimming lessons. I had finally taken the plunge and signed the kids up for swimming lessons with the recreation department. A few high school and college students were giving lessons to children from preschool to diving board ages. Grammy Wanda had given a lot of swimming lessons in her days as a physical education teacher. I could see her itching to jump in the water and use her decades of experience. We sat together at the pond’s edge and she watched the little ones splashing around and retrieving rings. She glanced over at me. “You know,” she said in a hushed tone. “I don’t think they’re learning much. They really aren’t teaching them a thing.”

I smiled. I know, Grammy Wanda. I know. You have so much more to teach us.

Overcoming the Cold

The cold seems to make things quiet.

Outside, the evergreens are weighed down by snow that doesn’t melt; the maples and oaks each stand with arms outstretched and still as if in silent sentry. The only trees left with leaves to chatter when the wind blows are the beeches; they keep gripping them, even all curled and brown. The world is white on top of white with splashes of gray and glimpses of pine green. The chickens stay huddled in the coop and the only tracks we see near the house belong to the dog and the occasional rabbit. Most things are settled down somewhere, quiet.

We’re huddled down, too.  Sometimes we push through and layer and cover and trudge out. But we don’t stay long when it’s below ten degrees and the wind is picking up. The littlest one puts on someone’s boots and a hat on crooked, along with one mitten, and he pats my leg and points to the door. But I scoop him up and try to distract him with a book or a snack or something to make a mess with. The older kids sit near the fire. Two boys sit side by side on the rock hearth. One holds ‘The Return of the King’ and the other holds ‘Prince Caspian’. I think of Tolkien and Lewis an ocean and an epoch away, and something in me is proud of my boys. They are the type that could wear magic rings and do battle or walk through wardrobes and live in castles. We’re huddled together and dreaming bigger.

Something in me is quieter, too. This is what I dreaded in the fall; a cold, snowy winter with cancelled appointments and visits and church. And somehow it’s okay. Maybe because the seed catalogs are appearing in the mailbox every other day. Maybe because I’ve started planning and making sure we have everything we need for making maple syrup. Maybe just because something in me, deep down, has settled like the layers of snow from half a dozen storms.

Yesterday we woke to another foot of snow and an email saying church was cancelled. Before clearing the driveway, my husband helped me bundle little ones and put boots on the right feet. We strapped on snowshoes and loaded up the ice fishing sled with the ones too short to walk in the deep snow. It was bitter. In the woods the cold was biting but when we would come into the open it sliced through the layers with brutality. We made it only as far as the children’s Falkonhurst, a town they’ve created out of sticks and branches and forks in tree trunks. We peeked in each of their ‘cabins’ to see how well they were holding up, and then retreated back to the house to stand by the fire and thaw.

Today, I saw on the news that a woman just a little younger than me was hiking in the mountains not far away yesterday. By 3:30 in the afternoon she was somewhere on the ridgeline and knew she was in trouble. They tried to reach her but with temperatures reaching 30 below last night and unbelievable winds, they couldn’t. It’s one of those news stories that leave you aching.

We are all so much more fragile than we want to believe.

Maybe that’s a strange thing about a cold winter. It shows us things about ourselves. We see how dependent we are on that shrinking firewood pile next to the house. But then, we feel tough as we rush out to grab the next armload. We’re kind of dipping back and forth between feeling like dependents and conquerors.

Sometimes faith feels like that, too.

Another news story made my heart ache today. Twenty one men lined up along a distant shore. In the photographs, you can see the waves rolling in behind them. Twenty one men on their knees, the only words on their lips being, “Help me, Jesus.”

And they were conquerors.

Somewhere inside something has settled in me. It makes me quiet. Prayerful.

This world is cold. There is such a thing as evil and it wants to kill and destroy. It wants to whisper lies. It wants to numb us to what is true and put fear and hate in our bones. It wants to make our temperature the same as that of the world in a winter chill.

But that’s not all there is.

Last night I woke up and heard the wind battering the house. My husband and I were nestled close under the weight of wool blankets. I knew the woodstoves were probably getting low as it had been several hours since they had been loaded and the dampers shut. I thought of my little ones upstairs and downstairs and my husband asleep next to me, all waking up in a few hours. I took the plunge into the cold air and tended the fires.

This winter I’m getting more settled in my need to tend those fires.

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:8-9)

The cold of this world wants to creep not just through the walls of our house, but wants to creep into my mind and my heart.

The cold wants to numb my affections for Christ; to have me doubt that my faith will be sight someday. The cold wants to chill my marriage with little resentments here and there that go unspoken and unforgiven. It wants to bury my joy as a mother in the mundane tasks that seem more important than snuggling and listening and speaking kindness into little hearts. The cold of this world can make me weary.

But Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

The cold doesn’t have to numb and chill and bury and weary. He has overcome the cold.

It’s okay to grow quieter; to be stilled by the cold. But it needs to drive me to tend the fires.

I tend the fires of my faith by drawing near to God; to have a heart that is not quiet toward Him but quiet before Him. It’s opening up the damper when I pray with honesty and rawness. It’s placing seasoned fuel in the fire when I open up the Word and read it until it is saturating my soul more than the drafts that come from circumstance. It’s stirring the coals and blowing fresh oxygen onto the flames when I don’t let snowy roads or a chilled heart keep me from reaching out to loved ones however I’m able. And, as I obey, I can watch the flames leap up and warm my heart so that I don’t give up and so that I can pour the warm harvest of the Holy Spirit into the cold world, starting with those closest to me.

Father,

Thank You for the reality of life beyond this cold world. I know this season of separation is so brief… Only You know when we each will breathe our last breath and what our first moments in the reality of eternity will be. Please let us live our lives close to You so that when that moment comes, it is just a continuation and increase in the intimacy we have grown to experience here. Let us not grow weary in doing good while we have the opportunity. Please let me love my husband and children well while we’re close together in this small house in the middle of winter. And let the love that You grow here, in the quiet and stillness of these woods and of our hearts, overflow into the lives of those we love in other places, and those who we don’t know yet but will love Someday.

Amen

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Younger and Older: Counseling Women

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One morning last week, after tossing and turning and unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I rose out of bed early and came out to the kitchen with my journal to pray. I wrote, “I feel like I’m too much for people right now. I’m so needy for love and wisdom and healing- desperate to bear my soul and hear words of truth and love. But, I feel like that is just too much- the layers are too deep, too much to burden anyone with. It would just suck the life out of friendships.”

Am I the only one who feels this way sometimes? Or maybe this why we have such a booming counseling business in our country?  Somehow, we know that in order to overcome what is inside it needs to be exposed to someone else. We need to reveal the reality of who we are and we desperately want to find grace and understanding. But we don’t want to risk hurting our friendships by exposing too much neediness or vulnerability. So, we pay to have someone on our side and if we give them money, and make it a professional service, we don’t have to feel guilty about the burden we also hand them.

I think there is a good place and a need for professional counselors, along with their training and skills that give them insight and the ability to teach helpful ways of coping with difficult things. But, I’m becoming more and more passionate about the kind of counseling that I have seen continually transform my darkest days of life into fruit-bearing and light shining seasons.

When I was in college I read a book about spiritual mothering. I don’t remember a lot about it, other than it left me longing for a mature Christian woman to take me under her wing. I wanted someone who would be committed to helping me grow, be invested in my life and a resource to come to with all my questions and needs.  She would of course be wise, and would have likely homeschooled her own large brood of children, could clean, cook, garden, organize and decorate, and she would check in on me frequently and offer her jewels of wisdom and practical assistance at just the right times. As a young wife, realizing that marriage, even to your best friend, was more complicated than I thought, and then as a young, exhausted mother, this longing turned into an idol in my heart. If only I had that ‘spiritual mother’, someone with all the answers and able to devote time to teaching me how to be a wife and mother, then I would be a better Christian. I would grow. I would be healthy.

It’s a misplaced hope to think that one person could swoop in and meet all of our emotional and practical needs. That spiritual mother I was looking for didn’t exist. I felt like God was withholding something good from me for a long time, when really, he had provided something much better that I just didn’t recognize. He made me a part of a diverse, beautiful, growing church. Last week, I once again overcame that fear of revealing my mess and leaned hard into relationship. And, once again, I was left in awe of the wisdom of God in placing us in community. I came away with a better understanding of what was at the heart of my problem, and a deeper appreciation for the friends God has placed in my path as counselors, along with a deeper love of the gospel, which gives insight into human nature, and helps us to not be surprised by sin and brokenness. Not to mention, my friends make me laugh. What a gift from a happy God.

In the book of Titus in the Bible, the church is given a model for how the older women are to teach, or counsel, the younger women. I find that I’m both that older and younger woman now… somewhere in the middle and so blessed to be both walking with women in seasons that I’ve already experienced, while also learning from the wisdom and experience of women a step, or a few steps, ahead. I have something I would love to say to both…

To the younger women:

First, please be brave. As hard and as intimidating as it is, you need to reach out to more mature women you respect. You need to ignore the thoughts in your head that tell you that they are too busy, you are too insignificant, or that you would be a bother. If you are living in a season we’ve already been through, your problems don’t scare us. But, you need to take the initiative and the risk in reaching out. Too often, we as older women don’t assume you need or want our counsel because we don’t always recognize either your need or our insight.

Also, please be open-handed. Don’t let your need for counsel develop into a utilitarian view of women with some experience and insight that you want to learn from. Remember that they are your sisters in Christ, in need of the encouragement and friendship you can offer as well. Look for ways to bless them, especially through your prayers for them. And, as you pray, God will mature your heart at the same time. You will take their burdens, some that you haven’t faced yet– like an empty nest or the care of an aging parent– and your heart will wrestle with these issues on their behalf. You will be more ready to face them yourself someday because of your faithful prayers for older women. Look for ways to bless and care for them even as you let them know how much you need their love and counsel.

And that is so important… let it be known. Be honest. Go beyond the point of comfort. Peel back a layer beyond the one that feels safe and experience grace and love entering into a deeper place.  Even if you feel like you are taking more than you’re giving, keep asking. It will bear fruit and before you know it you will be that older woman yourself, pouring out what you have received.  Be brave.

To the older women:

Please be kind. Please notice the younger women around you and ask them how you can be praying for them. They want to tell you and they need your prayers coming from a place of understanding.

If you understand the gospel, and it is the hope you cling to for all of life, then you are both qualified and needed to give counsel to younger women. The gospel allows you to step in with the truth about hope: that hope comes from God loving us in the midst of the messes. You have no idea how much just the fact that you have survived the season we’re in means to us younger women. There’s hope for us. And, if you’re honest about your failings along the way, that’s even better and gives us even more hope… we aren’t alone in our failures.

Please be careful of how you speak about others. We’re listening, and if we hear you divulging personal information about others or speaking disparagingly, we won’t feel safe coming to you with the things that are closest to our hearts. But, if you let us see your heart for others, and it’s one of grace, and your words communicate your care and concern, we will want to be added to those you know and love. 

Maybe sometimes we try your patience with our immaturity. Please keep being patient. In seasons to come, there will likely be the most fruit hanging from the branches that need the most growth now. Those are the areas the gospel still needs to penetrate and transform. Speak truth into our lives gently but boldly. We younger women don’t want to think we are right all the time about what we are thinking or feeling; we want to know the truth that brings hope- the truth that we are sometimes wrong and messed up but that we’re still loved and that God will keep working in those areas.

Remember, we don’t need perfection. We just really need your presence and availability. Take us seriously when we send you an email or make a phone call to tell you we are struggling and need counsel.  It means the perceived need is significant because it is so intimidating to take that step. Please be kind.

So, those are the things burdening my heart for both younger and older Christian women. They are coming from a passion that continues to grow and longs to see the church –the community of God’s people– thriving as a place where life-transforming counseling takes place in natural relationships being strengthened with His supernatural love.

But, even with that passion growing, I know that these relationships are imperfect. That morning, while I was sitting in the quiet kitchen, afraid to burden my friends, as I prayed I was reminded of another Counselor. One we don’t reveal ourselves to, but One who reveals us to ourselves.

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s summary of the life of Christ, the words of Jesus are recorded for us. He told his disciples that he had to leave, but that it was for their benefit that He would no longer be physically present with them. Shortly after this, Jesus died on the cross, paying with death the cost of sin and breaking its power to separate us from God. His sacrifice and life dramatically changed how God’s people would commune with Him. It was a turning point in all of history. There was a reconciliation so deep that not only can our sins be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit can draw so close that He abides in us and teaches us truth. He is our ultimate Counselor.

When I am feeling lost or puzzled, broken or hopeless, tired or frustrated, insecure or anxious, or any of the other countless emotions we as humans will experience, the first and perfect Counselor I need is God who has made his abode right here with me; He is here, always available, always wise, always pouring out truth and grace and always coming with life transforming, undeserved love. All because Jesus paid my counseling fee in full. I don’t have to worry about burdening Him beyond what He can handle, because He held the burden of the sin of the world on the cross. I don’t have to worry about Him growing weary with me, or giving up on me, because He chose to make me His when I was repulsively stuck in self-centered sin. He says He will stay with me and carry me through to completion. He knew me before I took my first breath, and he knows who I will be after my last breath is exhaled. Isn’t that encouraging truth? We are known and we are loved by the only one who knows us completely and can love us perfectly. That is transforming truth and that is the message of our deepest counsel to one another.

You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5

What I Need to Say Before ‘Thank You’

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Thanksgiving. I know it’s really important. Not the turkey or cranberry sauce and eating pie all afternoon… not even the Pilgrims and Squanto.  It’s the act of remembering, appreciating and being grateful. Being grateful to Him. It matters; it’s important and it’s good.

But I can’t just turn on thankfulness like a faucet. That deep appreciation and thanks isn’t pouring out of me right now.  And, he’s not an account in the sky where we need to deposit our yearly dose of thanksgiving before we carve the turkey and pass the mashed potatoes. He’s not the universe or ‘The Unknown God’ of the Athenians in the book of Acts. He’s Someone. He says, ‘I Am.’ He tells us about himself because he wants to be known… and he already knows each of us intimately. So, before I give thanks, I need to give honesty. I need to come to him with the questions weighing on my heart and making the thanks feel inauthentic. He’s real and I need to be real as well.

So, God, before I come to you with my thanks, I’m going to be honest and come to you with my sorrow.

Pressing down on me as I roll out pie crust is a weight of sadness for a woman I don’t even know well; we only spoke a few times. But her loss is so significant that just hearing about it has crushed part of me. Less than a year ago, we sat together after Sunday school and talked about her oldest daughter, just nearing school age. She wasn’t sure what she should do this year. We talked about the pros and cons of home, public, or Christian schools. And God, the whole time we were talking, you knew. You knew that a couple of months into her kindergarten year, that sweet five and a half year old girl would come home with a sniffle and be gone a week later. And it doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to get a thank you past the big, heavy ‘why?’. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand you in this.

But I keep going today with preparations for Thanksgiving. As I peel apples and make rolls, I’m thinking of another friend. We have her big, goofy dog in the front yard as a reminder that she’s not in a position to take care of him and that the future is unknown. It weighs on me every day; this feeling that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. I bury my face in the thick fur of her sweet dog, with his tail that wags even when we’re pulling out porcupine quills, and I wish the world was just as sweet and gentle. And I need to tell you, Lord, that it just doesn’t feel right.

There are things that are so broken. I need to check in with my sister and find out if a little girl is at her house for Thanksgiving. This little two year old spent the first year of her life in my sister’s home and now comes back for visits. I am thankful that they have that time together, but, God, it still hurts. I know when my sister hugs that little one, they both remember their hearts have been broken a million times and will probably break a million more. The hardness of the foster care system and most of all the hardness of this world breaks people. It seems like you could do something. Like you should have done something already. It doesn’t make sense, Lord.

And God, I’m sorrowful because I’m so lonely this year. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve experienced without a grandmother somewhere in this world. I want to hear Grammie B ask me what I’m thankful for and hear her say, like she always did, that she was thankful for her salvation and for all of us. I want to know Grammy J is in her kitchen today, sifting flour, baking up a storm of pies and mincemeat bars and getting Grampy to peel the apples. But they aren’t here. I know my grandfather’s heart is breaking today as well and I could just cry and cry. I know I need to thank you, but I want to tell you that I don’t like how this works. Death and leaving and being apart. It seems so wrong and I wish it wasn’t this way.

I also need to tell you about the guilt I feel when I even think of thanking you. I have a five and a half year old daughter as well. She’s so excited about learning how to make pumpkin pie this afternoon. She’s happy and chatty and she’s alive. I am so, so thankful… thankful it wasn’t my daughter you chose to take away. And, tomorrow, my family is going to be home together. Our own puppy will be looking for crumbs on our dining room floor and my husband, who makes me feel safe and understood, will be there with us. My baby will climb on my lap to put his fingers in the whipped cream on my pie and take it for granted that I’m his momma and I will never leave. I have so many reasons to be thankful. You have blessed me in every way. And the contrast between my thanks and others’ sorrows makes me feel those pangs of guilt. I know life isn’t ‘fair’. I don’t understand your ways, Lord.

And, God, I need to come to you with yet another emotion. It’s fear. As I think of all the good things you’ve blessed me with, like a home and family, bountiful food and healthy children, I’m reminded of how fragile these blessings are. They could be gone in a breath, a moment, with a missed stop sign or with a spark from the woodstove. Nothing here is secure. As soon as I start thanking you for these things I hold so carefully, I am reminded that you might take them away. I’m afraid because I love them so much. And, the reality is that when I look around at the hard things in life, I don’t completely trust you. Your ways just don’t make sense to me.

So that is the reality, Father. I have sorrow, guilt and fear. But you knew that. You are acquainted with all that’s inside and even before I say the words, you know them already. You know and you want me to come to you with them. Thank you for caring. Thank you for wanting to hear them just as much as you do my words of appreciation. Thank you for caring about me… right where I am. For real.

And this is when the real giving of thanks begins. We’re real together. Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’. We know you because you revealed yourself and your character to us in a way we could understand… as a human. And you were fully human… You wept. You were tired. You asked to be spared suffering if at all possible. And, you trusted, somehow in the mystery of the Trinity, that the character you have shared for all eternity, the Father’s love and justice, was enough to make the suffering, the weariness, the tears all worth it in the end.

You tell me it will all be made right. It is going to be okay.

For now, you are weeping with those who weep.

The reality of that is big enough for my sorrow, my guilt and my fears.

Thank you, Lord.

Yesterday, my baby came up to me and lifted up his arms. I reached down and picked him up and held him close. He wrapped his pudgy little arms around my neck and we rested for a minute, heart to heart. I was filled to the brim with love for the little guy, and with sudden wonder, I realized that he was feeling the same thing. He was in my arms, snuggled in and feeling love for me, too. We just held on for a moment, and thanks filled every fiber of my being.

That’s how I want to be with God this Thanksgiving. It’s good to count our blessings. It’s good to remember we have been given so much.

But, ultimately, the Giver wants to give us Himself.

I am so thankful that God isn’t just a power, but that he’s real and responsive and feeling. It means that I can come to him, lift up the reality of my heart and let myself be held for a while. I can rest in his arms and be thankful. Thankful not just to him or for him… but I can be thankful with him.

For I am sure that neither death nor life,

nor angels nor rulers,

nor things present nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39