Safe and Trembling (Dealing With A Wound From the Past)

It was one of those rare, warm days in February. And, since we live in New Hampshire, by warm, I mean it was above 32 degrees so the snow was slushy and the trees were dripping. I planned to walk with the kids on just some flat trails behind a nearby school, but the sunshine felt so refreshing and the kids begged so earnestly to hike to the top of some ledges, that I consented. As we got closer to the top, the trail was slick with wet ice. We kept to the edges of the path, where the snow was still crunchy and we had good enough footing to make it safely to the top. With a baby on my back and two preschoolers holding my hands, I admired the view while calling to the three older children to stay well away from the edges. It was beautiful. It was refreshing. It wasn’t worth the following two months!

On the way down, I had a handful of discarded mittens in one hand, and with my other I held the hand of my four year old. My baby girl was sleeping soundly in a carrier on my back. The other kids were ahead of me, making their way down the trail by keeping to the edges. I was already out of balance when I stepped on some slick ice. Somehow, as my feet lost control, I let go of my child’s hand and was propelled frontwards across the trail, coming to rest only when my outstretched right hand hit a fallen tree and stopped my body from going any further. As I tried to stand and to comfort the baby, who was now awake and crying, it only took one look at my wrist to realize that I’d badly broken it. I called my older children back and they assured me that the baby seemed fine and also let me know that the cell phone batteries were dead. I couldn’t call for anyone to help us. I needed to get the seven of us down from these ledges and home. I held my arm as still as possible and assigned the older kids the task of helping the little ones. Praying no one else fell, we went slowly and steadily and finally made it back to the van. Surprisingly, I thought, “I’m doing okay. This break doesn’t hurt that much.” I drove with my left hand and we arrived home, where again, we had to rally to get everyone into the house. It was with relief that I got to our home phone and called a friend up the road. She would call another friend to watch my kids and she’d bring me to the hospital. She said she’d hurry as fast as she could and I said, “I’m okay. It doesn’t hurt that much.” But, when my friend walked through the door a few minutes later, I felt pain shoot through my broken arm. We were saved. We were safe. Now, I felt like I was dying. As soon as we were on our way to the hospital, the pain became unbearable. Tears started pouring and I moaned as my arm felt like it was being torn apart.

My wrist had been broken for over an hour but it only started really hurting when it was safe for me to fall apart. The pain had been present all along. The injury was real and hurtful. But, my body was able to mask the pain in order for me to have the strength to get down that mountain and to get help.

After I broke my wrist, I needed surgery to put a metal plate inside and hold things together. It took a couple of months and some physically therapy to heal completely. But, by the spring time, when the snow had melted and the weather was truly warming up, I was all better. The kids and I set off on another hike, this time with some friends. We went up a familiar mountain that we’d climbed many times. For the last bit of the hike up Mount Cardigan, you leave the tree line behind and walk up it’s bald, granite face to the tower at the top.

This day, this first hike after my fall, the kids scrambled up the rocks, full of enthusiasm to get to the top, just like always. But, as we started up the rocky face, my heart started beating faster. This was a safe mountain, with good, solid footing. But, I needed to stop and take some deep breaths. I said to my friend, “Look at me… I’m literally shaking! This is crazy!”

Even though I knew in my head that I was safe, my body was sending danger signals. Somewhere inside, the trauma of that fall was being remembered.

I think our body remembers emotional trauma in a similar way.

When we go through painful experiences, often we are able to cope and even mask the pain in order to survive and to do what needs to be done.

It can be years later, when we are actually in a safe place, that we first feel the pain signals. And, it can feel crazy. We tell ourselves, “What is wrong with me? I should be over this by now. It shouldn’t hurt anymore.” And, we can try to squash the tremble inside with substances or food or exercise or Netflix or a whole host of things to try to not feel when our feelings don’t make sense. Or, maybe we can’t even find escape. Maybe we start sinking.

I’ve written before about my struggle with depression. A few years ago, it became an intense struggle, and very much related to that trembling shake inside of old wounds torn open by current circumstances. Thankfully, just like on that climb up the bald face of Mount Cardigan, I was trembling but I was in a safe place.

Depression was in many ways a gift for me, because it overpowered my, “I should be over this by now,” feelings, and drove me to seek help. I was able to tell my stories in ways that allowed me to walk through old trauma and heal in deeper places. I had to write them down and unravel myself. I had good friends who were willing to listen to my story, and love me in that hearing, and I also sought good, Biblical counseling and found help there.

Walking again recently with a friend, she asked me, “Lara, how do you know that counseling is working?”

It can feel like a messy, awful process.

But, I think I answered her truly when I said that the biggest change I’ve seen is the ability to be more gracious with myself. When I tremble, I don’t hate myself for it. I can say, “Look at me- I’m shaking,” and accept that this is helpful information. Those emotions are real and they tell me something about my own heart. I can bring that knowledge to the present and use it to help me understand the places I’m prone to stumble.

And, I also know that those feelings of shame, insecurity or fear don’t determine my next steps. I can graciously accept that while they are sometimes traveling companions, they aren’t my map or GPS. I can keep climbing the mountain and embracing the forward-facing nature of this journey.

And, it helps to know that there’s another, closer traveling companion.

Our God sees the past, the future and is with us in this very moment.  Even if there are ‘fears within and trouble without’, He is a safe place for his people to find refuge and help. He’s better than a cell phone that dies on a hike. He’s listening always and his words to us are good. So different from the things we tell ourselves. Our self-condemning words can’t quiet us or stop the tremble. But, His love can hold us close enough to stop the shaking. And, as He walks with us through such painful trials, He knows there are views in the end that will be worth the journey. Let’s press on, with present grace.

The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:17

Blessings and prayers for you on your climb upward,

Lara

 

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At the top of Mount Cardigan, the first hike following my broken wrist

Investing With a Whole Heart In A Disappointing Church

I’m not sitting down to the best of writing conditions. It’s April 19th and there’s snow falling outside my window. That alone leaves me a tad out of sorts. The kids are ready for sunshine and the energy level is a little crazy in here today. A little boy just used my chair to catapult himself across the room and there’s a girl molding peanut butter cookie dough into butterflies behind me in the kitchen. They are going to morph into unrecognizable shapes when they bake but she’s so excited about this experiment that I don’t have the heart to tell her. This is one of those days that I’m a little checked out as a mother. I’m here, and answering questions, but I’m sort of not here, you know? I’m tired and fighting off a head cold. And, I’m tired and fighting through some discouragement. So, I’m just plonking myself down in the midst of the chaos and I’m going to sort out what’s up with me. You’re welcome to come along.

I dropped my oldest daughter off at school today and had a good, long talk with God on the way home. It was nice, because it was one of those times I didn’t just trust that he was listening, but I really felt it. Feelings don’t change what is real, but it’s nice when they match up.

I talked to God a lot this morning about my church. If you measure things by vocation, I’m not really anything there. I’m not the pastor or an elder or director of anything. I’m just a mom that shows up and leads Bible studies sometimes for the women and kids. But my heart has been in this thing. And today, I wanted to quit that. I sort of still do.

I think it’s because of how much it hurts when people leave. I said goodbye to a good friend recently and had a conversation with another dear friend that was looking at another church. It sort of sent me tail-spinning.

Remember long ago, when our church plant was just starting, I wrote The Keeping Strength and asked, “What is going to make this church different from all the others that have disappointed people?” Well, it’s four years later and I know that we’ve disappointed people. People just plain disappoint. We’re not all that consistently impressive.

These days, most of us choose a church because it offers us something we think will make our lives better. Maybe it’s good teaching. Or, friends for our kids. Social opportunities for those cold winter evenings. Maybe we’re aware of our need for community and belonging. Sometimes, we’re strategic and service oriented and want to be someplace where our gifts will be used with the most bang for the buck. We can imagine a fertile, green pasture where we will graze with like-minded, Jesus loving sheep and baa out just the kind of worship songs that make our hearts sing.

But, there’s a lot of room to be disappointed when faced with a real life church.

My husband, this man with an extra dose of faithfulness, has always had a different outlook. He sees church membership vows like marriage vows. There’s a commitment there. Sometimes in church, like in marriage, you see things that are better in other places. There’s a pull toward those greener pastures. But, given a faithful theological foundation, you stay there and build on it. You dig in deep and serve and show up. You decide to belong there. And, it’s in that commitment and at times long-suffering, that we experience the richest church life. Just like in marriage. Sticking at it and working at it is what makes it so beautiful and satisfying when all is said and done. It’s not that everything is perfect. But some things are actually better than perfect- an imperfect church and an imperfect marriage are both things that allow us to experience grace and to grow. And, they both look ahead to the same profound mystery (Ephesians 5). Our imperfection leaves room for us to long for the perfect union of Christ and his Church. This is the the true marriage. The rest are shadows pointing back toward what’s most real.

So, Jon and I are all in when it comes to this imperfect marriage, and this imperfect church. We dig in and invest our all. We look ahead to the finish and ask God to help us display a little bit of what’s to come in the here and now.

But, I think this high view of things can crash into broken-heartedness at times. It hurts so much when people leave. Maybe it’s like that anytime you let yourself love someone. Love and grief are such close friends. When you let your heart be bound up in the joys and sorrows of another, and feel a sense of responsibility to care for their needs, and then they leave and go somewhere else, it really hurts. It’s a complicated hurt because it doesn’t really make sense in our world and culture. It hurts so much that I start to feel like I’m crazy and deficient somehow. I should be tougher and less possessive or something. I should trust God more and be able to just say “See you around,” to the people leaving.

But, wait.

I guess that is not actually trusting God more is it?

If anyone out there has any really helpful thoughts on how to love people really deeply but keep your heart from hurting when they walk away, will you let me know?

Or maybe.

Sometimes we’re called to things that hurt.

Sometimes pain is not an indicator of failure.

God gave us two great big commandments. To love him with all our hearts, souls and minds. To love others as ourselves.

This is following him and sharing in his sufferings.

And this is what the church is supposed to proclaim-

Jesus loves us.

He suffered for us. For the leavers and the quitters.

For the disappointing.

For me.

His love hurt him. And, he invites us to share in this love-hurt because he knows the joy that is coming will be worth it in the end.

Sometimes, pain is not a sign of failure.

It’s a sign that your heart is working. It hasn’t quit yet.

I started this post discouraged but knowing that discouragement never has the last word. Not when we are working our way toward the gospel.

And, I see it- I’m glimpsing it once again. This Jesus-changes-everything thing that sorts me back out when I feel like such a mess.

Thank you for coming along with me as I stretched to grasp it again today.

This is a rapid paced, hard scrabble scribbling- but it did its work in me.

Now, I get to go be present with my kids.

And, I have an imperfect but totally cool-looking, puffy (and delighted over by a little girl) butterfly shaped (sort of) peanut butter cookie waiting for me.

May you, along with me, delight in the imperfect and the disappointing today and keep loving big.

Blessings-

Lara

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7 Reasons Why I’m Not Skipping Church

7 Reasons Why I’m Not Skipping Church

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 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

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

broody hen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

[2] Deuteronomy 32:10, 11

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

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

church-in-cornish

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

Breaking Free of the Approval Trap

My little girls and I stood under the red and orange trees and tried to catch the leaves that were falling. A breeze would sweep over branches far above our heads and we’d see color released like a slow burst of confetti. Sometimes a wind current would retrieve the swell and send it higher, carrying it like a lost kite far from where our outstretched arms were waiting. But now and then, leaves would float gently down and we would leap and try to catch them as they came spinning.

Lately, the words have been coming to me just like autumn leaves. It’s rare that I catch them in their falling. Often, I see the wind shake loose the colors of life, stories spinning in the air, and then they get carried away in the currents of a busy life.

And, I find myself torn between just letting them go and chasing them down.

For a while now, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

In college, I walked beside a professor in the spring sunshine and I asked him, “What should I do?” And he said, “You know how to capture the poetic. Keep writing, Lara. Publish a book.”

And at twenty-two years old I envisioned a book of poetry by the time I was twenty-five. And when I was twenty-five I held another newborn baby and I said, “Forget it. I’m just going to write poetry on the souls of my children.” And, we looked together for the poetic in blocks and Play-Doh and bugs in the grass. And these children, seven of them in just over eleven years, with their refining chaos and fresh eyes for beauty, wrote poetry in me as well.

It was only while I was snuggling close my last baby that I felt a resurgence of that drive toward written words, pushing me toward pen and paper. Once again, a notebook was placed on my nightstand and another beside the kitchen stove.  And, I’ve felt like a writer again.

That first summer, after the resurgence, my family took me to Liberty Tool Company on my thirty-sixth birthday. We meandered through three floors of used tools, antiques and random treasures; the kids were each allowed to spend two dollars. A daughter found a tarnished silver spoon and a little boy found a screwdriver that would fit in his pocket. Finally, making our way to the third floor, we were surrounded by shelf after shelf of old books. One by one, I would pull an old hardcover off the shelf and blow away the dust that had collected on top of the pages. On each cover was a name. I thought about the dream contained in the book I was holding. The author was a writer. He or she had felt the angst of the words pressing to be written and had experienced the absolute satisfaction and joy of holding in their hands a published work with their name on it. They had achieved what had started rising again as an aspiration in my own mind.

And, suddenly, as I looked at the thousands of dusty hardcovers with long forgotten titles, I saw a desperate futility in that sort of dream.

When I walked with my professor that long ago spring day, I had asked him another question. It had burned in me throughout the entire semester of Poetry 308. With hope and angst I had asked him, “Do you think I’m any good?” And, standing in Liberty Tool, I realized that my dream of a published book was a longing to have that question answered, “Yes, you are good! You are a worthwhile human being! People are going to love you, girl!”

There’s something in me that craves approval from others. That craving can become intense and I can become wildly insecure when I pour my heart and mind into a piece of writing and share it. When I see that ambition in me, to win the love of others by an extraordinary writing performance, I know it’s like trying to draw water from a dry well. No matter how beautiful my words or how many books I publish, that thirst would never actually be satiated. Our souls weren’t meant to be fed with the praise of other human beings.

The knowledge of this unhealthy craving inside makes me want to go to another extreme and not share my work at all. It makes me ashamed of my pride and embarrassed by my neediness. I fear rejection because of how crushing it would be given my insecurity. I decide that I should keep my words close and private. Friends also, hoping to help me to be less inhibited, have encouraged me to just write like no one will ever see the words. I’ve tried. The result is that  I sit at my desk and picture myself like Emily Dickinson, a recluse in my lonely little cabin in the woods, filling a chest with secret poems not to be seen until I’m buried deep in the ground. And, I want to cry for the loneliness of it all.

Slowly, I’m learning that writing must be both not about other people and also deeply about connection to other people.

This last month, a renewed connection has helped me to push through the angst I’ve lately felt about writing.

Carolyn Locke was my very first creative writing teacher. She was a writer herself, pursuing poetry while teaching English to high school students. She managed to pour herself into her students and also her family and friends, all while balancing this internal push to write. She never taught us that the goal and proof of being a writer was in having a book published. She made us a community of writers right then and there. She brought in authors who shared their stories with us like we were peers. She read to us her own poetry and listened intently to ours. And, before the class was over she held a poetry reading to which our loved ones were all invited. She knew that it wasn’t just in publishing, but before we could experience the fullness of our work, it needed to be shared. Words are meant to go out from us into another place. Words are meant to connect.

Recently, I shared with her The Wave Song and told her how much the memory of her tears when I read a poem in high school had meant to me. Remembering the connection people can have over words helped me to start writing and sharing again. The poem that connected us then was about how I felt sitting between a boy I was dating and his mother.  I laughed when in our reminiscing I sent her a copy and remarked that I could easily be brought to tears myself by the subject matter now that I have boys of my own.

Her reply surprised me. As she remembers it, her tears weren’t over the subject matter (as I have always thought), she was moved because of what she saw in me. It was my compassion for the mother in my poem that made her cry.

When I read her words and for the first time saw that experience differently, it was like being washed over with all of my conflicting emotions about sharing my writing. I long to be seen and yet I want to run to the hills and hide away, never to be seen. Because the reality is that I know what is inside of myself.

C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Silver Chair’ in which Aslan, the great lion, admonishes Prince Caspian for his disappointment over being merely human. “‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,’ said Aslan. ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.'”

I know that honor and that shame. I feel it in myself.

But Aslan went on to say, “Be content.”

In order to write, and share, I must come to a place of contentment with myself. Not because I’m perfect but because I’m not. Not because I lack motivation to grow and to do better but because in order to grow I need to be free to fail and to have that failure exposed. Isn’t this also the gospel? Jesus took the shame of being human and gave us the honor, freely. I can come out of the bushes and face exposure because I have been made secure. I can ‘be content’ to be and to be seen. I can be content when I’m pretty and content when I’m ugly. I can be content when I’m right and content when I’m wrong. My value is intrinsic and secure, separate from my performance.

My once-again teacher, Carolyn, recently shared this quote:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. . . It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to stay open and aware to the urges that motivate you.” Martha Graham

This frees me. It’s not my business to determine how good my expression is nor how it compares with others’. With abandon, I can go chasing and leaping after those stories falling like autumn leaves.

When I was a little girl I could sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ like it was nobody’s business. I would gather an audience but I wouldn’t worry about what they were thinking. I just wanted my sisters and parents and grandparents to experience with me the absolute joy of the song. I was content. It wasn’t until I got older, while enjoying my own children, that I realized how special and beautiful is the self-forgetfulness of childhood. And, how worthy of a thing it is to strive to recapture. Maybe this is even a reason why God made me a writer; He knows it will draw me to the true answer, to the well of living water that is His love. And content in that, I’ll truly be able to write and sing again like it’s nobody’s business.

~ Lara

spotlight.jpg

~My little sister, a couple of brave neighbor boys and self-forgetful me~

Did you enjoy reading about my first and most inspiring creative writing teacher? To enjoy some of her beautiful poetry, check out Carolyn Locke’s books, available from her website at carolynlocke.com. 🙂