Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oh Joy

As we circled the dining room table to light our family’s Advent wreath, the kids got into a fight over who would light the pink joy candle.
advent 3
I was not feeling very joyful after a full day of trying to keep them engaged and at peace along with working a few hours, attending an evening church service, and participating in our annual tradition of driving around to see the Christmas lights.
I was tired and frustrated, and wondered why the reality of our family traditions never matched the glowing image in my head of how it “should” be. I was ready to give up on the Advent candle-lighting entirely, but my son reminded me that we had skipped our Bible story reading the night before and had promised to do two tonight.
Should it really be this hard for us to have regular devotions in a family where both parents are ordained ministers? I often feel like I’m failing in the spiritual development of my children, a difficult irony as I have devoted my life to faith and ministry.

To read the rest, please go to the Ministry and Motherhood blog.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What are you waiting for?

I will be preaching the Sunday after Christmas.  As one who doesn't preach regularly, I look forward to the mental, spiritual, and exegetical challenge.  But as I sit and try to write, I struggle to find the words.  More than that, I'm not even sure what message to bring as Advent ends.  We have spent the season in waiting, but how will we feel when we get there?

I have two children that live for Christmas.  They have been making their gift lists since early fall and have been reminding us daily to open the Advent calendar boxes as we count down the days.  And every day, they sigh at how much longer they will have to wait (even though we're down to ten days).  Meanwhile, I'm counting down the days until my own holiday break from work.  There is so much to do, but I'm intentionally trying to let go of tasks so that I can actually enjoy this season.  Waiting, instead of rushing around, sounds like a terrific luxury.  I watch my kids and I can remember my own childhood anticipation of Christmas, along with the anxiety.  Would I get what I wanted?

I can also remember the letdown after Christmas, and continue to experience it.  Once the wrapping paper is no longer strewn around, the anticipation quickly turns into boredom.  It's about this time that my kids start fighting with one another since they have run out of other things to do.  I'm always surprised, although I shouldn't be.  It's the way of humankind.  We long for what we don't have, and once we receive it, it's no longer important to us.  The buildup can only last for so long, and then we crash into disappointment on our return to reality.

If getting the things we want doesn't make us happy, what happens when we don't receive that for which we had hoped?  I'm not talking about material gifts, but the promises of Advent that we share as we light candles on our wreaths: hope, peace, love, and joy.  Sure, we have been given these gifts, and can each point to examples of them in our lives.  But there remains an unfulfilled longing.  We continue to wait even as Advent ends and a new liturgical season begins.  We wonder if our waiting will last forever.

The holiday season brings grief to many; those who have lost loved ones and those who are lonely or overwhelmed.  For some people (especially ministers) the demands are too high for a time when we are called to remember peace and goodwill.  When the news is so hopeless, how can we find Christmas cheer?  And what is our hope in the New Year when our Christmas wishes have not been realized?  We are still waiting on the Messiah to bring us peace (even as we claim this gift of the Holy Spirit).  We are angry and saddened by the injustices of our world and we feel hopeless about how to right the wrongs.  We are tired and feel like the darkness might just win as we extinguish the candles on the Advent wreath.

We know that on this journey of faith, there is no arriving at a destination.  Like the Israelites wandering in their circuitous journey through the wilderness, we move in circles through the year from Advent to Lent and back again.  We never "get there", but we continue to become; we are continually transformed by our path.  We catch glimmers of hope in the light that guides us, like the stars and fire that guided the cloud of witnesses before us.  We see bits of the Divine in our neighbors and sometimes in our own hazy reflections.  We rise and fall and rise again.  We search for peace in our world, and not seeing it, realize that we must first find it within ourselves.  Faith is this continual holding on to hope even when all seems hopeless; it is the continued striving for peace when the act of seeking it seems like a war within us and between those outside of our community of similarity.

In this season, the only thing I know to do is to let go.  My own expectations often stand in the way of receiving what I truly need, so I will try to live in the faith that I will be gifted with what I need.  I will trust in the presence of God that is working in and through me, to bring redemption in the brokenness and to renew our hope.  I will believe what I shared in my Advent sermons that even when the Advent wreath candles are extinguished, the light of Christ lives on within us.  May we find the Light of the World that we seek so that we, too, can shine; helping others walking in darkness to see the bright light of hope.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

When hope seems small

We lit the candle for hope on our Advent wreath this week.  It seems a dark time for this little light as the news only provides increasing images of hopelessness.  It's cold and rainy outside and the inside is a mess as well.  We are struggling to make sense of the senseless: in this day and age, in a country that prizes democracy and freedom, how can we still have so much inequality and injustice?  I don't understand, and I fear adding my words to the mix of hatred and racism and misunderstanding that further divides us.

My life and work is grounded on the faith that we were all created equally by a loving God, and that we are made to live in community with one another.  But our holy scriptures and our lived experiences show us how difficult that journey really is.  In the Garden there was the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The first people chose poorly then, and we continue to do so time and time again.  Knowing good and evil, we choose evil.  We hide our fears in actions that instead bring hurt and pain to ourselves and others.  We have been exiled from the Garden and we separate ourselves from God and one another through our words and through our beliefs that our differences are insurmountable.  We have been told to "choose life, that you might live" but we have forgotten the One that is Life.  We have forgotten the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus called himself the "Bread of Life" that is given so that we will never have to hunger again.  But we are hungry, and instead of bread we feast on gossip and slander and prejudice.  We gorge ourselves on being right and privilege and not listening to one another's perspective.  We try to satisfy ourselves with our own self-righteousness.  God knows I am guilty.  And hungry.  And empty.  Where is the hope in this?

But hope is a more powerful thing than we realize, and I need that reminder every Advent.  Things certainly looked hopeless in Jesus' time as well.  There was racism and classism and religious division.  There was oppression and slavery and imperial terror.  Into that unlikely time, a savior was born in the humblest of circumstances.  His birth was announced to the weakest members of society, the ones most in need of the good news.  And today we wait for the good news again.  It's not a passive sort of waiting, but a journey that takes us out of our comfort zone, into cold rain, seeking a light that the darkness cannot overcome.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sacramental Grace

During the church service, my children appeared to be off in their own worlds.  My son was reading a Geronimo Stilton book while my daughter filled out all the pew membership cards with information on the American Girl doll she hopes to receive for Christmas.  Sometimes getting them to sit quietly and still wins the battle over fighting them to pay attention, as I hope that I might take something away from worship for myself.  But as a minister, I often feel guilty that I’m not more intentional about the faith formation of my children. 

We’ve recently joined an Episcopal church, which came as a bit of a surprise for us lifelong Baptists.  But there is something about the liturgy and the evening service of this particular church that drew us in.  I love that communion is the heart of the service and that it takes place weekly (instead of monthly or quarterly like the churches in which I grew up).  And instead of ushers passing golden trays of stale wafers and plastic cups of grape juice to those saved and baptized members of the congregation, in this church we all come forward to receive the elements and share a common cup.  It is open to all, and there is a special joy in watching tiny children toddle up to the priest or stretch out their hands from their perch in a parent’s arms to take a wafer.  There is a welcome in seeing smiling faces as they pass by and in hearing the words of blessing, “The body of Christ”, “The cup of salvation” shared again and again.  The kids want to sit in the front so that they can be first in line, and even though I’m more of a “back row Baptist”, I’m just glad they are eager to be part of the service. 

This week, as we filed back into our pew, Maryn showed me the wafer that she had not yet eaten.  She held it up, broke it, and whispered to me, “The body of Christ,” and I knew that God was there, in that moment, in that bread, in the grace of a child who is learning faith through imitation.  The mystery of faith can’t be any more real than this. 

After the church family shared a meal and the children and adults separated for Christian education programs, I joined other adults back in the sanctuary to talk about the primary meal that connects us as Christians: Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving.  The priest, who is as new to this church as we are, shared his thoughts on the sacrament of communion, saying that in our gathering around the communion table, we “are given a model of how all other meals should function, as an opportunity of grace.”  I had to smile as he started off saying, “Whether Baptists, Catholics, anything in between, or nothing, we are naturally sacramentalists.”  While I’ve been struggling to reconcile a new conversion of sorts, it was a reminder that it may not be as big of a shift as I make it out to be.  We are all branches of the family of God, and all humans seek meaning in the ordinariness and mysteries of our lives. 

I took notes so I could continue to ruminate on the sacramental theology that was shared by Rev. Eric Long (quotes are reconstructed to the best of my memory and notes):

“In the sacraments, God uses the stuff of life to bless our lives.  God breaks in and shows us the depth and possibility of life.  God gets our attention and offers [God]self.”  I learned that communion is based on the Emmaus story, when Jesus’ disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus after his crucifixion and a man joins them and asks why they are troubled.  They tell him what has happened, not knowing that it is the resurrected Christ that walks with them until they stop to eat and he gives thanks and breaks bread, just as he had done at his last meal with them, when he had told them his body would also be broken for them.  They remembered and they knew him in the breaking of the bread.  Just as my child, who shows little interest in church, still knows Jesus in the breaking of the communion bread.

“God uses the physical to touch and bless us.  This is what we refer to as sacraments.  Jesus is the greatest example…God became a physical being and entered our world, our stories.  He took his body, gave thanks for it, and broke it.  He did not hoard the gift, but shared it with us.  In communion, we literally take Jesus into us, receiving him, and trusting that he will help us to become who God says we are.”  We trust that we can be full in our empty and broken places and that grace can transform us into who we were created to be.  “The act of communion becomes a sacrament only as we join together in community, remembering who we are (not self-made, disjointed individuals, but made one in our baptism).”  In the brokenness of our world reflected in the bad news shared in the media, in the division of hatred and polarization, we are sorely in need of this reminder, this challenge to gather together like a dysfunctional family around the Thanksgiving dinner table.  We may not ever agree, but we can learn to listen to one another as we seek to live together in peace and work together for justice.

On a smaller and more personal level, I couldn’t help but think about how often family meals are a great frustration in our house, yet communion, the model for all meals, is the highlight of the church service for my children.  How can I shift from the stress and frustration of my own expectations and provide space for God to be present and offer grace?  What if in saying grace (when I remember to do so), I actually expected Grace to show up?  What if I invited Jesus to be present and believed that he was with us in the breaking of bread together?

What if I could see all of my struggles, my joys, my daily endeavors (parenthood, career, relationships) as sacraments and give thanks for them, offer them up for God to transform, and give them away instead of holding on tightly in fear? 

What if we treated all of life as a sacrament, an opportunity to let grace enter our lives and transform us? 

This Thanksgiving, I offer thanks for unexpected grace and pray that it continues to show up in beautiful, mysterious, transforming ways.  Come, Lord Jesus.  May it be so.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Narrative of Grace

A picture of a much younger Brady who fell asleep against his will when he was "not at all sleepy" and did NOT need a nap
Bedtime is not my favorite.  I had pictures in my head of how it should be before I had kids: starting with warm bubble baths for giggling, sweet-smelling children, followed by cozy pajamas and reading books snuggled in bed.  There would be kisses, and they would drift off to dreamland while John and I would have the time to catch up on our day and have some down time for ourselves.  Then we actually had children.  And these children, unlike their parents, HATE the thought of sleep.  Have I mentioned that we went four straight years without sleeping through the night, and it's been over four years since either of them took naps without being sick?  They will try any tactic to delay the inevitable (and in my mind, steal the few precious bits of "free time" we have).  I relate it to the "whack-a-mole game" that Glennon Melton of Momastery describes.  Instead of sweet dreams and sweet freedom, we take turns attending to shouted demands from the upstairs dictators ("I need water!"  "I need you to lie down with me!"  "I'm not sleepy!"  "I need a light!"  "NO!  I can't sleep with the light on."  "I'm too hot/cold/hungry.")  until one of us snaps.

Each night at bedtime, Brady declares he wants to hug me forever.  He's a very sweet and kindhearted boy whose love language is physical touch, but I know this is essentially a delay tactic.  The other night, when I was able to extract myself after a few minutes of snuggling, he stopped me by asking, "When did I hug you and daddy for the first time?"  I paused to think, but couldn't come up with an answer.  I can remember his first (open mouthed) kisses, and I faithfully wrote down most every milestone (first step, first tooth) in the baby book, but this is one I couldn't trace.  And not for the first time in my parenting journey, one of my children brought me to the realization that maybe I have it all wrong.  Perhaps the most important milestones are the ones we let slip by.

I'm a follow-the-rules type person.  I'm a planner that loves a checklist, and parenting has provided this in the form of developmental guidelines.  Since pregnancy, I've had the notion that if I followed the checklists and guidelines, my children would fall right into line and meet the expectations.  All this has truly done is set me up for disappointment.  Not because my children have failed, but because I have held them to standards that are more about me than about them.

I connected with a recent post written by Micha Boyett at A Deeper Story about how her book on Benedictine spirituality has impacted how she thinks of parenting and her spiritual life:

"It’s amazing how my spiritual life mirrored my mothering life. Complete the tasks. Don’t screw up. Serve the right way. Lay down hard lines. Fail. (I always felt like I was failing.)  I have a feeling that the kind of parent we are will always mirror how we believe God sees us. The gift of the past three years in my life has been the process of letting grace sink into me. Even though I believed in grace before, it always existed underneath my internal spiritual checklists. I was frantic to please God. Before I could loose the spiritual anxiety in my mind I had to first believe that God’s grace was real enough to matter. That God could really want me, whether I was impressive or not."
I want to write a new narrative, one of grace for me and my family.

I want to believe that we all enough, and all is well enough just as it is.

I want to see that when things don't go according to plan, it may not be a failure.  Or if it is, that's okay, too.  And I want to model for my children that making mistakes does not mean that they are failures.  I want to show them grace.

I want to mark the milestones that matter, the times they make a connection and something finally sinks in.  I want to remember the times they want to hang on and see it for love instead of clinginess.  I want to celebrate each picture drawn just for me and to savor the silly times of laughing until we can barely breathe.  I want to see the grace of God in these moments.

I want to celebrate the milestone of our creative boy, who instead of throwing a fit recently when a toy was taken away as a behavioral consequence, decided to write this note instead:

I want to remember that we are all in the process of becoming, and to be grateful for my children who show me the way to grace.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At Nana's House

The kids play with a miniature ceramic tea set with broken handles on my nana's green shag carpet.  I remember the silver tea set I played with as a child, but I know it must be tarnished and hidden in the basement.  I have half a thought to go looking for it, but when I open the door to the basement, the steps are blocked with boxes that she has tossed down.  She can no longer climb the steep steps and has no way to store what won't fit upstairs.  We find trash frozen in the freezer so that it won't stink up the house until someone can come to carry it off.  I think about how fastidious she was when she was able, how we would tease her about how she wouldn't sit and talk after family meals but had to be up washing dishes and straightening up her already tidy house.  I would bring back cheap trinket souvenirs for her from our vacations until she started "hiring" me to come and dust all of her knick knacks.  Lesson learned.  But on a recent visit, she handed me a familiar plastic Shamu coffee cup for me to take home.  When I took it from her frail hand, it was heavier than I expected, and she explained that she had been filling it with her spare change for her great grandchildren.  I'm reminded of how she and my papa used to give me my weekly allowance, a five dollar bill folded neatly in thirds, and my weekly school lunch money in change in a brown paper bag, again folded in thirds, and secured with a rubber band.

My husband and I are the ones to slip them money now for the groceries and bills that Social Security doesn't fully cover.  My mom tries to refuse it, guilty and ashamed, but I remind her of the years she worked and struggled to take care of me, working multiple jobs and barely getting by.  She had nothing to put away to save as it all went to living expenses and the opportunity to provide a better future for me.  As a child I pleaded with her to give up a job so that I could see her more and wouldn't have to camp out some nights on my grandparents' pullout sofa while she worked the late shift.  I even promised that I wouldn't ask for anything for Christmas.  I realize now that must have broken her heart as she was working to pay for the roof over our head and the meals on the table.  Now I assure her that we have enough to share, that it is our pleasure, while also feeling guilty and ashamed myself that the little bits we offer aren't enough to replace her leaking roof, to provide a better life for them, to be more present and close in their lives.

Nana gave up driving years ago, but I remember having to call her when I missed the school bus in middle school and she would reluctantly drive the few miles to our house to take me to school.  It made me nervous how she would keep her feet on both the gas and brake pedals as she drove, making for a jerky ride.  She preferred to walk anyway and try to entice me for walks around the block after we ate meals at her house.  I, a chubby kid, would plead that we could drive around the block instead; pushing the pedals would be exercise, after all.  I wonder if she misses getting out.  She stays at home except for the occasional doctor's appointment.  We say she is lucky to have relatively good health and still such a sharp mind at 92, but she is longing for something better, the "golden years" she says she never really had since my grandfather died twenty years ago.

I have watched her and my mother grow closer over the couple years they have lived together, relying on one another and caring for each other in their weaknesses.  They have learned how to communicate better, to show the love that has come more easily between them and me but that has been difficult between the two of them.  We are a family of women, mostly matriarchs.  My grandmother is the oldest of six siblings, with just one baby brother among six girls.  My great-grandmother died in her nineties after outliving several husbands and lived independently until her death.  My grandmother has been widowed for over twenty years now, and my mom, my grandmother's only living child, has been alone since my dad died in his forties (I was five and my brother was eighteen at the time).  There has been much hardship, but it has born a gritty determination, a strong faith, independence, and strength in my grandmother.  I feel grateful that this, along with her love, is her legacy to me.  She is proud that I have always loved to read and learn and takes credit for this (where credit is due).

She wants me to take her dishes, the dishes I wished for years ago when we still gathered around the table regularly for family meals and holiday dinners.  They are totally impractical for our life--you can't put them in the dishwasher or microwave, they are delicate and fragile, and difficult and expensive to replace.  We have small children and a small house, so fine china has never been a necessity or even a good idea.  While I long for this connection to tradition and memories, I have resisted boxing it up.  It is a goodbye that I'm not ready to say, a marker of transitions that remain unspoken.  But there are other things I am collecting and packing up as I think about our stories and what makes up a legacy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Day Off

On Monday I took the day off.  It doesn't sound so revolutionary, but it was the second day I've had off in over a month.  I work at a university, and when I tell people this, they usually reply, "Oh, that must be so fun!  And you get the summers off!"  I try not to laugh.  My job is fun, and summers provide more breathing room, but I do work year-round.  There are weddings to officiate, reunions activities to coordinate, and I started a doctoral program this summer as well.  The summer is intended to be my catch-up time for reports, planning, and organization, but by the time the whirlwind of the spring semester ends in early June, I'm practically a zombie and spend a couple of days just staring off into space.  The quiet is as comforting as a warm blanket and I think of all the rest I'll catch up on as soon as I finish the reports and clear off my desk.  In the beginning, the summer seems to stretch endlessly ahead.  I'm not sure how it happens, but I get caught off-guard at the end of July every year.  How have two months passed?  What do I have to show for the time?  I worked full days most every day, and yet not a single item on my to-do list has been completed.  I start to mildly panic but promise myself I'll get on track.  I make charts and lists and set calendar reminders about the tasks that need to be completed.  And I ignore every single one until the middle of August.  August, then, becomes a frenzy of last-minute preparations and anxiety dreams of forgotten exams and standing naked in public.  I start to have feelings of dread and worry that nothing will work like I've planned, that I will be inadequate.

September is non-stop activity and chaos from meeting new students to catching up with old friends.  There are a ton of orientation events that I'm involved in while also restarting my programs and student groups.  The days, evenings, and weekends are full of programs and unexpected crises and before I know it, I can't remember the last time I had a break.  But the exhaustion is incapacitating, and I realize it when I start to lose my filter and my impatience shows in my words and on my face.  It's not a good attitude for a chaplain.  But what can you do when you're faced with unrelenting pastoral needs, an unexpected death, and the expectations continue to mount?  Chaplains are always on call.

I know I'm not indispensable and I'm certainly no superhero.  I need breaks and I need to take care of myself just like I encourage my students to do.  I bemoan the system that is so unnecessarily busy, and yet I fall into its trap every single time.  Some of it is unavoidable, but many times it's of my own choosing.  I like to feel needed.  I want to be accomplishing things.  Busyness becomes a bad habit that makes me feel important.  My identity is often wrapped up in what I do, an unfortunate side effect of being the people-pleasing straight A student in my earlier life.

But I realize that I desire something different.  Not something more, but something less.  I want space between my appointments, time to process and reflect.  I want walks with good friends and savoring meals instead of just using them as gripe sessions.  I long to enjoy time with my family instead of just being stressed about making time for togetherness like it's an inconvenience.  I want Sabbath time to truly be grateful for work that calls me and exhausts me, even as I'm filled yet again with the sacredness and joy of it.  I need to be reminded that it's not about what I do, but who I am.  As I use my gifts to serve God and others and I hope to be a model that we don't have to do it all.  We are valuable, we are accepted, we are loved as we are.  We are enough.

The thing about pushing on without a break is that you start to think that it's never enough.  There's always one more task to accomplish, one more way to better yourself.  Exhaustion becomes a status symbol, until it becomes a liability.  It was only in stepping away that I realized that it's not about me at all.  I cannot control things by my presence, regardless of how I think otherwise.  My absence shows me that the world continues on, and that's actually freedom.  I can take care of myself and that doesn't make me weak, but can be a model of strength and faith for those I serve.  In my work, I talk a lot about finding sanctuary in our busy lives, but I'm realizing that the most important thing is finding it within our selves.  Most times it means stopping what I feel is the "important" work and just doing a little less.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Spiritual Autobiography

I grew up in a small, conservative town where NASCAR was prime entertainment, and pickup trucks filled my high school parking lot. Church was just expected of all "good" folks, and if there were churches outside of the Southern Baptists, I was scarcely aware of them. I entered church as a baby in the "cradle roll" nursery, and the congregation became family early on when my father died. I spent the day of his funeral with church friends as my mom feared me being present at the funeral would scar me too much, as I was only five years old. Many men in the church stepped up as "surrogate" fathers, and I always felt safe within the church walls.

My baptism at age six brought the first twinges of fear as I was anxious to avoid the flames of hell that peppered the sermons and revivals I attended. I was scared of the water, too, as I couldn't swim and worried about being submerged. But there were welcoming arms to receive me and it felt like home. I took on leadership roles early on; leading children's church shortly after I "graduated" from it and asking permission to join the youth group early at age 12, around the time I also joined the adult choir. I went on to teach the youth, occasionally teach the adults, attended every Bible study, and volunteered for every Vacation Bible School.

While I worked so hard at church, I was also striving at school to be the top and to earn a ticket out of town.  While I understood in part that faith was a gift, I latched on a little too strongly to the “faith without works is dead” verse from James and in my perfectionist nature, I felt that I could earn recognition, control, or salvation at least from the difficulties my family faced.   I knew that with our financial situation, scholarships to college would be my only opportunity to break the cycle, and to leave behind the narrow-mindedness that I felt characterized my hometown. For the first time, though, I felt I didn't have the wholehearted support of my church family. They seemed confused about why I would leave, and I was one of the first to go away to college. Wasn't the Bible enough for me? Wouldn't a secular school draw me away from God?

Perhaps it was rebellion (my first minor attempt) that led me to choose science as my course of study, but still a "good girl", my first excursions at The College of William and Mary were to the Baptist Student Union (BSU). There I found Baptists (and others) like I had never encountered. They drank, danced, joked, and most surprisingly, were open to discussing and questioning their faith. This did not send them into a crisis (or into the hands of the devil), but instead, seemed to deepen their walk with God. I started to understand that it was okay to search, to question, to wrestle, to doubt, but to also embrace the mystery of what I could not understand.

I found myself secure within a community again, which was comforting as I detached myself from home. As I experienced independence, I grew to love being responsible for only myself and for the freedom to think for myself. My relationship with God grew with me. I felt at home in my faith (which continued to evolve) and in my developing understanding of who I was and who I was becoming. My struggles came, though, as graduation neared and the future I had dreamed of was not falling into place as I had planned. My years of goal sheets and to-do lists, of picturing myself as a scientific researcher, and believing that I could "be anything I wanted to be" seemed fruitless as I was ill-suited for research and was despondent over how much I abhorred it and the time I had wasted pursuing it. I was graduating from my dream school with my coveted degree and without job prospects or aspirations.

I followed a group of BSU friends to Richmond, where they were moving to attend seminary. I roomed with other seminary folks and found at couple of menial jobs (at Kinko's and the mall) to pay the bills while I continued to commute weekly to Williamsburg to volunteer with my church’s youth group. I found that I was spending all my free time (and my job time) dreaming of youth ideas, planning lessons, and praying for these teenagers that had grabbed my heart. During a week of camp with them that summer, we reached the emotional pinnacle of the event, the last altar call. I remember praying to God with passion and confusion, "God, I love this so much. Why can't I do this all the time?" And the still small voice within me (which can be surprisingly snarky) answered, "Well, why can't you?" And with that, I answered the call to ministry and was filled with a peace and excitement that I hadn't felt in months.

In my enthusiasm, I imagined it would be all light and glory. It was for a while. My family was thrilled (my grandmother commented, "I always pictured you as a missionary!" even though that was the farthest thing from my mind). My church was not so enthusiastic, however. Although they didn't talk about it with me (perhaps because I was still keeping my distance from home), I heard about the pastor arguing with my mom and grandmother about how women weren't allowed to be ministers.  I was encouraged by the way my mom, normally submissive and self-conscious, defended me and my calling. I was proud of the way my grandmother exhibited her feistiness and Biblical and church knowledge in her vocal support.

Seminary for me was another time of coming home to community. I dove in with enthusiasm and passion. I loved the classes; I loved the people around me. I loved how my faith was tested, challenged, and strengthened. I loved working towards something that was more than an interest, but was a passion and a calling. I had the opportunity to experience many kinds of ministry from youth work to college ministry, and church ministry to non-profit. I felt a strong calling to work with young women outside the church, but had no idea of what form that would take in my vocation. For the first time, I had no plan, and yet, there was still peace.

The greatest gift of seminary, though, was discovering a different Call, my John Call, the man I would marry. From the beginning of our friendship, a deep connection was formed. It took only a couple of dates to realize that God was drawing us together. After six weeks we were engaged, and we married a year later on the quad of the seminary, with the dean playing our processional on guitar, our (female) internship and preaching professor officiating, and a small handful of friends and family as participants and guests. It was a lovely beginning to a chapter of my story that continues to grow more and more beautiful over the years. From our ceremony, we walked hand in hand the 100 or so yards to the first apartment we shared on the campus.

A year into our marriage, John graduated and we begin exploring our first vocational calls together. We decided to move back closer to "home" for both of us, picking a city between our two families. We dreamed of starting a family together and it seemed ideal when we both found jobs that we loved within a short time span. John served as the Associate Pastor and Minister to Youth and Children at a church for 5 years while I started as Assistant Director of Christian Education at a residential group home for at-risk youth and developmentally disabled adults, and moved to the full Director of Christian Education and chaplain over a period of 8 years. I loved the variety, particularly working with the youth in the girls' wilderness program, and offering pastoral care and weekly worship and devotions for staff and residents.

Things were not always smooth. There were stressful transitions and times of uncertainty.  As I sought ordination, there was a boycott of sorts by my associational council, leaving only two local ministers plus the supporters from my church with whom to share my call and theology. My family faced many hurts and questions as things in the church didn't end well and John was forced to resign when I was 9 months pregnant with our second child. Parenthood itself was a relentless lesson to us in sacrificing our own needs and wants (and often control) for the sake of our children. There were times of darkness when my calling seemed so hazy and my work seemed so futile. I questioned and doubted into the silence and was not comforted. I felt it was time for me to move on as I was growing stagnant in my faith and apathetic and hopeless in my ministry. And yet nothing opened up. There was no voice (quiet, loud, or snarky) from God and I felt alone and incapable of juggling home, an empty faith, and a job that no longer fulfilled any sense of calling or passion.

The darkness of depression can be overwhelming, but I continued to pray and to seek.  I had to trust that God had a greater plan since my plans had come to naught yet again.  Again and again I was drawn to the verses that I had selected for my seminary application essay:
   “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.” (Exodus 13:17-18)
I could definitely relate to spending years wandering aimlessly in the darkness of the desert, going round and round in circles and getting nowhere.  And then one day there was a burst of light in the most unexpected place, an oasis in the desert that would become my Promised Land.  I was visiting Hollins University for my son’s preschool play.  This was my first visit to campus, and yet, it just clicked, and once again I felt the sense of “home” that some places just naturally evoke in us.  My heart said, “It would be great to work here one day”.  After I left that day, I couldn’t get the place, or the calling, out of my mind.  I “friended” the chaplain at the time on Facebook, hoping that she might serve as a mentor to me and point me to opportunities in the future.  A week after accepting my friend request, she announced on Facebook that she would be leaving the university (after 24 years) for a new calling. 

After a moment of awestruck prayers of gratitude, I contacted her, updated my résumé, and sent it to the school the following day.  Four months after first feeling at home in the DuPont Chapel of Hollins University, I began ministering there as interim university chaplain.   It has been an amazing journey of learning, building relationships, and being inspired by passion and God-given creativity once again.  After a year of serving, feeling God’s assurance of my calling, and receiving the support and affirmation of the university, I was named university chaplain.

God is full of surprises.  I used to think I didn’t enjoy surprise, but I have to admit I like the ways that God “intrudes” into my well-made plans, wreaks havoc, and then points me to a beautiful new path that I never would have discovered on my own.  Sometimes God whispers into my heart, and sometimes God stomps loudly through the circumstances of my life.  Sometimes we wander together in the desert, and sometimes we celebrate on the mountaintop.  Through it all, I’m learning (slowly, painfully, gracelessly) how to cede control (or at least recognize that I never really had it to begin with).  Through the roundabout journey, I’ve gained strength, and I’ve learned to look beyond myself.  Ironically (or perhaps not, as God is the orchestrator of this), the Hollins University motto is “Levavi Oculos” (“I lift up my eyes”) from Psalm 121:

Psalm 121
Assurance of God’s Protection
A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
   from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth. 

He will not let your foot be moved;
   he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
   will neither slumber nor sleep. 

The Lord is your keeper;
   the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
   nor the moon by night. 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
   he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
   your going out and your coming in
   from this time on and for evermore.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Walking Meditation

When my mind becomes too cluttered and it becomes hard to focus on what is at hand, I find I do my best thinking with my feet.  I have to step out and walk away from it all for a while to come back to myself.  The movement is like a prayer without words, and slowly the jumble of thoughts and the burden of all that is left undone is surrendered and peace fills the space that was where there was pressure.

Along the way, the light shifts.  The sun is going down, but the fogginess that clouded my mind has lifted.  There is light where there was once darkness, and it's the golden light that makes everything glow instead of the harsh and glaring midday sun.  All is quiet, even with the evidence of activity and sound--the fallen trees, the animal tracks.  There is just the sound of my steps and the awareness of the effort of my muscles and legs.  All that was dulled before is now alert and alive.  I feel full, but not in the unpleasant way in which I started.  There is now a sense of possibility and I return, inspired.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014


We pass the baptistry font on the way in and out of the church we've been visiting.  The kids view it with curiosity and love to touch the smooth sides and peek in to see if there's water.  Maryn wonders how she will fit in it as she has been considering baptism recently, after watching me baptize her brother two years ago.  We try to explain how people don't get immersed in Episcopal churches, but our explanation falls a little flat as we're not sure ourselves exactly how it works.

We love this church--the beauty of the architecture, the people we know who attend and minister there, and the loveliness of the liturgy and music.  We appreciate the Sunday evening service that leaves most of our day free for a family Sabbath.  Even the kids have been excited about returning to church again, which has been a happy change.  I was still caught off guard when Maryn saw a drawing of the church and referred to it offhand as "our church".  We've just visited four times and although it feels right, I'm reluctant to commit.

I still feel guilty about leaving our former church and yet I'm relieved not to feel the anger and negativity I was beginning to feel each time I thought about church in general.  Old scars are easily reopened.  I miss old friends, but feel that those relationships will continue in new spaces.  I worry about the message it sends to our kids and what it means that they have left their Sunday School classes and children's choir.  As usual, though, I seem to be the only one concerned as they are quick to move on to what is new.  But how long will it take before this becomes "old" to them?  On our way home tonight, Brady asked how long we had been at our previous church, and I answered, "Since Maryn was born...six and a half years."  And he responded, "Then we can stay at this one six years, too, and then find a new church."  They are quick to pick up on what we don't want to teach them.

I've been Baptist all of my life, but I never felt that it was an integral part of my identity.  I have attended Baptist churches, went to a Baptist seminary, and worked at the Virginia Baptist Children's Home for eight years.  But I've often been more frustrated by Baptist stereotypes than inspired by Baptist freedoms.  I get tired of always having to qualify that I'm not "that type" of [judgmental, closed-minded] Baptist.  But seeing the baptistry font instead of a baptismal pool seems like a marker of all we would be sacrificing.  I would not have the joy of holding my girl under the symbolic waters and raising her to new life in Christ.  I'm sure I could be convinced by the meaning and symbolism in the Episcopalian ordinance, but it is truly a departure from an identity I didn't know my soul had claimed.

It doesn't feel like a crisis of faith, but it is one of identity.  What does my Baptist tradition truly mean to me?  Am I Baptist only because of the tradition I was born into and the prevalence of it where I live?  What does it mean to be called elsewhere?  How is my current (Episcopal) seminary reshaping my theological leanings?

As I continue to fumble through the service, learning when to stand, kneel, cross, and bow, I fumble, too, with the tradition that has shaped me, scars and joys alike.  And the memories plunge me back into the waters of baptism where I was joined with a Church family I hoped to never leave, where my small son made a commitment in innocent trust and childlike faith, where we were both joined into the family of God that goes beyond denomination and finds common ground in the Spirit that connects us all.

Perhaps that same water fills the small font in the Episcopal church.

Perhaps it is enough.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In Praise of a Small Life

Sometimes I want to feel like I have made it big (whatever that means).  As much as I believe it's all about the journey, there are moments when I want to realize that I've arrived somewhere.  I fantasize that I would like to be known, when the little bits of recognition and affirmation I receive lead me to crave it on a larger scale.  What would it be like to get that kind of attention on a regular basis?

I know it's not exactly appropriate for a minister to desire these things; I should be a humble servant of God and others.  But last night I dressed up and went to a fancy dinner.  There was wine and good conversation and names I recognized.  I thought, "I could do this."  I can be somewhat social in these moments, and I'm not afraid of speaking in public.  The spotlight is not so blinding and the stage is not so very high.  The praise goes to my head and I think, "I could be a speaker."  Perhaps one day I will be touring and sharing about my book.  But the inner critic reminds me that to get there, I would actually have to be working on a book.  Meanwhile, there is the work that I am paid to do (which blessedly I love), a calling that takes me in a different direction.  There are my kids who are growing so fast and are at the age where they still want me to be involved in their events.  I want to be there as well, and it is a gift to be able to be present with them at their school and activities.  But it is a sacrifice in other areas.  There is more gray in my hair every day and time keeps moving ahead even when I feel behind.

I've been having more conversations lately about work-life balance, about the pull between career and family. We have been told we can have it all, but it rings false when you're playing the juggling game.  What if we don't want it all?  There is so much already, good things, but there can be too much of a good thing.  Perhaps we can have it all, but not everything will be in balance at the same time.  It's a shifting scale that is simply exhausting at times even though I'm grateful for all my gifts; I'm grateful for the ability to choose a lifestyle that many have sacrificed to earn and many have not yet achieved.  I am only here because of the work and support of those close to me who make it possible.  There are still things I have to say "no" to in order to say "yes" to what is necessary and important.  I made my choices years ago, but I'm learning they are choices we make each day.

So tonight I finally felt as if I had arrived, but it wasn't at the fancy dinner.  I arrived when I came home to my cozy house with my sleeping kids and my husband waiting up watching football.  It was when I took off the painful high heels and got into my comfy pajamas that I felt like things were as they should be.  It was in thinking ahead to the weekend with the promise of some Sabbath time and maybe some books that I found fulfillment. Sometimes bigger is not better, and sometimes fullness is not about lots of activity but the peace of fully engaging in what truly matters to us.

Sometimes I just want a small life.  I want to be known.  And suddenly I realize that I have it made.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Strength in Weakness

I was done before I even started work today.  After a couple of weeks of very long days and no days off, I had lost my patience and my filter and I was in need of a break. Somehow the memo didn't get out, though, and the day was a series of unexpected issues and crises.  As needs poured in through email, phone messages, and visits, I could not escape or hide as I desperately longed to.  My only option was to take a deep breath, seek prayer from trusted friends (as I didn't even feel I had it within me to pray for myself), and push through the work of ministry that is never-ending and never truly complete.

When I look back over the day, I know that I made it through by the grace of God and the support of so many lovely people in my life.  The greatest gift, though, is the affirmation, even through my exhaustion, of the blessings of ministry.  When I wonder if it all matters, I can remember the stories I got to be a part of today, the hugs I gave and was offered, and the prayers that provided peace and strength.

Fortunately, God must have been guarding my mouth.  My filter remained intact and I mainly kept my patience in most public places.  I was able to be present and listen, offering support and encouragement to those for whom I care deeply.  But the most moving part of my day was at the end when I joined students at an open mic event in observance of World Suicide Prevention Day.  They didn't have a filter either and their stories were of crises and deep pain.  But there was such beauty in the raw words, such redemption in the tears.  There was such affirmation in the responses and such relief in being heard.  While it triggered memories and emotion, it provided the relief of release for all that had been bottled up in shame and fear. There weren't any easy answers, but there were stories of survival and tales of hope.  There was applause to support their bravery, and courage and hugs to show solidarity.

I'm not naive enough to think that it changed or healed anything.  I hope that it did more good than harm. I do believe in the power of sharing our stories.  It is story that connects me again and again to the hope I hold for redemption.  Stories remind me that we are more alike than we think we are; that we are not alone in our experiences.  Though our specific struggles may be unique, none of us are strangers to grief or fear or pain.  All of us long for love and acceptance and meaning.  There is something sacred about sharing and listening and responding "me too".

The work is not done and my to-do list for tomorrow has grown exponentially.  I'm responsible for sharing two public prayers this week when I still feel at a loss for how to pray while still carrying the burdens that weigh me down.  But there are new stories that inspire my faith and the reminder that:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

May the work continue, and may God make it good.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's in a Name?

Recently Coca-Cola® unleashed an ingenious media campaign in which they printed people’s names on the labels of Coke® bottles and invited people to “Share a Coke® with …..”  Not only were people searching for their own names, but they were purchasing bottles for their friends.  Some people were initially disappointed as unique names were unlikely to be printed, but Coca-Cola® came through yet again, allowing you to send a virtual custom Coke® to all of your friends, and placing special machines in various locations that would allow you to buy a custom printed bottle.  As my name was the most popular name for girls in the year I was born, I never had to worry about not finding personalized items with my name on them when I was a child.  But I did have to worry about what the teacher would decide to call me as there were always at least three Jennifers in my classroom each year.

Our names are important.  They give us our first sense of identity; they show our belonging.  As people come to know us, they give us nicknames to show their connection to us or to reveal something of our character.  As we grow, we are said to “make a name for ourselves”.  We build our reputation based on how we show who we are to others.  They know us by our name and by the choices we make.  Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”

When I worked with youth, one of my favorite Bible study activities was to look at the significance of names in the Bible.  Names are given to explain family connections or to describe traits (such as “hairy” or “red” Esau and “cheater” Jacob).  Many of the names show connection to God.  I love the stories of when God changes someone’s name to show a pivotal event has taken place: Jacob wrestles with God and becomes Israel; Saul hears God’s voice on the Damascus road and becomes Paul.  After looking up the meaning of various biblical names, we would then turn to our own names.  I would ask if the students knew the story of their names.  Some would share about being named after a relative or a favorite character in a book or TV show.  Many did not know the meaning or story of their name.

I was consumed with the thought of names during both of my pregnancies.  I kept lists that were frequently updated, with vetoes or additions from my husband.  We went through hundreds of names in baby name books.  With our names being John and Jenny, I wanted something unique, but not too difficult or obscure.  I wanted something that would suit them, but how would we know when we had not yet met them?  In the end, it was my husband that suggested the names we chose for our children, Brady and Maryn.  I love the sound of them and their symmetry.  We played around with spellings and variations of them, and I checked to make sure they were not on any of those most popular baby name lists.  Brady’s middle name was a family name on both sides and his first name was a character’s name on a TV show that John and I watched together when we were dating.  But Maryn’s name was completely unique (so much so that it has caused a great deal of confusion with pronunciation and spelling. Oops.)  It wasn’t until they were out of babyhood that we looked up the meaning of their names.  Brady means “spirited” which is so very appropriate, and Maryn means “by the sea”, which is fitting for her love of vacations and the beach trip we like to take to celebrate their spring birthdays.

The closing part of my Bible study lesson was to reflect upon the meaning of the name “Christian”.  What does it mean when we claim this name?  What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?  Unfortunately, it has become a name that carries a lot of negative meanings for many in our world these days.  When you say Christian, the image that comes to mind for many is a hypocritical, small-minded judge.  We are known not by our love, as the song says, but by the ways we have excluded others.  Baptist churches I have been a part of have had a similar struggle, particularly in this part of the state where "Baptist" brings to mind Liberty University, whose leaders have had a history of saying inflammatory and hurtful things in the name of God and religion.  Do we keep the name "Baptist" as part of our identity, knowing that it will turn many people away?  Do we try and redeem it?  Do we let it go and start something new?

I think this is the struggle that the Church is facing as well.  What it has come to be and to mean no longer connects with a large percentage of our population.  While we have continued to operate business as usual for far too many years, people are leaving the doors and not returning, seeing the Church as irrelevent.  I am serving a generation of students that were never part of the Church and see no reason to join in now.  Ecclesia (Greek: ἐκκλησία ekklēsia), translated "church", is also congregation, a group of people.  It was the name given to political gatherings in Greece.  So what makes us distinct?  So what are we doing to find our unique God-given identity?  What is our mission?

I don't have any claim to the answers, but perhaps we go back to this:

"We are one in the Spirit"
Author: Peter Scholtes

1. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

2. We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

3. We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

4. All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus, his only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Sometimes it seems like too much, that we'll be crushed by the continual barrage of bad news, buried by the losses and grief that life hurls at us.  There are too many images of pain, of violence, of senseless brutality.  This world of sound bites and reactions and noise won't let us rest.  Perhaps we've forgotten how to, or are afraid of the dreams that haunt us.

How long, O Lord?

They say it's getting worse all the time, but I can't be sure.  I only know what I've experienced, a growing awareness that pulls back the curtain to reveal that things are not always like they seemed, or like we had hoped.  But we have known brokenness for ages.  We have felt the separation that sin has created, turning us against one another, building walls of hatred and segregation.

What are we to do in a world that appears to be coming unhinged?  What can we do?

I think the first thing is to admit that we are all a little broken.  My pain may look different than yours but we all hurting.  In the beginning we were created whole and beautiful.  Maybe we have allowed the world to wreck us a bit, but our scars don't have to destroy us entirely.  Some of the strongest, most resilient people I know are those that carry the most crushing stories within their battered bodies.  But they are still standing; they carry an unlikely hope.  Rumi said that our wounds are how the light gets in.  Sometimes we are able to see that light, and sometimes we have to rely on others to shine a light for us.  Sometimes we can be that light to a dark world.

So shine bright, my friends, when you can, and I will try to shine the light for you when it's too hard for you to do.  Let's share our stories and realize that we are not alone in the darkness.  Let's listen for once to what really matters.  Not to the angry voices shouting the loudest, but to those still, small voices within us that remind us that we are loved, we are okay, and that it won't always be this way.  Let us work together when we feel strong enough to sift through the rubble around us and start building bridges instead of fences.  Perhaps we'll get to know our neighbors as we work together and make peace when we realize that we're not so different after all.

May we carry hope within us and hang on to the truth that what we see is not always reality.  May we make room for the mystery of God that surprises us with healing and resurrection.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


He cried when they took the old couch away.  I moved to hug and comfort him, but he pushed me away in anger.  "This is your fault!  You know I don't like change.  I liked the old couch and you bought a new one on purpose!"  The reasoning and logic of an 8-year-old is not always sound, but his heart is true.  Never mind that the springs were broken on our old furniture from years of bouncing children and many forts.  Never mind that brand new furniture was on the way.  The old held the crumbs from many movie night snacks and the memories of us snuggled together reading books.  It is the furniture that has always been in this house.  I know that it is so much more than an old worn couch, and in the quiet moments after the anger has given away to sadness, I get it.

It's so hard growing up.  I forget that in all the silliness of their play, in how each day seems so carefree, full of wonder and possibility for them from my perspective.  But I'm an outsider.  I've made my way through childhood and have arrived at adulthood.  It all seems so simple looking back, watching them.  I have forgotten how time seemed to stretch impossibly through childhood and everything I wanted was always "later", days or years away, out of my reach.  I have forgotten how it felt to have so little control and say in life, that everyone made decisions for me, about me, that I was supposed to just accept and "get over it".

He likes to remind us how he hates change, and there has been so much recently.  He moved from the fun of first grade, where he excelled and was cherished by his teacher, to second grade, where each day was a struggle, the workload grew exponentially, and he was just a face in the crowd.  Our beloved pastor at church resigned, the only pastor and church he remembers.  Over the past few years, I began working longer hours at a new job that I love, and daddy became the primary caregiver at home.  We lost our dog of ten years.  But if you ask Brady, he will tell you that "It all started when Maryn was born."  Ah yes.

I remember being ready to go to the hospital to have our girl and being suddenly struck with such guilt and fear over what we were about to do to our small son's life.  He was only two, and had been the center of our world.  He had no idea what was about to change and had not asked for his life to be so radically shifted.  After her birth, I asked that he not be brought to meet her until the next day.  I was still reeling from a dramatic delivery and didn't want him to have to see me in the state I was in.  I honestly was struggling to come to terms with the changes already evident in our lives.  It was my first night away from him; the first night of our family of four.

It was the biggest change we had ever faced.  It was tough and painful and redemptive and beautiful.  It was lots of tears, long days and nights, and John sleeping on the floor with Brady for months while I slept with Maryn in my arms.  It was dying to our selfishness each day and realizing it was not about us (sometimes begrudingly); it was wondering if we would ever find our way back.  We still have those hopeless days, but not nearly as often.  The thing about change is that it changes us.  It's not just our circumstances, but our selves that are transformed.  Sometimes, like Brady, we mourn those old losses, the familiar bits that we want to cling to.  But if we are willing to surrender, something much more beautiful finds room to grow.

The empty living room echoes without the furniture and rug as we wait for the replacements to arrive.  Maryn is thrilled, running laps around the room at any opportunity, laughing at the sound she creates.  Brady stays away glowering for much of the day.  But when it was time to wind down before bedtime, they brought their bean bag chairs in and watched a movie together, side by side. Their laughter filled the room.

Sometimes change is like that.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Size Matters

Back to school shopping is always a chaotic endeavor, but especially these days when my kids demand to pick out their own clothes and supplies.  Usually we do a scouting trip where they can show me what they like as I prefer to return on my own and shop at my leisure.  This time I went armed with photos of their picks, but as I went back through the store, I had to improvise.  The "shorts" that my six year old had picked out turned out to be a tight denim mini skirt, and I had doubts that the skinny jeans she wanted would fit her.  I sighed in frustration, knowing she would be disappointed and wondered to myself whether this ridiculous skinny jean fad will ever end.

While I have been grateful in past years for "slim fit" adjustable waistline pants for my small children, it's a little jarring this go round as it's the first time that slim fit doesn't fit.  The kids are a perfectly healthy size and weight, but it's impossible not to notice the change.  I try so hard not to obsess about size, but it is hardwired in me, and reinforced with a culture that emphasizes a certain look.  In sorting through the dozen pant options for my girl, I couldn't find many in her favorite store that weren't slim fit or skinny, and the scant options were not the trendy ones displayed on the mannequins.

And again, let me remind you that she's only six years old.  It starts early.

We've had to think about size since our first child was born.  Our boy weighed in at under five pounds and was slow to eat and put on weight.  We counted every ounce of breastmilk and formula he received for months, waking him every two hours to eat through the night and day.  He was weighed and re-weighed and each ounce seemed to be the measure of my success or failure.  "Failure to thrive" gets pretty personal when you're breastfeeding.  He wasn't even ON the growth chart for years, and even when he grew stronger and healthier, he remained the smallest in his class.  It has only been in the past year, since he turned eight, that he has finally reached the clothes size corresponding to his age, and is catching up in height with his peers.

We were envious of the chubby-thighed babies of our friends when feeding our tiny son and keeping him healthy had been such a full-time battle for the first year of his life.  It was a relief when our daughter was born weighing almost seven pounds and was pronounced slightly above average in size.  Now ages eight and six, our children are healthy eaters and they are growing well mentally and physically.  But with a history of obesity, diabetes, and heart conditions on both sides of the family, I want to instill within them healthy habits without it becoming a source of anxiety and shame.  I see them mindlessly eating when they are bored or immersed in screen time, and I realize I need to set a better example.

I have struggled with my weight for years and have watched the shame that my mom carries about her weight.  In middle school I was teased for being chubby, and I responded with a diet that slimmed me down, earning me the nickname "little Jenny" from one of my high school teachers, along with more acceptance and confidence.  But it was a battle I never completely won, and the negative voices remain in my head.  My weight goes up and down with my level of stress and lack of self-care and exercise.  I don't want my kids to have that struggle (either internally or externally), and I certainly don't want to be the one that puts the idea in their mind that they are not enough as they are.  They hop on the scale now with pride to see how big they are; I hop on with the opposite goal in mind.

We are a culture obsessed with numbers and measurement.  We want to know how much money we can save as we shop sales.  Meanwhile, we MEGAsize our drinks and our waistlines with unhealthy (but cheap) food.  We try to squeeze into skinny jeans because the number on the label is more important for our acceptance by others than our comfort with ourselves.  I remember Maryn tearfully trying to squeeze her feet into too small shoes last year, telling me that she would rather look good and be in pain than wear ugly but comfortable shoes that she didn't like.  I measure myself differently, but it is not without pain.  I anxiously await my school grades so that I can see where I stand.  It is where I found my value and motivation in childhood and that internal standard of judgment and anxiety remains, even though my current grades are pass/fail.  We are always measuring ourselves based on some standard, comparing ourselves to others or to society's expectations.

Churches have bought into this, too.  We count our attendance, mourn the decrease, and have visions of megachurches while Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a little child.

We seem to have lost all sense of what really counts.

We measure ourselves against yardsticks and scales when God reminds us that the true measure of a person is in their heart, in how they love.  God provides the ultimate model by knowing us intimately and accepting and loving us as we are.  I wonder what it would be like if I truly embraced my favorite scripture as my measuring stick:

Psalm 139
1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

May we be known and loved completely, realizing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made just as we are in God's abundant presence.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

This One Time at Band Camp

My high school drumline (1991?).  I'm playing the 2nd bass drum from the left.

This one time at band, it's not going to be that kind of story.

This one time at band camp, I thought I might die from standing in the sweltering heat.  I felt like I was melting, but somehow my body held its form as well as supporting the 35-pound bass drum strapped to my front.  When I thought my blistered feet couldn't take one more step, I would hear, "One more run through, from the top!"  And I would groan, but comply.  That summer, my arms were so strong and muscled, not from pounding the drum, but from the push-ups demanded for my every error.  I would drag myself to lunch too weary to talk, too miserable to eat, but fill my tray with drinks instead, knowing we would be back on the field after lunch.  It was a summer of exhaustion and sunburn and struggling to learn something that didn't come naturally to me.

It ended up being one of my best and favorite school experiences.

I went to a drum corps show last night and it took me right back to those marching band days.  The first corps opened with a song that had been in the first show I marched in with our high school band.  I can still remember some of the drum part and drill 23 years later. I remember the feeling of excitement and nervousness as the band circled up for a pre-show pep talk and our bite of chocolate for energy.  There was a sense of  camaraderie and pride with our chant:  "Feet! (Together!) Stomach! (In!) Chest! (Out!) Shoulders! (Back!)  Chin! (Up!) Eyes! (With pride!) Eyes! (With pride!)" as we prepared to enter the field for competition.  To outsiders we may have been "band geeks", but to one another, we were like family.  Why else would we sign on to voluntarily giving up our Friday nights and many weekends to travel to football games and competitions, working in both the summer heat and the occasional winter snow?  What else would drive us to spend our "free time" memorizing music, and helping out with fundraisers to cover the cost of our travel?  It certainly wasn't for the joy of wearing those polyester uniforms and funny hats.

There is a gift in "suffering" together as it bonds you into a community.  There is pride in accomplishing something beautiful together that you could never have done on your own.  There is growth in pushing yourself past your comfort zone and finding you had more in you than you believed.  I learned so much discipline and so much about depending on others.  I grew a little as a musician, but even more as a person.  I have not continued in music (although I will be starting ukulele lessons soon), but I still carry the lessons I learned by carrying around that bass drum.  Music itself has a sacred quality that takes us beyond what we can speak.  Playing music--as well as hearing it-- is a spiritual experience.  And every time I hear a marching band play, it's as if I've found the beat of my life once again.