Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A different kind of peace

It was difficult to light the peace candle on the Advent wreath this week.  The kids were fighting and trying my patience, and I extinguised both candles and sent them to bed before we even got to our devotional time.  It wasn't just their fighting that got to me, but the evidence all around of a world not at peace...

San Bernadino
etc, etc...

There is fighting in my social media feed over gun control and the Second Amendment, even as we have become numb to the news of regular mass shootings and acts of violence in our own country.  When the leader of a well-known religious college incourages students to arm themselves, and a Presidential candidate makes so many racist and Islamophobic injunctions that they are no longer shocking, it's hard to hope in peace.  It's hard enough to find peace within my own heart, my own family.

Perhaps that is why we light the candle.  To hope in the darkness with faith that it will be accomplished.  Maybe it's a signal to stop and breathe, to watch the light as it flickers, and to still ourselves.

One of Maryn's favorite books is The Quiet Book.  I love it, too, and I often equate peace and quiet (and wring my hands that there's so little of either).  It illustrates in sparse words and charming illustrations the different types of quiet:

Pretending you're invisible quiet.
Lollipop quiet.
Swimming underwater quiet.
Last one to be picked up from school quiet.
Bedtime kiss quiet.

It has me thinking of the different types of peace.  What if peace doesn't look or feel like I have imagined?  I think of the different types of peace I have experienced this week...

Walking with a good friend peace.
Saying goodbye to a loved one, even though it hurts peace.
Trusting that doing the little bit we can is enough peace.
Listening instead of speaking peace.
Lighting a candle peace.
Counting to 10 before reacting peace.

Advent calls us to a different way of being, a way of living in expectation and of sharing the light that we already carry with us.  It invites us to not be afraid, but to trust in the light of Christ, who is already with us.  It calls us to be messengers of peace, hope, love, and joy, as we welcome the stranger, the refugee, the homeless.  In doing so, we care for Jesus who was all of these things.  It institutes a counter-cultural way of living that is not about ourselves, but is about bringing the Kingdom of God.  This is a kingdom build not on violence, separation, or power, but on radical love, community, and social justice.

May we light a candle, then, and trust that God's peace is with us.  May we shine that peaceful light into a darkened world and trust in the power of Christ, the light of the world, understanding that the darkness will not overcome it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Hope for a new year

Advent has begun--the countdown to Christmas and also the start of a new church year.   I realize the gift of grace in having so many new beginnings, from New Year's resolutions on January 1st, to the beginning of the school year in September (and again for me personally in June), and this new church year before the end of the calendar year.  As someone prone to setting high (unreasonable) expectations and then watching in dismay as they crumble all around me, I need these second (and third and fourth) chances to begin again.  It's appropriate that we light the candle of hope first on the Advent wreath, a reminder that we must hang on to hope to make it through the darkness of the season, and the dark seasons of our life.  I can't envision a more powerful metaphor than the light of that single candle.

I seem to lose hope about a hundred times a day, and yet, thanks be to God, it hasn't quite lost its hold on me.  There is a greater power, a Divine love, that whispers to me that this is not the end, that all will be well...that all is well, even when I can't see or feel or understand that.  I was having one of these moments this weekend.  In a conversation with John, I was bemoaning my fears that for all the hard work of our parenting, nothing of value seems to be sticking with our kids.  As both of us are ordained, I specifically worry about how we are sharing our faith with our kids (and worry that we are not intentional enough about it).  It's so much harder than the faith environment of my childhood where the answers were so certain.  Granted, I bear the scars from that and wouldn't subject those I love to the rigors of fundamentalism, but as my faith and belief has grown and become more open, sometimes it seems so big and nebulous that I'm not sure how to share it.  I have cut out so much of the language that excludes and limits, but what words are left to show the ultimate grace and love that has captured me?  The best way would be to show it, to model it, and yet in my exhaustion and frustration, I fear I teach them the opposite of what I would have them to know.

But tonight we sat together in church, as we usually do, and I hoped that the prayers, scripture, and message would seep into their hearts.  I pointed out the change in the liturgical color and we talked about what Advent means.  During the service I looked over to find Maryn drawing an Advent wreath on her paper.  While we were singing the offertory, Brady put down his Pokémon book and siddled up next to me to sing along.  In the communion bread and the wine, we shared a ritual that reminded us of our place as beloved children in the family of God.  What grace.

After getting the kids in bed, I was readying their backpacks for school when I found a paper bag crumpled up in the bottom of Brady's.  I started to throw it away, but something stopped me, and I glanced inside.  There were multiple strips of paper, and I realized there was one from each of his classmates sharing why they were grateful for him.  The reasons included: 

He played with me when no one else would.
He helped me with a project.
He is a good friend.
He cares about others.
He works hard.
He is my BFF and is always there for me.
He is kind.
He is grateful.

These are the things I want most for my children--for them to be kind and loving, using their God-given gifts in service to others.  Reading these reflections from kids who are mostly strangers to me, I realized that they have seen the truth of our sweet boy.   How many times do I miss this?  How often do I overlook the goodness, the spirituality of our children and instead focus on insignficant and temporal things?

Deep down, I know that our children have good hearts.  They are created in the very image of God (and the imperfect but loving images of their parents).  They teach me about love and grace and forgiveness each day.  When I look past the daily annoyances, I understand that they are my own spiritual guides, pointing to God's grace and love.  They accept me as I am, while also pushing me to grow...much as I hope to do for them.

As we enter into Advent and wait for Christ to be born again within our hearts, may we celebrate how God is already with us, within us, and working through us to bring new life into our world.  May we hold on to hope that life is ever new and ever bright.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Grace Upon Grace

Of the many words that could be used to describe me, “graceful” would not be at the top of the list. 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the most common usage is a way of moving or behaving that is controlled, smooth, and attractive.  This is not my gift.  I have often bemoaned the fact that I didn’t take dance lessons as a child, which surely is to blame for my clumsiness and poor posture.  But perhaps it’s innate as years of (somewhat sporadic) yoga practice and chiropractic visits have not remedied the problem.

I’m also not so good at showing grace (in terms of offering mercy) in my family life.  I’m quick to judge and find fault and can hold on to a small slight for years (just ask my husband).  It is difficult for me to accept things as they are in reality when I have already envisioned how it “should” be in my head.  I’ve held on to scars from spiritual hurts as well.  There’s the church were we worshipped for some time whose tagline “a place of grace” makes me cringe.  I’m still healing from some of the wounds that were inflicted there.

But grace keeps inserting itself into my life.  First it was a friend, a spiritual sister from Jamaica, who I met last summer in my D.Min. cohort.  Grace is not her given name, but is the perfect chosen name for one who is so full of spirit, and so full of God’s hope.  Her words and the way she carries herself are such pictures of God’s favor.  She is a reminder to me to trust in God to be my strength and salvation.

Then there’s the new “member” of our family, an American Girl doll named Grace Thomas, who reminds me of how my daughter is learning this virtue of grace as she navigates her way through relationships and becoming who she was created to be.  While I see dollar signs and more clutter when I look at this Grace, the doll is a companion that my Maryn favors, one that enlivens her imagination and allows her to dream about who she will be.  Maryn loves nothing more than when we are drawing pictures of Grace Thomas together, or creating recipes like the ones that Grace would make in her bakery (sold separately, $500).  Styling the doll’s hair gives us time to sit together and just be, to talk about whatever is on our minds.  That is a grace that I don’t indulge as often as I would like.  

Read more of this post at the A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood blog....

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Healing the world, healing ourselves

The news is not good.  I don't have to go beyond my Facebook feed to be assaulted by the brokenness of our world.  A local elementary school is on lockdown due to a phoned-in threat, there are polarizing diatribes about the riots in Baltimore due to repeated racial injustices, and the death count continues to rise in Nepal.  In the school I serve (and in all of higher education), students are struggling with increased stress and mental health concerns.  Meanwhile, in our own home, we have a sick little girl, and a boy about to do battle with SOL tests.  I know our problems are small in the greater scheme, but we can't control our worries.

Sometimes it feels like too much.  I'm a highly sensitive feeler, so it's easy for me to take on others' pain as my own.  It makes me an empathetic minister, but also leaves me susceptible to my own struggles with depression and burnout.  My impulse is to turn off the news and bury myself in a cozy cocoon of oblivion.  But I know that retreating is not the answer.  I want to be engaged.  I want to make a difference.

Yet I know that to do this, I must take care of myself first.  I can not help others if I am not coming from a place of health and strength.  I often remind my students that flight attendants on airplanes tell us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.  How can we care for ourselves when things are difficult?  This looks different for everyone, but we all need to eat healthy food, get plenty of rest, and exercise.  We need to engage in activities that renew our spirit, whether that be praying or meditating, spending time alone or with others, or engaging in hobbies.  Sometimes we do need to turn off the news and go for a walk with a friend.  Sometimes the homework can wait, and sometimes we need to be productive so the weight can come off of our shoulders.  Once we are intentional about caring for ourselves, we can look to support the needs of others.

I believe that we are each called to care and serve in different ways.  I watch the news clips of the clergy marching in Baltimore and I want to be that brave.  I have clergy friends that have been arrested for protesting injustice in their own areas of ministry.  I would like to think I would have the courage to stand up and fight, but I fear my trembling legs would give out from beneath me.  I would like to speak passionately and eloquently, but my voice is not that loud and my platform is not that large.  I don't know enough to understand the issues at hand, and so I listen, and maybe that is my gift.

In the past week, I have been asked to support efforts in Nepal, to be involved in local diversity efforts, and to support the work of numerous projects and work of students, colleagues, and charities.  All of these are worthy causes.  And yet my time and resources are finite.  How do we choose?

As a minister, I try to start with prayer.  I know that this can be a way of avoiding responsibility for doing the work (just hoping God will take care of it instead of me doing my part to make the situation better), but sometimes, I need clarity about what I can and can't fix.  Last night, this was my Facebook prayer:

"Sending prayers globally (for Nepal and those who are connected to the disaster there), nationally (for racial unrest and injustice, particularly in Baltimore), for our community of scattered friends (particularly for Jeff and Becca Stables and their family in Jeff's battle with cancer), locally (for my stressed students), and for our household (and our sick girl).  So many hurts and needs that only faith and acting in faith can heal."

So how do we act in faith when it seems overwhelming and hopeless?  I believe that we are all given our concerns, gifts, and passions as a way of connecting with our world.  We can all be the change we want to see in the world when we do our part where we are.  We cannot individually fix all the world's problems, but when we reach out to work on the causes closest to our heart and build community with others who are doing the same, I believe that God empowers us to make a true difference.  

Jane Goodall recently spoke at Hollins, and it was inspiring to hear of her almost 60 years of activism.  NowI don't want to live in the jungle like she did or travel for 300 days a year at 80-years-old like she does.  But she shared advice that can work for all of us.  She talked about how we are told to think globally but act locally.  "But if you think globally, you will only end up depressed!" she retorted.  Instead, she talked about the Roots and Shoots organizations she has started all over the world, empowering young people to be agents of change for the specific issues they face in their own communities.  It was encouraging to hear of the many diverse concerns that are being met through the enthusiasm and gifts of young people.  There can be tremendous power and change when we start with ourselves, work from our heart, and reach out where we are.

I think of my friends who live and minister in Charlotte, building a ministry of hospitality in their own neighborhood through the QC Family Tree.  I see our Nepali students who are organizing fundraisers to help their family and friends back home.  I listen to our students of color who are speaking up to make our community a more welcoming and inclusive place for all.  I reflect upon my ministry, which sometimes takes place at Hollins, and sometimes in my own home.  I remember that my first duty is to see what there is to nurture and change within myself, and always try to act from love.

May we do what we can where with are with what we have.  I will continue praying as I discern how to help and serve, seeking God's grace and strength.  Will you join me?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Easter means this year

The trees are bursting into bloom, but the air still carries a chill. Spring has not yet arrived, although its calendar start date passed by over a week ago.

It's Holy Week and the stores are full of pastel Easter finery and baskets of candy.  It's incongruous.  I haven't felt it as sharply before this year.  As a minister, I've been able to bounce between the hectic pace of worship services remembering the final dark moments of Jesus' life and then return home to celebrate with family over ham and chocolate eggs.  The sadness always held space for the faith of Easter's resurrection.

It's different for me this year.

Within a span of a couple of weeks, my husband and I learned that two people dear to us received terminal cancer diagnoses.  It seems so unfair that two young people full of life, faith, and joy have been struck with such grief; and all who love them bear the pain as well.  We watch helplessly as they walk a journey that, without a miraculous intervention, will end in death.  I am angry and sad, and yet it is not truly about me.  It is not my cross to bear, except to walk the journey with them, to pray, to hope, to support, and to grieve.

I pray for a miracle.  I pray with angry words and tears to a God who I believe hears but remains frustratingly silent.  I try to have faith...I believe!
(Help my unbelief.)

There can be no Easter without Good Friday, though, and sometimes we can only find our way to hope by journeying through what seems hopeless.  The very word "compassion" means "suffering with", and we are with others in their times of pain and grief just as we are with Christ in his suffering and death.  But then we are with him, too, as he is raised to new life.

May it be so.

How many times have I shared my story of the darkest times of my life?  There were times when I wandered through the wilderness, lost, fearing that God had abandoned me.  And yet those were the times that I can look back on as the transitions when my faith was strengthened, when God rescued me as I finally found the faith to let go and trust.

I can only see those times as good in retrospect, after coming through on the other side of the valley of the shadow of death, resurrected.  When I was in the valley I couldn't hope.  I kept walking in the darkness because I knew no other way.  In the same way, we journey through a Holy Week that takes us through betrayal, fear, persecution, abandonment, pain, and cruel death.  But we know that isn't the end of the story.  Though the terrified and confused disciples couldn't foresee it, even though they had been promised it, new life was just a few days away.

 "The life was the light of the world.  
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

Good Friday only becomes "good" when we have seen the light and light of Easter, when we have encountered the risen Christ.  And haven't I experienced that resurrection time and time again?  Why is it so hard to believe?  But this is why we journey through this cycle again and again.  It all comes down to death and resurrection; this is the substance of our faith.

May we believe in the light that overcomes the darkness.  May we trust in the life that is stronger than death.  May we live in the love that casts out all fear.  May we shout in defiance,

"Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."  
(1 Corinthians 15:54-55, 57)

May it be so.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Labor of love

There was a period of years when I obsessively watched pregnancy and childbirth shows like "A Baby Story" and "Deliver Me".  It included the two years it took me to get pregnant (in which each show dramatized my hopes), the 18 months I was pregnant with my two babies (and the shows served to alternately elevate and alleviate my worry about the impending births), and the two years following the birth of my second child (in which I was mourning two traumatic birth experiences, and wading through the fog of postpartum depression).  In the latter case, I think I was seeking redemption as I teared up at the moment of each on-screen birth, imagining a different scenario, empathizing with those whose experiences didn't follow their plan, and always celebrating the miraculous joy of life.

I've written an essay published in the book A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood that shares my organized approach to impending parenthood.  It makes sense considering my type-A personality and the work that went into getting pregnant (schedules, testing, planning, and  minor medical intervention).  I wanted so badly for things to happen, and once they did, I wanted it all to be perfect.  I read all the books, followed all the advice, and felt totally in control.  My husband and I joked about our little "Apex", the baby of perfection that we had created (with God's help...and a little prescription Clomid).  Yet reality has a way of flipping our expectations and showing how little control we truly have.

The day of our son's birth, I was 38 weeks pregnant and heading to a routine doctor's visit with a bit of a stomachache, figuring my lunch was not agreeing with me.  I was measured and weighed, poked and prodded, all to be expected.  My husband and I were just anxious to celebrate with an ice cream date after the doctor, and I had a baby-prep to-do list to attend to.  I was not prepared for the doctor's concerned look and his insistence on measuring me again, followed by an ultrasound, even though I had just had one.  Without much explanation, I was being hooked up for a "non-stress test" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to measure the baby's activity as the doctor suspected that he was not growing as he should be.  After the test, he met us in his office and told us calmly but firmly that we were to go to the hospital directly, "Do not pass go, do not collect $200."  We sighed over missed ice cream, but laughed over parking in the "stork parking" for labor and delivery at the hospital, feeling like we were cheating the system.

We were shown to a room and my vital signs were checked.  It wasn't until they put on my i.d. bracelet that I figured out something was up.  We asked the doctor what was happening, and after another ultrasound she confirmed the other doctor's guess.  My placenta was breaking down prematurely, the baby was smaller than he should be, and I was in the early stages of labor.  Within an hour, we had arranged for someone to care for our dogs, called our parents, and I was prepped for surgery.

It was my first hospitalization, and an emergency c-section was not in my plans, especially as we didn't know what challenges our baby would face.  There were tears, but the doctor was kind and tried to lighten the mood with jokes.  As she wheeled me into the operating room before John was allowed back, music was playing and she said I would have to pay attention to the song that was playing when our son was born so that it could be a special song for him.  With horror, I realized the song that was playing was "Tears in Heaven", the song Eric Clapton wrote about his son who died.  Fortunately, John appeared soon after, and the music was forgotten as we prepared to meet our son.  Brady James was born at 7:07pm with a brief cry that brought tears of relief to my eyes.  They brought him over briefly for us to see, and he looked right into our eyes, silent but intense.  He was then whisked away to be cared for, and John followed, leaving me with the doctor to be stitched up.

After enduring an eternity in the recovery room alone (although John was able to send me pictures of Brady), I was able to return to a room only to learn that Brady was having some struggles and would have to remain in the nursery to receive oxygen and an IV to regulate his blood sugar level.  He was 4 pounds 12.5 ounces and would have to learn to fight like a big guy before he could escape the machines and the hospital.

It was almost six hours before I could briefly see him and hold him for the first time, and he was in the hospital for almost a week.  We knew that we were blessed, especially as I read an article several weeks later about a similar situation that had ended in a stillbirth as the fetus has been without adequate nutrition for too long.  Brady did not suffer any serious or lasting complications.  It was a struggle for him to eat and grow at first due to his size, and he was sick for much of the first year of his life due to a weak immune system.  But he has grown into a healthy, resilient, stubborn, and brilliant boy.  He looks amazingly like he did as a baby, and there are times when he glances at me in just the way he did the first time we laid eyes on one another.

Brady was 18 months old when I discovered that the stomach bug that never went away was actually another pregnancy.  It was so easy the second time around that I was caught by surprise; the Clomid prescription was filled and awaiting my pickup at the pharmacy.  When I asked him if he was ready to be a big brother, he crumpled to the ground in sobs.  Fortunately, by the time I was due, he had come to accept the idea of another baby.  With this pregnancy, I was more carefully monitored, and had the luxury of monthly ultrasounds.  We loved watching the baby grow normally, and were happy to learn on Christmas Eve that Brady would have a sister.  Things were going so smoothly that I discussed my desire for a VBAC (vaginal birth after Cesarean) and my doctor agreed I was a good candidate.

I went into labor at 38 weeks, but it wasn't so bad initially.  When I called the hospital, they gave me the choice of coming in or waiting until the morning.  After finding out the doctor on call was the male doctor that I didn't care for (although he was likely the one who had saved Brady's life by sending us to the hospital), I decided to wait until the morning.

John's dad had already arrived at our house to take care of Brady, and my labor playlist was packed away in my bag.  I got settled in, happy to learn that my nurse was one who had taken care of Brady in the nursery two years earlier.  I watched a little TV, rocked in the rocking chair, and breathed through mild contractions.  It wasn't bad at all...until it was awful.  The contractions started to come more frequently, and they brought sheer panic more than the pain.  My legs would start shaking before I could even feel the cramping, but when it started, I couldn't breathe.  When the doctor checked me, there hadn't been much progress, even after breaking my water (which is just as much fun as it sounds).  To my amazement and frustration, she declared my contractions to be "insufficient".

I was incredulous...she was not feeling what I was, but I guess the monitors told a different story.  Although I had watched Ricki Lake's documentary The Business of Being Born and was armed with the knowledge of how doctors push medications like pitocin and prefer c-sections to save time, when the doctor ordered an epidural "to relax me" and pitocin to make my contractions stronger, I did not argue.  I already felt out of control.

Within minutes, though, the epidural brought a sense of calm, and I enjoyed watching the severity of my unfelt contractions on the monitor much like an entertaining TV show.  But the doctor was watching with an intensity I was not feeling.  She checked and rechecked, leaving the room, and returning minutes later to check again.  She warned me that things were not looking good, and that the baby's heart rate was decelerating with the administration of pitocin.  The nurse suggested stopping the medication, but the doctor argued that I needed the stronger contractions it was creating, and either the baby would have to tolerate it, or I would have to have a c-section.

Fear seized me.  I knew the dangers of a VBAC, and was required to sign multiple waivers stating that I understood the possible risks to me and to the baby, including death.  When the doctor returned for the third time, I saw the fear in her eyes, and suddenly she was jerking cords out of the wall and telling the nurse that I was taking the place of her next scheduled c-section.  She unlocked my bed, and wheeled me through the doorway, running as she pushed me down the hall.  I was slamming into the sides of the hallway, and another doctor passing by laughed and said, "Be careful."  My OB/GYN responded, "There's no time!"  I started sobbing, imagining that I had lost my sweet girl.  I barely caught sight of my husband and my mother, and then it was just the lines of lights in the ceiling, blurred from my tears.  When we reached the operating room, there seemed to be 20 people in there, and the first thing the doctor said was, "Turn off that damn music!"  I didn't have time to think before I saw a mask being placed over my mouth and nose, and I was out...

...I awakened as I was being pushed down a hallway again.  I couldn't tell if it had been minutes or hours.  A nurse saw my open eyes and said, "Your mom sure is worried about you."  In frustration and despair I asked, "How is my baby?"  She looked confused and said, "I don't know."  Again I waited in the recovery room for an eternity, full of grief and fear.  But this time, John sent a video of our girl, Maryn Elana, and just the sound of John talking and laughing on the video assured me that she was okay.

I would later learn that our pediatrician was on call, and when she looked at Maryn, her words were "Now that's a healthy baby" and she left to go check on the babies with more pressing needs.  Our girl weighed in at almost 7 pounds, and when they brought her to me shortly after I returned to my room, the nurses were talking to me about feeding her and how she might not latch on right away.  After struggling with Brady's feeding issues, and making multiple weekly visits to the lactation consultant with him, I expected this.  But I noticed that as they held her out to me, her mouth was open, and even as they were giving instructions, she latched on immediately and began to nurse.  Laughter filled the room and relief filled my heart.

It could have been the beginning of my healing, but that road was longer than I had hoped.  I had much to grieve, and much to learn.  The demands of caring for an infant and a toddler was more than I felt that I could handle most days, and my body was wrecked by yet another surgery.  We were in a state of limbo as John had lost his job and I was burned out from mine.  I kept replaying the trauma in my mind--the scenes out of an "ER" drama without George Clooney and background music.  I felt the anxiety of potentially losing my daughter, and I heard the fear of my doctor who later told me that I gave her an awful scare--she thought my uterus was rupturing and she was losing me.  I heard about John's agony in waiting for news, and also trying to keep my anxious mother calm.  We didn't even have to discuss it to agree that this would be our final delivery.

It was the death of a dream in a way.  It shouldn't matter how our babies came into the world, just that they were ours, and as a great blessing, were healthy and well.  But it did matter to me.  I felt that I had missed out on something; that we had been cheated.  I felt that I had failed at something that should have been natural.  I struggled with guilt that I had put my babies at risk, even though I did all I could have done.  I felt bad feeling bad, as I know so many who struggle to get pregnant, who have lost so many pregnancies through miscarriage, and who have dealt with health complications much more serious than ours.  And yet my grief doesn't understand these rational just feels.

Although I did not experience birth in the "traditional" way I so longed for, over the years I have come to appreciate my delivery through the painful journey of letting go of what I did not have in order to embrace what I do have.  My two beautiful and precocious children remind me every day that I am being purified through the process of becoming the best mother I can be to them, and accepting their place in our lives as the God-given gift that it is.  The road to recovery was about more than the two visible scars that remain, but in surrendering old dreams for new ones.  It is a reminder that we are all broken in our own ways, and yet as Leonard Cohen says in his song “Anthem”, “There’s a crack in everything.  That is how the light gets in.”  I have seen the light of God shining through the broken places, and I have felt the healing presence of God’s love, bringing redemption into our stories through the labor of love.

Friday, March 20, 2015

It's only a phase

As my kids' birthdays approach, I've been thinking about the phases that are behind us.  It was a bittersweet moment when we got rid of the wooden trains and tracks that had been the focus of playtime for years.  Now we are deep into the worlds of Minecraft, Lego, and American Girl.

As a friend prepares for the upcoming birth of his baby and shared a lullaby playlist that he created, I remembered the songs that were the soundtrack of our lives for the years they fought sleep.  I can picture Maryn toddling around in footie pajamas and miss when she could so easily be scooped up in our arms.  She used to dive from our arms into her crib, and for a little while enjoyed sleeping as she had the comfort of her pacifier.

Brady called his multiple pacis his "eyes" as he had to have one in his mouth and one in each hand that he would click together and stick in his real eyes until sleep overtook him.  Once we made our toddlers surrender their beloved pacis and "eyes", sleep was not as enticing to them.  We still catch Brady making sucking sounds with his mouth in his sleep, as if he has found his beloved "eyes" again.

At my grandmother's house this weekend, I came across a series of photos of Brady as a baby that I had forgotten.  He was all smiles and chubby cheeks which was jarring to me as I remember him as being silent and serious, and getting him to put on weight seemed to be our biggest battle.

I have stopped writing down the milestones as we have passed what seem to be the big ones--first steps and first words.  But I'm wondering what I may be missing.  I only notice in hindsight the little changes that occur and I'm melancholy that I didn't realize when the transition took place.  Will I be paying attention when she no longer calls the morning meal "breathfast" or when baby wipes stop being "wep wipes"?  How much longer will she need us to cuddle with her at bedtime?

He is solid instead of skinny, and I can't lift him anymore.  On the rare occasions he climbs into my lap, I can't see over his head.  I remember resting my head on his, when he could be comforted by the sound of my heartbeat.  How much longer do we have of him wanting us to eat lunch with him at school?  He already thinks kisses are yucky, but still allows us to hug him, thank goodness, and isn't yet embarrassed to be seen with us.  I know the days are numbered.

The kiss part of this promise has already expired.
Maryn is reading chapter books now, and I think back to when she didn't like books.  I would try to read with her in our my lap, and she would close the books saying, "The end!  The end!"  It baffled me as books are so central in my life, and Brady taught himself to read when he was only three.  She grew to love cuddling with us on the bed with a stack of books, and was reluctant to read on her own.  But now that she has gained confidence, she is unstoppable, and received a star reader award from her teacher last week.  Sometimes she even asks if we would like her to read to us.

So much of parenthood has been tougher than I imagined as it is an ongoing surrendering of self.  It is the letting go of the idea that we are in control and that it is all about us.  It is being open to transition and growth, both in ourselves and the little beings we have helped to create.  When things go wrong, people are quick to assure, "It's only a phase; it will pass."  Now, when things are going unexpectedly well, my husband jokes, "It's only a phase; it will pass."

But isn't that the essential truth?  It is all a passing phase whether we are mindful of it or not.  We have a limited time to share what we want to impart, knowing that we don't know what will stick.  It's easy to get caught up in the nostalgia or the fear of how fast the time passes (when it's not passing by so s-l-o-w-l-y), although another surprise of parenthood has been recognizing the gift of each new phase.  I can sigh over the sweetness of the tiny baby clothes and the cute pictures of first smiles, but I also have the memory of how exhausting that time period was.  The toddler years were a blur of activity and finding our rhythm in a house of two kids spaced two years apart and juggling two full-time jobs plus family between us.

Now we worry about behavioral issues and whether they are learning the values we are trying to model, but they are gaining independence.  There is so much more to enjoy now as they are able to share their thoughts and experiences with us, and so much more to look forward to as they hopefully learn how to regulate their very strong feelings and wills.

In the same way, I think of the phases of parenthood.  I hope that I'm gaining my stride now and that my kids can see that I'm growing alongside them.  I've cycled through the overwhelming exhaustion and pride of new parenthood, the joy of experiencing each milestone, the frustration of each setback, and the celebration of each success.  Throughout it all, there has been so much love, even in the hard times.  My greatest hope is that in the frustrating moments when I lose my cool and don't live up to the example I want to be for them, my children will be able to look at me and see my love for them.  Hopefully they will be aware enough to forgive my mistake and think, "It's a phase; it will pass."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Aging is not for wimps

I used to take pride in calling myself low maintenance.  I never cared much about clothing trends or how my hair looked, and getting ready never took more than a few minutes.  This was fortunate in my student days when all I had to do was roll out of bed at 7:45am, shower, and run off to my 8:00am classes.  While I still don't put much energy into clothing and hair styles, the getting out of bed part takes a lot more effort as I've aged. It's as if my body itself has become high maintenance.  Now it takes me longer to get out of bed in the morning than my entire routine a decade ago.

Here's the thing about aging: although I've been blessed with relatively good health, there is a shift that happens somewhere in your thirties.  The simple act of getting up is not so simple any more.  I'm aware of my joints and body in a way I haven't previously been.  It's hard not to notice when the act of standing up sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies.  I'm too young to feel this old, but it is what it is.

My husband and I decided to recommit to a healthy lifestyle, and paid for a personal trainer as our Christmas gift to one another.  I remember thinking it would be like a date--hanging out and getting strong together. What a horrible idea.  We spend each session wondering how we will survive, shooting death glances at our torturer (i.e. the trainer), and bemoaning the fact that we actually PAID MONEY to go through this pain.  The trainer makes us keep a food diary, so we don't even get the comfort of drowning our unhappy feelings in doughnuts.

I was so sore after our session the other day that I had to go get a massage (I know, just terrible).  But that wasn't the end of the pain.  Come to find out, my hips are out of whack and I was referred to a chiropractor.  The hip injury comes from my brief stint as a runner a couple years ago, the last time I tried to get healthy.  That was probably the beginning of the end of my low maintenance lifestyle as I had to be fitted for running shoes at the fancy running store.  A pair of shoes, insoles, and $150 later, I learned that I have difficult feet (so no more cheap shoes).  Now we can add to that difficult hips, which leads to lower back pain as well.

It seems like my body doesn't actually want this healthy lifestyle.  But the good news from my chiropractor is that I'm not so bad off yet.  Yes, one hip is a few millimeters lower than the other one, which is causing my spine to curve slightly and the vertebrae are pressing on the nerves, causing back and hip pain.  But it can be fixed with alignments and a heel lift and orthotic inserts for my shoes (guess how much all that will cost?).  My funny husband asked if I would buy a pair of velcro old lady shoes to go with them.

Part of getting older means devoting more energy to taking care of ourselves.  We take vitamins and worry about our cholesterol.  There are invasive screenings at the annual physicals we wouldn't think of missing.  I scheduled one on my birthday one year so I wouldn't forget.  Don't say I don't know how to party.  But as I watch the declining health of family members, I know the importance of preventative care.

There's a theological lesson in it as well.  When people find out you're a minister, they love to share their thoughts on faith (whether to grumble about it or to share inspiration).  I've noticed that medical professionals in particular love to connect a spiritual element to my care after seeing my profession on the forms.  I wonder sometimes if it's because they think I need or expect it, or because they don't usually get an outlet to talk about it in their work.  My massage therapist explained my experience this way:  "God creates us in perfect alignment, so that are bodies can do what we need them to do.  But we put stress on them and treat them harshly, so things get out of whack.  Then we must take the time to nurture them back to health again."

My chiropractor explained that pain is our body's signal that things aren't right.  We must listen to it and trust in our capacity to heal if we care for ourselves in the right ways.  He reiterated that God made us whole and well and that we can get back to that place if we put in the time and commitment.

I've noticed that many times my body has had to get my attention when I have been too busy to tune into my spiritual needs.  I have literally lost my voice numerous times when I've been immersed in preparing for an important worship event, and lately the pain in my back has forced me to stop and take a break from work.  Perhaps the voice of God is not always a still, small voice, but a pain in the back.

Throughout this experience, I've been moving past seeing my body as a liability, something that gets in my way or has to be managed.  I've spent far too many years bemoaning how it doesn't look or move the way I would like it to.  But in seeing the x-rays of my slightly curved spine (with an extra vertebrae, no less...who knew?  Only 2% of the population has an extra one), and understanding the connection between how I care for it and how it functions, I see the wonder of it and the miracle that it works the way it does.  What a God-given gift to be able to be alive, in health and in pain.  It's a lesson once again in controlling what I can control and letting go of the rest.

Aging is not for wimps, so I have to keep my strength up.  My goal for this week is to go to our last personal training session and celebrate the strength of my muscles and joints.  As I challenge them to work and grow stronger, I will listen to the pain that is a reminder to care well for my body and spirit.  Getting older may not be easy, but it certainly beats the alternative.

And now I have a good excuse for more massages.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Conference for Introverts

Someday I would like to create a conference for introverts.  Instead of networking and name tags, we would politely acknowledge one another, and then go to our separate corners to friend each other on Facebook.

Seats would be assigned to avoid the whole "with whom do I sit" dilemma.  Our tablemates' bios would be handed out so that we could skip over the awkward small talk.  Perhaps there could be a small delegation of "designated extroverts" strategically seated around the room to function as discussion starters.

Speakers and workshops would still be the focus for learning, but instead of discussion and questions afterward, there would be time for personal or small group reflection.  Or perhaps we would sit in thoughtful silence and later individually blog our insights and share the tweetable moments on social media.

Mixers and gatherings would be unnecessary, but stacks of books and cozy blankets could be made available for down time activities, and meet-ups in quiet coffeeshops could be arranged for those feeling social.  Yoga and meditation would be ideal as well.  In fact, there would be as much unstructured reflective and personal time as group learning time.

Business meetings would be conducted via email.

Wine and ice cream would be a required nighttime snack back in our single occupancy hotel rooms.

(note: I attended a conference two weeks ago that I really enjoyed.  Yet it has taken me two weeks to process.  I need a retreat just to reflect upon my conference.  This is the life of this INFJ.)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

An open letter to my children after uncountable snow days

Dear little humans,

You know I love you more than anything.  You have been my heart since I carried you beneath my own.  You are composed of pieces of your daddy and me, and that's most evident when I see the stubborn set of your face.  I would give my very life for you...and there are moments when I feel like I have (who am I again?).

But there are a few things I need to share with you to make our living arrangement more peaceful for all of us, especially in the cruel winter when we are trapped inside for days at a time.

1.  You may not realize this, but I give you screen time because I need a break.  No, I don't want to know how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles defeated their nemesis or how many questions you answered correctly on American Girl trivia.  And while I appreciate your creative work in Mindcraft, I don't want to learn anything about how to make the different types of swords.  Throwing a fit when I have to turn off the screens make me second-guess whether giving you screen time is worth the bit of quiet time I get in return.

2.  You're bored after our third snow day in the house?  What a luxury.  I'd be glad to come up with another chore list for you.  Don't mind me; I'll be over in the corner enjoying the boredom of staring off into space.

3.  I'm so very glad you're enjoying the new "Annie" soundtrack we bought you.  But the next time I'm awakened at 6am on a non-school morning to the blaring beats of "It's a hard knock life" accompanied by your stomping and shouting, I may have to take a few hard knocks to your cd player.

4.  When the temperatures are in the single digits I will never, not ever, accompany you outside to play football or any other such ridiculousness.   That is not my spiritual gift.  Continued whining and repeated asking will result in that football being thrown so far into the snowy tundra that it will never be found. Such days are for reading in bed.  You have approximately 400 books.  Get reading.

5.  Don't bother asking for more pets.  We have a dog; his name is Max.  He would like you to feed and water him since that is your job.  When you say you don't feel like it, it doesn't support your case of getting another animal.  Yes, I realize that puppies are cute and playful and Max is boring and just likes to lie around.  He is family (and has been longer than both of you) and we appreciate his undemanding laziness (and his patience with you two slackers).

But most importantly, no matter how many times I lose my patience and have to make up later (approximately equal to the number of times you slam your doors and come downstairs to interrupt "quiet time" with "Hey Mommy..."), I love you completely.  You are worth the sacrifice of my time and sanity.  You are not an interruption to my are my life.  And when you are peacefully sleeping and all the demands of the day (and the demands of you) are silenced, I can breathe a prayer of gratitude for the gift of two unique creatures, made in the image of us and of God, who remind me each day that it's not all about me.

Someday I'll miss all the noise and needs and demands (or so I'm told, anyway*).  I know I will miss the opportunity to be so closely entwined with your developing selves, to see you learn and grow, and be surprised by your individuality.  I will miss when you no longer turn to me for comfort or answers, and may even find the quiet more lonely than I anticipate.  I already miss all the smaller selves you've been, but I look forward to seeing the unwrapped gift of who you are becoming.  So I will work to appreciate the time we have together now, with all of its noise and mess and constant interaction.

I can even smile when I think about it (but mainly because daddy is on his way back home after four days away.  Yay!  God bless stay at home parents forever and ever.  Amen.)

As I read in that insipid book that you loved,
"I'll love you forever,
I'll like you for always,
As long as I'm living,
My baby you'll be."

Love you forever,

*P.S.  I doubt I will ever miss snow days and the "Annie" soundtrack.  But from the smiling pictures of you playing in the snow, and the exuberant dancing to the music, I am happy to assume that you enjoyed them.  It is perfectly okay for us to like and appreciate different things.  You be you and I'll be me and I'll continue fighting my instinct to remake you in my image.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ashes to ashes

I had just finished marking the ash cross on her forehead when someone walked up and told her she had something on her face.  We smiled and she explained that it was Ash Wednesday and the mark was intentional.  "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return," I added, continuing to share "ashes to go" in the lobby of the student center.

There is vulnerability in being marked in this way.  It makes us stand out, and not in the way we usually seek attention.  We want to be noticed for being special, not for what can be perceived as weakness.  We are marked to distinguish ourselves, the cross as a sign of our faith that is sometimes in opposition to the values of the world in which we live.  We are marked to show repentance and mourning.  In Lent we are confronted with our own mortality as we follow Jesus on the road to his crucifixion once again.  We put down our illusion of invincibility and power and wear a visible sign of our humility.

I love the priestly duty of anointing with oil and looking into the eyes of the hopeful and the humbled.  I am struck by the mixed blessing: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return."  The words are haunting, and yet the touch reminds us of our connection to God and to one another.  There is intimacy in the moment, a sense of God's presence.  It provides a holy space where people are freed to share their stories.  One by one, students opened up about their struggles and what they hoped to take up and let go of for Lent.  I was inspired as they moved beyond the typical vices like chocolate and soda to those who were seeking positivity and acceptance, and letting go of negativity and overbearing control.

We wait for hope to be rebirthed as the ground is covered with a cold blanket of snow.  More snow falls like manna from heaven, a gift that we struggle to receive.  It seems like more than we can handle; we are so tired and overwhelmed.  We long for the growth and warmth of spring.  We make weak promises to do more to grow our faith when really we feel like we have nothing left to give.  But the gift that is there for us, if we open ourselves to receiving it, is that God is with us and that we are enough just as we are.  We don't have to work harder for our salvation.  We simply have to open ourselves to accept God's love which is always there for us, a love that is stronger than death.

We are marked, not just with the image of death,  but with the sign of grace.  Our salvation comes through our acceptance of the gift of vulnerability.

Friday, February 6, 2015

An Open Letter to My Child's School Explaining Her Tardiness

Dear School Administrators,

Let me start by saying I appreciate your work.  I believe you have a job that is as difficult as it is important.  You are educating our future leaders on fewer and fewer resources each year.  When we send our two children to you each morning, I say a little prayer of gratitude and strength for you while I'm doing my victory dance for the eight joyful hours I get to spend at work uninterrupted by their needs.

That said, I was a little peeved to receive the letter yesterday about my daughter's "excessive tardies."

I realize that you must send a form letter out to all parents of students with excessive tardies as we also received one last year (ahem).  You asked for our response, so please allow me to share my thoughts:

1. Yes, these tardies have been under our supervision.  She is six, so she has not been driving herself to school late or sneaking out of the house to skip school.  My husband has been the one that has personally delivered her to the school office on these occasions.

2.  While you are highlighting the 5 days she was late, I would rather celebrate the 98 other days that she was on time.  Do you realize what a miraculous occurrence this is?  While the tone of the letter is punitive, I was pretty amazed the number was so low.  I'm giving my husband a big high five and myself a pat on the back for managing to get two strong-willed children awake, showered, dressed, fed, and to school for five months now. 

3.  You're threatening to get a social worker involved?  Great!  Please let her/him know to arrive at our house at 6:15am daily to wake up said child.  Please warn the social worker that alarm clocks, soothing music, gentle nudges, and cuddles are not effective at getting her alert.  Threats, rewards, bribes, earlier bedtimes, and engaging conversation are also no good.  Protective gear is suggested due to the threat of kicking, hitting, and scratching.  Prepare to engage in a battle of wills for at least half an hour, which will be followed by wrestling the child out of bed and getting her dressed without any cooperation from her.  Tears and screaming must be ignored in order to reach the bus stop by 7:07am so that she will not be tardy!

4.  Does she have a chronic medical condition that prevents her from attending school on a regular basis?  Hmm...well, not a diagnosed one, but see #3 and judge for yourself.  Note that we did not receive a similar letter regarding her brother.

5.  Please note the child DID attend school on these days.  It's not like the year (ahem, last year) when the kids missed 5 days for a Disney Cruise.  We do value their education.  I am the girl who had perfect attendance from kindergarten through high school graduation.  Yes, that was once a mark of pride for me, but now seems rather sad.

6.  I deal with enough guilt as a parent, woman, and person of a religious background.  Perhaps you should try talking with my daughter, who doesn't seem to have enough to motivate her into action.

Thank you for your concern.  We are with you.

A parent who is doing the best she can.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Where sanctuary is found

Art by Abigail L. Dela Cruz of Abby Draws (used with permission)

I desire sanctuary in my life, spaces where peace pushes out the anxiety that tends to lodge in my heart.  Instead of the press of obligations to prove my worth, I long to feel at home where I am, embracing the reality of my life as it is.

Sanctuary, for me, is often about the holy places outside of church, although I have experienced it there as well.  But more often I have found it in the coziness of a coffee shop with a pot of tea and a fireplace, during a solitary walk through the woods,  or while sitting by moving water.  I find it in my warm bed with a book and time that demands nothing more of me.  I feel it in the process of writing as a spiritual practice of theological reflection and self-understanding.  These moments feel like Sabbath: holy, protected, renewing, transforming rest.

These days I'm looking ahead to our December cruise vacation, knowing from experience that this sort of getaway (without access to phones and the internet or household responsibilities) is the only way to truly entice me to stop and rest.  But on the other hand, I'm trying to embrace my word for this year, wholehearted, and find ways to live gratefully in the moment.

It's difficult, when I wake to the sound of my two children fighting and feel the dread of another day that feels the same as the one before.  My husband and I are getting by these days by alternating "days off" when one of us is free to leave the house alone.  I don't want to just get by, though.  I worry that I'm missing out on the joys of these days when our children are still young and want to be with us.  Even though that want feels like a ball and chain; though it feels like every last ounce of my energy is being drained away as they fight for our attention.

I write and reflect on the sacredness of parenthood and my journey to embrace the messy beauty of it all (as Glennon Melton speaks of the brutiful life that is brutal as it is beautiful).  Yet it is difficult moving this truth from my brain to my heart to my actions.  My kids like to protest that things aren't fair when they don't get what they want.  Perhaps they have learned this from me as I protest even when I get exactly what I have been seeking.

The truth is that this is the life of my dreams.  I am married to my love who supports me and truly makes me better than I could be on my own.  We have two bright, creative, and relatively healthy children.  I have a calling and a job that provides gratification and pushes me towards new growth.  Why is it that my quest for sanctuary pushes me to retreat from all of this?

Maybe it is the introvert within me.  Perhaps it is an ongoing struggle to reconcile my unrealistic expectations with reality.  I think it takes stepping away to get the bigger perspective I need instead of focusing in on all that seems wrong.  I need breathing space to release my frustration and clear the clutter from my mind.  It is only then that I can see things for how they truly are, and that it is good.

In the sanctuary moments I am reminded that all is well enough.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Leaving church

My family never moved when I was a child, so I have always been fascinated by the stories of people who have uprooted.  But I think instead of tracing my family’s journey on a map, we could mark our path in the church homes we have been a part of and the churches we have left.  There was my childhood church where I was baptized and had my first crush on our pastor.  My family left there in a church split over a pastor vote and went to start a new church.  This was the church where I learned to be a leader and a servant, the place where I found a second home and family.  It was also where I learned that women are not supposed to be called to ministry. 

There was the church where I explored my calling and found a passion for working with youth and young adults, the one I loved so much that I lied on the membership form where they asked me to sign stating I believed in a literal seven-day creation.  There were transitional churches during seminary where we worked for the paycheck and the experience but found that they gave something more in return.  They accepted our youthful idealism and the foolishness of our newfound “wisdom” and gently showed us that there was much to learn and unlearn.  There are churches that make you, and those that break you, and some that are a bittersweet in-between.

As our family leaves our current church, I wonder how I will share the story with our children in the future.  “This was the church where you were dedicated, and this was the church where I baptized you.  This is where you shared in communion for the first time and read scripture standing on a stepstool from the pulpit.  This is where you sang with the children’s choir and everyone remarked on how they loved to watch you sing.  This is the church you first attended in my womb.  After our first visit, it would take a few weeks for our return, but then you were beside me in the pew in your infant carrier, or in my arms.  The music and liturgy became part of your baby dreams.  We watched you move up from the nursery and run off to your Sunday School classes.  I loved watching you skip into the sanctuary before worship, excited to tell me stories from your lesson.  We made friends here.” 
But how do we explain the leaving?

I don’t know the answer yet.  The wounds and the grief are still fresh.  Sometimes we stay out of habit, like in a bad relationship that we just can’t break.  Sometimes the leaving is easy.  But sometimes there is a breaking even though it feels like what must be done.  We want to know what will last, to trust that God can restore what has been broken.  I want to put my commitment into a place where we can serve and worship, knowing that it will not be perfect, but believing that it will be good again.  I want that for my old church, the Church universal, and for the future church that will receive us in all our hopefulness and fear.  It is not the first time we have been on this path, but faith means stepping out, even though we are not sure where the journey will take us, trusting that God is leading us home again.

For more of my blog posts about path in and out of the church, click here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Wholehearted Parenting

Image from Brené Brown

My word for this year is wholehearted, and in no area of my life do I need this idea more than in parenting.  I've always known that I wanted to have children one day.  My husband and I talked about kids on one of our very first dates.  I had pretty much figured out how to parent before we ever conceived.  I knew what I wanted to keep from my own family of origin and what I wanted to heal and transcend.  As a voracious reader of parenting books and blogs, I'm also a critic compiling my lists of how things shouldn't be done.

And then I had children.  And it was amazing, and holy, and terrifying.  Not only did I have no idea what to do, but these tiny creatures surprised me by having their own personalities, needs, and wills that I had not taken into consideration.  Nor did I realize how much the act of becoming a parent would change me and have me grieving over my own loss of self and my own inherent selfishness.

I echo the lament of many parents that "the years are short but the days are long."  It is simultaneously scary that there are twelve more years to get our youngest to college...and that there are only twelve more years until our youngest goes to college.  There is so much to pack into each day between the superficial demands of homework and general upkeep, to the deeper values and lessons we hope to instill.  I easily become frustrated at the "one step forward, two steps back" nature of little human development.

As I wrote in in my "Parts of the Whole" post, 

"My struggles (particularly with parenting) often come when I am unable to see the bigger picture.  Stuck in the frustration of a single moment (or daily reality), it's easy to fall into the faulty reasoning that things will always be hopeless and impossible.  Sometimes I think things will never change for the better.  Then some moments I turn around and wonder at how an often-taught lesson has finally clicked.  I can catch a brief glimpse at the big picture that is slowly being created and I find hope once more."

I have seen parenthood as a sacrifice--of my time, myself, the way I think things should be.  I realize the self-centered nature of this and how it sets me up to feel defeated.  But I heard something that has the power to change that.  In the audiobook The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, Brené Brown speaks of her priest sharing that the word sacrifice comes from a Latin root that means "to make sacred."

What would happen if I viewed parenthood as sacred?  I think back to that first moment we held our firstborn, and in spite of the fear, there was an overwhelming sense of holiness.  There was grace; evidence of God's very real presence in our lives.  Sometimes I let that sense of wonder and mystery become overshadowed by the messy reality in front of me.  But then there are moments when our kids point right back to the Creator and I'm aware once again of the miracle of it all.

As I created my vision board for this year, I knew that I wanted to incorporate a vision for how I can embrace the messy reality of my life and be able to see the beauty in it.  My goal is to be more mindful in my interactions with my children.  I want to have the eyes to see each moment as an opportunity to model and receive God's love.  May my connection with them be a lifeline for all of us, a sacrament that points to God's grace.  May I begin to see the sacrifice as sacred, and parenting as holy work and play.   

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Parts of the Whole

I am finding it hard to get back into a regular writing routine.  There is so much on my mind, but it is in bits and pieces that are hard to process.  This is the way of our world these days. Our news comes in endless sound bites and headlines.  We don't have the time to invest in reading and understanding the deluge of information that floods our senses on a minute by minute basis.  It can feel like we're drowning under the weight of cues to which we've lost the meaning and aren't sure how to respond.

There has been much discussion over whether the art of blogging is dying as readers don't connect as the community they once did through comments and dialogues.  Writers are urged to divide their essays up into smaller chunks of information and to provide "tweetable" quotes.  It begins to feel like a set of strategies instead of authentic communication.

It makes me think of how much of our world is fragmented...

We have been taught to analyze, categorize, and find meaning in the separate parts.  We study a specific field of knowledge by breaking it down into concrete learning objectives.  We separate ourselves into groups of like cultures, faiths, and interests.  We are taught to be suspicious of what is different and to fear what we don't understand.  Our boundaries create disconnects.

Yet we instinctively know that it all should be integrated as we long for

I remember learning about the German word "gestalt" sometime in my education and it stuck with me.   In my understanding, it refers to the whole nature of something and is sometimes explained in the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  More and more, I see the truth of this.  I want to see the bigger picture.  I am most energized when I hear a story and find connections with my own life.  I am intrigued that much of what I am reading now (even in different genres) points back to these same themes; that we have lost our way (in life, in education, and in faith) and need to find our way back to connectivity, to mystery, wonder, and the things that are greater than us.

My struggles (particularly with parenting) often come when I am unable to see the bigger picture. Stuck in the frustration of a single moment (or daily reality), it's easy to fall into the faulty reasoning that things will always be hopeless and impossible.  Sometimes I think things will never change for the better.  Then some moments I turn around and wonder at how an often-taught lesson has finally clicked.  I can catch a brief glimpse at the big picture that is slowly being created and I find hope once more.

Sarah Bessey's post  on "Chasing Wonder" ignited my imagination.  I, too, want to dream and wonder, to see possibility instead of being reduced and categorized.  I was a scientist before I was a minister, and I see God in the mysteries we try to comprehend through science.  I believe the two can complement one another, just as I believe there is a place for spirituality in higher education as Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc wrote about in The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.

These ponderings connect with my desire to live a more wholehearted life this year.  I want to live more from my heart, from a place of love and hope instead of fear.  This includes:

-the freedom to be authentically me, and embrace imperfection and vulnerability

-the ability to also accept the imperfect beauty of others

-being a curator of stories that point to something greater, a meaning that is more than any individual experience of truth

-wondering and dreaming in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same.

Perhaps in these goals I will be able to live wholly, fully, instead of in part.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

One Word 2015: Wholehearted

Workbooks and art by Susannah Conway

It is the fourth day of the New Year, and I finally made the time to sit down and reflect on 2014 and plan for 2015.  I had been hoping to do this for some time, but life has a way of interrupting my plans.  The holidays were full, and although I had a long break from work, being at home with the kids does not provide many opportunities for quiet reflection.  Then our son started the year with his first ever case of strep throat, which meant a couple days of caring solely for him.

But these are excuses, as part of me didn't want to think much about the year that had passed, although as an INFJ, I usually enjoy this sort of exercise.  It was a good year overall, but it was also demanding and draining.  I started a doctoral program that seems to be a good fit, and it's encouraging to be challenged by classes again and discover that I still love school.  I have benefited from the support of my cohort and know that we have much to learn from one another in our different experiences, gifts, and perspectives.

We had lots of good family time including a vacation to Disney World and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  But there were many parenting challenges, mainly in learning that I can't change my children, but need to focus instead on why their behavior triggers me so much.  Learning more about Family Systems Theory has been a good start.

I continue to love my work as a university chaplain, but it had its difficulties as well.  It was a hard semester with increased stress and tension.  Even though I did my best to meet the needs, I felt as if I were going through the motions and not really working from my gifts and passion.  It was exhausting, and I cared for myself by withdrawing more than engaging.  When I set "enough" as my word for 2014, my intention was to remind myself that I have enough (resources, strengths) and I am enough (with God's help) to handle what comes my way, but more often, it seemed a word of surrender when I had had enough.

When I think about what I want most for 2015, a vacation is the first thing that comes to mind.  Unfortunately, our next vacation isn't until December, and there is much work to be done before then.

I realize that what I really need is to be more engaged.  I want to live from a place that is more than just surviving.  I want to thrive, living out of my calling and passions.  I want to truly be grateful for the gifts in my life and appreciate them by living fully from my whole heart.  I want to be mindful of the moments so that I can teach my kids to appreciate them as well.  To keep me centered, I have chosen "wholehearted" as my One Word 365 for 2015.

I have been greatly inspired by the work of Brené Brown, who researches shame and vulnerability.  I first came across the concept of wholehearted living in her books.  She lists 10 guideposts for wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be Vulnerable Changes the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:

1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
2. Cultivating Self‐Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self‐Worth
8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self‐Doubt and “Supposed To”
10.Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”

(the list was found here)

I know it will be a most difficult challenge for me as my instinct is to withdraw in the best of times, and to ruminate and hold on to the negative in the worst of times.  It will push me to see my life in new ways and to live into the hope that I so often proclaim and yet fail to grasp in my own daily struggles.  It will mean letting go of the petty annoyances so that I can see the greater beauty in the moments that I often overlook.  It is a reminder to live from a faith that is greater than the reality I can see and grasp.

To inspire me, I created a fold-out vision board that can stand up on my desk and travel home with me as well.  The words and pictures point to the fact that while I can't always control what happens, I can be in control of how I respond.

May I respond with my whole heart in 2015.