Friday, February 29, 2008

In the Moment

My daughter sleeps with me and my husband for most of the night.  We don't mind at all.  Usually she sleeps on my side of the bed with me, and I absolutely love snuggling with her.  She is only this little for so long - all too soon I'm told she won't want to be with us anymore - and I have treasured these precious snuggle moments.

These past few weeks my husband and I have been dealing with a messy situation at church.  I find myself thinking about it all the time.  My mind races through memories of conversations, ideas for things we could do differently, things I could say and things I wish I had said...  These thoughts over the stressful situation are with me almost constantly.  And when I'm not thinking about it, I'm planning dinner, thinking about when I'm going to work on my dissertation next and what my plan of attack is for that, whether to sign my daughter up for music or gymnastics class, and on and on.  

A few nights ago, as I laid my daughter by my spot on the bed, pulled the covers up over us, and laid my head down on the pillow next to hers, I suddenly realized that here I am with my daughter, enjoying a finite precious moment that will soon be gone, and I was not even there - I was thinking a million different things, other things, things that did not need to be thought about at that moment, but I was missing the gift of the relationship God had given me for that moment.  I want to live in this moment, because that is where God is.

I don't just do this with my daughter.  I do this with God, as well.  I try to spend a significant chunk of time praying each day, but on too many days, even when I take the time to pray, my mind is constantly going a million different directions.  And in the process I miss the precious moment with my Savior - the moment of peace, the moment of rest, the moment that can prepare me well for the next.

Scripture says, "Do not worry about tomorrow."   "Cast your cares upon the Lord, for he cares for you."  "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."  "Abide in me... apart from me you can do nothing."  It does not say, "If you just stress out about this enough eventually you'll work it all out."  Living in the moment, trusting God with all the rest, is one of the hardest things for me.  It's like my brain just won't do it.  But I am tired of missing the gift, the rest, the peace, the joy that God provides for me at just the right moment, in just the right way, with all the fullness of his trustworthy presence and strength.  I want to live in the moment, because that is where the great I AM is to be found.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


My daughter's single answer to every question right now is "no."  Sometimes its a really sweet "no," in a drawn-out voice spoken with a smile, and other times it is a sing-songy, "No-no-no-no-no," and at still other times it is a very serious, "No!!!!!"  But however it comes out, its like she doesn't know any other words.  Do you need to potty? "No."  Do you want a banana (one of her favorite foods)? "No."  Are you 1 year old? "No."    If this were any other human being, I don't think I'd have the patience for this.  As it is, she's my daughter, a beautiful, sweet, big-eyed wonder who is going through a phase, and so I just smile and wait until she grows out of it.

What would the world be like if we gave to everyone the same grace that we give to our kids?

I remember one time talking on the phone with my father, who was also on the phone with the airline company.  I was mad at him - I don't think he really understood why - over the airline issue, and I was letting him know it.  And he was so kind, so patient, so determined to work this out.  Then I'd hear him get on the other phone with the airline company and absolutely chew them out.  

When I'm in the line at the grocery store and the check-out person is working painfully slow, I am so irritated.  When I'm in the same line and my daughter wants to help put the items, one by one, onto the belt, I smile and let her help.

What would the world be like if we gave the same grace that we give to our kids?

Of course, there are times we are tempted to take out our frustrations on our kids and put on a happy face to the world, but, in the end, I think most of us are far more committed to our relationships with our kids than we are to our relationship with just anyone who walks by.  But we are children of God and God treats us all with such love and grace and understanding and calls us to do the same.  Maybe, next time someone doesn't do what they should be doing or slows me down or behaves inappropriately, I'll use the resources I've developed in my relationship with my daughter for patience and grace and just direct it to the person in front of me.  Thank God for grace to change.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

My cousin has an 8 year old with a learning disability who is having a really rough time learning how to read.  Today when when I talked on the phone with my cousin, he was re-learning the "gl" and "ab" combinations.  He understood them last week but today he finds them to be thoroughly perplexing.  My cousin commented, "Just when he's taken a few steps forward he suddenly takes a big step back..."

I feel the same way with potty training.  My 18 month old is so close to being potty trained, but just sometimes its like she suddenly forgets everything she's learned and pees in her pants 7 times in a row.  But then the next day she does something new - like poop in the potty on demand, or willingly "go" in a public potty, or have almost no accidents all day.  I read somewhere that potty training is just like that - a couple steps back for every three steps forward.

And that gives me hope when I think about the continuing growth of us as adults.  Sometimes, just when I think I'm making really good progress in dealing with a problem or a weakness in my heart, it's like I suddenly am right back where I started.  Or just when I think I'm seeing progress among the people of God at church, people start getting mad at each other over something and divisions start to occur.  But maybe its like potty training or learning to read.  Scripture says that we are being transformed from one degree of glory to the next.  If a lot of human learning seems to involve a back-and-forth motion as we move closer to the goal, then noticing a set-back shouldn't lead to despair.  My cousin's son will learn to read.  My daughter will be potty trained.  And one bright day, all of us, together, will live in the fullness of Christ's resurrection.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pica, mother of St. Francis

The story I've always heard about St. Francis is that he was raised rich, and then later in life he became a Christian, sold all he had, and gave it to the poor.  This is, indeed, the basic plotline.  However, there is another detail...

Francis's mother was a Christian, and her name was Pica.  She and her nurse were his strongest influences, as was the custom, until he was 7 or 8 years old.  In that time, she taught him the lives of the saints, Greek and Roman legends, and music.  Before he went to bed at night she made sure he said his prayers, and she took care to instill within him "cheerfulness, generosity, courtesy, and deference to his elders" (Adrian House - a professor at Oxford, Francis of Assisi: An Extraordinary Life, [Mahwah: Hidden Spring] 2000, 17).

At the same time, Pica and her husband were wealthy and took care to give Francis the best of everything.  He had toys galore... while down below in the valley was a leper colony in which lived the poorest of the poor.  I have to say, I identify with this.  I've tried to hold back the number of toys my daughter has, but then I look around her room and I'm amazed.  I think, "Oh, this toy will help her learn the alphabet!" - although she already has 3 other toys that do that - and all the while, not too far away, people sit hungry, homeless, and hopeless.  I identify with Pica, living the life of someone who has an abundance, caring desperately about my child and in so doing perhaps losing sight of reality....

This part of his upbringing really did hurt Francis, and he is remembered to have absorbed these more worldly values - a fondness for fine things, carelessness, and a self-centered focus.  Even still, his mother is remembered to have said, in reply to inquiries regarding how she felt about his excesses, "Through grace he will become a child of God" (House 52).  

In these stories, we see two sides of Pica - Pica, the mother who was a Christian who longed for her son to become "a child of God" and who strove toward that end.  And Pica, the mother who lived a life of luxury and, through enjoyable participation in the culture that surrounded them, instilled such values in her son.  Pica is not alone.  As we all are changed more and more into the image of Christ, there remains in each of us something that needs to be changed today... and today we are raising our children.

And so I derive a lot of hope from Pica, because she was not perfect, and yet, through grace, her son did become a child of God.  I think what is most helpful for me here is the reminder that I, the mom, am not the Savior.  There is a Savior who is far stronger than all of our weaknesses as parents.  At the same time, also helpful is the warning that the worldly part of his upbringing really did affect him.  Whenever I allow myself to do something I know is wrong, I am tempted to close my eyes to the effect this may have on my daughter.  But that is silly.  Sin breeds sin.  Insofar as I desire my daughter to live in the freedom of Christ, I, too, must continue all the more to strive everyday to live into that freedom.

Thank God for Pica, an imperfect pilgrim, out of whom God raised up St. Francis of Assisi.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Birthing Change

As the General Conference of my denomination approaches (an event that takes place only once every 4 years, in which the church's stance on all issues are decided for the next 4 years), I've been hearing people talk a lot about changes they would like to see for the church and for the church to accomplish in the world.  As I have listened, I've been thinking about how change happens in a way that is faithful and effective and maintains the unity of the church, for which Christ prayed.  

I really think the process of giving birth is a fruitful metaphor to consider in this regard.

Giving birth does not start with the labor process.  Before a mom can go into labor, the body has to go through a lot of prep work.  It starts with an act of love, a mutual self-giving, an act of unity from two, out of which arises the conception.  So I wonder if the birthing of change can take place without the self-giving, the uniting of two into one - "two" different ideas or perspectives thought to occupy different realms of reality coming together.  In the conception of a human, part of the exciting and scary part is the total lack of control of either parent on what the new person will be like.  I wonder if change within community isn't like that in a lot of ways - ultimately, that which is conceived is the work and design of God, beyond the control of either "side".

Then that which was conceived is so fragile that it must remain inside the mother's body for nine months before it can be born healthy.  During that time it grows while preparations must be made for its reception into the world.  Like, most of the time a nursery and baby clothes and such don't just exist in the house - they must be prepared.  This time can seem to take forever. The day my husband and I learned we were going to have a baby, we were so excited that we were like, "Now!!!"  And the nine long months that stretched ahead of us seemed like an eternity.  In the same way, I wonder if change in our church and in our world can take place without some time of preparation, time for the change conceived and for the parents of the change to grow to sufficient maturity and the preparations can be adequately made.

Giving birth truly is a gradual process.  But there does come a point at which it finally just happens.  And there are a million ways that this takes place.  Some mothers spend days and days with moderate, irregular contractions and then take 15 hours to deliver the baby.  Others are driving down the highway and all of a sudden, pull over the side, here it comes!  So with change, I don't think there is any way to predict exactly when or how each individual change will be birthed.  But there does finally have to be a point of no return, when the time has come and there is no more waiting, no more of this "gradual" stuff - boom, get ready, its time.

At the same time, the act of delivery is a push and pull experience.  Your body contracts and you push, and then there is rest.  During the time of rest, the baby is actually pulled back up a little bit into the body.  When I was delivering my daughter, I pushed/rested for 2 hours (that really seems like an eternity when your doing it).  I was exhausted.  I was worrying that I wouldn't be able to do it.  No matter how hard I pushed, there did not seem to be any progress!  So with change, I think there are times when it is time for the change to come, the time for delivery has arrived, but, just like with contractions, its birth takes place through a push/rest process that may at times seem to go fast and at times seem to not go anywhere at all.

And then the baby is born.  You take her into your arms... and begin the very long and rewarding process of continuing to give life to this little one.  Because, ultimately, giving birth isn't a one time deal.  Rather, it is a beginning, the entrance of a new precious little person into the world, with all kinds of potential.  There are still sleepless nights, runny noses, and temper tantrums along the way as the child learns how to become.  But you wouldn't trade it, because there is such an overflowing of love that God creates such that the baby may reach full maturity.  So with change, I wonder if its need for continued growth and maturing doesn't suddenly come to an end, even once it is birthed into the world.  I wonder if it takes even MORE work, in fact, after the birthing process than it did beforehand.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nursing Jesus

It was Christmas Eve, 2007.  The baby was sleeping, and I was contemplating the incarnation.  As I read and pondered the coming of God into the world as a baby, I suddenly discovered inside of myself a strange desire to nurse Jesus, to take him into my womb, to give him life.  My first inclination was to reject these thoughts as inappropriate.  Jesus gives ME life, not the other way around.  MARY is the mother of Jesus, and that was, of course, a one time event.  I very quickly decided to brush away those desires away as just plain weird, as something I was able to rise above due to my theological training.

Then I remembered something a woman had said at a conference for doctoral students and professors that I had attended just a few weeks before.  She said that at a Christmas Eve service when her daughter was a baby, she had suddenly been overcome with a desire to nurse baby the Jesus.  At the time, I had thought, "Wow, that's really strange."  She said herself that she had been perplexed by this desire and had wished there existed resources in our denomination for helping to think about such a desire.  She suggested that experiences like this might not be so uncommon, but they are just not talked about.  

And so, in light of that woman's comments, as I sat there in my living room on Christmas Eve, I decided to try allowing myself to experience and explore these feelings.  As I gave myself to prayer through these feelings, I heard my prayers become, "Jesus, take my whole body.  Take all of my nutrients, everything that gives me energy, I want to give it all to you.  Just as my body would drain me completely before it would let a baby die, so take everything inside of me that you may be born into this world..."

As I heard my prayer, God resolved a tension I had been experiencing since the time I had committed myself to staying at home with my daughter - The tension revolved around a fear that maybe my love for my daughter was becoming idolatry.  I love her with a fierceness that pushes aside anything that might stand in her way.  Some of the things that I had pushed aside included really good things I had been doing in response to a call from Christ - ministries at church, time needed to finish my dissertation quickly, the respect (I think) of my professors who had seen such potential in me to become a really great scholar, maybe that potential itself, extended times of prayer, etc.  I often wondered, was this really appropriate?  Was I going overboard?  Was this some kind of "new mom thing" that I needed to get over?  But then, when I would think about putting the baby in childcare or hiring a babysitter a few times a week to give me more time to do other things, my love for my daughter would take over.  No, I will do whatever I can to give my daughter whatever she needs, no matter the cost. 

With this experience on Christmas Eve, God resolved that tension.  I discovered as I prayed that, as I embraced the love he had created inside of me for the baby entrusted into my care, God had himself been carving into my being a new capacity for loving him.   This new capacity integrated my entire person - my will, my body, my emotions, my reasoning - in a way that I had never even dreamed of.

I've been thinking about the verse in 1 John that says, "If one does not love her neighbor whom she has seen, how can she love God, whom she has not seen?" (general paraphrase)  That never really made sense to me until I had this experience.  Through loving my baby in the way God created a mother to love, I had become a person capable of putting someone above my own self, above my needs, above my own ambitions, above what other people (particularly my professors) thought of me, even above my acts of religious piety.  And in so doing, I became a person who capable of loving God more fully above each of these things, as well.  

I am so glad that woman at that conference had the courage to talk about wanting to nurse Jesus.  Had she not, I probably would never have embraced those thoughts, and I would have closed the door to God speaking to me in that way.  That's one of the reasons I'm writing this particular blog, odd though it may sound.  Our theological training still fails, after all this time, to include what God has spoken and done through church mothers, to the detriment of not only the women in our congregations, but also to our collective understanding of what it means to love God.    


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Fruit of Love

Two years ago I didn't send my mom a Mother's Day card.  In fact, I called her on that day just to tell her that while of course I was totally thankful for her, I thought Mother's Day was a stupid holiday meant to swindle consumer's money on sappy cards and, on principle, I was not going to participate.  My husband, who saw humor in this, actually told this to the congregation on Mother's Day.  The collective gasp was rather traumatic.  You would have thought he had just said I burned flags on the 4th of July to a group of veterans.  But even after I learned that Mother's Day actually is not a Hallmark holiday but has a rather thoughtful beginning, I stuck to my guns.  It's not a religious holiday ("holy day" right?), and so long as I love and honor my mom, do I really need a special day for it?  

That was before I had a baby.

Five days after delivering my daughter, going without sleep, trying to get the baby to nurse, and at times helplessly holding her as she cried inconsolably, I had a newfound appreciation for my mother.  And I remember at one point turning to my husband, pointing to his mom, and saying, "You had better appreciate this woman.  She poured a significant chunk of her life into you."  

And now, though this experience of motherhood, God has opened my eyes such that I look at people - all people - in a whole new way.  Each and every person I pass represents tremendous amounts of time, energy, and sacrifice - the life of parents, siblings, and friends poured into this individual that he or she might live.  Every person I see was born helpless and would have perished long ago without the sustained self-sacrificing love of another.  To see a person is to look upon the fruit of love.  

Every person I see represents a mom who dreamed that one day, when this person was all grown up, he or she would be healthy in the fullest sense of the word and living a good, fulfilling life.  How much work goes into each of us.  

And myself, too.  When I feel under-appreciated or uncared for, I remember this lesson from being a mother.  I would not have survived to this moment had I not been loved.  I and humanity surrounding me, our existence is the fruit of a tremendous amount of love and sacrifice.  Such is the wisdom of the crucified Creator.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Baby's Gift for Ministry

Before I became a mom, I was super active in the church.  I did everything from teach Bible Studies to print the bulletin to sweep the floor.  I went to divinity school and got an M.Div.  I have felt a strong call into the ministry since college - not so much ordained, "elder" ministry, but still a really strong call into ministry.  I'm currently even a Ph.D. student in biblical studies, and I'm working on my dissertation whenever I have a spare hour or two.  But now I also have my daughter, and everything has changed.  No longer do I have the time to do half the things I use to do.  This has caused a tremendous strain on me.  On the one hand, I know have this call into ministry.  On the other hand, as I work out what it means to be a mom, I am finding that I really believe it is in the baby's best interest for me to be at home with her.  The strain is painful, and I have been praying for God to make a way for every part of me, the way he has been creating me  - me as a scholar, me as a mom, me as a pastor's wife, me as a woman of God - for all of this to come together in a way that glorifies him.  As I continue to struggle with this, God has given me some initial answers along the way.  One thing he has opened my eyes to is the particular, special giftedness of babies.  One afternoon back in May, I was visiting an elderly lady who had Altheimer's with my husband.  The baby was, as always, with me.  This lady was not generally the most pleasant person to be around.  But when she saw that baby, it was like something deep inside of her responded.  She actually smiled and, if I remember correctly, laughed.  Her son, who was with us, said he had not seen her act so sane in months.  When I go youth group, which my husband leads, these generally insecure teenagers have someone to focus upon outside of themselves, and it brightens the entire mood.  Just about everywhere I take the baby, the atmosphere changes.  I think it has something to do with their big, open, gazing eyes, the awe they exhibit at the simplest of contraptions, their complete lack of understanding with regard to appropriate behavior and thus the forgiveness they inspire in people.  Not all people in all places respond well to babies - worship services at my church have sadly been one place where the atmosphere change has not been warmly received - but there are places where she is a sure bet to lift the spirits of the downtrodden, like the nursing home.  So in this stage of life I don't have time anymore to put together Bible Studies and work on the bulletin.  But as I minister to my baby, I can help her discover where her gifts for ministry lie in the various stages of her life.  And in this stage in both of our lives, where I am a new mom and my daughter is a baby, we can do those things for which we are uniquely gifted in this moment.

Learning to Love

I think being a mom, more than any other experience in my life, has taught me how to love.  Never before has there ever existed a person who demanded so much from me 24 hours a day, and whose entire life is dramatically shaped by how I respond to her.  Never before have I been asked to wake up every 2-3 hours for months and months to nurse try to sooth a person back to sleep for who knows how long.  Never before have I been in a position to honestly consider giving up all that I've been working toward - a Ph.D. and a promising career as a professor of biblical studies, leading others to Christ through teaching - for the sake of the welfare of just one person.  Never before has a little person so shaken up my life that my future simply must be reorganized in light of her.  But that is exactly what I face as a mom.  I choose over and over again - day by day and night by night, the decision of one moment to the decision of the next - to die to myself through concrete acts of self-sacrifice that this little one might live, and as I do so, I learn love.  I am coming to believe that it is the grace and wisdom of God that babies demand so much of us - or at least did so of me - right from the beginning.  Through my daughter's neediness, a neediness that persists even through moments when I am least inclined to love, I discover how much selfishness and unloveliness exists in me, and with my eyes opened and the dependence of another person standing there before me, I am finally brought to a point where I can choose to leave that old selfishness behind and take on the image of Christ.   

Monday, February 18, 2008

Make her giggle

When my heart is heavy and I feel really stressed, I find that I have little energy for taking care of my baby girl.  I have been praying for God to show me how to handle situations like this.  Recently God has answered my prayer.  When I am feeling the most like the anxieties of life are weighing me down and feeling the least like taking care of my baby, God has taught me to turn all of my attention to making the baby giggle.  There is nothing like the giggle of a child to bring a smile to one's face.  And it forces me to become really silly, which makes all of life seem not so serious.  Most significantly, I think, focusing on making her giggle effectively turns my attention away from my problems and my anxieties and focuses me upon loving my neighbor in a really concrete and specific way - in this case the neighbor is my baby.  I thank God for this little person to love, and I am so grateful for her giggles.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Babies in Worship

More than anything in the world, I want my 18 month old daughter to worship Jesus, and I am doing everything I know how to give her opportunities to feel his love, to learn to interpret his voice, to hear his call.  When my daughter was first born, we lived in a part of the country that was really welcoming to babies, church included.  When my baby was born, the church was ecstatic, and they were more than willing to welcome her into the worship service.  When she made little noises, the congregation members were focused upon loving and supporting both me and her.  They recognized that as a new mom I felt in over my head, I was figuring out what it meant to be a mom and how God was calling me to raise this precious little person, I had a lot to learn, and when things went wrong - when she started crying uncontrollably or wanted to breastfeed when we were out or whatever the case may be - both she and I needed a blanket of grace.  This congregation wrapped us in that blanket and held us in its warmth - or rather I should say that God did this through these sensitive people.  

When my daughter was 9 months old, we moved to another part of the state.  We were only a little over an hour away from where we had lived before, but the culture - particularly regarding babies - could not have been more different.  So warm was I from the grace I had experienced when the baby was born, it took months for me to realize just how different this place was.  And, very sadly, church was the worst of all.  My husband was now the associate pastor at this church, and so, if I wanted to go to church with him, we had to go to this church.  But the people at this church have strong opinions about the importance of worship being an adult thing.  In fact, children are not welcomed into the sanctuary until they are 12 years old.  Now, if these kids were turning out to be great Christians, I would happily learn from them.  But as it is, that's not happening.  And so my husband and I have decided to welcome our daughter into the worship service, which was the decision we came to within the safe exploratory space for thinking about raising Christian children provided at our last church.  

And so week after week I bring my daughter to worship.  I feed her cheerios and give her a quiet toy to keep her quiet during the silent periods of the worship service, and very slowly I am teaching her what to do when in the service.  She is really quite good... but there is no grace when she does make a noise.  If someone sneezes or laughs at something their neighbor said to them, this is apparently no big deal.  But if the baby coos, that is just unacceptable.  It has become a big deal for some people.  I've been snubbed, yelled out, publicly rebuked, and several families have called threatened to leave the church.

I get so mad at all this sometimes.  She really is not a problem for anyone but me!  I'm the one who struggles to keep her quiet.  I'm the one relearning what it means to worship with a little one.  That is hard enough.  But to do that within the context of condemnation is painful.  My heart is very heavy. 

Through all of this, I see potential for a lot of growth on my part.  I am having to learn how to respectfully disagree while getting death-stares.  I am having reach deep into my heart to discover the means God gives me to resist the anxiety of this congregation lest I communicate that to my daughter.   This morning I realized that I had abandoned my own personal goals for bringing her to worship - that she might know she is welcomed, whatever her skills or ability to comprehend, by God into his sanctuary; that she might see others worshipping; that, insofar as children learn what they live, she might know that worshipping God is as basic to existence as is eating and sleeping, which we do long before we know why.  Instead of these things being my focus, I had shifted my focus to what the goal of one of these congregations members would be - to teach her to be quiet and sit still in the sanctuary.  And that is not a sufficiently deep or loving enough goal to keep me from exploding in anger internally when she gets difficult.  And so now, having realized that, I hope to return my focus to those things that led to our decision in the first place.  Oh God, help.