Saturday, March 29, 2008

Imperfect but Fixable

Today I saw a bumper sticker, "Keep kids alive, drive 25."  I saw it while I was on a drive to put my toddler to sleep for her nap, because she was refusing to go to sleep otherwise.  When I saw the bumper sticker, I had the glorious thought, "You have to drive slowly when kids are around because mine is not the only kid in the world prone to run into the street!"  I know that sounds silly, but sometimes, when I hear about other kids going to bed for their naps really easily and happily holding mommy's hand in the parking lot and sleeping through the night and putting away each book on the bookshelf before picking out another, it sounds like every other toddler in the world is a perfect angel and I must have done something really wrong with mine.  It was good to be reminded that, actually, my daughter is a perfectly normal toddler. 

I was surprised when, upon the birth of my daughter, I was immediately considered the expert on raising her.  "Would you like to give us permission to immunize her?"  "Would you allow me to hold her this way?"  "What should we do about feeding her - is a bottle okay or are you going to exclusively nurse her?"  The options were endless, and I felt like I didn't know nearly enough to be making some of these decisions.  And I worried.  Not knowing the consequences of almost any of the options, and growing in my awareness that no one else really did, either (although there are a LOT of opinionated people out there who fundamentally disagree with each other), what could I do?  This worry only got worse the more convinced I became that it was inevitable that at some point along the way I was likely to do something less than what was best for her.  

I was involved in a car accident a number of years ago when I was on my way home from college.  A lady was hurt and her car totaled, and she decided to milk this opportunity for some cash.  So she sued me for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  No, her medical and car expenses were nowhere near that, but there were "loss of happiness" issues and such (no kidding - that was the wording on the lawsuit).  My car insurance hired a lawyer and we went to court.  While prepping me on what to say, the lawyer concluded, "Just relax.  There is nothing you can say today that I can't fix."  

While the ethical implications of my lawyer's comment in that setting made me uncomfortable, God has used those words to give me great comfort in many other areas of my life, including that of raising my daughter.  Yes, I may make mistakes.  But there is nothing I can do that Jesus can't fix.  Jesus will call my daughter to himself, Jesus will be stronger for her than any habit, Jesus will bind up her wounds, Jesus will forgive her and me and make us both whole, and we will rejoice with him forever, not because I was perfect, but because Jesus is.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Created Female

I am a Ph.D. student.  And I am a mom.  Before I was a mom, I never really thought of being female as something all that significant.  Not to say that I was oblivious to traditional gender roles and the biblical debates.  But being female didn't seem to affect my giftedness one way or the other, or my calling, or my friendships, or my worship, or really anything in my life that I thought of as significant.  Yes, I had that annoying monthly issue.  Yes, my breasts developed differently than those of men.  But it didn't seem to really matter.

Years later, I got pregnant.  The plan was for me to take my comprehensive exams, have the baby a few weeks later, take a few weeks to recover, put the baby in childcare, and plunge into the dissertation.  The plan seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

Throughout the pregnancy, I would marvel at the fact that I didn't have to read a book about how to carry the baby in my womb.  Somehow the body just knew how.  Perfectly.  Then the baby was born, and I was surprised at how incessantly this little limp person still needed me, my milk, the warmth of my skin, the sound of my voice familiar from the womb, the presence of my maternal love. I didn't think it would be best for her, or for me, to jump back into work.  Since I didn't have to, I didn't.  And as I've met more and more new moms, I am struck at how many quit their jobs if they are able once they have a child.  

I have learned a lot through this experience of what it means to be created female.  And I've learned a lot about the de-womanization that our society does to its daughters.  Until I had a baby, I thought of the distinctively female parts of myself as either (1) meant to be sexually stimulating (e.g., breasts, etc) or (2) a real annoyance to be medicated (e.g., menstral cycle, mood swings, PMS, pregnancy potential, etc).  But what if, instead of a sex object or disease, my femininity is fearfully and wonderfully made?  What if being in a natural cyclical rhythm like the moon and seasons isn't a problem but is something beautiful, like an ocean wave?  What if my overwhelming desire to be all alone and curl up in bed one or two days a month isn't first a bother to an economy of efficiency but is rather first a potentially fruitful gift out of which God intends to bring something good to all of creation?  What if I am called to the workplace AND I am called to care for my baby, not in the way a man in a suit decides is appropriate (e.g., 6 weeks maternity leave and then hand over the baby and plunge back in like nothing happened...), but in a way that is to this day unimagined by our society (like, bring the baby to work held against her in a sling and nurse throughout the day covered by nursing shirts).  I am amazed at my body's ability to nourish life in those ways in which it is distinctively female.  

O God, thank you for creating us male and female.  Teach us to truly appreciate both in all of the complexities.  Teach society to allow women to be women.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Many Times as Much: Reflecting on Itineration

I want the absolute best for my daughter.  I want to give her a nice home with the warmth and security that comes from lots of family and friends surrounding her.  I want her to have good experiences at church and come to know the deep, deep love that God has for her.  And I am learning that, as a United Methodist pastor's wife, I'm kind of limited in my abilities to give her that.  We've already moved once in her short 18 months of life, and within the next few years we are going to move again.  We do not get to choose what church we will go to, whether it will be a "good" experience for her or not.  We do not get to choose the house.  We do not get to choose the community....  

Luke 18:29 says, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life."  The people of God have always had leaders, some of whom were called to wander.  Like Abraham, who heard the call, "Leave your country, your relatives, your father's house, and go to the land which I will show you" (Gen 12:1).  In the New Testament, the apostles were all over the place.  All of them experienced hardships, but all of them also received blessings beyond what they would have had otherwise, and in their obedience they became blessings that blessed the entire world.
I know that, as an itinerating pastor's family, we will probably not experience the same good as we would if we were settled "in the land of our father's."  But the promise is that as we follow God in Christ, we will experience good, a different good, an abundant good that will be many times as much as we would otherwise ever have known.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dangerous Prayers

Back when I was in college, I use to pray dangerously.  "O God, show me what you want me to do.  You are my Lord.  I'll be single or married, have children or not, have a successful career or rot in a prison starving to death..."  And I meant it.  After all, God made me.  Who knew better than he what this clay pot was formed to do?  

Last year my husband was a part-time Local Pastor at a church with about 30 members.  We lived in a parsonage built in the 1860's, with a foundation that made me nervous.  There was crumbling lead paint on the upstairs walls, there was no counter space in the (orange) kitchen, and no matter how hard I scrubbed the bathroom (with a door that did not close) had a perpetually dirty feel to it.  Then my husband went for his commissioning interviews, passed, and we awaited that glorious day when he would be sent to a full time appointment.  And my prayers went like this:  "O God, please send us to a big church with lots of children for my daughter to pay with.  Let the parsonage have new paint, new carpet, new bathrooms, new furniture, and lots of counter space in the kitchen.  Let us be in the suburbs - I think I'd be more comfortable there and I don't want to live anywhere too dangerous for my daughter's sake."  And what do you know, no kidding, my husband was made an associate at a big church with lots of children, a parsonage with new paint, new carpet, new bathrooms, new furniture, and lots of kitchen counter space.  We are in the suburbs in one of the safest parts of the US.  

Not too long ago I read 2 Corinthians 2:17, "For we are not like many, peddling the word of God..."  I think of myself as "from sincerity" (as the verse continues), not as someone who would ever dare to do such a vile thing as use the gospel for personal gain.  But as I remembered my prayers of last year, as I faced my fear of someday going to a church in a more "dangerous" location, with a less than "nice" parsonage, I wondered if in my heart have I become a peddler of God's word?  Ouch!

On Good Friday, people cast lots for the clothing of Jesus.  They were so concerned about not destroying a nice piece of cloth, but they missed what was happening in the death of that man.  Had I become like one of them?  But I'm a mother, and I'm concerned for my child.  Surely that is good and right!  John's gospel follows this scene with the story of Jesus providing for his mother.   As a woman, she was dependent upon the care of the men in her family.  And here was her firstborn son dying.  That Jesus felt the need to find someone to provide for her suggests to me that maybe she was really dependent upon him beyond what I thought.  But even from the cross, Jesus remembered her, Jesus loved her, and Jesus made sure she was taken care of.  I, too, have cast my lot, and thus the lot of my daughter, with Jesus and am very dependent upon him.  Dare I trust him?  O God, forgive me!

Today is Easter.   The old has gone.  A new day has come.  What will this daunting new world of resurrection be like?  One thing is for sure - the old categories are shattered.  It will not do to worry about the destructive powers in the world.  Such would be silliness.  And so, mustering all the courage I can find in me, I return to my "dangerous" prayers in a world turned upside down.  Thanks be to God.  


Friday, March 21, 2008

Were you there?

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"  I've always thought that was a strange question.  No, silly, I wasn't born, yet.  Of course I wasn't there.  As I've sung that song countless times through the years, I've always just tried to ignore the question aspect of the song and focus upon the details of the crucifixion of Jesus which the song skillfully recounts.  Then I try to be so focused that I can effectively and appropriately "tremble."   I'm not always successful, though.  Maybe the author of the song wasn't, either - after all, it says "sometimes it causes me to tremble."

It wasn't until today that I finally got it.  I think of myself as a smart person, but it would seem that I've been quite dense when it comes to this.  At noon, my daughter was napping and I was in her playroom reading the Scriptures and praying.  When I heard the church bell chime in the distance, in honor of Good Friday, I put down the Bible in a respectful silence.  I suddenly felt led to sing "Were you there..."  I don't really like that song because, like I said, I think the question part is so annoyingly weird, but not wanting to disobey a prompting from the Holy Spirit, I began to sing.  

The question hit me like never before.  "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"  No, I wasn't.  Like the other disciples, I abandoned him last night.  I was at the Maundy Thursday service with my daughter, but she got a little chatty and we had to leave.  I was so mad.  Not so much at her - she was behaving like a normal 18 month old - but at some of the people in this church who have been so unkind, so unwelcoming, so outright mean to me and my daughter since we arrived.  But even though I wasn't mad at my daughter, she was the only one present once we left, and so it came out at her.  I was short and snappy and unkind, myself.  I knew better - I thought, "Control yourself!"  But I felt like I had such a good reason to be mad that I chose the unfaithful route.  It wasn't until later in the evening when I "heard the rooster crow" and realized that, despite my best desires and intentions, I, too, had abandoned Jesus.  Then all this morning as I continuously would draw my mind back to the cross, my mind would immediately get dragged back away.  I chose thoughts that tickled my vanity, stroked my pride, and filled me with temporary delight.  Sure, I tried, but habits of the mind are no small force.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  I wanted to be.  I tried to be... sort of.  I was following him to the cross, but I only made it halfway.  Rather than dwell in the glory of the invisible, my mind chose over and over again the visible, temporary images before it.  I didn't choose the cross.  That, in response to the question of the song, causes me to "tremble."  

This is such a good day - we receive such grace today.  Were you there - really, fully there - to receive it?  Thank God that despite the absence of many of his disciples, two thousand years ago and today, he did it for us, anyway.

Thanks be to God!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Home on Maundy Thursday

This is going to be different from what I usually write.  It is the Thursday of Holy Week.  I want to be at church with the family of Christ, celebrating the Last Supper and remembering the events that followed.  But I had to leave the service, because my 18 month old was making noises.  And so I am here at home all alone with my daughter.  I could read the biblical story alone, which is what I will do anyway later tonight, but it really is not the same.  I think that is why I'm blogging this - I just can't bare to be alone with this on this night, but the church community does not want me and my daughter there.  And so here we are.  As we left the church, some of the people even sent me haughty, "It's about time" looks.

I'm reminded of a story - I forget the author and the name of the book, but the plot goes like this.  There once existed a Utopia-like land.  If you lived there, you could have anything you could possibly want.  It was a deliciously beautiful place and everyone was super happy all the time.  But there was one catch.  In order to live there, you had to place one of you children into a dungeon where they could only eat stale bread and drink water once a day for the rest of the child's life.  The question of the book was, would you do it?  Would you sacrifice just one of your children so that the rest of your family could live a perfectly happy existence?  Tonight, I feel like the church answered "yes," and I'm the child in the dungeon.

It's tempting to think, "Hmm, that means I get to identify with Jesus, abandoned by all his friends and left alone on this night."  But there is a certain uncomfortable irony to think that the people who went to church tonight because they love Jesus and want to be close to him and don't want to be interrupted in that very worthy goal - these are the people who are like the disciples who abandoned Jesus on this night?  That doesn't seem quite right.  I wonder, should I be OK with being stuck at home on this night, separated from the church, so that the church can remember in a focused manner?  I think I would be more able to do this if the people there weren't so nasty about wanting me to leave.  But would that even be right if they were nice about it?  

The day before we came to this church, I was praying about what God would have my ministry be here.  As I prayed, I suddenly could hear the cries of young moms all across the area -  moms pouring their lives out for their families day after day after day, with no input, tired, lonely, going on nothing.  They were crying out to God, and I felt God saying to me, "I am sending you here for them."  I had no idea at the time that I would become one of those young moms myself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tears of the Savior

Several nights ago, as I began to rock and nurse my baby to sleep, she bit me.  Now, this has happened before, and I can generally handle it.  But that night I went nuts.  I was startled at the violence of my own reaction.  "NO!" I yelled, and I pulled her away.  I called for my husband to come rock her, which really upset her because she wanted me, but for some reason I just had zero patience inside of me.  My husband took her, and I left with her crying uncontrollably in his arms.  Once she was finally asleep, I went in to look at her.  She was huddled against my husband, little choking sobs still coming out of her limp body as she lay there, asleep.  And I felt horrible.  Why couldn't I handle her in that moment?  The fury with which I reacted - it really startled me.  

Before I went to sleep, I had my evening prayer time.  I was so distraught over the way I had treated my daughter.  And I was really worried that maybe I had scarred her for life or something by just abandoning her in her tears.  I know, I know, this may be a "new mom" thing and I'll get over it by the third child, but in that moment the concern, the distress, the shock at how upset I became - these were very real to me.  And I brought them in prayer to God.

As I sat there, praying, I saw the image of Christ, grieving over the sins of the world, agonizing on the cross.  As I imagined this image, his tears and my daughter's tears of distress became one.  My sin caused both.  In their unity, my daughter's grief became less life-threatening.  Not because my sinning against her somehow isn't really all that bad, but because the cross confronts the depth of the badness and goes deeper still.  It embraces her cry along with the cries of every human being who live in a world with broken people who break each other over and over again from the moment of birth, sometimes without even knowing it, and often dismissively.  And insofar as the cross is redemptive, it offers the very real potential for the genuine redemption of all this grief, including the redemption of my daughter's tears that night.

What is more, as I imagined this image of Christ, his tears and my tears became one.  That God would send his Son to die on the cross - so great must be his grief over the sinfulness of the world.  I, too, in that moment, deeply grieved the limitations of my flesh in raising my daughter.  God didn't tell me I was over-reacting.  He grieved with me.  And he offers me the cross as his powerful answer to this grief.  Thanks be to God that there is genuine power in the cross for the redemption of my own heart - a heart that does not yet love perfectly.

Friday, March 14, 2008

On the Cross: Death Comes First

I often hear people talk about the Old Testament as being all about law, as opposed to the New Testament which is all about grace.  I'm an Old Testament scholar, and talk like that makes me shudder, because it's really not true.  Consider the book of Exodus - it tells the story of God saving the people out of Egypt, out of the clutches of a cruel master who beat and whipped them, before it moves into telling the story of how the people are now to live, within the hands of a good and kind Master.  In Ex 20, the Ten Commandments begin "I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt..."  Before God commands anything, God demonstrates, "I love you, and you can trust me."  Before God reveals the law, God reveals what is the purpose of following these laws - that you might have life.

When my daughter was born, I could have let her cry endlessly when she was a day old and insisted on my own way, but God had given me all kinds of maternal instincts saying that was not right.  Before I became the one who disciplines her, I spent months upon months dying to myself on her behalf.  I gave up everything to hold her, to nurse her, to quiet her when she was upset, to let her know that in this world there is someone who loves her, someone she can trust whole-heartedly.  It was only as she got older that I began to discipline her, to teach her how to walk the path of life in such a way that she can really live.  I often meditated upon how much this is like the pattern with which God deals with us as his children - before I told her how to live, I told her I would die on her behalf.

This gives Holy Week a whole new meaning for me.  When I was younger, I left everything to follow Jesus.  But my motive was not yet just like Jesus' - I did it because I wanted to draw near to God, not because I so loved the world that I wanted to draw near to it.  I wasn't thinking, "I want the world to know, before I have the Holy Spirit call it to salvation through me, that I would die for it."  I didn't even know, yet, how to think such a thought.  It has been the strange providence of God in my life that the work of parenthood has brought me nearer to the cross than any of the sacrifices of my youth.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Getting Stuff Done

I reflect often on how strange it is to me that God would have children take up so much time and energy.  Certainly we could all get more done if children could raise themselves.  My brain, formed by this utilitarian culture in which we live in the United States, is just baffled.  After all, isn't "getting stuff done" the chief virtue in life, the proof of a life well-lived?  Today I checked 4 significant items off of my mental to-do list.  This was, then, certainly a good, well-spent day, right? I mean, we all KNOW this isn't true.  But then how is it that when I spend hours laughing and playing with my 18 month old I'm "taking time off?"  In sharing quality time with my daughter, where does this lingering sense come from that I didn't actually do anything.    

But God certainly understood the implications of children needing their parents' time and attention to the vast extent that this is the case.  When I reflect on this, I experience a real shock that reverberates deep within my soul as I come to understand on ever-deeper levels that all those things I could be doing (really good things - like, teaching the Bible, tutoring kids with difficult family situations, gathering food for the homeless, etc., etc., etc.) are not as important to God as my caring for this one little person.  That is so weird.  I mean, what am I raising her to do?  Raise kids of her own?  Is this the created world just an endless, pointless cycle of ceaseless child-raising?  Certainly that can't be the case.  

But this created world is a place, I am confident, in which God wants us to learn to love.  It is easy to feel like I'm accomplishing things, great things, when I get a new degree, when I present a paper before a large, appreciative audience, when I explain a difficult passage of Scripture to a student in need of clarification.  And surely those things are important, right?  But never have I learned to give myself up for another person like I have through embracing motherhood.  Just maybe the One who turned the world upside down through a child born to no one special in a little, insignificant town - maybe this One has it in him to call me to transform the world through holding this child.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Holding Back from God

This past Sunday was communion Sunday.  As we approached the kneeling rails, my 18 month old had her eyes open wide.  She watched in eager attentiveness as the bread was brought to us, one by one.  She said, "ooooh" at the little cups that had been placed in the holes on the kneeling rails by earlier communion-takers.  She picked them up, tried to drink out of them, and then put them back in the holes.  She looked down at the pads upon which we were kneeling and touched them curiously.  She listened in wonder as the pastor said the words that signaled that our time was over and we should return to our seat.  And she did not want to leave.  Better put, she refused to leave.  "Noooooo!" she cried out as I picked her up to take her back to our seat. "It's time to go sit down again," I whispered in her ear, but she just said, "Again."  "We're all finished.  Time to sit down.  Do you want to draw with the pencil?"  But no, nothing would satisfy her other than to go back to the front of the church for communion.  And so, sensing the great anxiety and expectations of the congregation over my taking her out of the sanctuary over the understood-inappropriateness of my daughter's behavior, we left the sanctuary altogether.  But even then she couldn't get over it.  She wanted to go play communion... and I wanted to let her.  This is how she learns.  It's not like she doesn't want to participate.  She does want to participate, arguably with more enthusiasm than some of the quiet, behaved adults, and I want her to know that the Lord welcomes her just as she is to his table. 

Having an 18 month old in worship is a very different experience than worshipping with just adults or older children.  My daughter doesn't know the rules - not just the theological rules like "Don't take the Lord's name in vain," but the rules of social propriety.  And teaching her to worship is showing me just how much we mix those two things up.  Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who does not receive the kingdom as a little child will never receive it."  Maybe instead of holding children back, we should consider emulating them.  I know that many times I have wanted to stay longer at the communion table, but the music was coming to an end, the people around me were leaving, the pastor said those special dismissal words.  Inside I have felt, "Noooooooo!  Let me sit here without worrying about these things!"  But I am a grown-up, fully capable of keeping my mouth shut, and I don't want people thinking I'm weird.  And so I quietly go back to my seat to pray there ... but it isn't the same. 

Having an 18 month old who cannot hold herself back is teaching me how much we do.  Maybe, instead of teaching our children that the number one rule in worship is to sit still and be quiet, we ought to accept them as God does, just as God accepts us however mature we are.  And maybe in so doing we will find our way forward.  "And a little child shall lead them..."

Monday, March 3, 2008


As a United Methodist pastor's spouse, who was also raised as a United Methodist pastor's daughter, I have moved a lot in my life.  And one consequence of this is that there isn't a place, a house, a community out there that feels to me like home.  I think this is true for a lot of people in our world where moving frequently because of job situations is such a typical way of life.  I lament this for my daughter.  She's at such a young, impressionable age, and it is so sad to me that these people, this house, this church will disappear to her life in a few years, even though it will probably be written onto her heart that this place is what is "normal."  And even worse, the culture here is so shallow, so appearance-driven, so not what I want my daughter to think of as normal.

But here is my comfort - I think of missionary families in other parts of the world, and I realize that this is what we are, as well.  And as my daughter sees and experiences us as God-sent agents of change, bringing good news of freedom to a world in which we have no home, this way of being in the world while looking forward to our heavenly glory, will become for her - as it has become for me - what home is.