Monday, September 29, 2014

a broken nest of faith

The day after a thunder storm I took a walk and found a nest in the middle of the sidewalk. Skillfully made with twigs and covered in a downy fuzz, I stopped and stared at it. Emily Dickinson's poem fluttered down from the branches above my head:
"Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all"

Fragility and life rested there on the hard concrete. My soul was strangely stirred. My own ancient heartache welled up from my chest. I tasted the pain of my overwhelming need for hope.

Like a tiny bird my soul opened its mouth and squawked for me to fill it with light. I wasn't so certain I had any extra to spare.

But this cold chunk of cement is where I will choose to believe differently than I have in the past. It is the test of all who believe, the walk of all who lay their pride down and carry crosses of great weight. What will we say on the day the safe nests of life fall from secure places? What will we cling to when the storms have uprooted our dreams and block our view of God?

Mountain, move! Tree, be uprooted

How soon, will The Lord come? I don't know, but my eyes will not rest until my help rains down from heaven; until the blank wall before us blazes with the greatness of The Lord; until a chariot descends in glory.

Those who endure in faith, though they hold broken hope, will see the Lord right in the place of their great need.

This is faith: Turning our disappointed and weary faces toward the source of Light before the darkness lifts, and calling what is not as though it were. 
We build new nests beneath His wings of grace by believing even when God seems to have forgotten our prayers or misplaced His plans to rescue us. The difficult road is how He purifies our hearts, so that we can see Him more clearly.

Lord, thank you for fallen nests that make room for new faith. Thank you for holding our hope skillfully and our broken hearts so tenderly. Fill this week with Your presence, salt our days with your truth, and cause us to lie down in green pastures with You. We turn our faces toward the hills, and we wait for You to come rescue us from every distress, to heal every sickness, to sing songs of deliverance over our frustrations, our anger, and our pain. Thank you for purifying our hearts so that we can see You more clearly. Give us eyes to see and hearts to know Your ways. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

late wine

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” 
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” 
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing,each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. 
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” 
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside  and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” 
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 
-John 2:1-11

Late bloomers have a hard time for a long time.

For years, we don’t quite fit in; don’t quite measure up; don’t quite know what we should do. We bear jars full of water while the world around us raises glasses full of wine and celebration.

If we somehow miss the message that our ability to make sense of ourselves is less important than making sense of the love God has for us, we can become stranded in the darkness.

But there has never been a useless person. Some of us are simply waiting for a miracle, for the seemingly ordinary contents of our souls to be made into something extraordinary.

There is a place in the world for the flash of brilliance of a prodigy. The path has ample space for the strong, steady step of a champion. There are places saved at the table for the prodigals who are still off in other lands.

And some of us were created to hold late wine, later-in-life, past-your-prime, better wine- maybe even the best wine. The kind of wine that inspires poets to write sonnets; that causes lovers to swoon; the kind of wine that only a Holy God can pour properly, full of ripeness and glory.

Our lives are meant to be a sign so that many will believe. Don’t lose heart. Don’t despise the simple holy water of your days that is awaiting the touch of our miraculous Lord. He is coming. When He does, He will reveal His glory in ways we can’t imagine yet.

Jesus has saved the best for last in your life. He's worth the wait.

Monday, September 22, 2014

young souls know the kingdom ways

My daughter looks up at me and her eyes positively sparkle like the night sky on Independence Day. She smiles big and tells me she wants to be just like me when she grows up.

Then she laughs because she has told me the most wonderful secret she knows and sharing happy secrets is delightful.

"Well, I want to be just like you when I'm little again," I say. I am smiling with gratitude to the God who gave me such a gem of a child.

"You won't be little again!" she laughs at me. She can't understand her grown up mama at all. But that's okay. I really do mean what I say.

My body is growing up, growing old, the years gray my flesh and I am aware it will become ashes and dust someday. Of course, I fight the gravity and work to be strong and healthy, to draw out the days of vigor as long as I can.

But my soul is fighting for something else; I am fighting to be five years old again in the deep places of my heart.

The years will wizen us if we let them, and their lessons also bring the knowledge that the spark of childlike faith burning in our hearts is the flame we must kindle afresh again and again.

For we are the children of God. May we never lose sight of the blessing of our smallness and weakness in His sight, or forget the miracle that is our adoption into the family of God.

"Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith...." -Galatians 3:23-26

A youthful soul is a grace like no other. What can compare in beauty to the heart that opens wide to the world, leaping with faith into complete trust in the God who lavishes His beauty with such generous joy?

I have a happy secret, and if you lean in close I will whisper it to you.

I want to be just like Him when I grow up. I want to trust and obey until it hurts and not question my motives or my circumstances. I want to sleep through storms and forgive sins with simple prayers of thanksgiving. I want to sit on mountaintops and hear my Father's voice clearly. I want to give words of truth and grace that turn hearts away from selfishness and toward the God who made them. I want to die with one long exhale that becomes the seed of faith in the lives of all who know me.

I am far from that today. But we have time, now don't we? Yes, surely God and I, we have just enough time and grace and love to make it all the way there.

This day leads us all one step closer to eternity. Let's make it count.

Friday, September 19, 2014

gospel mama, part 2

Exactly who is supposed to explain to a girl that a mama is not magically created when a fertilized egg grows in a woman’s uterus? What dear soul can teach us the fine art of killing our vanity without also breaking our spirit? And who wants to give the “Your stomach/breasts/sleep habits may never be the same again, but IT WILL ALL BE OKAY!” speech? 

Someone needs to do that.

Perhaps someone tried to tell me all of that, and I just missed it. It is possible that the information was all around me, and in my own selfish, self-centered nature, I ignored all the signs. I thought I was just giving life to a baby. I didn’t know that I would find myself losing so much of who I was when the season of motherhood began.

Boy 1 was born on a cold day in January. Like many women throughout history, I did not enjoy those seemingly endless contractions that made a mama of me. It was horrific to realize that pain like that exists and the fact that it is considered natural is appalling. When it was over, I still did not have fond memories.

As they wheeled me to my recovery room, I heard a woman laboring/moaning/screaming in another room.

“Dear God, I never want to do that again,” I thought. I stared into Mr. Fantastic’s eyes and mandated that we would adopt the rest of our offspring. He was too afraid of me at that moment to argue. He just nodded.

Four months later I turned up pregnant again. The babies would be thirteen months apart. I was full of life once more. And, because caring for small children makes your brain function poorly, I was excited about it.

We named Boy 2 “Jackson” because it is a family name and because it means “son of grace”. Grace sounded like a good addition to our family, with a one year-old who didn’t sleep through the night waiting for us to bring home his new baby brother.

The boys weren’t the only ones crying those first few weeks. Rivers gushed from my eyes because, well, hormones that don’t stop. Both boys needed me constantly and simultaneously. There was never enough Mama to go around.

Five months later I was pregnant again, despite our diligent efforts to avoid a third baby in two years. I instinctively knew weeks before a test confirmed it. I was less excited, but embraced it with the patience of Job. There are challenges you can glibly quit in life, but pregnancy isn’t one of them. 

Besides, I had figured out one thing by then: God was undoing me. He was systematically dismantling everything inside me and another baby was part of the plan. I laid myself out in His presence, exhausted, broken, and wholly beset by fear of Him and His plans for me.

I endured inappropriate comments from all sorts of people as I walked through church, the grocery store, and anywhere else, pushing a double stroller with a blooming baby belly between me and the infant and one year old.

As a sort of public service announcement, please allow me to tell the world that the only person who thinks it’s funny to ask a pregnant woman, “Don’t you know how that happens by now?” is the person asking that ridiculous question. I often liked to increase the awkwardness of the moment by answering, “Yes, we do know how it happens, but abstinence really isn’t an option for us. Sex is way to much fun to quit!” (Okay, I never actually said that, but I really, really wanted to. I probably would now. I'm much braver these days.)

And so after laboring through a stormy Texas night, Boy 3 was born, full of love and full of mischief, and the perfect addition to our brood of baby boys.

I was Mama to a twenty-seven month-old, a fourteen month-old, and a newborn. Mostly, I felt like it was awesome and horrible all at the same time. And mostly, it was exactly that.

In public we were a sort of freak show to anyone born after the birth control pill was released in the 1960s. But every once in a while, a precious woman with grey hair would come up to me and tell me she had made it through a similar day once upon a time.

“Mine were just as close, honey. You can do it. They so grow up so fast- enjoy it while it lasts. It seems like mine were babies just yesterday...”

These women breathed fresh life into my soul. They proved to me that what we do for one another we are really doing for the Lord. Because I needed Jesus to tell me I could make it through the wretched days, and He said it with words from lovely wrinkled faces who still longed for the precious days of babies.

In the middle of 20-30 dirty diapers a day, the stress of babies crying and waking up their brothers, and the total lack of sleep, I wanted to know God’s reasons for choosing this less-than-ideal circumstance for our family. I sat in my white fluffy rocking chair, with a wailing newborn on my right shoulder, a crying baby on my chest, and a fussy toddler tucked up on my lap. Blanketed in boys like that, I wondered how this could have been a good plan?

What on earth was God doing? We had planned it all so differently, but He threw our plans out the window. God’s got some serious gall, man.

His plans wreck us, His ways are hard to live; like threading-a-camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle kind of hard. But His tender mercies refresh and renew and our thirst for Him draws us deeper into the quiet storm of worshiping a fearsome, loving Creator who writes our stories in ways that please Him, whether they please us or not.

God's love often leads us where we do not want to go.

If there is one lesson of motherhood that rings truer than any other it is this: our lives are less about us than we realized before we were mamas. And that is the greatest, hardest thing we will ever learn to live.

Monday, September 15, 2014

gospel mama, part 1

I leapt into motherhood for shallow reasons. Go ahead, judge me, I don’t mind. I blame Pottery Barn kids, “bump” photos of famous celebrities, and all the cute maternity clothes at Target for my failed logic and selfish motivations. (Also, maybe hormones had something to do with it, as well as my desire to have a good reason to quit my job tutoring obnoxiously cocky college baseball players for the University of Texas athletic department.)

Prego with #4 in 2008

I have listed some of my reasons below, rated on a shallowness scale of 1 to 10, 1 being completely selfless and 10 being as shallow as a “reality” show that was actually scripted by Hollywood. I have also listed the appropriate blameworthy scapegoat. Here ya go:

  • I wanted to paint polka dots on a nursery wall. (rating: 10) {Pottery Barn Kids}
  • It’s fun to shop for baby gear. (rating: 6) {Target}
  • I longed to hold a baby that was “just for me”.(rating: 4) {Hormones}
  • I wanted an excuse not to have to go to work any longer. (rating: 8) {Baseball Players}
  • I wanted a reason to go into Pottery Barn Kids. (rating: 9)
  • I thought pregnant women were “so cute”. (rating: 10) {famous “bump” photos}
  • I was madly in love with my husband and wanted to see what kind of awesomeness our gene pools would produce. (rating: 3) {Hormones}

I had no clue that by becoming pregnant I was, in fact, stepping onto a roller coaster with highs that would reach heaven and beyond, and agonizing lows that would shred my heart.

Oh, I had loads of good intentions and good ideas, but very little good sense to guide me. Which coincidentally sums up the majority of my twenties. (With the exception of my decision to marry Mr. Fantastic. That was either pure genius or ridiculously good luck. Either way, I win.)

But there I was, a decade ago, in my little suburban-cookie-cutter-house bathroom, on a random day in May, peeing on a plastic stick. I hid my head under a pillow, awaiting the results. I couldn’t even look when the timer went off. When the moment of truth came, I made Mr. Fantastic look first.

“You can break it to me gently,” I said, bracing myself for a negative.

But he smiled big and wide, and his voice kind of squeaked when he let the words out, “You’re pregnant!”

Joy unbounded, untethered, and completely incoherent flooded through me: I was full of life.

What I didn’t know was that my own life would be changed so completely by this bearing of another. With motherhood, the tide of selfishness goes out one pound of baby weight, one stretch mark, one desperate midnight prayer at a time. The tide of love that returns to us brings unknown mysteries from God Himself.

Woven through every moment of motherhood is the highest truth: To love another more than yourself transforms the world. Gospel Mamas know this. We know that there is a loss we must bear and a pain we must embrace so that we can be part of a miracle. From the first breathless gaze we share with the face of the child we have carried in our wombs, or flown across land and oceans to bring home, we know we are a blessed breed of women. 

We are the mamas of the world.

We know we aren't perfect and we never will be. Our imperfection is a gift because the sacrificial love poured out for us will always be enough to transform our personal weaknesses and cure our family's pain.

The gospel means that God gave us exactly the right children for us- no matter how they came into our lives: through marriage, birth, or adoption. He has entrusted His beloved babies to us, and we consider that a compliment from a Holy God.

It means that if we are drowning in the insanity of sleepless babies, He will fish us out of those deep waters. If we are in the mix of school and activities and social events and rules and consequences and lessons to be learned, He is touching and tweaking and turning the wheels of our family so that we will all know Him better. If we are driving away alone from the new college dorm, He is with us in the car and He is with our not-quite-grown adult son. Or if, by chance, we are sitting by the door awaiting the return of a wayward daughter, God lingers with us tenderly.

He sees us. He loves us. The gospel means He is coming for us, for our children, our grandchildren, and even our whole family.

Because Jesus knows something about sacrificial love, and the lessons of motherhood hinge on our understanding of the gospel. We please Him when we walk in love the way He did.

Chin up, love. Today, you are a gospel mama, and Jesus is at your side. We will all get to the promised land one step at a time. Jesus never holds back the greatness of His love. Ever.

Monday, September 8, 2014

a note on perfection

For by one sacrifice, He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy, Hebrews 10:14

It's possible "perfect" doesn't mean what we think it means.

Maybe perfect doesn't mean being the most beautiful, talented, intelligent, admired, and esteemed person possible. Apparently, it doesn't mean free from error, because the text says we are being made holy. Perfection is clearly different from holiness here.. The Greek word for perfected is teleioō, and it means to be made complete or fulfilled.The Greek word here for holy is hagiazō,  which means to be purified, to be made free from sin, and to be internally renewed in your soul.

This is the Christian life we are meant to live: Jesus completed us, and now we are supposed to be enjoying our lives, becoming cleaner and purer as we go.

Maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves to perform, huh?

We run on the treadmill of our culture, trying to be everything to everyone, our hearts darkened by our increasing inability to cleanse ourselves with our performance. We buy the lie that we aren’t perfect until we meet the expectations of others, the impossible standard of a photoshopped world, and we attempt a flawless execution of our daily life.

But our hearts know better, and they won’t rest until we get this right.

Then we fall short, let our less-than-holy slip show, and we are left trying to explain how we could have let God and everyone else down like that. We chastise ourselves for needing God’s help, and we forget how low He has made us, how much He has done for us, and how little He has truly asked of us.

Perhaps we are making all of this too complicated

We are complete in Him. The treadmill was never His idea in the first place. Our view of God has been blocked by our own self-obsession, and we have made an idol of who we think we are supposed to be. But we already are who He wants us to be: we are the beloved ones He has fulfilled with His life laid down.  

This week, I hope we fail into grace. I pray we all would feel perfected in Christ, and ridiculously loved for who we are. I am asking God to whisper light-hearted words that lift us above the malaise.

God loves us more than we deserve, and that fact makes him laugh great-big belly laughs that ring like church bells over our lives with joy. 

Life isn't all about earning and doing and deserving. It’s a story of love.

And we are the ones who live happily ever after. May we never forget that, even when life seems less than perfect.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

homeschooling is not utopian bliss; OR how yogurt can ruin your life

Most homeschool days, tiny bluebirds land on my pillow and gently wake me by caressing my rosy, well-rested cheek with their downy heads while singing sweet morning songs. My feet gently pad along the hallway to the kitchen where my personal barista waits for me, latte in hand. I then open well-organized folders with thoughtful, dynamic, and (obviously!) fun lesson plans. I arrange the manipulatives, I draw funny cartoons explaining the lessons we will cover for the day (the kids LOVE these), and I find my emotional and spiritual center by reciting the entire book of Psalms that the kids and I memorized last year (what a super duper homeschool activity that was!)
Then the kids skip joyfully from their rooms, eat a healthy gluten-free breakfast, and begin their assignments without hesitation after they feed and care for the homeless animals they rescued from the pound for their Biology unit. Hearty laughter over difficult math can be heard from the dining room (That silly Algebra is so funny!!!). Skillfull syntactic jokes run amok in the living room as the boys compare the ten-page epic poems they composed yesterday. My kindergartner tires of her advanced Latin exercises and pulls out her copy of Mere Christianity to take a mental break. (CS Lewis makes such a great kindergarten worldview teacher!) By noon, they have finished all their work and are asking for tomorrow's lessons to fill their spare time. Instead, we go serve at the soup kitchen and crochet dolls for sick children out of yarn from our old sweaters.

Yep. That's pretty much what it's like around here.

Except for when it's never like that- which is, like, every single freaking day. Because homeschooling your kids is hard and messy and looks more like this for us:

I wake up at 7:00 and drag out to the living room. I read my Bible and beg Jesus to help me, again today, to NOT DIE while explaining Singapore math to my third grader. The kids flounder out of their rooms and this is their morning greeting for the woman who bore them in her womb: "I don't want to do any schoolwork today." {Magnifique!} I make lists of all their lessons and assignments and hand them out. My third, fourth, and fifth graders cry when they see theirs because their day involves cursive writing, a composition, AND thirty-five math problems. My kindergartner brags about how short her list is compared to the older kids. {I then restrain the older kids from attacking her while she smugly colors a unicorn.} 
Then school starts and I say the following phrases 10,876 times in the next six hours: 

Please just do your next assignment.
Use proper pencil grip!
No throwing books/comic books/pencils/people.
No hitting people.
No biting people.
Stop fighting.
No eating yogurt on the sofa.
No spitting yogurt on the sofa.
Give me the yogurt.
No, this is not the worst day ever. (At least not yet.)
If you're angry, you can go to your room to calm down.
Please don't interrupt me while I teach your brother.
No, math is not the worst thing ever invented. {Note: Plan unit called Worst Inventions Ever.}
Someone tell me they love me. Right now. Or else.
Mommy is going to her room to take a break.
No, you can't have something to eat- again. Besides, I threw all the yogurt away.
I love you. Do your work.
We need Jesus, you guys. Someone pray for us!
Eventually I lie down on the sofa with a bowl of chocolate and say this: Let's just call it a day. 

This is all shocking, we realize.

And we limp across the finish line; to cleaning the massive mess in the kitchen, shelving 124 books, wiping the yogurt off the sofa, and going outside for a breath of fresh air and a soul reboot. Ta-da!!! {I know, you all totally want to homeschool your kids now, don't you?}

Somehow, along the way, my kids learn to do complicated math, read amazing books that broaden their worlds, speak French, classify sentences, memorize historical documents and beautiful poems, write in cursive, and generally finish the school year LIKE A BOSS. All the while, I am in it with them, loving them, correcting them, helping them, crying with them, quitting and restarting with them, and it is an education we build together one arduous day at a time.

Most afternoons, when the insanity subsides, I love that we homeschool. Even so, we may send them to public school tomorrow. Because seriously, how much yogurt will be spilled before it is all just too much?

Lawsy. We really do need Jesus, you guys, and maybe some bluebirds to wake us up in the mornings. Or just more chocolate. Maybe bluebirds who deliver chocolate? Now that would work wonderfully.

Monday, September 1, 2014

learning new songs in the wilderness of motherhood

Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth, 
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
-Hosea 2:14-15

The boys in the days after the B&N ban

Back when the boys were one year-old, two years-old, and three years-old, I banned us from the book store Barnes & Noble.

The ban was enacted after one of the hardest days of my life unfolded in that store.

We had eaten at Sonic for lunch, and arrived at B&N armed with new motorcycles from the kids' meals. After walking through the doors we headed straight for the train table set up in the kids' area. This was one of our favorite outings: Mommy read a book while the boys played and socialized.

My oldest had just become potty-trained.

If a newly potty-trained toddler says he needs to go to the bathroom, you run to the closest toilet you can find. 

Here's the first thing I learned during our stay at B&N that day: When a one year-old and a two year-old have to leave Thomas the Train to go to the bathroom with their older brother five times in a two hour period, the screaming intensifies each time.

The second thing I learned was this: Mommy has a hard time carrying two screaming toddlers to the potty and helping a third toddler get on the potty, while attempting to maintain her patience and her dignity.

After the fifth trip to the bathroom, we were all miserable. I decided we should just go home.

The third lesson of the day was: Leaving to go home is ten times worse than Having to go to the bathroom.

I walked out of B&N carrying one flailing, screaming boy under one arm, another under the other, as the third boy wailed and marched along behind me. The agony was intensified when one boy realized he had left his brand new motorcycle inside. After the humiliating exit we had made, I was unwilling to re-enter the store for the motorcycle, because I knew if we didn't find it our re-exit would be catastrophic.

That's when I lowered the edict: No more Barnes & Noble. I was sad to do it, but I knew it would rarely go better than it had that day now that one child was potty-trained and they were all three in the season of toddler meltdown management.

We stayed home a lot for the next few years. No bounce house trips were made. No Chick Fil A playscape lunches were enjoyed. One woman can only do so much with three willful little people. 

At first it seemed like a wilderness. We were stuck. We were deprived of a lot of fun. I felt badly for my children who were missing out. I felt guilty that my ability to manage our circumstances was not more honed. I felt sorry for myself a bit, too.

But it was in that lonely place of motherhood that God spoke tenderly to me. He called me out of my sadness and reminded me of His plan. He gave me hope that I was not only surviving my season of little children, I was molding them for a future I could not see. 

I learned to embrace the pain of my current circumstances, knowing that they passed through the hand of the Almighty. And I comforted myself with the thought that every season ends eventually.

We lifted the ban a couple of years ago. Barnes & Noble can once again be enjoyed by us all. My children ask me to tell the horrific tale of our last day at B&N regularly. They think it is hilarious. 

I tell it and smile at the details of their screaming now. The pain of the day is gone for me. 

When I look back, I only see God's goodness in that humiliating walk out of the store that day. He led me to the end of myself so that I could know Him more deeply.

In the wilderness of motherhood I learned to sing again.