Tuesday, December 29, 2015

the miracle of motherhood

The golden morning sun seeped in through the slits in the blinds and baby birds squeaked outside in the branches of our live oak trees.

“Mama!” a little voice whispered earnestly beside me in bed. Two boys were cozied up under the blankets, waiting for me to wake up.

We aren’t cosleepers, but some mornings we are co-wakers. There is no more precious moment in my day than this one.

My babies now walk around in their long, lanky bodies and read chapter books with their great big, developed minds. Growing up and away a little more with each year, there are moments I grieve the loss of chubby toddler cheeks pressed up against my own.

Motherhood fills you up and then empties you out in more ways than one.

How the filling and the emptying happens is a mystery. One day your swollen abdomen is full of life, and the next your womb hollows out but your heart is still so full it could burst.

You carry the emptiness every day, though.

Every baby belly laugh, the cock-eyed wink of your toddler’s eye, all the gaping grins over birthday candles, each flubbed ballet recital reminds you that a vacancy sign hangs over your life. Like an echo through the quiet rooms that once housed the little people you adore, the emptiness holds melancholy joy. The good days slip through your hands faster than you would like.

There are the other kinds of empty days, though, too. Ones that start with a frantic hunt for that singular lost shoe, screaming babies being tortured by emerging teeth, or sick mamas dragging themselves around the house in search of a precious lost toy. The grinding begins at dawn, there is no rest for weary bones, and the demands of a family are monumental when there is no reserve of energy left inside. These children have emptied you out, and still they demand more.

It takes faith to live a full life when you find you are empty. The gospel sings out to us in the vacancy of soul, though, and there is a great blessing for those who choose to follow Christ into the emptiness.

In Luke 9 there was a man who wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus warned him that the path would not be easy:

“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” -Luke 9:58

Christ leads us into fullness through the path of empty.

We are empty like Christ, perhaps, who was so humble He, "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant"? (Phillipians 2) Empty like a tomb, whose stone has been rolled away to reveal that what was dead has been given new life and has risen up to the Father? Empty like the many jars of the widow in 2 Kings 4, that were filled miraculously from only one jar of oil?

Yes, let’s live empty like that.

The greatest miracle of it all is that our empty lives become a dwelling place for God’s presence. God finds a place to rest His head when His children live in obedience to His greatest commandment to love God first and others more than ourselves.

Who knows the impact our mama love will have on the world? With a meager offering of loaves and fish, Jesus fed thousands in Mark 6.

Jesus took what people could offer and He gave thanks for it. He does the same today with what we are able to bring Him. God rests here with us, giving thanks for our empty lives, and He pours out His presence into our homes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

who needs Christmas?

"He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth." Isaiah 11: 3-4

My hands lifted dishes, scraping crumbs into the trash, wrapping up potatoes for another meal on another day. Boys practiced Christmas songs on the piano or played somewhere in the back of the house. Somewhere in her room, my daughter was lost in her intricate imaginary world.

Morgan asked me to come outside with him. He wanted to show me something. I followed as he walked up to the mailbox.

"What are we doing out here?" I asked.

"I want to show you something," he said, the lightness of his voice sparkled with a happy surprise.

Then I saw it. At the end of the street. Christmas lights. The first of the season in our neighborhood.

Unexpectedly and suddenly, I began to cry. "Oh...I need Christmas this year," I whispered out the truth to my husband, to God, to the beautiful night.

My feet step expectantly on the path of Christmas this year, aware of my deep need.

Why do we think this is a sin, to be full of need? Why does our culture make neediness seem small, desperate, and shameful?

We look with our eyes at our homes, friends, and provision. We think how our many blessings that we do not deserve ought to satisfy us. We listen with our ears to the sounds of freedom, the song of thanks we sing, and the beautiful words of loved ones. We accuse our neediness because surely all of this first-world abundance this ought to pacify our hearts.

But then we ache with the unshakable feeling that we are poor and needy somewhere below the surface. Because deep down we know we are naked before a holy God.

Isn't that what Adam and Eve learned when they fell from grace? They realized they were naked and so they hid from God.

But our God doesn't look at what He can see with His eyes, or decide by what He can hear with His ears. He looks deeper, at our needy hearts, and meets our greatest need. Our desperate lack of righteousness prompts our salvation from His judgement.

Only in our poverty, in our great lack of goodness apart from Him, are we found deserving of His provision for us.

To truly know God we must face Him poor and needy.

My eyes are set upon an empty manger this week. God's building me my very own manger in my heart. Because He loves me. Because He came for me. Because I need Him alone.

At first my manger is empty because it awaits a Savior, born fully God and fully man, destined to take away the sins of the world. But then it is empty because the baby grows up to hang on a cross and rise from the dead to give us all the gift of eternal life.

Someday He will return and end our neediness forever. But until that day, I need Him every hour of every day.

Happy Christmas, dear friends. May you find an empty-manger-kind-of-Christmas of your own, ready for a happy, delightful, bursting-at-the-seams-with-love kind of God.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

what my son knows about beauty

There we were, sitting in the middle of an expensive jewelry store, just me, my almost-twelve-year-old son, and the fancy ring lady.

My broken engagement ring was on the counter in front of us. The fancy ring lady was helping me decide what to do about it after another salesperson had ditched us for a more lucrative client. I was still feeling the sting of it all when my son noticed the people across from us.

A man and woman sat a few feet a way from us purchasing multiple items. Compared to my ring, they looked like the Crown Jewels. Maybe I'm not supposed to notice that kind of thing. But when my son looked over and said, "Wow. Those are the biggest diamonds I've ever seen," it was impossible not to look and take it all in.

I don't want expensive, giant diamonds. But comparison is a thief, and sitting in the midst of shining carbon glory, my courage wilted a little. I felt small and less special and even a little bit ashamed.

My son saw it happen. He put his arm around me and said, "Your beauty doesn't come from a ring."

If comparison steals our joy, then perspective is the rich uncle who pays the ransom to get it back for us. I had forgotten for that brief moment the way all the best things can never be found in the mirror, on a ring, in a bank account, or under a Christmas tree.

Beauty is as beauty believes. Am I perfect? No. Have I stopped the hands of time on my face? Not exaclty. Did some magic creme or procedure give me back what decades of living a normal life have created? Unfortunately, a negative. Does a big ring or a fancy car or a magazine-worthy house mean I am loved and favored and happier than I would be otherwise? Nope.

But I am a rich and beautiful woman because I have a son who knows the truth and was brave enough to remind me. That's worth more than every diamond Elizabeth Taylor ever dreamed of owning. 
"How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'"
- Isaiah 52:7

"Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised. Reward her for all she has done. Let her deeds publicly declare her praise."
-Proverbs 31:30-31
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."
-Colossians 3:1-3

We held up the magnifying glass to a diamond as the fancy ring lady finished my paperwork. He marveled at the way rainbows of the color spectrum danced inside a rock. I marveled at how fast he is growing up, and how proud I am to be his mom. He's becoming more than I thought he would or could when he was little. I've come to need him as much as he needs me.

When everything was finished, he grabbed my arm and we walked out together.

"Thanks for coming with me. I needed your help today," I said.

"It was interesting. And more fun than I expected, actually. I'm glad I came."

Yep. That pretty much sums up how I feel about parenthood and beauty and life and everything that really matters. Interesting, more fun than I expected, and always glad I came.

Monday, December 14, 2015

a map of Christmas

Star light, star bright;
First star, I see tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might;
Have the wish, I wish tonight. 

So many times as I grew up, I looked up at the first glimmer in the night sky and said that old poem. I wished for ponies, for dolls, for friends, for faster legs, for a better complexion, for cooler jeans, for more talent and more ability and less awkwardness. I wished for all kinds of things on those stars.

Now I have taught it to my children. I don't think stars are magical wish-granters, but I do know the tiny lights we see in the night sky remind us that we must look into the darkness so we can find the light. 

When identify our greatest need, we discover our greatest wish. 

The stars remind me that if we are ever going to know the God who came to dwell among us and within us, we must admit our cosmic loneliness. We need to know we can't save ourselves.

Once upon a time, God placed one Bright Star in the dark proclaiming a King. Born for us, to set us free, He came to draw us close and bind up all our sin and shame.

Advent is for those who seek comfort and joy in the heart of a God who hears our prayers and sends His Son. 

Every wish I have made in my life has risen over my head into the heavens above, right up to the most ancient Light of all. I bear in my soul hundreds of wishes-turned-prayers. My wishes all seem random and different, but at their core, they were prayers for love, for beauty, for acceptance, and for belonging.  

It's important to know what our hearts are wanting, and even more important to know why they cry out as loudly as they do. All those years, my lips uttered simple hopes, but my heart was really wishing for the gospel, for a way to be saved from the darkness of its own pain. 

All our wishes and hopes and dreams and prayers all lay wrapped in a manger, growing toward the day they will rise with Him. 

Christmas is family and friends gathered close around us. It is sparkly trees and iced cookies. It is presents and parties. Christmas is singing loudly for all to hear and seeing the light of joy in a child's eyes.

But just like my wishes were a trail of longing that ends in the gospel, all the happy Christmases make a map for us to find our way to the place we need most of all.

From the manger, to the cross, to the heart of the God who calls us back to His own Love, Christmas leads us home one star, one wish, one prayer at a time.

Love light, Love bright;
Greatest Love, lifted high;
I pray I may, I pray I might;
Find my way home to You tonight. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

a christmas wish list for every marriage

Ah, Christmas. The season of tapping your toes to “Jingle Bell Rock” and wishing your spouse would finally figure you out.

I know it sounds harsh, but it’s too often true.

As a woman who loves gifts, both giving and receiving, I have walked this road many times.

I’ve made lists and crossed my fingers that he will use them.

I’ve bought him the “perfect” thing and then found out he’d rather shop himself.

I’ve bought myself gifts and handed them to him to wrap, pushing away my deep longing for a surprise.

I’ve closed my eyes and decided whatever we give and get will just have to be good enough.

I’ve wrapped up presents that fail to say all I long to say to the man who chose me as his favorite person, who believes in me when I fail, who holds me when I’m scared, and who wants the best for me even when I don’t deserve it.

I’ve walked this road with friends, too.

I’ve listened to friends lament their inability to decipher the Da Vinci Code that is their husband/wife’s deep need to be seen, known, and loved inside a box wrapped up in a bow.

(I’ve also been the Da Vinci Code wife. Poor Morgan.)

I’ve watched as other friends open  beautiful presents, smile, say thank you, and then long for things that don’t fit inside a box.

I’ve heard friends express anger because, once again, the gift proves there is a problem in their marriage.

I’ve seen friends want a present to make up for all they have sacrificed for all the years: the sleepless nights, the difficult move, the broken promise, the failure that cost more than they could pay.

The irony of Christmas is that with all the parties and purchases, it’s easy to forget what love is at this time of year.

I have a Christmas wish for my marriage and for every couple out there. It’s better than a little blue box from TIffany, or a luxury car with a big red bow. It offers more than the most successful investment of all time.

I wish we could remember.

I wish we could remember the way we felt the first time we kissed.

I wish we could remember that before the mistakes, we said we would be merciful and love through good times and bad.

I wish we could remember that before our jobs and kids and parents and problems and illnesses wore us down, we didn’t hold each other hostage for debts that can never be paid.

I wish we would remember how miraculous our love is.

I wish we would remember that expectations kill relationship.

I wish we would remember that love given without any strings attached is the kind of love that changes the world.

I wish we would remember all the good and honorable and loving things we have shared, and let our weaknesses lie where they ought: in a pool of blessed grace.

If we could remember all of that, it would be the best Christmas since the Son of God lay in a manger, tended by human hands and beloved by His heavenly Father.

We need a Christmas to remember that long before our hearts beat and chose to make forever promises to each other, God made a forever promise to us.

The gift of His Son proved we are loved more than we understand. Jesus loved us to the end. And then He asked us to love one another in the same way.

Because more than gifts and parties and carols, what we all really need at Christmas and all year long is to love one another in better, deeper, and truer ways.

Merry Christmas, you guys. Let love reign.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

the hands of leadership

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 
Philippians 1:4-6

Since I became a Christian in 1994, I have probably had hundreds of people pray for me. I can’t really remember very many of the prayers. I vaguely recall a few snippets of faith over the years. For the most part, though, I prayed like the world depended on it (because it totally did!) and then forgot almost all the details when seasons and prayers shifted.

But there is definitely one prayer I can’t forget.

It was the last Sunday before I moved to Austin from LA. I was engaged to my future husband, giddy with the feeling that my life was really beginning at last. My friend and mentor stood there, praying for me. She grabbed my hands and said, “Lord, I pray you would give Carrie the hands of a minister’s wife.”

I froze up a little. I wasn’t sure I really wanted the hands of a minister’s wife. Besides, she sounded a little scared for me. I also thought I detected a hint of pity in her voice.

In that moment, I suddenly recalled how many women I knew that had told me over the years that they did NOT want to be pastor’s wives. Oh, snap. I was marrying the wrong man!

Then I thought about Morgan and how much I loved him, and I let that happy thought push the paranoid fear out of my mind. The truth was, it didn’t matter what I was getting myself into, because I knew what I wanted most: to love God first and Morgan second. Surely I could handle whatever came along with the role of “minister’s wife”. Surely.

This is how you get out of your depth in life, one blind leap of love at a time.

After the wedding fun ended, we settled into our routine. Morgan and I worked as campus missionaries on the college campus at the University of Texas (Hook ‘em for Jesus), and we made enough money to barely get by. I worked several tutoring jobs and had a job at our apartment complex in addition to ministry responsibilities so that we could eat things like cheese and meat.

The greatest shock to me about ministry life was the amount of time I had to spend with... people. I’m sure I should have had a clue about that, but I didn’t. I am intimidated by large groups of people, horrible at remembering names, and if given a choice between small talk with new people and minor surgery, I would choose to be knocked out, thanks so much.

During the drive to the weekly campus meeting I usually leaned my seat all the way back and cried like a big ol’ baby. I apparently had some minister wife’s hands but not the proper backbone for the job. In hindsight, I should have called my friend up and asked her to repray her pity prayer. 

Maybe I could call her now. Because all these years later, there are still days I’m leaned back wailing because this ministry life leads forever and ever on into more challenging waters than I expected. 

Being a leader means living on the open sea, far beyond comfortable depths. It means learning to ration out the portions of talent and energy you have been given, to build warm fires that will win even the coldest of enemies into trusted friends, to sing when the darkness overwhelms, and to punch sharks in the face when necessary.

Distant shores sing of rest and a carefree life, though. There are seasons of leadership that make that siren song difficult to drown out with ideas like calling, faith, and courage. We must choose to take the leap all over again.

The illusion of power is strong in the modern world. We think we get to choose our career, where we live, the image we present to the world. But so much of what we “choose” is based upon what we could never choose. 

If we forget this fact, we need only think back to middle school, the days we longed to change all kinds of impossible thing about ourselves: wardrobe budget, speed of physical maturation, height, hair, skin color, ability to be “cool”, etc. All I wanted in Middle School was to be shorter than the boys and to finally like my hair. Alas, these things were not my lot in life. I’m married to a man who is shorter than I am and I change my hairstyle every five minutes because I still can’t seem to get it right. I'm pretty sure God thinks all this is adorable.

In many ways, what we are able to choose is determined by all that we don’t choose. And when our circumstances leave us feeling unbearably powerless, there is only one true and painful choice to make: We choose whether or not we will submit to all God has chosen for us. We either die to ourselves or die to God’s plan.

I used to wish I was more like the straight arrow man that I married. I longed for a heart that was easily submitted, and a humble will to match it. But like my height and hair, my will and soul were formed by God and I didn’t get a vote. God makes all kinds of craziness on purpose. Consider the narwhal, the platypus, the jellyfish, and every reality show you’ve ever seen. The world is made from piles crazy. I am simply a part of it all. So are you.

And we crazy folk are God's very own delight.

I don't know what kind of God would choose people like us to love, to live with, much less to die for. If we were a Craigslist ad, we would be flagged the first day we posted: "Painfully unstable and flawed person looking for an omniscient, perfect God to take all my crap, magically form it into my eternal purpose, and love me when I screw it up." God answers that ad every time, paying far more than we realize and giving us far more than we deserve.

And He answers all our prayers, too. All the desperate, stupid, pitiful cries we eek out as we bang on our steering wheels and tell Him all the ways He has made our lives impossibly hard by asking this one thing of us: to trust Him and follow Him in all things.

Lean back, my friend. Wail it out. None of us get out of this place without struggling to accept what we can never change.

But someday every aching moment of life on earth will disappear in the presence of His magnificent love. My hands are going to get me from here to there doing the one thing they are finally learning to do best of all: open up and receive whatever His will declares is mine.