Tuesday, May 31, 2016

re: all the things and the Sunday I preached in church

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” 
-Colossians 1:16-17

Lately I’ve been overwhelmed by all the things.

Finishing up school, baseball tournaments, church related stuff, writing projects, etsy shop details, dance classes, as well as the omnipresent laundry/dishes/parenting gig I can’t seem to outsource at all; the western world's struggle to survive is not for the faint of heart. It would be so easy to just lie down and enjoy our comfy sofas and endless streaming media. But, alas, we are not of those who shrink back one minute before 10pm on a Friday night, when we binge HGTV or ESPN while eating ice cream.

I used to think I was a good multi-tasker. But now I think I am just a uni-tasker with a case of overdeveloped self-confidence. Turns out I don’t juggle as well as I thought I did.

For example, two Sundays ago, I was supposed to speak in church. Morgan asked me to speak on the same weekend Boy 1 had his championship baseball tournament and I was hosting our Volunteer Appreciation Night at the church. With a packed schedule like that, how could I say no?

I woke up Sunday morning, grabbed my coffee, and spent some time with Jesus. I got the kids toast and juice and gave them instructions about proper church attire. (Why do children who have gone to church every week of their life act like they’ve never heard these rules about not wearing ancient ratty t-shirts with holes in them?) Then I took my shower, got dressed, and started doing my hair and makeup.

All the children wanted to be in my room, reading or playing with some toy while I finished the monumental process called “make the forty year-old woman look not a day over thirty-nine”. It’s precious, the way my kids all want to be with me. Except they don’t just want to “be” with me. They want to talk to me. They want to talk a lot to me. In fact, that particular morning my kids wanted to bond with me as they retold me Peanuts comic strips, discussed the batting averages of MLB players I’ve never heard of, and analyzed every movie we’ve ever seen as a family. I think one of them wanted to discuss the progression of our foreign affairs from the Cold War to the present day, and how that’s affected the free market. Or maybe they just asked why I don’t buy Pop Tarts very often. I’m not sure. All I wanted was to get my eyeliner on straight, because forty year-old women look like they’re trying a little too hard if they don’t get their eyeliner on straight.   

So I kicked them out. Actually, Morgan kicked them out because he is a good husband. Also, I was his guest speaker in church that morning, and hearing me shriek about eyeliner and 1980s politics (or Pop Tarts- whatevs) was little scary for him.

I finished my hair and makeup in peaceful silence.

We all rolled out the front door a little later. After I turned out of the neighborhood, a tragic realization crept upon me from the back of my consciousness. In the midst of the discussion of all the things I didn’t want to talk about, I forgot to put on most of my makeup.

I looked in the mirror, and there was my face, wearing some blush and eye makeup, but nothing else. No foundation. No powder. Nothing to cover and soften the charming laugh lines or the scars on my forehead or my wicked awesome crow's feet.

No big deal, right? Besides, I was speaking on vulnerability and the courageous Christian life. I could have been my own sermon illustration. No more masks! Real life! How brave of her, everyone would have said. I would reach heights of epic courageous vulnerability in the western world for this act of bravery.

Just kidding. I turned around and drove back home and slathered every bit of makeup I own on my face. Because I like how I look with it, and although I am willing to be brave and vulnerable, I suppose I am also a little vain. It would have distracted me all morning, knowing I was walking around with a naked face. I wouldn't have felt courageous, I would have felt ridiculous.

I preached my sermon with a fully made-up face. I talked about stretchy pants and guacamole in church, and proved once and for all I am totally crazy. Bless it. (If you want to listen to my message, it’s posted here.) Then I took my kids home and begged them to help me clean up our messy house before Morgan got home from a post-church meeting. I ignored the laundry, and ate gummy bears that night instead of being responsible.

I'm still behind on all kinds of things. I forget things like make-up all the time. U-turns and re-dos are my specialty. It seems like the balls I’m juggling in life are flying so fast, they are all a blur.

But they are my blur. I love every crazy thing I am juggling today, don't you? We all have some crazy thing God is asking us to do, and He is holding it all together while we gad about trying to spin plates or walk tightropes that look terrifying. 

These circus acts of ours are the best way we can worship our God, who holds all things together by His power (even when we are overwhelmed). He is worthy of our obedience, and delights in the unique way we find our rhythm as we follow Him.

Go ahead, take the center ring and make magic happen in your life. (Even if that magic is just laundry or office spreadsheets or sponsoring a child in Haiti or applying the proper amount of eyeliner for your age.) Do all the things for Jesus, as an act of worship to Him. He's here, holding it all together so He can make something amazing out of our little sideshow juggling acts. It's incredible, really, to just be a part of His beautiful plan for the world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

joy candles

"Happy are those who hear the joyful call to worship, for they will walk in the light of your presence, Lord." 
-Psalm 89:15

Last night I shouted to my fiercest child, “Hey, baby! Want to make a cake?!”

“SURE!” he tumbled down the stairs, ready to conquer the world.

That kid loves to do hard stuff if it ends with some kind of sugary treat. He measured out the ingredients, mixed them up, and we ate dinner while it baked. When it was done, it was quite the hit of the night.

I handed him candles and a lighter after he showed me the result of his rather unique stabbing-motion frosting technique. He relished his good fortune. The delight a ten year-old boy has when lighting things on fire cannot be described. The minute his hand grasped that propane lighter, life hit its pinnacle of awesomeness. Fire! Flame! YES!!!

I gazed at the tiny candles, and treasured my son’s Joy. He’s a lucky kid to have that kind of Joy.

I have hunted joy all my life. I mostly only find its tracks, though. I spot little bits of a trail it made, tiny crumbs from a sandwich Joy ate on the run. Joy is hard to catch, a slippery fellow. Joy is elusive like the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, Fairies, and Unicorns. Even so. I keep hunting.

Joy sort of slinks around at weddings. It's the guest everyone expects to come. But melancholy is always on its tail there, poking at the people who are unhappy in love. Joy spooks easily, so it stays close to the bride. 

Picturesque nature sometimes whispers to me that Joy is is hiding in the sunset or the sound of the wind or the crashing of the waves. But the sound of Wonder sort of overpowers Joy there on the mountaintop. I forget Joy completely and instead sink into the majesty of creation.

There is one singular event that seems to draw a bit of extra Joy from its hidden place. It's birthday candles. This was sort of an experiment last night. We needed some Joy for our day. I wanted to see if it was the same even when no one was a year older. I'm happy to report, it totally worked!

Birthday candles are the most common of occurrences, so it's a little unfathomable that Joy is hidden in them. But those tiny lights are powerful beacons for Joy, like mini Bat Signals in the sky. Lit there on top of chocolate buttercream or whipped cream with sprinkles, they proclaim the best news in the world: “You are loved! You are one year older! Let’s all celebrate!

I want to snap photo after photo every time I’m around birthday candles, even if they don’t belong to me or to someone I love. It would be a little awkward in restaurants if I pulled out my phone to capture some lady's cheesecake on its way to her table. But it would be worth it. Birthday candles are almost holy in their purity. Someone had to care enough to buy them, to plan a celebratory dessert, and then to light a match and make them burn. This tradition is so very intentional.

No one really knows when people first thought to set fire to candles on a dessert. Some say it was the Romans or the Greeks. Candles on cakes was definitely a thing in Germany in the 1700s.

I wonder what the cakes in ancient cultures looked like, lit with happy flames. Back in the 1980s, my birthday candles stood alongside plastic ballerinas atop pink frosting. Every year, same cake, same decorations, same magical moment when everyone sang to me and then waited with great anticipation as I made a wish and blew out the tiny flames.

As we grow up, so many stories and holidays lose their magic and charm. But every year, the candles do not disappoint. They are especially placed there, shining for you, saying that you are valued, loved, and (even if only for that day) the luckiest person in the room.

I am trying to light candles in my soul that will remind me that the Joy that is true when birthday candles glow is also true when ordinary days open their arms and welcome us into their mundane moments. It’s strange the way looking for tiny lights has opened me up to the possibility that Joy is not something I will ever be able to truly catch and own.

Now I'm the Joy hunter who is learning that Joy is not big game from Safari. It’s not meant to be brought home and mounted on the wall. Joy is like the notes to the most beautiful song ever written. I can’t see the notes. I can’t hold the notes in my hand. But I can feel them transforming me when I listen carefully to their melody.

The notes sound like these moments:

  • Sinking into my bed after a long day.
  • Grass under my feet.
  • The love of the only man I ever want to be with for the rest of my life.
  • Texts from my friend that are too ridiculous to show to the rest of the world.
  • Flowers on my bedside table.
  • The first cup of coffee of the day.
  • The sound of my children laughing.
  • The stillness of the back porch at dusk.
  • Strangers who are kind when they don’t have to be.
  • Boys who bake cakes and set them on fire.

After we ate the cake and cleaned up the dishes, I wrapped the leftover cake with plastic wrap. The kids ran upstairs to get ready for bed. I could hear that Joy song so clearly. I didn’t even try to catch it. 

I just let the notes roll over and around me as I thanked God for candles and love and children and sugar and all the places Joy hides here in the wide open space of life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

what no one tells you about motherhood

So... I have a son who can throw a curveball.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a huge life-changing truth. But this is my baby we’re talking about here. Babies aren’t supposed to throw curveballs. Babies are supposed to sit on a blanket under a tree and clap their hands while we act like they’ve discovered a cure for every illness known to earth by being so cute. Babies are meant to drool all over their clothes and still be so adorable we are willing to pick them up and carry them around like that, all slimy nasty. Babies are supposed to make us happy and give our life meaning and change how we look at the world so we can be cliche and say, “Now that I have this child, all the lectures my parents ever gave me make sense.”

Babies don’t learn to throw curveballs and thereby strike out three batters in a row.

Okay, so he’s actually twelve and twelve year-olds can totally learn to throw off-speed pitches. But still. He’s my baby. When my husband and I decided to have a baby, I never imagined that baby growing up to be twelve years old. I guess I forgot that the equation of time + human baby= preteen human.

I planned polka dots on the nursery walls, breastfeeding for as long as I could swing it, and how to ensure his first word would be “mama”. I certainly never planned to have to explain bullying, sexual ethics, or advanced mathematics to my baby.

Where is my baby, and who is this giant boy who is so curious about impossibly hard things?

Every time I look at him, I see every year of his life pass by in an instant. I see his newborn face, his chubby baby legs, birthday candles being blown out, tricycles, first soccer game, road trip drama, first day of school, bad attitudes, first broken heart, and everything else that has ever happened to him. I relive his life constantly and at an ever-increasing speed, because every day we live adds more moments I want to remember.

But I see other things when I look at him, too. Behind those blue eyes and newly straightened teeth, I see all the memories that haven’t happened yet.

I see the cocky, overjoyed grin he will give me on the day he finally gets his driver’s license. I see late nights he will spend studying for the SAT. I see every Christmas we will share before he gets married and starts his own traditions. I see the beautiful woman he will add to our family. I see the baby he will one day hold up for me to bless with a new kind of love in my heart. I see a hundred years all at once, even though none of them may end up looking anything like I expect. I know when I look at him I am gazing at the way Love is propelling us into all the tomorrows of our lives. The beauty of it is overwhelming.

No one tells you about this bizarre phenomenon of motherhood: we become time travellers. The souls of your children are your Deloreans, and your love for them is the fuel for the flux capacitor. When you hit 88 miles per hour, life gets.. interesting.

The years run right through you like a breeze through a screen door. One minute you’re blowing bubbles for a toddler on the back patio to burn the remaining thirty minutes before bedtime on the longest day you’ve ever lived because molars erupting in your kid’s mouth caused you both to get only two hours of sleep and you have had to single-handedly distract a cranky, exhausted, horrid child for what now seems like a millennium.

And then, POOF, you’ve hit 88 miles per hour without realizing it, and your “baby” is cranking out a term paper on your laptop while you lie on the sofa with a good book.

It’s kind of sad, and it’s kind of awesome, too. Mostly, it’s just hard. I think it’s going to get even harder for me, because now that my son has his curveball down, he is apparently ready for all kinds of future dreams to be fulfilled.

“I can’t wait to be married,” he said last Friday. I was a little perplexed by this statement, since he is, as I mentioned earlier, still a wee babe.

“What part of being married makes you most excited?” I asked. (I winced a little and braced myself for his answer because we are dealing with a pre-teen boy here.)

“I don’t know. It just seems like it will be awesome. Plus, you’ll get grandbabies,” and he smiled his winningest smile at me.

You know, those curveballs my son can pitch? Every kid thinks he can tell where the ball is going to go, but it always does something unexpected. The key is to sit back and let the ball come to you, swinging where you think the ball might be. The best batters must predict the future.

That’s motherhood. I am learning to love every curveball it launches at me. I will either knock it out of the park or go down swinging with my heart on my sleeve. My trophies are the memories of yesterday and the dreams of tomorrow.

And today? Today is the best day ever, because he’s this incredible growing human with dreams and feelings and ideas and talents I could not have predicted when I carried him around in a Baby Bjorn and bragged about his new tooth. My husband and I didn’t just make a baby. We made a person who has already made his own unique mark on this world, and he has decades more to go. I am both terrified and thrilled by this truth.

But whatever he becomes, the best part of motherhood is that he’s mine. Even when he thinks he belongs to someone else someday, I‘ll still know the truth.

Curveball, schmurveball. That’s my baby out there.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

drama and parenting and finding the grace to be imperfect

"Son though he was, [Jesus] learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him..." Hebrews 5:8-9

When my children were very young, I lived in fear of their drama. There were days I thought I would not be able to handle one more meltdown over the color of a sippy cup. The depth of mourning a toddler can produce simply because a piece of toast has crusts attached to it is legendary. I still can't talk about the screaming that once happened because my child didn't want to touch the sand at the beach one summer. I'm scarred, you guys.

Back then I comforted myself with the thought that someday they would be big and this would end.

Thankfully, it kind of did, for about fifteen minutes last year. It was glorious. Then preteen hormones seeped into our family dynamic. Yowza!! Talk about drama.

Grouchy preteens will make you long for the days of the Toast Crust Tragedy.

I've had to learn to soften my voice. Youths offended by the existence of rules and reality benefit from a soothing environment. We make lots of jokes and keep plenty of food around. When all they want is to get away from everyone who is annoying them, but they can't because we are so fun to hang out with and the pantry is well-stocked with chips and cereal, it's kind of delightful to see them accept that being loved and cared for by us is better than making their own life on the streetz.

I don't live in fear of the drama this time around. I've lowered my expectations. I no longer allow myself to long for the fairy land where I always know exactly what to say and do, and my children conquer the human condition by being delightful 24/7. I have let us all off the hook a little. My success as a parent doesn't depend upon my ability to perfectly solve every drama-laden problem today. Their success as future adults doesn't depend on their ability to be mature beyond their years.

Belonging to each other and to God turns the real world into a kind of messy fairy land.

We are all learning obedience through what we suffer as a result of loving imperfect people in an imperfect world. Our God turns our failures into His own victories, swallowing up our drama in His greater grace.

Perspective truly saves us from our ignorance. I think I missed a few of the joys when they were little because I was trying so hard to be a good-enough mom. I don't want to miss anything on the crazy drama train this time.

I just want to enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

when church is art

Every Sunday morning, I listen to my husband preach the same message twice.

You may suppose this would be boring. But it isn't. I need a double dose, because being his wife means I will be asked for my opinion later.

"What'd you think of the message today?" is a Sunday afternoon ritual in our home.

"I loved it," seems like a great response, right?

WRONG! You are so completely wrong!!

The man wants details. What interested me, did the introduction seem too long, were the points clearly supported, how was that Flannery O'Connor illustration, and didn't I love the quote from one of my favorite books? He was thinking of me when he put that part in.

No one told me when I married him I would be required to listen this carefully in church and then give a full review of the message.

Of course, to be fair, no one told him he would someday have to watch Gilmore Girls while I fold endless baskets of laundry on Friday nights, or that he would be enlisted to read the chapters of my future book and ONLY SAY ENCOURAGING THINGS UNTIL TOMORROW WHEN I WILL BE READY FOR CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM AND RUTHLESS EDITING. Marriage is all about sucking it up to keep another human being sane.

Most Sundays, when I hear my husband speak I am awed by the art of it. He is a craftsman, stacking thoughts upon assumptions, lighting them with stories, and then precisely carving a masterpiece from it all. Other preachers sound more like mystics, swirling the colors of truth with the hues of grace, the splendor of it all splashes across our souls like a Jackson Pollack painting. When they are finished, we can't believe this new thing God has done to us with their words. Still others share God's truth like jazz musicians, the words trail out and seem disordered at first, but then you realize they have woven themselves into you as you tapped your foot to the beat and let them baptize you with their spontaneous clarity.

At its very core, Church is art. The music, the story, the desire to affect change in our culture. We are making art inside these communities of faith.

I love art.

In my early twenties I worked as a Production Assistant for an Art Director in Hollywood. His whole team was made up of guys he had known since UCLA art school in the 1960s, plus me. We spent our days designing furniture and then taking metal tubes to muffler shops to be bent into the proper shape, or recreating American fast food restaurants for Japanese commercials. As we worked, they would tell me fascinating stories about the LA art scene through the years. They were all these fascinating, albeit slightly gnarled poets and painters; creatives who had chosen not to abandon their art for the sake of a paycheck, but who were willing to let Hollywood pay the bills so they could still be full-time artists between productions.

I wanted to be just like them someday.

The only snag in that idea was I wasn’t really “like” them at all. They found my youthful ignorance about “the establishment” shocking. They were appalled by my over-exposure to common and shallow cultural ideas. My commitment to my faith confused them, and my lack of desire to hook-up with a new guy every week perplexed them greatly. But faith and modesty are also a bit anti-establishment and counter-cultural themselves, and so these defining characteristics became my ticket into their small circle. I was in!

One day a discussion about a particular art installation in an art magazine began. The pieces were underwater kites, designed by a famous artist’s daughter. The general accusation floating around the office was that her work was shallow, and was only promoted because of who her father was.

I stared at the photos and (naively) said, “They’re really pretty, though.”

Deadpan stares. Crickets. No one moved and the time-space continuum lost its stability for 2.5 seconds.

Then John, the grey-haired former hippie who endured me with the least amount of patience said, “Which is great. If you think art is supposed to be pretty.”

Well, I don’t think that anymore, John. Not since you made that idea sound so imbecile. Now I think art is supposed to be...ugly?

Slowly, slowly I began to understand art as a many-layered way of communicating deeper emotions and truths. Over time I understood why these men held the definition of art so loosely. For them to say art must be one thing would close the door on what some artist, somewhere in the world, could possibly say through their work about life and love and the world. Art couldn’t only be about color, or form, or pleasing some group of people, because it was supposed to be a physical manifestation of something deeper and higher.

Twenty years later, this definition of art is also the definition I find most useful for church: A physical manifestation of deeper emotions and higher thoughts in a place we gather to gaze at truths about the intangible: faith and life and love and hope. Church is where we experience the presence of a God so beautiful and so shockingly brilliant, we are left in awe of Him and totally devoted to exposing as many people to Him as possible.

Church is where we are supposed to gather to be God's most impressive art installation of all time.

We may never agree on everything. We will be messy and at times judgmental. There will be a majority whose voice is loudest, and a minority who may (or may not) become a new wave of leadership. One person's pretty kites will be a horror in someone else's eyes, but God will use them to reach someone, somewhere, because He is brilliant like that. We may not recognize the Van Gogh's around us until it is too late. But as we stumble and paint and pray and carve and preach and sing, we are creating life and light in the world, and we are doing the closest thing to God's own heart:

We are building His Kingdom. It is more than pretty. It is glorious.