the sole barricade against despair

Tragedy gored into our family’s life this month. Friends lost their two-year-old without warning, and we are all still numb from the sudden goodbye.

Death severs assumptions. There is fear and searching. Clinging ever more tightly to Christ’s empty grave, the sole barricade against despair– if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied! But hard reflection happens only in the corners of thought I can spare (empty stomachs and skinned knees wait for no man) or that I even want to spare. How deeply can I lower myself into grief when I have my own three children to shepherd through the day?

Then there is a surprising sense of guilt, for as I shepherd those precious three, I find myself fretting over the same things as before. Maybe I assumed that loss would be immediately transformative. After you witness death you don’t grumble anymore, because at least your kids are alive, right? You just savor every moment with them because it’s all a treasure, no matter how crazy it feels? And how could you ever wish things were different, easier, when your friend had to bury her own daughter just last week? Yet motherhood will drain anyone at any time. You can choose whole-heartedly to do it, be so thankful to do it, and still wrestle deeply with its difficulty. You can know what a privilege it is to have healthy children, but at the end of the day wilt under the burden of their incessant needs.

No. Tragedy shifts the lens, but will not remove your own trials. And maybe more to the point, it will not magically renew your anxious complaining heart. It’s a long walk toward holiness. I know God’s people can experience mountaintops of glory, or a drastic event may produce an equally drastic change, but plodding is the norm. Truth often needs time to germinate. Experience seems to build up layer by layer, until you turn a corner and realize that at some point, you walked into stronger faith, more genuine love, a deeper fellowship with Christ.

So that’s me, plodding. That’s us. But of course we know the one who walks beside us, the one who has never been afraid to accompany his people through the wilderness or on a path of mourning.

In the path of your judgments,
    O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance
    are the desire of our soul.
-Isaiah 26:7

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resting among the racuous

Last post here was hardly an original one. I wrote on how the internet atrophies the inner life, how it fractures our minds and roils our hearts. But listen, I’m not just hatin’ on the web. God’s people needed the exhortation to “be still” long before we got online.

10:00 AM on a Wednesday morning. My kindergartener, who has the lung capacity of an opera star, is composing a ballad about jellyfish while drumming an overturned pot. My three-year-old absentmindedly smears butter on the table. My baby has climbed onto the couch and is tossing library books to the floor; I trip over a heap of discarded shoes on my way to pull him down. The washing machine bangs from the basement, unbalanced by an overlarge load of muddy play clothes. A timer beeps– no, two timers– one for the green beans I was blanching, the other reminding me to give someone medicine. And this is just the external hubbub. In my mind: trying to determine how I should frame a difficult conversation, arrange the furniture in our basement, and explain right angles to that drum-happy kindergartener. Oh, I was supposed to call the dentist and reschedule a meeting and order a new vacuum cleaner. Will I have time to finish my reading for book club?

Note that the internet has nothing to do with this scene. The interruptions to peace come fast and furious, whether or not I have wifi. So I wonder. How can I be quiet before the Lord while everything around me hurtles toward chaos? Where does rest come into this?

It’s very slow in coming. No pills, bullets, or tricks to speed me along to maturity. Just the hard practice of learning to dwell in the Lord, my refuge in the midst of storms. The psalm says: be still, and know that I am God. I used to think that the stillness needed to come before the knowing. Achieve inner equilibrium– then you’ll be able to enjoy who he is. Now I think it goes the other way. You drive a mental stake in the ground and announce, He is God. Just a mustard seed of faith, but enough. And the stubborn rehearsal of his love makes for peace. As I drain the beans, fill the calendar, and rescue books from my velociraptor baby, I say to myself, Behold, here is my God, righteous and beautiful and mighty to save.

. . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
-Psalm 63

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space to know my own mind

One of social media’s marvels: how it lets me access the thoughts of otherwise unreachable humans.

Two of social media’s more pernicious aspects: the panicky hamster wheel of “keeping up” with those farflung humans– knowing perfectly well that they and their thoughts will never come to an end– and then, the beckoning chance to join them in the nonstop broadcast. Both are slow poison. You’ve got to keep reading or you might miss something important! So I stuff my mind with the clatter of three billion opinions.  If you have a thought, share it! So I live hyper-aware of how each moment may look on a screen. Either way, other people become the mediator between me and reality. I have no space to know my own mind, because . . . I have given myself none.

. . .

I have been considering the stewardship of the mind. Our precious gift of reason requires rest and slow unfolding. And I do think it is sufficient to arrive at a truth alone. To be pleased and thankful for growth or illumination, without immediately peeking around the corner. (Hey! What do you say? Will you legitimize my thoughts, please?)

The Word, after all, speaks mysteries mediated solely by the Spirit of God within us. Divine truth may often be spotlit or clarified by another person, but at the most crucial level it comes when our souls meet the enlivening work of God. Though we stand among the other saints and so often lean on them for strength– he knows us and reveals his glory to us as individuals— just to draw us to himself, just so that we can look into his face.

Jesus, of all people, had reason to think that each word out of his mouth should be heard by others. You would almost have understood if his life was one long stream-of-consciousness narration. Gather round, everyone, it’s the son of God! We’ve got to hear what he has to say about this! Tell us, tell us! If you have a thought, share it. Yet you see Jesus withdrawing for solitary communion with the Father, to say and hear and know things that went totally unheard by the rest of humanity, let alone written down for all time. To have those hours lived in his own soul was enough.

. . .

Well. I have been coming to terms with how the land of the internet maps no space to withdraw for the night and pray. It contains no quiet rooms, no respite from the frantic firing, because the internet is always on, and if you are there, so are you: vacuuming up words and images, trying to fling a clever morsel back out. I suspect that many of us need to rediscover the discipline of having our own minds. We so easily outsource them to the endless buzz. Are we afraid to have a mind, or just forgotten what it’s like? To be truly alone with our soul and our God. To be gripped by unmediated beauty or pain. To be wrapped up in the slow roll of a book, or reach out for the inelegant, stuttering, vital words of the friend right across our table.

The virtual world is brilliant and invaluable and I thank God for its invention, but it’s no place for a person to dwell. I want to live firmly among the flesh-and-blood people God has given me. I want to care soberly for my mind instead of flinging it about like a fishing net, trying desperately to scoop up the latest tidbits. I often wonder how we can embrace our infinite new connections while still maintaining our own selves. (I know, I know, me and the thousands of other hand-wringers.)

It’s a daunting task. But God provides his enabling grace. Yes! Maybe that has been the difference, lately. I’ve gradually realized that this discipline is more than just a nice little habit. It affects my very soul. Deep things are at stake. Carrying this great need, I cry out to the source of life. And God himself plunges into the clatter, gently shapes my heart to love what’s best, to seek after stillness in the pressing wasteland.

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follow the thread together

After 17 years of formal education, during which people told me what to read for at least three-quarters of the year, it was refreshing (and a little bewildering) to graduate from college and realize that I could now choose my own books. For a while I kept on picking from the should-reads, trying to form a good balance of Correct and Recommended Reading Material– I know this is an important classic, somebody I respect told me about it, I feel guilty that I was an English literature major but never got around to this one*. But then I realized that if I wanted to alternate frothy romances with 1500-page historical sagas, then plow through the complete works of Willa Cather, then pick up a completely unrelated book about Haitian healthcare or astronaut science, and then read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for the fifth time, nobody could stop me.

WOO HOO HOO it’s lucky I have a library card or there might soon be zero bucks left in our bank account.

Anyway, last summer I had a grumpy baby in the house and needed a truckload of levity to balance him out. So I checked out a string of comedienne memoirs. And this summer, as I watch my two oldest children figure out how to play well together, I’ve been remembering what Amy Poehler said about improv comedy: that onstage, you must always try to answer the other person with a Yes, and. Acknowledge what they said and then build on it. (“Look, a dragon!” “Yes! What’s it doing with that potato?”)

In the same vein, I am trying to encourage my girls to “play on the same side.” They need to receive the other person’s ideas as potential fuel for their own. Instead of each trying to seize sole control of the script, they need to follow the thread of the game together. They can’t be so tightly clamped to their original vision that unexpected suggestions threaten their mental stability. 😉 As they mature, they’re able to act more like an improv troupe–your success means my success–and less like two divas elbowing each other over the soprano role.

So then I start overhearing conversations like this:
“Let’s play Lick the Bug!”
“Ok. You be the fly and I’ll be the toad.”

Hmmmmm . . .

the two

*Lord of the Flies, The Color Purple, Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, anything by William Faulkner or Sylvia Plath…still have not read. Don’t intend to. And I finally admitted that I simply don’t like Flannery O’Connor. No thunderbolt of judgement yet.

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old lynchpins of identity

I have a note on my phone labeled “for talking,” a collection of all the stuff I would like to hash out with my husband but can’t even remember over the dinner table, where John flings macaroni onto his head and our daughters inquire about plant reproduction and the political history of New England. So this note gets pulled out on date nights, when we are holding cocktails instead of sippy cups. And it has also become a repository for Stuff Maybe I Should Write About, Or Just Tell Somebody About Because It’s Kind of Interesting.

One nice thing about being so flippin’ busy with motherhood? I have precious little time for guilt-trips about writing. I never blog, yet the world spins. My children grow– sometimes like weeds, sometimes like shyly blooming flowers. Friendships sprout in funny, unexpected, gracious ways. The long-haul investments that I’m making slowly accrue. And I realized last year, amid a panic over losing myself because of motherhood, that I’ve too narrowly defined my identity according to certain things I’ve accomplished– long in the past– and then I’ve believed I need to maintain those exact things in order to be THE TRUE AND BEST ME. So I had firmly framed myself as Writer Girl or Book Lady, and then trembled when changing circumstances threatened those traits. But those changed circumstances actually offered me new opportunities! To teach, to create beauty in my garden and house, to pull people together through persistent and honest hospitality. These are all such good things.  I was simply afraid to latch onto them and to admit that I’d drifted from my old lynchpins of identity.

(Hello, I am a risk-averse houseplant who loves safety nets and well-worn grooves.)

Sometimes bold faith means leaning stubbornly in towards a talent or interest that you have. And sometimes it means smiling peacefully as that talent appears to collect a bit of dust.

Though I think I’ll blow the dust off now and again.

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life in circles

I know my life will ultimately read as a line: beginning, middle, end. From that first spark of life given in the womb, to the march of divinely ordered chapters where I find myself now, to the last page when God finally carries his good work to completion, things are proceeding in one definite direction (and hallelujah for that). But linear as life looks from heaven’s viewpoint, I experience it in circles.

The circle of daily repetition. The circle of weekly repetition. The comforting yet sometimes heartbreaking circle of seasons, with each new spring or autumn bringing rich memories, but also a sharp realization that last year will never come again, we’ve moved on. And the constantly expanding or contracting circles of my capacity, which– for now– expand or contract according to the age of our youngest child.

Once past my first trimester, I can maintain a respectable level of energy and ambition right up until birth. But right afterwards: goodbye energy! Goodbye ambition! And I don’t mourn them much at first. I’m too busy kissing pink baby toes. Then once my body has healed and I’ve had my fill of cozy mornings in bed with a newborn, I get a smidgen stir-crazy. I remember all the things I’ve missed, again crave the physical and mental space that I need in order to do more than survive. Life has flattened. My brain has atrophied. Help! Do I ever get the deeper parts of me back? Do I ever get to stretch my wings outside of this nest of bare necessity?

Since adding tiny people to our home, I have treasured these lines from Psalm 16: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Yes, my brain resurrects from its postpartum daze. My wings find more room to flutter as the lines of my inheritance, so to speak, start to creep outward. But even before that, the portion was beautiful.

Twice now I’ve tasted a good season of fullness, able to breathe and imagine again, only to have my boundaries retract for another baby. I’m on the way outwards with John, I think. He sleeps, he plays, he squawks like a baby seagull when he’s happy . . . in the margins, I get to read giant novels and sketch out my summer garden. He still requires more attention than my first two but I’m feeling that returning freedom, that sense of being “me” again. I don’t have any plans to repeat the cycle. Not soon.

But with apologies to Winnie-the-Pooh, you never can tell with babies: if I had a dollar for every “unintended” child I know, I’d be able to take a pretty sweet vacation. It freaks me out sometimes. To lose my newly-staked space and retreat to a basic skeleton of life? Oh no. Yet the small portion is worthy. God would be there. (And a pregnancy isn’t the only thing that could suddenly change the lines. Who’s to say what other unexpected change might hem me in, perhaps even more long-term than a baby?)

For now, I enjoy my larger circle.

Without wringing my hands over when it will shrink again, and without depending too much on it staying as it is.

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courage in a long gray stumble

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

-Joshua 1:9

I wonder how many people, under what varied threats and catastrophes, have taken heart from these words. I like to visualize myself standing in their ranks. Locking elbows with others who lacked courage on their own, but drew on the diamond-hard presence of God for strength. I’ve never been one to seek out risk– and happily, my circumstances have rarely been perilous– but still I have fear. I have dismay. You don’t need to be a trailblazing missionary to tremble in your boots at the prospect of tomorrow.

Indeed, it’s the very smallness of my tomorrows that overwhelms me. The sense of triviality, of invisibility, of no one paying me any mind, of building nothing recognized by the world, of devoting myself to tasks– cleaning, feeding, encouraging, correcting– that vanish like so much smoke (and then clamor to be done again the next hour). I am terrified of wasting my life. And in the face of the massive frustration and waste built into mothering young children, I’m tempted to mutter “vanity of vanities!” and give up entirely.

This slog looks too long. This path looks too flat. This land looks too gray. I’m scared, I’m tired, I’m stumbling and I’m done.

Courage– where would that take me, if I had it? Maybe to a more exciting, fulfilling place. I could carve out a fascinating career, be a groundbreaking something-or-other. But that would mean chucking my children overboard, or at least neglecting the discipling and nurture they so desperately need from me. I know that many women faithfully combine the two, but I do not feel that calling. I toy with the idea, but for me, dramatically shifting my life away from its current pattern of motherhood and homemaking would be wilful force, not faithful boldness. God would not be there.

So the question is this: Is God here? Is he indeed with me wherever I go . . . even in this long gray stumble? Whether or not I believe this will make every difference in how I go on.

And I do believe it.

I believe that today, “strong and courageous” means staying. Opening my heart to my children and my hands to their needs. This is not wasting my life. It is not. It is not.

It means shutting my ears to the scream of the world, telling me that I need a platform! a brand! a polished resume! a Twitter following!!!!! Courage sticks out its chin and says no, fear and fatigue, you will not crush me. You cannot. It means accepting that this way of life will be hard; that its hardness will not be a signal to flee but weirdly a sign that I might be doing it right.

If I have this courage, I can jump into the void of the unrecognized.

You know, even without faith, I could still stay the course out of hapless resignation. Plod-plod-plod with eyes glumly on the ground. The other morning, though, as I read the first chapter of Joshua in between breaking up fights and mopping up yogurt, I had a flash of something further that courage might bring: joy. I am convinced that God not only sees what I do. He stands beside me as I do it . . . and “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

I’ll have to fight for it. But joy is there to fight for.

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