Unhitched (how I ended up in this field of wild flowers)

Last January I quit my job . . . this is the story of how I was given the courage to do it.

My small church graciously held open my position as associate pastor for six months after the twins were born.  As the time ticked by and the heavy heat of summer turned into fall, then winter, my mind and heart danced anxiously around the decision of whether or not I would return to work.  There were the usual pressures, finances and a fear of losing ground professionally, as well as the fear of losing myself in the incredible task of caring for four young children if I didn’t return to work. 

In my heart, though, I knew I simply couldn’t do it.  At five months out my body was still worn-out from the incredible pregnancy, the birth and the long-haul endurance race of breastfeeding twins.  The answer was simple, clear even, and I knew I couldn’t go back to work, couldn’t spin one more plate even if I wanted to. 
Still, I waffled, circling the kitchen in the evening while cooking dinner.  I peppered my wary husband with questions and arguments, offering different angles to consider and repeating again and again the questions, “I can’t do this, can I?” and “Am I crazy to even think of going back to work?” 
My husband wisely kept to neutral ground while voicing his support for “whatever I decided to do.”
I reached a decision, though I still could hardly speak of it, and told our main pastor.  I tearfully wrote a letter of resignation and headed to the board meeting where I would make my big announcement.  I got there early, my typed letters laying lightly in a bag at my side and sat down directly across from my friend, the senior pastor, who asked one more time, “Are you sure, you want to be done?”
It was a simple question, probably more for the sake of conversation than real inquiry, but I felt its pull like gravity.  In that moment I felt my need to be needed, my love of work, my desire to be important, all of those rose to meet the question and I paused as any addict might when confronted with a whiff, a glimpse of that which he or she has decided to renounce.
Then a vision came, brief and vibrantly clear, like a flash in my mind.  I saw a donkey standing in a field beside a heavy yoke that lay in the grass.  At the same time, while seeing the yoke and feeling the familiar pull of my old job, I also saw the sunlit field, which lay like a colorful quilt spread beneath a bright blue sky.  The field was filled with flowers, a joyful, chaotic display of beauty that stood like an invitation all around. 
The clarity of the invitation - to set aside my "work" and simply explore that field in all it's beauty - helped me find the freedom to choose.  There would be no condemnation if I chose to return to work, the donkey after all is a beast of burden, gifted at getting the job done.  But suddenly I could see more than the work that needed to be done.  I could see the field as more than a means to an end, more than just furrow after furrow of earth to turn for productivity’s sake.  I saw the beauty and possibility; I saw it could be a place for resting, a place for savoring and enjoying, a place worth exploring rather than cultivating, if only for a season. 
“Yes,” I said, “I’m sure,” though the tears still threatened to rise. 
I've cried many times since making that decision, felt waves of grief rise up on Sunday mornings as I miss the pulpit and its power, as I miss the role and the joy of getting behind the plow with a team and getting things done.  Yet I realize now that the work will always be there, but these precious beautiful flowers, oh my, they fade so quickly, I can hardly take them in and I don’t think I could live with myself if I missed even just one. 
I made my choice and wherever you see a field of wild flowers, that’s where I’ll be, just wandering, waiting, breathing them in and, oh my, if this is your season to work, may God bless you in it, but do stop by from time to time and I’ll show you what I’ve found, what God keeps showing me out in this field of beauty and wonder.      
Want to read more about the transition to being a mother of four?  You might enjoy, The Blessing or Impossible.  Follow this blog on facebook at A Field of Wild Flowers or on twitter @inthefieldswGod.
Photo credit: asergeev.com

Incarnation (God Stoops and Bows and Stretches Out Among Us)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14 a

Every day after their naps I carry my one year old twins down the stairs, one on each hip, like a hulking maternal weight-lifter.  Pausing in the kitchen, I lean them over the counter one at a time to grab their matching sippy cups and then hurry toward the living room hoping to make it there before my arms give-out.  Still holding them as they grip on to my shirt and cling to their precious juice, we all slide slowly to the floor where I sit cross-legged in front of the couch, one boy on each leg.
Here they alternate between snuggling and gulping, occasionally working out a tenuous trade of cups, a treaty composed entirely of gestures and grunts.  There’s an invisible, but mutually agreed-upon line of separation that runs down the middle of me - if one crosses into the other one's territory all hell breaks loose.  This causes me to marvel at their possessiveness, their indignation at having to share me as though they’re not both being held.

Later, at the end of a long day, just before my husband gets home or after dinner when the dishes are done and the floor swept, I make my way out into the living room.  Once there, I lay down and stretch out on my back on the floor.  

I hardly hit the dusty, old carpet before the twins come running and pile on me like puppies, slobbery and sweet with their toothy, wet smiles.  Their top-heavy little bodies tip and flip and roll on and off and around me and my only care is to make sure no one gets hurt.  

Sometimes, through great effort, Isaiah rights himself and circles out and away from me.  He toddles along on stocky legs and padded baby feet, grinning his gap-toothed smile as he looks back over his shoulder, then turns, running, and dives back into me.  

When I’m on the floor, I’m theirs - my body is theirs, my time is theirs and they claim their right to me fully.  I come and lay down among them because I know they will be drawn to me and my desire is to be with them. 

It occurs to me in this season of Advent that I can think of no better image for the Incarnation.  

In my stooping and bowing, my sliding down and laying out I am mirroring God to these boys; God who comes to dwell among us, laying down, stretching out in the middle of our dusty, dirty world, hoping we will be drawn to him.  God who holds us, who delights in us and marvels over our petty arguments, our human desire to part and parcel him out as though we are not all being held. 

This post is linked with Playdates with God.

Joseph's Dream (The Surrender to a Life Larger and More Beautiful)

This year I've found myself drawn to the character of Joseph in the stories of the nativity.  Mostly I find myself wondering about him - what kind of person was he to be able to surrender to a life so far beyond his control and desire?  to allow the inklings and images of a strange dream to shape his future?  As I wondered I started writing which led to this little bit of fiction.  Enjoy!  and May your Christmas be blessed! 
 *   *   *   *   *
There was no way to get comfortable, just as there was no way to quiet his racing mind.  Laying on the thin sleeping mat it felt as though his thoughts mirrored his body, restless, twisting, turning and seeking resolution.  He rose a time or two, paced, knelt, and rose to pace again.  He wandered out at one point into the dark night, the cool air, and paused to look up at the wide sky, the brightly hanging stars.  Rather than feeling relief, though, he was overwhelmed by his own smallness so that the wideness of the sky left him feeling more lost and fearful than he had since he was a small boy.  The enormity was disorienting, frightening and he quickly turned back inside and lay down with something like resolve. 
Still, sleep didn’t come. 

Most of what he knew about life he’d learned from working with wood and it was no surprise that his distracted mind, even now, kept returning to his workshop.  He’d learned, over time, to read the wood and find there the answer to his questions, not in the way of the sooth-sayers, seers and magicians who lined the market square, but in the same way that every skilled craftsman knows that all things material speak also of the eternal if one is able, willing, to listen. 
So it was that his mind worked on the problem, the conversation, going over it again and again as though sanding, seeking beneath the surface some deeper meaning, some guiding revelation.  He’d turned and walked out when she told him, the largeness of her revelation, of what she was asking, striking him like the wideness of the night sky so that he felt suddenly small and foolish, lost.  His leaving was automatic, rising from the primal urge to flee in the face of pain.   

He was grateful now that he hadn’t struck out in anger or rage as he might have in his youth.  Grateful that life had taught some level of restraint. 

He’d always been a dreamer, an idealist of sorts and in his youth the use of force and power were reflexive as a means to an end.  Believing in the righteousness of his ends, his ideals, he’d been known as a hothead, a firebrand, a short fuse that was quick to light and long-burning.  His religion, his righteousness, and the accompanying anger had given him a sense of identity, a sense of arrival and of having a place to stand in the world which, at the time, he took to mean that he was at long last a man. 

It was hard to say exactly what had changed him over the years other than the usual series of failings and fallings and losses.  The wood too, had worked on him even as he worked on it.  Wood doesn’t respond well to power and anger.  It had enraged him at times working beside his own quiet father; the way he couldn’t make the wood do what he wanted it to, couldn’t make it bend to his willing, but instead had to surrender himself to its lead.  It was the wood that caught him up short time and time again, caught him in his fire and force.

It took years of projects that splintered and split apart at the last minute, of bent nails and wood that turned on him to accept that he was not in charge.  When he worked in a shop of his own he would occasionally give in to frustration and rage, throwing a project with defiance.  There was a humility required in the craft that stood at odds with everything he believed about the world and what it meant to be a man in it. 

But that was a long time ago and now he felt himself changed, smoothed, worn-down, as though he were the piece of wood and life was itself the skilled hand of the carpenter.  Life had sized him up, stripped the bark and rough edges away until he found himself exposed and yielded like wood in skilled hands. 
Life had whittled away at him until what was left was something less, but purer and he’d fallen into a habit of waiting to see what use there might be for one so diminished. 

The arrangement, the engagement, had seemed too good to be true, unexpected, but fool that he was, it brought a spark of hope.  The girl wasn’t pretty, but sturdy and young.  To his eye she seemed like a tree, a rough exterior hiding something truer within; she had a depth and presence like all trees do and he found himself drawn to her.  He’d approached the engagement like he approached most pursuits these days, slowly, watchfully, and maybe that was why her words shocked him so, stung him in a deep place. 
Now he lay wrestling unwilling to accept one more submission, one more surrender to a life larger and more painful than he’d bargained on. 

At some point he found himself dwelling in the thin space between sleeping and wakefulness and this was when the dream came.  In the dream he was working in his shop, fitfully sorting through piles of discarded wood, looking for something he couldn’t name.  There were layers of dust and wood shavings everywhere that rose up like small clouds and flew like sparks as he frantically lifted and moved the lumber. 
Then he found himself in a shaded wood.  Sunlight glinted down through the uppermost branches of tall trees, but the ground where he stood was dark and cold.  Here too he was hunting, searching for something.  His axe hung from his calloused right hand as he plowed through the woods that seemed to go on forever.  He felt a deepening anxiety as he pressed forward, stumbling over the roots of ancient trees; the feeling that he was forgetting something important mingled with the feeling that some dark shadow was following him.

He was running, crashing through the woods given over almost completely to panic when he saw a glimmer of light in the distance.  The light calmed him enough that he stilled, turned and, as it happens in dreams, found himself standing inexplicably in a brightly lit clearing.  A stream ran through it, chattering along happily and beside it stood a young tree, its leaves green and shimmering. 
Something about the tree and the happy brook and the way it contrasted with his fear and anxiety sparked a deep rage inside of him.  Feeling the axe in his hand he turned and wielded it with all the strength of his youth.  He fell the tree in a few quick fierce blows and let the head of the axe fall to the ground, leaning over it drawing in deep shaking breaths. 

Then, looking up, he saw a small shoot growing up out of the stump as if in defiance to his destruction.  It grew and sprouted branches, leaves, before his very eyes.  It was as though the tree he’d cut down contained within it the seed, the root of an even greater tree.   This, too, sparked rage in him and he leaned back, straightening, and lifted his ax into the air bent on destroying the stump and the shoot with it. 
It was then that he felt the hand, hot and heavy like fire on the back of his arm, then that he felt the Presence of one standing, hovering behind him.   The touch stopped him, mid-swing and the fullness of time fell open around him.  It was as though the angel’s touch released a damn of sorrow and fear that had been building and the intensity of it all bent his knees and brought him broken, weeping to the ground. 

There was no way to say how long this lasted; it was an eternity and a moment at once.  As he felt the fire on his arm, he felt his own fear and foolishness as he had when confronted with the night sky and when the girl had told him her story.  Then the words came like a force that pulsed through him entering not just through his ears, but through his whole being, “Do not be afraid.” 
Those words washed over him like a wave so that his fears were lifted and following, like a second wave, he heard his own name, ”Joseph, son of David.”  At the sound of his name, he felt himself returned, no longer wandering or lost, but solid, present like one who’s returned home after a long and harrowing journey. 

As he knelt, rooted beside the stream, he felt the angel lift his chin, the touch now cool and refreshing, like water from a spring.  His chin was lifted and his eyes looked to where the tree had been and there he now saw the girl, Mary.  She looked straight at him and in that gaze he felt himself being aligned with her, felt the love rising in his gut, felt for once that he knew where he was, who he was and that everything from then onward would arise out of that knowing. 
In her eyes also he saw the light of the child that would come, like a glimmer of light without shadow, a small spark that would grow.  As he looked, the angel whispered in his ear one last word, “Jesus.”   And at the sound of the name, the spark leaped in Mary’s eyes and Joseph’s heart leapt within him. 

In the morning it would seem that after the dream he’d fallen into a deep, heavy sleep,.  It was the kind of restful, peaceful sleep he would never experience again.  For though the dream located him, changing forever the map of his life, the days and years ahead were still filled with restless, shifting nights.  Nights of worry,and foreboding, nights of fleeing and the hovering fear that he would prove at long last to be nothing more than a fool.  In this way his life was sanded down, bent in ways beyond his choosing and he learned to stop wondering what it would become and lean into what was. 
During those restless nights the dream was a star that guided him and he clung to it fiercely, that and the shepherds' visit, the star that hung low and heavy over the birthing place, and the visit of three dark strangers who mumbled in a foreign tongue, fussing over the child.  All of these became points of light in the darkness so that now when he lay restless, wrestling on his mat and rose, stepping out into the wide, dark expanse of the night, he felt not small and fearful, but rooted, as one following a scattered trail of stars toward home. 

The Longest Night (Winter Solstice and Grief)

The Well is Deep

It is a long journey
down into the deep well of grief,
but there are gifts too,
along the way.
Bright and shining stones
that line the path
guiding us into the heart of things.
These appear before us
one by one
like stars across
a darkening sky.
The journey is long
and the well is deep,
but these stones sustain.

- K. Chripczuk

*   *  *   *

I feel caught this week between real grief and desired joy as I tend my little flock and run and rush between holiday concerts and parties.  I've fought the urge to tear-up while waiting in line to drop my six-year-old off at her elementary school, noticing the newly stationed policeman watching over her small, bobbing frame as she disappears through those wide doors.  And I've felt a guilty pleasure every time I get to bring her back home with me at the end of the day. I've sat through too brief moments of silence unable to wrap my mind around a single word or a prayer that might suffice, which are followed by halting renditions of Jingle-Bells and tiny voices squeaking out memorized lines of "good news of great joy for all people."  

Tonight as I stood in the kitchen finally mixing up the long-awaited Christmas cookies it occurred to me that this is the longest night of the year - the winter solstice.   Here we are just a few short days before Christmas experiencing the longest night and to top it all off it's windy and cold here and I'm walking around tossing in ingredients and stirring up cookies with a blanket wrapped around me like a toga. 

If ever there was a time to pause and feel the weight of the darkness of the world we live in, then maybe this is it.  Before we turn to solutions and be-and-do-better-isms, before we take one more step down the road of blame or we allow our hearts to be darkened any more by the deadly poison of fear, maybe we can stay, just a little longer with our grief.  The words of Alice Howell ring in my ears tonight, "In the midst of death, there is life!  In the midst of despair, there is a future!  There is a purpose to all grief - the fruit to come of it is wisdom." (Sacred Journey)

There's much to be missed if we move too quickly out of this darkness. 

Maybe, if we give this night its full measure, we will be ready for the rays of light, the bright shinning forth of joy to come.  

Where Mary Meets Us (Did You Know Mary Had Five Boys?)

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19

I noticed her as I passed through the small chapel on my way back to my room where I would pump milk for the two babies I’d left at home. She was standing at the front of the chapel space cradling a child and as our eyes met I felt a moment of recognition and thought, “Now there’s someone I can relate to.”

This was during the first of nine mini-retreats I would be attending for a program on contemplative silence. I was disappointed to see that my fellow participants were older than me by a good twenty to thirty years. As a young mother I felt woefully out of place, painfully aware of my fear that I didn’t fit in, and afraid of the hunch that this was the wrong time in my life to embrace contemplative spirituality—to pursue a call to prayer and silence that stood in such stark contrast to the daily realities of my life.

It was with relief that I noticed the statue of Mary. There she stood, a young woman holding her young child smack-dab in the middle of that holy space and my eyes were suddenly opened to seeing Mary as a mother like me, Mary as a woman who pondered, who prayed in the midst of an everyday, ordinary life.

Continue reading this post here at shelovesmagazine.com.

They are Eating My Prayers (the hungry are filled with good things)

I stand over the small wooden table gazing at the meal, my eyes taking in its beautiful simplicity.  The host ladles me a generous scoop of steaming, creamy soup and I shuffle slowly around the table in silence with my fellow retreat participants.  I fill my plate with a simple fresh salad, top it with nuts, and move on toward the bread.  Reaching my hand out to pick up a slice I notice that each piece is generously buttered.  It's enough to make me want to weep.

To me, that butter is love and I see immediately how buttering bread can be an act of love - generous, simple and true.  With the sweep of a knife and the smooth gliding-on of glistening yellow goodness that bread became a sacrament, a means of grace, that butter yet another expression of the love of God in the world. 

*   *   * 

James Martin’s book, Becoming Who You Are, includes a discussion about Andre Dubus, an author who became a paraplegic in mid-life: 

In his essay, Dubus, a devout Catholic, describes the laborious process of making sandwiches for his young daughters to carry with them to school. As he maneuvers his large, bulky wheelchair around his cramped kitchen, as he reaches for the utensils, as he tries to open cabinet doors from his awkward position, and as he cuts the sandwiches, he realizes what he is doing for his children.

             Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread,
             of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread,
             this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments . . .

Dubus wrote about this in an essay entitled “Sacraments,” where he also says the following, 

A sacrament is physical, and within it is God's love; as a sandwich is physical, and nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love, if someone makes it for you and gives it to you with love; even harried or tired or impatient love, but with love's direction and concern, love's again and again wavering and distorted focus on goodness; then God's love too is in the sandwich.  (Meditations from a Movable Chair)

*   *   *

There are so many days when I feel it to be true – the fact that I simply don’t have enough to do this job of mothering well.  Not enough patience, not enough compassion and curiosity, not enough LOVE.  I am so busy.  I am so tired.  I am running on empty.

But still, I feed them, even if that feeding only consists in the tearing open of a bag full of salty, fatty carbohydrates; even if the meal was bought with money we didn’t have because for once I just wanted to sit down and relax together, gathered around these few moments of guilty pleasure. 

I chop, I peel, I dice and slice.  I sauté, bake, simmer and spread every day, three times a day or more.  I ladle, scoop, and dish it out.  These rituals I perform day in and day out, like a liturgy of love, each stroke of the spoon a prayer, each flip of the spatula an amen. 

These days, when feel I don't have enough, I trust, I hope and pray that these simple acts of love, these sacraments coming as they always do in broken ways will be transformed as they’re consumed.  Sunbutter and jelly sandwiches, gold fish and juice-filled sippy cups transfigured into love so that even on the days in which I have so little to give, they are being filled with good things. 

These children of mine, they are eating my prayers, being filled, bite after bite, with love. 

How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp (An Excerpt and A Review)

I was only a few weeks in to blogging when I stumbled across Shawn Smucker's blog via a friend's site.  His was one of the first blogs I ever followed, probably the first I commented on, and I continue to look forward to his posts each day.  Shawn's newest book, How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp, came out this week and is available in multiple formats on Amazon and at Shawn's website, shawnsmucker.com

The book follows Shawn and his family of six on a four month cross-country adventure.  Having dreamed of traveling the country in an RV "someday" Shawn and his wife Maile move their plans up by a few decades as they find themselves faced with a failing business and a simultaneous call to move into writing as a full time career.
Maile is also a writer and blogger and both contribute to the book that's both funny and reflective.  Shawn and Maile capture the excitement and anxiety of adventure while continuously giving glimpses into the deeper workings of God and grace in their lives. 
I'm please to share an excerpt from the book below and encourage you to check it out on Amazon or click over to Shawn's blog to find more reading.  This excerpt is a little more serious than much of the book, but is a prime example of the depth of insight with which Shawn and Maile explore life.   
*   *   *   *   *
One night I called my mom. Within a few seconds of hearing her voice on the other end of the line, I knew something was wrong.
“Shawn, I have some not-so-good news,” she said in a quivery voice reserved for funerals and personal catastrophes.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Your aunt has cancer,” she said.
It’s rather shocking, actually, to discover something like this. It felt like discovering there was a traitor in our midst. I found myself wondering which nearly invisible cells in my own body were planning a revolt. Which tree was going to fall on our bus. I started seeing death behind every oncoming car, or hiding in every shadow.
Then a few weeks later I found out that some very close friends of ours were miscarrying their baby. I didn’t know the details. But the sadness was recognizable and reminded me of standing next to Maile at a routine doctor’s visit when she was pregnant with our third child. The doctor looked up at us with pursed lips and confused eyebrows.
“I’m really sorry to tell you this,” she had said. “But something isn’t right.”  A few weeks later, Maile miscarried. Friends hugged us. We walked around our house quiet and empty.
There is something devastating about hope unattained. The unexpected diagnosis. The bright candle that turns into a smoldering wick. The “something isn’t right” speech. Sometimes, just sometimes, it makes me wonder if hope is worth it. Makes me want to live a life where I always expect the worst, keep my hands closed, my eyes on the ground in front of me. Too much looking out at horizons exposes one to the possibility of disappointment.
Then on a Tuesday evening during our time in Nashville, I went outside to help Maile’s brother till his garden. He and I took turns pushing the rototiller around, pushing all the old dead grass and hay under the rich brown soil. Then I raked out the dead stuff to the edges and piled it all into the wheelbarrow. The soil went from looking barren and rather unwilling to expectant. Open.
It takes a lot of turning over to reach that point. A lot of pounding and tearing and grinding of the soil. The rototiller grasped at the ground like giant claws. Our shovels bit into the ground and formed the edge of the garden.
As I worked the soil and the sun dropped behind those Tennessee hills, I thought of my aunt with cancer. My friends losing their baby. They were being tilled. They were being churned up.
But I know them, and I know their hearts. And while it will not diminish the pain they feel now, I marvel at what rich soil they will become.

*   *   *   *   *
Shawn Smucker is the author of How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp and Building a Life Out of Words. He lives in Lancaster County, PA with his wife Maile and their four children. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook, and he blogs (almost) daily at http://shawnsmucker.com/  Maile blogs at mailesmucker.blogspot.com.   

Nothing Will Be Impossible (Where Mary Meets Us)

"For nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 1:37

I can't do this.
I am doing this.
Both. And.

This is where we live,
where Mary meets us.
And we all cry out together
to the angel and the blinding light,
"How can this be?"

Then comes the reply,
"The spirit of God, my friend,
the spirit of God."

And we all cry out together,
and we all cry.
Both. And.

*   *   *   *   *
I wander around the house these days, treading water, trying to stay afloat while crunching layers of cheerios under my feet and endlessly ferrying dirty glass bowls from one room to another.
I tell myself I’m the least likely candidate to be in charge of what feels like a small daycare. I think to myself, “This is not me. This is not possible. How can I be a mother of four kids?” 
Click here to cotinue reading this post titled: Impossible.

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What impossible thing are you facing today?  May Mary's question and the angel's answer be a guide and a comfort to you.     

Where the Wild Things Are (and where Good News begins)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God . . . John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark 1:1-4 adapted

I met my friend in the wilderness the other night. Well, it wasn't exactly the wilderness, but it was a bar of sorts, which for me still qualifies as a real and somewhat alarming wilderness, being the good Christian girl I was raised to be. She was late and I sat there in the dim light trying to appear busy on my phone and constructing to-do lists on the white placemat in front of me.

She arrived full of unnecessary apologizes which I quickly brushed aside and we dove in head first. Between us there's little need for small talk and right there in the middle of that noisy wilderness we each pulled open the layers of our lives and sat back, listening through tears as our hearts talked for awhile.

This is the friend who tells me how her marriage really is, tenuous and struggling, and shares how she slapped her son in a moment of exasperated rage that has melted now into a messy pile of regret. She is the one I can tell how I yelled at my own son, threw a royal tantrum of rage that scared him and me and how we all ended up on the couch in tears trying to figure out how that day could be redeemed.
*   *   *
I have to admit that I never really liked Maurice Sendak's book, Where the Wild Things Are.  I tend to like books that are warm and pretty, books that affirm my need for a world that's safe, orderly, and predictable. But, it’s possible that the fact that I don’t particularly like the book is an indication that I do get it, a little bit at least. What I do understand is that Max is struggling with the wilderness, with all that is wild and untamed both inside and outside of himself.

Something about the unrelenting, all-humbling job of parenting leaves me all too familiar with this wilderness. If my life were a children's book, then one might notice a forest of sorts growing in my house most days right around four pm or any other time that happens to be about an hour before my husband is due home and a half-hour before I lose it.

Too often by that point the day is been played out - patience is gone. I'm wresting dinner onto the table while kids are whining, fighting, hanging and swinging off of my legs like the little wild things they are. By then we're all wearing our wolf suits and if the windows are open the whole neighborhood can hear the roaring, gnashing of teeth and rumpus that ensues. As a parent, as a human, I'm well acquainted with wilderness and wild things, within and without, but it doesn't mean I like it.
*   *   *

It's significant that the gospel of Mark places the advent of the good news of Jesus Christ right smack in the middle of the wilderness. This gospel has no time for angels, places no stock in genealogies or other such small-talk as a means of introducing the striking, challenging figure of Christ who emerges in the pages that follows. Mark begins like my friend and I do, by peeling back the layers and starting not in the skies full of stars and angel choirs, but on the bare, dusty, rocky ground of the wilderness.

Something about this gives me heart, gives me hope, as this first week of advent is designed to do. Something about it resonates with the prophecies of Christ and the prophets who spoke them, those craggy ill-kempt men and women who lived on the edges and thereby lived and spoke that much closer to the heart of things.

The good news begins in the wilderness. What a challenge, what a hope.

*   *   *
The friend I met with told me how she'd shared with her counselor that she has few real, close relationships, few relationships where anything beyond the bright cheery small-talk of this season might be appropriate. Her counselor said, "Yes, but what about this Kelly? It seems like you have a real relationship with her, why do you think that is?"

My friend, God bless her, said, "Kelly's real. I mean, she told me she threw an apple peel at her children, for goodness sake, so I feel like I can be my real self with her."

After telling this story she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "Why is it so hard to believe that our humanity is what's most attractive about us?"
*   *   *
Oh, my friends. How deep and wild is the wilderness within you? Who do you have who's willing to meet you there?
*   *   *
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ - the One who came and dwelt among us, who meets us in the fullness of humanity. Christ, who "sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year" to meet us here, "where the wild things are."


I'm so grateful for my friend who gave me permission to share from our conversation - she's one of the flowers in this beautiful field.

Dostoevsky 's Cook (An Angel, an Onion, and a Pair of Boots)

It's only a story, but it's a nice story.  I used to hear it when I was a child from Matryona, my cook, who is still with me.  It's like this.  Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was.  And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind.  The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire.  So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God; "She once pulled up an onion in her garden," said he, "And gave it to a beggar woman." And God answered, "You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out.  And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is."  The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her.  "Come," said he, "catch hold and I'll pull you out."  And he began cautiously pulling her out.  He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her.  But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them.  "I'm to be pulled out, not you.  It's my onion, not yours."  As soon as she said that, the onion broke.  And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.  So the angel wept and went away.  - Fyodor Dostoevsky

*   *   *

There was a time about eight months after the twins were born that I felt like I really needed (ie. wanted) a pair of rain boots.  I scoured the internet for weeks on end, I watched e-bay like a hawk and finally I bought a beautiful pair of lime green boots - they're the happiest boots I've ever seen. 

When they arrived my children swarmed the door as they do any time the UPS man approaches.  I grabbed the box, declared it MINE and quickly set it aside to open later. When I finally opened them I was greeted by their heavy rubbery smell and marveled at their beauty as my children stood by, their eyes glowing with excitement and anticipation.  I looked the boots over and set them aside. 

My children gasped in astonishment, "You're not going to wear them!?"  They immediately clamored around my precious new boots and began man-handling them in a wide variety of ways. 

In that moment something rose up in me and I blurted out, "No, these are MY boots.  You MAY NOT touch them."  My children looked heartbroken, confused, as I gathered those boots and hauled them off to my room where they stood in line like soldiers awaiting the call of duty, waiting until I was good and ready to enjoy them. 

*   *   *

It's strange, I know, but I rather like Dostoevsky's onion story.  I like the way it captures the impulse of human greed in such a recognizable way, how cleverly and simply it reveals the way that greed hurts not only the greedy, but all involved.

I love this story in the same way I love the story of Jonah for it too is a story of greed and jealousy to the point of hatred and Jonah too is willing to die rather than let go of his righteous anger.  These stories catch me and I glimpse myself in them as one does in walking by a mirror or store window; in a flash something is revealed in me that I know to be true but am not often willing to recognize. 

I value this story for the way it catches me unawares and raises questions about my possessiveness, the way I protect me and mine and the cost of the things I keep.  No one could truly be as "wicked" as the woman was said to be, but that impulse is something we all know. 

I'm a giving person, as a mother of four one could argue that I give of myself all day every day and it's good and right that a few things should be saved for just me alone.  I would say you're probably right on most accounts, but the next time my husband reaches over into my bowl of chips and I slap his hand away with a snappy, "Get your own bowl," maybe I'll remember this woman and her onion. 

When the words "It's mine, not yours," rise so easily, so reflexively, and in such contrast to the mercy and joy and grace of the moment, I want to notice them, to sit awhile and consider their source, to notice the cost they bring to bear on my own soul and the souls of those around me. 

Help me to remember, God, with grace, the cost of MINE.  Help me to discern what to hold tightly lest I be held, imprisoned by that which I hold. 

*   *   *   *   *

I read this story last month in preparation for a retreat on Giving and Receiving.  It stayed with me, captured me, and rolled me around in its images and irony, its extremes and it's still not finished with me yet.  So here I am, sharing it with you.  What do you think? 

Playing the Love Card (a cure for grumpy bears and grumpier mothers)

One day Bartholomew was grumpy . . . His ears were cold.
"Wrap your scarf around your ears to keep them warm, " said George.

But Bartholomew was still grumpy. His legs felt too stumpy.
"I'll carry you," said George.

At home, Bartholomew's porridge was too lumpy,
his tummy too plumpy, and he was too small.
"I'll feed you," said George.

At bath time, Bartholomew hid. He did not like anything at all.
"What a day," said George. "You've been so grumpy, your legs have
felt stumpy, your porridge was too lumpy, your tummy too plumpy but,
Ba . . . I love you just the way you are."

Bartholomew felt better.
He kissed George and he brushed his teeth all by himself.

"Time for bed, Ba," said George. "We both need a little rest."
"Nah," said Bartholomew.

*   *   *   *   *

My husband and I worked at a personal care home for about two years when we first got married.  When the time came for us to leave one elderly woman told me how much she would miss us.  She said how much she liked and admired my gentle, soft-spoken husband and then she said, "But you, you could be a little grumpy at times."

I let the sting of her well-meaning comment settle a little, then looked her straight in the eye and said, "You're right, I can be a little grumpy sometimes." 

I guess maybe something like that could go on my tombstone, "Here lies a beloved wife and mother who could be a little grumpy sometimes."  It's true after all, there are days when I simply feel far from myself, out of sorts with the world and everything in it.  Days when there's an itch in my soul that I can't scratch, the feeling of something chaffing away at me so that the day itself leaves me fit to be tied no matter how good or bad or in-between it is.  Just ask my kids or my husband, they could tell you about it for sure.

I'm aware enough now at the ripe old age of thirty-five, to know when it's happening, to feel it coming or be able to step back in the middle of everything and see myself with an objective eye.  I know enough to recognize that it usually comes over me because of some rigid unspoken rule I've placed on the day or the moment.  There's nothing wrong with hopes and standards, but when the whole day is conspiring against you (as today happens to be, if you hadn't already guessed) it's best to somehow let yourself and those you love off the hook in some way or another. 

The only way I know to escape this is to surrender to the small grains of love and grace that surround me, to take my eyes off of my goals or dissatisfactions long enough to see something more and to open myself to the love that is True no matter what, whether I'm able to get out of the mood or mess I'm in or not.

You'll forgive me, won't you, if there are days, weeks, months when I play the "love card" with my grumpy old self, when I play it over and over like a favorite worn out record for my kids and my spouse?  Don't we all have days when we and the world we live in are just too "lumpy, plumpy and stumpy" to bear?     

I'll admit that there's something about playing the love card that seems a little weak, like maybe I'm getting too soft on myself, letting my standards slide a bit too far.  Love, really?  Like gratitude, it seems so ineffective, so unproductive, to people who're sold on the likes of power and control and self-improvement. 

Maybe, though, love is the best card we have to play, the only card that can bring us out, set us free from our wretched state of sin and sorrow and, perhaps even grumpiness.  I'm convinced it was one of Jesus' favorite tricks, which of course made plenty of those around him madder than all heck and drew others to him like all grace draws a sin-heavy soul. 

I have to wonder, too, if this isn't what Christmas and the cross that follows are all about, God playing a big 'ol grand love card on our behalf, freeing us to be better than we know ourselves to be.  "I love you, just the way you are," says the manger and the star, the sky full of angels and light.  "I love you," says God, "I love you."

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
- Christina Rosetti         

I Would Like to Buy $3 Worth of God, Please (vol.3)

This is my response to the following quote, the last in a series of three:

I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. - Tim Hansel on most Christians' priorities. 

*   *   *   *   *
I understand what Tim Hansel is trying to say here - that too often we want only what's comfortable or convenient of God, which is true.  I have a problem, though, knowing what to do with this observation.  It somehow seems to send me veering off into guilt (well, I guess I'm really not good enough after all) and subsequent striving (because I'm not good enough, I will take on self-improvement projects and thereby transform myself). 
This is old, old thinking for me, you see, I'm naturally a bit of an extremist, black and white to a fault, do or die, all or nothing. When I was a teenager at a youth rally in a stadium filled with my peers, I responded to the call to be a “martyr” for Christ, a call that naively predated our current era of terroristic martyrdom. I sat with my friends in our high seats with my heart pounding and hands sweating as the altar call came with the instructions to stand and yell, “I want to give my life away,” then make your way with speed down to the front.

I did it; I stood and shouted and ran like the devil was on my tail, as though one more act of courage might finally get me over that fearful line in the sand that I always felt existed between me and the God I longed for. When the choice comes between hot or cold, I’ve always pushed hard toward hot, fanning the flames of faith and devotion, laying on wood until the fire raged pulsing with a life all its own. But over time a fire like that consumes too much and burns those who wander too close to its light.

At the same time, though, I, like the apostle Paul before me, am the chief of sinners, the foremost hypocrite, a real standout in the crowd of double-speaking, fork-tongued followers most of us know ourselves to be. Giving my life away in that stadium packed with sweaty, hormonal teens may have been the easy choice; easier to give my uncertain life away than to embrace it with all of its ambiguity and freedom and potential for disaster or glory.

That simple act of faith was nothing when compared to the taste of daily surrender, daily trust, daily openness to the abiding call of love that I’ve learned in the many years since. Every day now I sit, metaphorically, in that stadium seat, each moment offering choices both false and true, and my heart pounds and my hands grow sweaty as I face the same choice again and again and again.

Yet what I now know to be true is that I was no closer to the love of God when my voice cried out and my feet made their thundering, pounding run toward the stadium’s ground level, than I was the moment before when I sat hunched amidst my friends who’s hearts surely were pounding too. I now know that there’s no falling or running or sinning my way out of the love of God, no surrender of a life that isn’t mine to begin with. 

We don’t need more martyrs, more striving, try-harder sorts of people and God doesn’t need them either. What we do need are people who’re willing to embrace and be embraced by the presence of God in whatever guise it comes – even in the $3 bag if that’s what’s offered or what our hearts can bare.  I think of people like Paul and Moses who counted themselves lucky to have seen less of God; a blinding light or a heavy cloud passing over a mountain’s crevasse was more than enough for them. God appears most often in the small, the whisper, the enigmatic response and blessed are those humble enough to recognize him there. 

I don't have many opportunities for grand gestures of faith these days, but moment by moment I'm choosing surrender.  I'm seeking out the small scraps of God, the hem of his garment, the crumbs that fall from the breaking bread of communion. These I can gather by the handful, feasting on the tiny morsels, spreading them around and sharing what I find.

I know now that I don’t have to “sell out” to God, because God has already “sold out” for me; I know that the answer to a faith of passive resignation isn't  greater self-control.   Though I spend a lifetime trying, I’ll never gather up all there is to be had of the One who gathers us all.

God, in this season when we await the One who comes to us in the tiny, frail package of human flesh, help us to be willing to receive you as you are. Teach us the art of surrender to the you and may the words of our hearts ever be as faithful and willing as Mary, "Let it be unto me."  

Coats (May Warm Be Enough)

The More We Own The Less We Have to Name

If we had only one coat, we would call it Warm,
but if we got another, it would not be Warmer,
      just our other coat,
and if we bought, borrowed, stole
      or rescued from the trash
a third, fourth, or fifth coat,
if our closets held so many coats
jackets, parkas, capes, stoles, mantles and mackinaws
that if we changed them daily from October through April,
rotating cashmere, leather, fleece and down,
scarlets and peacocks, blacks and browns,
if we had coats to cover the entire tundra
      and with it all our ancestors
who ever felt the chill of His absence,
none of these would be Warmer,
none of these would be Enough.

- L.N. Allen

We have a whole room in our house lined with pegs and devoted to the storage of coats - a startling array of outerwear designed to help ease six people through four seasons worth of weather and everything in-between.  In that small back room, a former porch now closed in, there are more coats for us all than Baskin Robbins has flavors - a coat, you might say, for every palate. 

I also have a whole room in my memory devoted to the coats of my past, a musty closet so full that the door will hardly stay shut anymore.  If you were to dig your way cautiously in to that dark closet in the hallway of my brain you might find, way in the back, the mustardy-golden wool coat with large toggle buttons that I thought was oh-so-trendy in high school.  Hanging near it, or cast forgotten onto the floor, lies the bright orange and navy blue windbreaker that matched so well with my eyes, but made me feel like a construction worker every time I wore it. 

The dark wool pea-coat I bought at the salvation army in college would still be there hanging stiffly on its hanger.  It was ungodly heavy, decked out with two rows of silver buttons and appeared to me to be a real cast-off from the Navy.  Nearby would be the thin yellow rain coat I bought for a camping trip with my then boyfriend who later became my husband, as though the purchase of a coat between us somehow sealed the deal. 

Hanging toward the front, still usable, would be the burgundy knee-length coat that makes me feel a little like a rock star every time I wear it.  This is the coat that caused my husband to suggest in a gentle tone when I returned home from buying it, that maybe we should consult each other before making big purchases. 

I have too many coats (maybe I always have) and my husband and children do too.  Lately I'm hunting for a back-up winter coat for my daughter.  I've made multiple trips to a variety of stores, ordered two online and returned, all because I don't like the way her bright pink parka from last year is starting to show some wear. Walking into Old Navy on yet another scouting trip I noticed a box for donating old coats as you buy a new one and I thought, "Why not keep your old coat and buy a new one to donate?" I didn't do either, though, not that day nor since. 

The coats we wear, like much of our clothing, are often a symbol for identity, announcing to the world our interest in outdoor sports or our need to hide behind something long and warm that covers us.  Our coats hold us, warm us and I have to restrain myself every year to keep from buying an over-abundance of fleeces and hoodies at yard and consignment sales, so great is my desire and my pleasure at covering, clothing, my children.

I have too many coats as our back room will tell you and many days I'm convinced that this is more of a burden than a blessing.  I wonder what these coats might tell me if I were to listen to them one by one.  Certainly they would speak of my vanity, my desire to fit in or stick out in equally competing measures.  They might mention also, perhaps shyly, my fear of the cold and how holding myself too tightly rigid only makes the shivering that much worse.  They would probably want to know why I don't go out more often, to enjoy the cold or the rain or the wind, especially now that I have them to keep me.   

Gracious God, we in our frail humanity fear the cold, the wind, the rain.  To put it more plainly, ever since that incident in the garden, we fear exposure.  Forgive us, please, if we go a little overboard in covering ourselves and the ones we love.  Help us to bear, oh Lord, your stripping.  Teach us to welcome the first breath of frost and its burning sting.  Help us to learn to let Warm be enough. 

I Would Like to Buy $3 Worth of God, Please (vol. 2)

This is the second in a three-part series of posts based on the following quote:

I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. - Tim Hansel on most Christians' priorities.

This second post was written by my friend, Tom Kaden. Tom came on staff at Engage Community Church when I was associate pastor and filled in for me when I took leave to have the twins.  About six months later Tom and his wife Sarah found out they too were having twins, so our families now mirror each other, since they also already had two older children.  They welcomed two beautiful baby girls into the world about six weeks ago.  Tom continues to lead at Engage and has also started a non-profit counseling ministry called Someon To Tell It To.  Tom and his business partner Michael blog at Someone to Tell it To. 

*   *   *   *   *

There is a three letter word that maneuvers its way into our vocabulary and it is quite possibly more damaging and destructive to our well-being and the well-being of those around us than most of the four letter words our society deems as immoral.  This three letter word rears its ugly head nearly every time we ask our children to clean their play rooms; it rears its ugly head nearly every time we are asked to do something uncomfortable or painful by our boss or co-worker (even if it isn’t voiced out loud); it even rears its ugly head in the lives of those of us who call ourselves faithful followers of our “Lord” Jesus Christ when we read passages in the Bible which make hairs stand up on the backs of our neck.  If you haven’t guessed it just yet, then you just lost at our game of hangman.  The three letter word I am thinking of is the word: BUT…!!!

Maybe you are sitting at your job and a co-worker just asked you if you could help him with a minor issue he is faced with on his computer.  You are in the middle of an important project and you have a looming deadline hanging over your head.  Guess what word just popped into your head?  It’s that destructive word: BUT…!!!  “I’ll help you BUT…I really need to get this project done first.  Or, maybe your spouse asked you to help change a diaper (or two), but your favorite team or show is on television and you don’t want to miss a minute of it.  There it is again, that damaging word: BUT…!!!  “I’ll help you, BUT…can it wait until the next commercial?” 
Do you resonate with those examples?  If not, how about this one?  This morning before you started your quiet time of meditation on the Gospel of Mark, you prayed out loud, “Lord, today I recommit myself as your disciple.  You are the Lord of my life.  Direct my path today.”  After you are finished, you pick up your Bible and continue your study on the Gospel of Mark.  Today’s passage is the story of the Rich Young Ruler.   You read the story and your eyes read verse 21 as quickly as possible where Jesus says: 21"You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  
“BUT," you think, "…surely, not I Lord. Surely that passage isn’t meant for me. I’m barely making enough money to support our family of five. I know this passage reads, sell everything you own and give to the poor, BUT…I have a family to feed. I can’t give out of nothing!”  There it is again, that three letter word which has so much become part of your vocabulary that it leaves you further and further from experiencing the truth of the Gospel in your own life. 
The truth is the three-letter word BUT could be used for good in our lives.  It doesn't always carry with it such negative connotations if used as another reminder of how the Gospel has changed us and the model that has been laid before us.  For example, in Philippians chapter 2, Paul says (of Christ):
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
BUT, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Notice in this passage how Paul uses the three letter word “BUT”, yet he puts a much more positive twist on it.  He reminds us, as he was reminding the church hundreds of years ago, that Christ Jesus, even though He was equal with God, set aside His rights--to serve us.  He willingly chose to not use that fateful word as a roadblock to loving others, but instead as the foundation for His goodness, grace, and compassion. 
So maybe for us the takeaway is this: Yes, you have a family of five to feed on very little income, BUT…God has given you something or some way to love, bless, and serve His kingdom.  Yes, your spouse just asked you for a second time to change your daughter(s) diapers, BUT…this time in your daughter(s) lives is fleeting and these moments will end soon and there will always be another game or another show to watch.  Yes, your co-worker just asked you to help him with his computer glitch for the third time today, BUT…God has given you an amazing opportunity to use your gifts to be a blessing to your co-worker in a way that maybe no one else in the office can.
Today I am reminded of Christ’s example of humility and grace and openness to God’s transformative power.  I am reminded of the great length He has gone and continues to go to extend His unconditional love and mercy to us.  This changes everything because our motivation isn’t a means of trying to earn God’s love and approval and it’s also not just about us as individuals which the negative use of the word BUT often implies.  Christ used the word BUT not as a way to close doors or miss opportunities to extend love, compassion, and grace; instead, used the word as a means of opening His very life and ours to the amazing grace, abundant compassion, and absolute love.         
[Stay tuned for my take on this quote and, as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts too.  I'm sure Tom would enjoy hearing your comments. If you like this piece, take a few minutes to explore the blog posts on his website - you won't be disappointed.]