Midrash

What's Midrash? It's an ancient practice of asking questions in community. It’s a way of understanding a puzzling or controversial story or text together.

The Jewish scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) use midrash to mean investigating an issue or seeking God’s will. Over time, it became a way for rabbis to interpret and apply biblical stories to later historical contexts. Pete Enns describes midrash as going “beyond and beneath the “plain meaning” of the text for the purpose of addressing some difficulty in the text or [to] bring that past text into conversation with present circumstances” (check out his full essay here).

Midrash is what we’re calling something my friend Becky and I have been cooking up this summer. We're dreaming of an online learning community-a book club of sorts-where you can engage with new ideas. Or with old ones in fresh ways. 

We want it to be a place to find conversation partners for questions around faith and community and culture. A place to be open to hope and possibility. To connect with other curious minds to process life and be intentional about growth in a setting where you can interact and learn from those outside your everyday circle.

We want to be a community that’s not afraid of admitting what we don’t know or understand. We’re committed to a culture of mutuality and learning from one another and to the freedom for respectful disagreement. We’re captivated by the old idea of amateurs not as people who are unskilled or haphazard but as those who engage something simply for the love of it. We love taking chances to expand our shared understandings of belief and practice around things like faith, culture, justice, community, and church. As we go, we’re shaped by the beliefs that the Bible still has a lot to teach us about God and reality; that the gospel truly is good news; and that the future will be shalom shaped even as we acknowledge the brokenness of our times.

When we meet we’ll analyze, evaluate, and critique together. And we’ll talk about what living into the best of what we’ve learned looks like for our individual contexts.

If you decide to be part of this, every few weeks you’ll receive some focus questions and a brief meditation to encourage you to keep going in your reading and discovery. And prior to our online conversations, a discussion guide and questions will be provided.

We’ll be gathering every other month starting this October.  A month or so before each meeting, we’ll let you know what book(s) we’ll be using as jumping off points for our conversations. We hope you’ll join us!

Go here to learn more about Midrash (you'll need to scroll down and expand the tabs to learn about the topics listed). And here's where you sign up.

And for scholarship information or with any other questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Terra or Becky.

Photo cred: Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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Three True Things

So I’ve been cleaning out my inbox this week. Because I’d let thousands of messages accumulate. It’s embarrassing. You can totally judge me if you want. Most of them were daily alerts or advertisements or articles I’d earmarked to read later. But still. 

In the process, I came across this short email I’d sent myself. Because that’s a thing people do. I was recounting an experience walking my dog Edie on the trail that I didn’t want to forget. But I had forgotten it. I found myself really grateful to be reminded. So…yay email and over-stuffed inboxes, I guess. 

I wrote about hearing a condemning voice echoing in my head as I was posting a Psalm for the day. The voice said simply, “you are nothing.” It didn’t stutter. It didn't mince words.

I wrote about my instinctive response. Which was to bow in agreement, assenting my worthlessness. But then I felt a pause. I remember it now. And in that breath, God reminded me. 

Reminded me that I am a chosen child of God. That I am a mother in the church. That I am powerful.

I told the voice of darkness, “you are right to fear me.” 

And I just want to say that the same is true for you. You are chosen and loved. You matter. You are more powerful than you know. You have the same well of courage and strength inside you. Walk in it. With kindness and grace. With your head held high and your shoulders back and a little smile on your face. It matters. There’s work to be done and battles worth fighting.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

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Just Mercy Review

I finished Just Mercy on the way back from a conference a few weeks back. I’m grateful for Stevenson’s ability to tell painful stories with hope and grace. And I have deep respect for the work he has and is doing—it was incredible to hear about the hours he and colleagues put in to barely make ends meet while regularly receiving death threats. For offering legal counsel to those who needed it. 

He does a great job of unpacking how factors like childhood abuse and neglect, poverty, trauma (especially by those who have served in the military or lived in neighborhoods plagued by violence), and mental illness play into a justice system that is sometimes shockingly inept and is often racist in fact, sometimes by accident and sometimes not. His first hand witness and research are in keeping with a new study finding that 42% of people in prison witnessed someone being killed as a child.

I was shocked at the number of times he describes someone’s conviction as being connected to public defenders who were later disbarred for gross incompetency or ‘experts’ who were literally con men who had invented credential they didn’t possess. And the tragic frequency of rape and other violence at the hands of prison guards and even chaplains was both heartbreaking and infuriating. 

The past few weeks, I’ve read a lot of stories about the new rules for immigrants that are resulting in babies and children being taken from their parents and placed into separate housing facilities in Arizona and elsewhere. Some women applying for asylum to escape violence and death threats have instead been incarcerated and separated from their little ones. Others have come illegally, seeking a better future for themselves and their families. This made me think of Stevenson’s point that almost two-thirds of women in prison are there for low level property crimes like writing hot checks because they couldn’t afford Christmas gifts for their kids. He writes, “75 to 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers with minor children. Nearly 65 percent had minor children living with them at the time of their arrest—children who have become more vulnerable and at-risk as a result of their mother’s incarceration and will remain so for the rest of their lives, even after their mothers come home” (236-237). What will be the ongoing impact of the trauma resulting from this policy majoring on kids being taken from their parents and placed in ‘foster care or whatever?’ 

The stories of willful ignoring of evidence, of children trying to protect adults or simply survive being convicted as adults, the death and bomb threats received while working to see that people get a fair trail, all of it—it’s the kind of knowledge I wish I didn’t need. But I recognize it’s essential if I’m planning to take seriously Micah’s timeless admonition to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly (and I am). Because knowing these stories will help me pray and act based on what really is (at least for now) and what I hope America and its justice system can become. 

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What if it's more beautiful than we imagine?

Water has always been a place of joy and life for me. I loved to swim as a kid. I felt at home and free in the water in a way that I did few other places. I remember the pool in the apartment complex where my mom and I lived before I was in Kindergarten. I remember my mamaw and papaw’s pond. My cousins and I could not wait to jump in the water despite the occasional water moccasin or snapping turtle. We didn’t care. My mamaw—a biology teacher and ardent nature lover—always assured us that our splashing would keep anything dangerous away. And she was right. 

I remember my mimi’s fancy country club pool, too. I would stay as long as the grown ups would let me—jumping off the diving board, doing the ‘Nestea Plunge,’ summersaulting underwater, trying to swim the length of the pool without coming up for air. I remember sleeping over at her house one summer not long after I’d become part of her family. She promised we could go swimming first thing the next morning. I put on my swimsuit before breakfast and tried to pass the time until she was up. When I couldn’t wait a minute longer, I went into her room to see if she was ready to go. It was around four in the morning. 

And there was a TV show I loooved called Man from Atlantis. Patrick Duffy (Bobby from Dallas) played an amnesiac survivor from the ancient culture. Which is super plausible obviously. He could breathe underwater and his hands and feet were webbed. I remember swimming in the water’s blue shadows, imitating the way the (mer)man swam.

As I’ve gotten older, I still love swimming and kayaking and paddle boarding even though I’m maybe a little less excited about putting a bathing suit on. And I still love even being near water. There is something healing about it for me. Moving to where I can see the lake from our windows has been an incredible gift. 

All to say, I’ve always felt a little sad and confused when I read the bit about the new earth in which there was no longer any sea (Revelation 21.1). I always wondered why Paradise was going to be missing something that represented much that was wonderful and mysterious and playful in my world.

If you didn’t grow up in an evangelical or fundamentalist church, I understand if you’re chuckling at the idea of this. I was taught to take the Bible very seriously and to read it literally. I still do the former though I’m learning to embrace the ways in which pictures are painted and metaphors are sometimes employed in its incredible pages. I’ve learned, for example, that the sea is connected in many ancient cultures with chaos and violence. Contemporaries of John would almost certainly have understood the missing sea as an ushering in of peace when it is referenced in his apocalypse rather than as signifying a literal absence of large bodies of water. 

Still, maybe the oceans really won't be part of eternity. If so, I trust it will be wonderful and somehow better. But what if heaven is full of good surprises? What if it’s more beautiful and fun and full of possibility than we’ve ever dreamed? 

Not long too long ago, I was resting at the end of a yoga class. I had had a few cranky days and had been focusing on mercy that day. As I lay in shavasana, I saw a series of beautiful images behind my eyelids. (My beloved mamaw often saw images and had insights when she prayed. Sometimes I do, too. I used to see it as a gift and pray for more of it but haven’t as much in recent years. So maybe it is not a coincidence that it had been a few years since I’d seen anything like this.)

Here’s what I saw in my mind’s eye. It swirling mass of colors—blues and greens of every hue. And the colors were alive somehow. I remember being struck by how beautiful it was. And then some of the brighter patches of green would begin to melt away, revealing another world. This world, I somehow knew, was more real than ours. I was aware of being at a high elevation. The sky was pale blue with a few feathery white clouds. The sun was high above and the quality of the light suggested a bracing winter day. This was nothing like any place I’d ever been in real life. When I looked down, I saw an expansive sea. There was a sliver of beach and a pier extending over it, inviting a stroll and legs dangled over the edge, toes splashing in cold water. I didn’t see anyone but somehow I didn’t feel alone. There was the idea of huge old-fashioned ships with billowing white sails just out of sight, about to arrive. 

The sun flickered on the seas so brightly my eyes sprang open. I expected to see sunlight reflecting on the studio walls. But the room was in shadow...the sense of light penetrating my closed eyes wasn’t physical. And the feeling of it all was that of a beautiful living veil, our everyday world, giving way to reveal a paradise that I wouldn’t have thought to imagine. George Fox once wrote “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” It was like that. 

When I think of paradise, I always tend to picture, stereotypically I admit, a lush garden with a flowing stream. It’s warm and full of vibrant colors. The idea of a cold, tonic sea was unlooked-for. But I was filled with a desire to share this world. It was full of brilliant light and strong joy and the best sort of mystery.  

It felt like heaven. It felt like a place both infinitely familiar and completely unexpected. I would like to go there. And I would like you to come with me. 

 

 Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash

Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash

Remembering Jesus

Have you ever felt like your life got turned upside down and just dumped out? Like everything you’d been sure of was falling apart? I was in that place a few years ago. My family had spent years helping get a church started. It was beautiful and life changing. But we started realizing we’d been part of unintentionally fostering a culture that led many (including us) down a road of legalism and workaholism. We didn’t know what to do.

Then our daughter received a death threat from an old boyfriend. It was her first semester of college. She had to coordinate her route to classes with campus police. It was terrifying. And then my husband lost his job and his integrity was questioned because of someone else’s fraud.

And then, just as it seemed like the dust was beginning to settle, things got worse. Our house burned to the ground. It was August and there’d been weeks of triple digit temperatures and drought. And there was a problem with the water pressure for the fire hydrant closest to our house. Which meant that critical minutes ticked by as the fire fighters raced to connect to another one further down the road. Our kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off inside it. The shelves of books we’d collected over two decades were soaked and covered with wet ash and insulation. There was no roof over our daughter’s room. Her door was bizarrely still hanging in the doorway with the tatters of a charred birthday message still taped to the front.

Not long before the fire we’d made the agonizing decision to step away from leadership in the church we’d been part of since its earliest days. So. We lost our home, our vocations, our community, and our sense of security in a span of months. There’d been one too many comparisons of our story with Job’s by well meaning people who wanted to encourage us to dust ourselves off and hold onto hope.

And God was quiet. Which, to be honest, was fine with me. I didn’t have much to say to him, either. It had started feeling like God was kind of mean. Harsh, unmerciful, vindictive. I didn’t want to do any of the things that had helped me connect with God before. No words came when I tried to pray. I didn’t want to read my Bible. And going to church seemed impossible. Where would we even go anyway?

Still, we were surviving somehow—barely stumbling along. Kyle fought with our insurance agency until they corrected a major glitch with our policy. The house got rebuilt. We decided to sell it and make a fresh start in a different part of town. We fought a lot in those days. We were hurt and depressed and shell-shocked. We got counseling. We healed a little. And life went on.

But my faith felt broken. A connection with God that had been essential and foundational was strained to the breaking point. The still small voice I’d always relied on didn’t feel quiet. It felt obliterated, shattered, absent. And part of me wanted to just stop hoping it would come back. I tried not believing because it seemed more honest. But I couldn’t. I thought maybe it was because I was too much of a coward to admit the God I’d spent my life loving and relating to and inviting others to know wasn’t real.

Until one day I made this tiny decision that changed everything. A friend who’d been there through it all, making me laugh and helping me not give up, invited me to take a day trip to a town about an hour away from Austin. Getting away sounded like just the thing. So I went with her. We got lunch and went to some antique shops. One place had twenty or so of these cool oversized metal panels of various Bible stories and saints that had once hung in an old European chapel. They dated from the early 30s, the eve of the Second World War.

One of them leaning against a wall in the back stopped me in my tracks. It was a painting of the story of Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter. She was still ghostly pale to convey just how far gone she’d been. Her father, the disciples, and the others are clearly dumbfounded at what’s just happened. Her mother is awestruck, reaching for her daughter as tears dry on her face. And Jesus is leaning to help the girl up and reunite her with her mother. But the thing that really captured me was Jesus’ face. I couldn’t stop thinking about how gentle and full of compassion his eyes looked.

For the first time in a long while, I pictured Jesus doing something other than judging or demanding. Something beyond telling people to get their acts together. I could imagine him doing something more than allowing suffering and being sovereign (or is it complicit?) over it. This image did something in me that trying to make myself pray and going to church hadn’t. It reminded me of something that felt familiar but had gotten lost somehow. This Jesus felt like a long lost friend.

The story from the painting is in three of the four gospels. But it’s Mark, the one that’s shortest (and the one most scholars believe is the earliest), that gives it the most time. He describes a crowd like Zilker during ACLfest or the grocery store on Christmas Eve. They’d all showed up because word was starting to get around that Jesus was a teacher and healer and maybe even the Promised One, whatever that meant. So, now, everywhere that Jesus went, sick people and the curious and skeptics and people who just wanted to see someone famous showed up.

And Mark says a leader named Jairus waded through the crowd to find him. Because his daughter was dying. Jesus was his last hope. And Jesus, for his part, dropped everything and started weaving his way down the street shoulder to shoulder with a man trying to save the child he loved.

On the way, Jesus paused to comfort a woman who’d been sick for twelve long years. She’d been in pain that whole time. She’d been ceremonially unclean for that long, separated from community and unable to worship with her people. She’d spent her last penny on doctors but just kept getting sicker. So when she heard Jesus was in town, she took a chance. And when she touched his clothes, she got well. She knew it instantly—she felt it in her bones. And Jesus felt it, too. He could have gotten mad. He could have criticized her for making him unclean by touching him. But instead, he praised her courage and faith. He celebrated her healing. That’s the Jesus I was starting to remember. A Jesus who heals. Who speaks peace into people’s lives.

But the man’s daughter was critical and every minute counted. While Jesus was talking to the woman, people came to tell Jairus that his daughter had died. It was too late. ‘Leave the teacher alone,’ they told him. But Jesus told him not to be afraid. To trust. And he took his closest friends and kept going toward Jairus’ house.

When our house caught on fire, I was home getting ready to go out to dinner. My hair was wet from the shower and I hadn’t put on my shoes yet. By the time I saw black smoke pouring into the kitchen and study, all I had time to do was help my in-laws get outside and grab my purse and my dog. Kyle was stuck in rush hour traffic trying to get to us. He called our friend who lived about ten minutes away. And Doug came as quick as he could. I don’t remember him saying a word. He just hugged me. And he was one of literally hundreds of people who dropped everything and just showed up to be with us on that day and the ones to follow. They came to help, which we needed. But mostly they came to be with us. To comfort us. To let us know we weren’t alone.

I think that’s what it was like for Jesus to leave the crowd and go with Jairus. He was going to heal the girl, absolutely. But that was only part of it. And when I saw the painting that day, I was remembering that Jesus. The kind of incarnate God who has all the time in the world. And who’s willing to drop everything and come to us.

Over the years, I’d lost the forest for the trees. I’d gotten too sure I was right about God. I’d started believing being right about God was the most important thing. And I wanted to help people stay safe but only ended up burdening them with lists and rules and too many external authorities.

Then I got overwhelmed by suffering. And the truth is that some of the church that claimed to embody Jesus and communicate his message had deeply wounded my family and me and others that I cared about. I learned there are those who use the Bible and church authority to manipulate and control instead of love and set free.

The Jesus I was hearing about in that season always seemed mad or disappointed. And to be honest, on social media and in real life, Jesus and his followers were starting to seem like total jerks. I was discouraged at the battles I saw Christians fighting. I was even sadder to see what was getting ignored and overlooked.

I needed to remember a Jesus who took a lifeless girl by the hand and helped her get up. The painting reminded me. The kid was dead. Her parents were trying to come to terms with the fear and terror and anguish of losing a daughter. And everyone thought it was the end. But Jesus invited them to keep hoping.  

Way back when Moses got to actually see God on the mountain, it says that “God passed in front of him and called out, “God, God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. Still, he doesn’t ignore sin. He holds sons and grandsons responsible for a father’s sins to the third and even fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7, the Message). Can you hear it? God is love-love-LOVE and mercy-mercy-MERCY. God is grace and patience. And also…God judges. God absolutely cares about sin and holds people accountable. But the headline is love—love beyond what we can imagine. It’s mercy not just for one or two or twenty generations but for a thousand.  

And that’s what I started remembering the day I saw that painting. A Jesus who was the kind of person that would stop what he was doing and risk frustrating his friends and a lot of people who had come to see him because love and mercy mattered more. Because he cared about a father’s only daughter. Because his heart broke for a mother who had lost her child. Because the life of some obscure synagogue official’s kid (a girl!) mattered to him.

If the rest of the stories of his healings are any indication, he could have healed her from the seaside without changing his plans.  All he needed to was to say the word or think the thought or whatever it is a deity does to make things happen. But he went to them. And brought life where death had been.  

It was all starting to come back to me. So. I drove back a week later and brought the painting home. It’s hanging in my dining room now, an Ebenezer of a time when hope got rekindled in darkness.

William Joseph Seymour was the African American pastor and leader of the multiracial Azusa Street Revival. In 1907 he wrote, “The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more of God’s love it is simply a counterfeit.” Yep, that sounds about right to me.  

 Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter  **Disclaimers: (1) There’s a reason this painting was for sale in an antique shop and not hanging in a museum. It’s no artistic masterpiece. (2) I know that religious art can bring up a complicated set of emotions for folks who grew up in contexts where such images might have been misused. That wasn’t my experience so it met me differently. And, finally, (3) Jesus was not white! The historical Jesus was Middle Eastern and almost certainly had brown skin, dark eyes, and curly hair.

Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter

**Disclaimers: (1) There’s a reason this painting was for sale in an antique shop and not hanging in a museum. It’s no artistic masterpiece. (2) I know that religious art can bring up a complicated set of emotions for folks who grew up in contexts where such images might have been misused. That wasn’t my experience so it met me differently. And, finally, (3) Jesus was not white! The historical Jesus was Middle Eastern and almost certainly had brown skin, dark eyes, and curly hair.

MERCY IN THE DARKNESS

What does mercy look like when the person who did the hurting doesn’t acknowledge it? Doesn’t remember? Maybe chooses not to remember? What if knowing that he was hurt too isn’t enough?

See, every year about this time, I feel a contradiction. The weather gets cooler even in Texas (eventually) and the leaves change color.  The pumpkins start showing up among the produce. And I love all that. But it’s also the time of year when ragweed grows. And my body reacts to its harmless pollen as if it is attacking me. As if it can hurt me. My head aches, my eyes water, and I blow my nose until it’s chapped. I try to laugh it off. Try to convince everyone that I’m actually not a carrier for the plague as I sneeze and reach for another tissue.

And I’ve started to wonder if there’s more to it. Is my body remembering old wounds? Times when something that seemed innocuous suddenly wasn’t? Is that even possible?

I don’t know. But now more than ever, I know that the body isn’t disconnected from the soul, from the spirit.

And either way, I’m trying to keep breathing. To have the courage to feel what I’m feeling and remember what I’m remembering. Which is stuff that’s devastating and that still has tentacles that touch today. Stuff that’s easier to put in a closed drawer and leave there.

Somehow, being honest about what happened when I was too young to know how to speak up for myself helps mercy matter. It doesn’t make it easier–I don’t think it ever gets easy. But it makes it more real. It makes it a battle worth fighting again and again. Not because it feels like justice. The part of me that wants retribution is still there. But there’s something underneath. Something truer. Something sacred. Something pure. I think it’s grace.

Postscript.

I was sitting in my living room gazing at my screen one Sunday evening after liturgy last fall. I hit save and considered whether to keep writing or call it a night. It was getting late and I was tired after a long day. Then the doorbell rang. After ten o’clock. Which was a little weird. My heart beat faster as I pushed my barking dogs aside and looked out the front door. A young man was bending to lay down on the porch, muttering something I couldn’t make out. 

Kyle left for the airport hours before so I was alone. With obviously empty houses on either side of mine.

My mind assured me that he was most likely harmless. Just someone drunk or high or confused. I pondered what to do as he moved to sit in one of the chairs on the porch, ringing the door bell again, still mumbling. Who was he talking to? Probably himself. But were there others out of sight in the shadows? If another person were home with me or if I could text my old neighbor Lobo to come over and see what was up, I’d have asked him if he was lost or needed bus fare. But as it was, it seemed better to let the police talk to him; make sure he wasn’t a danger to anyone including himself or me. So I dialed, heart pounding. As I spoke to the dispatcher, he rang the bell again and again. And again. The woman heard through the line. “Is that him ringing again?” It was. At this point, I figured, it should be obvious that if people were home, they were choosing not to open the door. What was his deal?

Finally, the police came. Made him take a sobriety test. And, a very long while later, they drove away without a word to me. It was after midnight by this point. I couldn’t tell if they’d taken my visitor or not and when I called the police to check, no one knew. So was he down the street? Would he be coming back? They’d ask one of the officers to call and let me know. I tried to sleep. And I wondered…

Coincidence? Maybe. But sometimes, it seems, the darkness talks back.

And yet. And yet. I don’t believe the shadows win. There is another Voice that speaks. Another invitation remains to mercy that is extravagant.

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…” 2 Peter 1:19

 Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@grakozy

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@grakozy

LOVE & MARRIAGE

This time last year, Kyle and I were on a trip to celebrate a quarter century of married life. I’ve been married longer than I’ve not been married. Which is kind of crazy. We married very young. I’m sure many thought we wouldn’t make it. The odds were certainly against us. 

But we loved each other and God and made a life together even without much support or community in those early years. By the time we were in our early thirties, we’d helped plant a church and numerous ministries. People were regularly asking us for marriage advice and telling us how they wanted their relationship to be like ours–full of laughter and partnership and mutual respect. But the truth was that there were some chinks in our relationship. Many of which we didn’t recognize ourselves. And they widened into a chasm during a series of devastations. We both felt like failures. We both felt abandoned by the other. Trust was broken in various ways. Life was turned upside down. It was a time of unspeakable darkness.

From the beginning, we’d promised never to say the word divorce. But I said it. Because it felt increasingly impossible to imagine a way back. On our twenty-fourth anniversary, I was in a hotel room alone in a far away city. I needed space to search out how to move forward and discern what God’s invitation was. Our marriage felt broken beyond repair. I didn’t know what to do but I knew it felt dishonest to celebrate a wedding anniversary that year.

We had so wanted to be different. We believed in marriage that lasts a lifetime. Still do. But we were naïve, idealistic. I can see at least some of the mistakes that led to that day. Kyle was an incredibly hard worker (good) but left precious little time for family and self and sabbath (not good). I believed in him and us and the work we were each pouring our lives into. But I didn’t speak up about my concerns loudly and often enough. And there was lots of ignorance in both of us about how commitment and relationship really work. See, we are both persisters. This is a good thing but without wisdom it’s dangerous and eventually toxic. I think we thought commitment had to be something something dogged and hard. But love doesn’t work that way.

We were the teachers. We were the role models. We had a plan and could talk about it clearly and passionately. But it was too much head and not enough heart. It was too much vision and not enough laughter and play. Too many scheduled meetings (more often than not to go over our calendars) and not enough just being. Too much focus on the why rather than simply living the what. 

And yet somehow the pieces began to come back together. Because of God’s love and mercy. Because we didn’t stop fighting. We kept seeking wholeness with God as individuals and with each other. Kyle began to seek health in some important ways for him and for our relationship.

And a year ago, trust and friendship and romance were being rebuilt. We were laughing together again. And so, to celebrate renewal, we took a trip to an island neither of us had heard of before. It was fun and beautiful.

On our anniversary, we spent some time reading all kinds of wedding vows. We needed to make some new promises. The old ones didn’t resonate anymore. We chose the traditional Quaker vows from a 1675 London meeting and added some nontraditional vows that were relational and felt sustainable and wise. And then on a deck overlooking the ocean and the stars, we spoke those vows to each other. We promised to love each other and embrace mystery together. We promised to respect each other and honor differences. We promised to face change together. We honored an assembly—in this case of trees and stars and waves and of a cloud of witnesses of our brothers and sisters that have gone before us and felt nearly tangibly there. We promised to be loving and faithful. We spoke our trust in divine assistance, knowing now more than ever the degree to which it is our best and only hope.

 1988 in East Texas

1988 in East Texas

 2014 in Dominica

2014 in Dominica

 2015 in Champagne

2015 in Champagne

TERRIBLE BEAUTIFUL THINGS

Last night I dreamed of spiders.

I was in this odd space. It was a neighborhood that was also a sort of camp or community. Everyone had chosen to live there because they worshipped at the same church. They’d gather in this community hall for dinners together in front of a huge stone fireplace. And I know what you’re thinking. But it totally wasn’t a cult. I think.

I was visiting a friend who had a lot of kids. I headed toward the back door as I arrived. And as I walked I kept seeing these spiders. They beautiful actually. They looked like Mexican sugar skulls. They were black and velvety with pink and blue and acid green markings like icing.

My friend’s kids were playing in the courtyard and they were surrounded by webs. They were on gutters and eaves and doorposts. But the kids didn’t seem to notice them.

I asked my friend about them. Yes, they’d bite but they couldn’t kill you. It’s not that big a deal, really. If one attaches, you just tap it and it’ll drop off. You’ll lose some fluids (something clear, not even blood). Nothing to worry about. Oh, just don’t pull at them or they’ll rip off some skin, too.

I went to the room where I was staying. In the dream, I kept imagining spiders biting me. It felt like I was covered in them. And it definitely didn’t seem like no big deal. It seemed like it would hurt more than my friend was willing to admit.

Something terrifying and painful was being made normal, even trivial. They were just living with the spiders when they should been fighting them. How could they just let their kids get bitten all the time? Why were they content to be surrounded by these horrible things just because they weren’t deadly?

In my dream, I was a little troubled by this but nothing like I would be in real life. Even though I had this vague sense there was a problem, it was like everything was a little hazy. Like I (and everyone else) was a little drugged or something.

Lots of other things happened. An old woman dressed in pink came to see me for spiritual direction. She was lovely. That part was wonderful. It was a meandering kind of dream.

And then I woke up. And I couldn’t stop thinking about those terrible beautiful sugar skull spiders.

Oh, God. There have been so many spiders in my life. Terrible things that don’t look so horrifying on the surface. I have been lulled by darkness into not trusting my instincts. The evil and brokenness and pain have been real. There have been horrible things wearing terrible beautiful masks. And I’m scarred by them. And too many people in my life have told me–with words or with silence–to live with it. To call it small or unimportant.

I need Your help to call things by their true names. I need Your help to know when to fight and when to run. I need Your forgiveness for the times that I’ve been the one telling someone it’s no big deal. How could I? I’m so so sorry.

So, my prayer? It’s that You will help me and heal me. That You’ll love me and not ever leave me. That You’ll fight for me.

And please let me be a healer, too. Please show me how to fight for people in a way that sets them free.

Amen.

 Photo credit: Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Photo credit: Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

THREE DAYS IN MARFA

{Last April JRF and I took a road trip to Marfa. It was magical. As we approach this holiday weekend, I am really ready to sit by a pool and enjoy a refreshing adult beverage but, alas, I have three papers to write, an exam, tons of reading, and a sermon to prepare. (All of which is wonderful and exciting so please don’t feel too sorry for me. Oh, you weren’t? Good. Anyway, I am taking a trip down memory lane. Come with me, won’t you?}

Our third annual girls’ trip couldn’t have come at a better time.  I needed a breath of fresh air in the midst of wedding planning and Jenny needed a break from her busy and wonderful two year old.  We are both city girls at heart but wanted something different.  A road trip seemed like just the ticket—a few days to unplug, see some beautiful country, read, and soak up a little sun.

We knew we’d come to the right place as soon as we got there.  The tables at Padre’s were full of people finishing beer and tacos and a few haphazard rows were set up in between.  A makeshift screen had been set up and the lights were dimmed.  And everyone was there for the same reason—to watch Marfa’s 60 Minutes segment airing that night.  Morley Safer and his staff did a great job of capturing the crazy juxtaposition of quirky artists and hipsters with cattle ranchers, border patrol way stations, and dust storms.  The best part was how everyone watching laughed at all the same lines and got excited together when a friend appeared onscreen.  When the segment ended, everyone applauded, the lights came up, and two bartenders started closing out tabs.

Morley was right about Marfa.  It has sparse beauty and small town charm.  The sunsets and openness of the land somehow make it easier to take a deep breath here.  And there’s something about the countryside that makes you want to create something beautiful.  I can see why artists are drawn here. There’s a semi-permanent Andy Warhol exhibit, Donald Judd’s boxes are scattered like cattle in a field near the Chinati Foundation, and a growing number of wonderful small museum spaces are here, too.  Ballroom Marfa is even building a drive-in movie theater and stage.

The food, when anyone feels like opening up, is surprisingly delicious.  I might have had the best cocktail of my life at Cochineal.  There are even some great places to stay. You can sleep in a real live teepee if the mood strikes and there’s not a hail, lightening, or dust storm.  And, of course, the Marfa lights are mysterious and amazing.  (My money’s on the aliens.*)  The Davis Mountains, hot springs, and the MacDonald Observatory are all within an hour drive.

But in the end it’s the people that make Marfa.  What we saw in those first moments was only reinforced the rest of the week.  It was fun to see locals of all ages hanging out and catching up wherever we went.  At Future Shark, old-fashioned (yet delicious) cafeteria food is served on long tables flanked with benches.  And nearly every one of them was full of people with wrinkles and white hair meeting kids in their twenties or thirties for lunch.  It made Jenny and I both realize how much we wish we saw that kind of thing everywhere.  Everyone was glad to be there.  And everyone we met, with the exception of one cranky store clerk, was super laid back and friendly.

I’d heard of Marfa before but couldn’t understand why anyone would want to make the eight-hour drive to get to a flat, dusty wasteland.  Now I get it.  Marfa is in the middle of nowhere but it’s full of people who love each other and their town.  And how could anyone not fall in love with that?

**We met a cute couple from Austin who watched the Marfa lights with us. She was a pastry chef and he a PhD student at UT. We got to see the moon and JUPITER through his fancy telescope=WIN.

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TIME TO FLY

I believe in serendipity, signs, synchronicity, providence. That’s why when I glanced out the kitchen window to see a bird’s nest on the grass the day before my daughter’s wedding, it didn’t seem like a coincidence to me. I walked outside to pick it up from where it had blown down, no longer needed. And I can see it from where I’m sitting now, a cozy and intricately made home sitting under a glass dome on a shelf. (Cheesy metaphor? Absolutely. But if you think parenthood doesn’t entail a significant amount of cheesiness, you haven’t been paying attention. I say embrace it.)

That mama bird (and probably daddy, too) gathered branches and leaves to make a home that was beautiful and safe. They made sure the eggs stayed warm and then kept the babies fed until they were old enough to take care of themselves. They taught them to fly and might have even pushed them out if they were scared. It was for the best. They needed to know what they could do.

Isn’t that exactly what being a parent is all about? It’s making a safe place as long as it’s needed and then, when the time is right, setting them free to fly. Why stay huddled among the sticks and dead leaves if the sky is your home?

That’s where I was on that sunny afternoon a year ago. Staring at a nest and knowing it was time to let my beautiful baby girl go and become a family with someone else. And I was hoping against hope that I was ready. That her dad was ready. Most of all, that she was ready.  Because it was time.

First it was finishing high school. Then it had been moving her into a series of dorm rooms and apartments, watching her become her own person, surrounded with friends and a life that suited her. Before I could blink, it was time for her to put on a cap and gown and become a college graduate. But this was different. Even her name was going to change.

I’ll always be her mother, of course. I’ll be there for her and she’ll never, ever stop being my daughter. Yet, as I watched her radiant face gaze up into Craig’s during the ceremony the next day, I knew this was an end of one thing even as it was the beginning of another. And I remembered all those years ago when I discovered I was expecting her. Something fundamental changed in me that day. In an instant, I knew that I’d give everything I had to help her become the woman she was meant to be.

I watched Torey and Craig laugh through the ceremony for pure joy with a deep peace of my own, knowing that she is more than I could have ever hoped. She is strong, confident, beautiful, and humble. She has an independent mind and a passionate heart. She knows what she believes but is willing to listen. She’s a wonderful friend and she loves to laugh.

Please don’t misunderstand me–God and Torey get all the credit for the incredible person she is. But Kyle and I did our best to make a safe place for her to become the best version of herself. We made lots of mistakes but we got some things right, too. I think she always knew she was safe and loved. That her life was infinitely valuable to us and that she’d never been unwanted for a single instant of her life.

And while it’s hard to imagine any man could ever be good enough for my precious girl, Craig is on the right track. He’s smart and a hard worker and a good friend. He’s humble and teachable and fun and kind. He’s a little bit crazy which will serve him well with my dynamic girl–his girl now. Best of all, he treasures her like I do. He sees how special she is. He gets her.

They still have a lot to learn about life and they’ll learn it together. Kyle and I, Earl and Denise, and other mentors are available for advice but they’re calling the shots. It’s okay—they were ready.

{Happy 1st Anniversary, Torey and Craig. I love you both big as a road.}

GUESS WHAT DIDN’T LEAD TO A PERFECT LIFE?

My wonderful daughter Torey wrote a guest post continuing the dialogue about modesty and sexuality. She is one smart woman and I’d be glad to be a part of her life even if we weren’t related. Check it out::

My life isn’t perfect because I didn’t have sex before marriage. Seems like a straightforward statement. One that most of us would proclaim we believe. However, many of us who grew up in evangelical churches might find ourselves counting purity before marriage as the only key to success. As look around to my peers, mentors, and the church as whole, I find this message running rampant through Christian culture and ideology. The fact that we don’t seem to recognize it is even more disconcerting. As someone who has experienced the pain that comes out of operating under this ideology, I owe it to myself and to you to dispel it.

Recently, my mom wrote an amazing piece on modern-day modesty in the Christian church and in it she discussed my experiences in a 21st century church youth group {Aw, thanks, Torey. Here’s that essay if you want to check it out.}. She described a culture and message that idealized sexual purity and “covering up” the parts of us only meant for our spouse. After consistently hearing this message, it became part of my theology without me realizing. My actions and daily thoughts began to form around this perceived truth. With my rebellious tendency towards rules I perceive as arbitrary (don’t get me started on the tax code), I started to toe the line instead of letting my actions being informed by the spirit of what Jesus wanted when he commanded us to be pure.  Even though I spent my high school career in a uniform, I rolled up my pleated khaki skirt as soon as I got to school to make it shorter. And even though I never had sex, I went farther with high school boyfriends than I wish.  That is my sin and mine alone. However, I’ve wondered if part of that rebellion was against the model Christian church’s culture which idealized purity.

As I went to college and met the man who is now my husband, I wanted to do things differently. Although we weren’t perfect, we waited. I remember thinking how much better off we would have it than friends who hadn’t waited to have sex or who had gotten closer to the line than we had.  We would enter our wedding night as God intended, and were therefore destined for marital bliss.

Those of you who are married know just how wrong I was. After the honeymoon, Craig and I had to face the harsh reality that our lives and our marriage we not perfect simply because of something we withheld from each other before it started. Don’t get me wrong–sex is awesome. It’s fulfilling and exciting.  But it isn’t even close to the majority of what our marriage is based on.

Marriage is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It requires a deep understanding of what the other’s needs are and fulfilling them to the best of your ability. Even though we have only been married for a year, I love Craig more every day. The sweet times we spend together in the evenings talking about our days over a glass of wine (or beer for my man) are the best part.  He consistently amazes me by the way he demonstrates Christ’s love in the way he serves me whether it be turning on Gilmore Girls for me to help me get through my most hated time of day (morning) or leaving me a sweet note in my purse. To me, those little acts of service and love are what have made our marriage great. I love Jesus more because of my marriage to him.  Craig is my partner and best friend and I am abundantly blessed.

Despite that I have been surprised by how normal life after marriage is. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and thus far, besides knowing Jesus, it is the best part of my life. My point is that the troubles and trials of the world do not go away because you enter marriage sexually pure. Jobs still sometimes suck, relationships are still hard, and money’s still tight.

I guess I’m saying all this to remind you that sexual purity and modesty cannot save or sanctify you. Only Jesus can. His grace is sufficient to cover a multitude of sins. He wants the best for you and remaining pure IS God’s best for you. It protects you from a world of hurt and pain that you weren’t meant to experience. Sex within a committed marital relationship is unparalleled.  But for those of you that struggle with purity or modesty, know that you aren’t alone. And that your sin isn’t worse than any other. You are not doomed to a failed marriage if you have made sexual mistakes before. Marriage and your walk with God are dependent on much more than what you have or have not done in the past. Fall into his abundant grace—knowing that it alone can save you. Speaking from experience, that is the most freeing feeling. I’ll say it again. My life isn’t perfect because I didn’t have sex before marriage.

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THE DAUGHTER I HAVEN'T MET

Three years ago I became a mother again.  At long last, we got the referral letter for our Chinese adoption.  That meant it was finally time for us to be matched with a child who needed a family.  We’d been waiting five long years for this email.  But it came too late.

For reasons I am only beginning to understand, it was clear that with us was not the best place for this precious girl to be.  She would have been somewhere between 6 months and a year old.  She would have been small for her age after spending her first months in an orphanage and she’d have had dark, almond shaped eyes and shiny black hair cropped short.  We would have scurried home from the airport where I’d read the email to wait for our adoption agency to send more about her.  On the drive home, we’d have called our families and posted a barely coherent announcement followed by many exclamation points. We would have devoured grainy photographs and eagerly read reports of her development and health when we got there. And then, six weeks later, we would have gone to China to bring her home.  It would have been early September by then.

As it was, none of these things happened.  I read the email and quickly put my phone away, the loss and regret a solid thing in my chest.  I didn’t tell a soul for days.  I couldn’t make myself form the words. Our family and friends, for the most part, had stopped asking questions.  They must have known by now that too many things were broken and falling apart for us to bring a child into our family.  Some of them had probably forgotten we ever planned to adopt.

But we didn’t forget.  She had a name.  A few actually.  Originally, we were going to call her Camille Rose.  Then, one day during a walk, I was inspired to go with an original inclination and name her Camilla after one of my favorite characters from That Hideous Strength.  Either way, we’d call her Milly or Cam when she was young.  We planned to keep her Chinese name as well as one more connection point to her history.  We’d seek as many of those as we could for her.

My mother gave me an ornate box for adoption keepsakes for Christmas the year we told everyone we were planning to adopt.  I filled it with a journal, a picture book, and other treasures.  Torey and I bought her first outfit together—a dark denim top adorned with silky roses that came with matching bloomers.  An intricately carved teak cabinet in her room was filled with books, clothes, bedding (both for a crib and a ‘big girl’ bed), and gifts from her sister, aunt Lauren, and several friends.  Her walls were painted pale green.  I bought her a monogrammed teddy bear Christmas stocking that matched ours. Friends gave me a necklace engraved with her name.  I’d read a whole shelf of books about attachment and adoption and planned on reading many more.  My wonderful older daughter spent her entire senior year in high school researching and writing a thesis about international adoption that she dedicated to her sister.  In the midst of all these preparations, the wait for Chinese adoptions which had been about eighteen months become two years and longer and longer and longer and…

myth and reality

Still, she was real.  She was prayed for and loved.  I remember one Christmas, as all my extended family sat in my living room after roasting marshmallows, suddenly being struck with the idea that someone was missing.  I scanned the room and counted bodies.  Had someone stepped out to make a call or take a walk or go to the bathroom?  Finally, I realized I was looking for her—things were incomplete without little Camilla with us.  Another time I dreamed I saw a figure dressed in red coming down the dim hallway toward our bedroom.  It didn’t feel like a dream.  Camilla couldn’t sleep or had had a bad dream or needed a drink of water.  I turned to lift her up and hold her.  But, of course, she wasn’t there.

As the years passed, she started to feel like a myth.  Even then we didn’t give up.  Kyle wanted to father a daughter who had been abandoned but now had a family who loved her and a place to call home forever.  I wanted to be a mother who would pour love and grace and a passion for life into a child who only needed a chance.  I couldn’t wait to see who she was meant to be begin to unfold.

But with excruciating inevitability, she slipped away from us.  A couple of years after we received our official “Log in Date” from the Chinese government, all hell broke loose in our lives.  And kept breaking.  For years.  I hoped against hope that everything was going to work out.  This little girl had been a part of our family; a part of me since 2006.  It felt like the world’s longest and most agonizing pregnancy.

I have truly loved seeing my friends bringing their children home from China, Haiti, and various African countries. And it was one of my best days when my godson arrived home from Memphis, Tennessee with his parents. But all these things have also been a reminder that my daughter isn’t with us. That there is a hole in my heart.

Through betrayals, a death threat, a house fire, and various other calamities, our lives continued to be upended in ways we didn’t understand and couldn’t have predicted.  We were ravaged—God allowed nearly everything we’d poured our lived into to be destroyed or taken away.  We are only now beginning to pick up the pieces and understand what we are to do in this new chapter.

giving her back

By the time I received the email that would have been our first step to finally bring her home, it was clear we weren’t in a place to be the best parents for a girl who needed extra love and care.  We were still too devastated ourselves.  So God asked us all—and asked me in particular—to give her back to him.  He somehow gave me the strength to say, “she’s not mine; she’s yours” and mean it.  I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It doesn’t seem good or right or fair.  But more than I want to mother another daughter, I want her to have a family that is ready to love her abundantly well.

I still miss her although the shocks of pain are less frequent now.  And I know that it is for the best—her best—that she is with another family.  I pray she is strong and well and surrounded by siblings and pets and all the love she can handle.  I pray her new family has the wisdom to help her through the hard days and walk with her when she feels the indescribable lack that comes with being separated from her biological family.  That they’ll laugh with her and cry with her and do everything they can to help her grow into a strong and whole woman.  I hope they’ll cut the crusts off her sandwiches, make sure she doesn’t have too much TV or computer time, that they’ll be patient when she is a grumpy teenager.  I pray they’ll drive her to the middle school dance and take her out for ice cream after.  I hope they’ll help her set up her college dorm room and be ready whenever it’s time to meet the man she thinks she might love. I pray they’ll love her until they are old and gray and surrounded by her kids.

And me?  I will never forget her. I will pray for her and the many girls like her when God brings her to mind. I will keep on loving my precious Torey and continue to be a spiritual mother to others as God leads me. And someday in a new world, I’ll turn around and find her standing there.  We’ll hug like we’re family and start catching up on a lifetime apart.

 Too late too soon

Too late too soon

A LIST

In honor of mother’s day, and on this side of motherhood, I have a few things to pass on to my friends who are still in the trenches:

  1. Be a parent, not a best bud. Your kid will have plenty of friends (especially once you teach her how to be a friend). Parenting isn’t a popularity contest and that’s a good thing because you’d lose.
  2. Don’t be afraid to show him what he should say yes to and what he should say no to. We have more freedom of choice at this point in history than ever before. Choice is truly a wonderful thing but it can quickly become dangerous or overwhelming without boundaries. That’s where you come in. Don’t be afraid to tell him in age appropriate ways what’s off limits for them and why. But choose your battles.
  3. Balance the boundaries with lots of freedom. Embrace creativity and whimsy and the occasional touch of chaos.
  4. Admit when you make a mistake. (You will. Often.) Show them how to apologize. Model humility and teachability. Show her that she doesn’t have to be perfect.
  5. Teach modesty both in the sense of dressing in ways that demonstrate self-respect and in the sense of humility (see above).
  6. Teach them to celebrate and embrace their masculinity or femininity and their own unique worth. The world (and, sadly, often the church, too) wants them to be ashamed of their bodies.
  7. Let your home be the place where the kids hang out as much as possible. As tired as you’ll sometimes be, don’t use other kid’s parents as free babysitting.
  8. Laugh with them. Make funny faces in the bathroom mirror. Play in the mud and the rain. Dance. Make a mess. Be silly.
  9. Teach them—boys and girls—how to sew a hem and a button; how to make at least one meal other than breakfast; how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (and why); how to do their own laundry; and how to change a tire.
  10. Don’t lose yourself. It might seem like love at the time to pour every bit of your energy and time into your kids but it isn’t. Show your kids how to live a life well. If you’re married, date your husband. Practice self-care. Be who you are meant to be, the person you’ll continue to be once the kids are grown and gone. You’re modeling how to be a whole and holy human for them and that’s love.
  11. Never forget that what you’re doing matters. You aren’t creating a human being–that was done for you. But you and everyone else who loves your kid are making an environment that makes it possible for that amazing human being to become what she or he was meant to be. And that’s something worth spending your life on.
 Mother-Daughter Fredericksburg Trip (September 2012)

Mother-Daughter Fredericksburg Trip (September 2012)

A ROSE IS A ROSE

I love that issues of modesty and shame and sexuality have been stirred up for discussion recently. It’s well deserved attention. But I’ve been surprised by the passionate–and sometimes disturbingly defensive–responses to these articles.

All the talk of selfies and bathing suits and hem lines (and even darker recurring question of whether things like date rape is maybe really the victim’s fault) made me wonder how my daughter felt about her experience growing up as a southern church-going woman who’d spent most of her teens wearing a private school uniform.

An abuse survivor myself, I spent a lot of time and prayer making sure Torey was safe and protected as she grew up. We talked about sexuality from an early age and how it was best expressed within a committed relationship. We talked about modesty. A lot.

During her early teen years, this conversation often got hung up (get it?) on one or two items that were in style but that her dad and I weren’t comfortable with her wearing. Of course, all the other girls’ moms let them wear it, whatever ‘it’ was. The denim micro mini was my absolute nemesis. I simply couldn’t convince my sweet daughter that a wardrobe malfunction was a near certainty in that thing.

I don’t regret fighting for her modesty, but I wish I’d emphasized that it’s actually a good thing that she is a physical and sexual being more–that she didn’t need to be ashamed of her femininity. I wish I could go back to that American Eagle dressing room (with that ridiculous skirt). I’d tell her she’s original and special and doesn’t need to dress like a clone. Instead of being frustrated and in a hurry to leave, I’d take that thirteen year old face in my hands and remind her that I know she feels awkward and ugly and unlovable but that it’s not true–that she’s more amazing than she could possibly imagine. I wish we’d talked more over the years about how to carry herself, dress, and simply be in a way that celebrates who she is. Don’t get me wrong, we did discuss these things. But I see now not nearly enough.

Misguided

What’s worse is that she was receiving messages I had no idea about. I’m not talking about photoshopped magazines with impossibly perfect bodies. That was covered. I showed her what Barbie’s ridiculous proportions would be in real life. I’m not even referring to the terrifyingly easy access to pornography introduced at increasingly young ages to both boys and girls. This is also deeply troubling but it wasn’t a taboo subject in our home.

No, the communication I’m talking about came from church youth groups, camps, and weekend retreats. If I’d known she was being told these things, I would have countered the messages. I would have confronted foolish and misguided youth leaders. But I simply didn’t know it was happening. And Torey, for her part, understandably assumed that if I was dropping her off at these gatherings, I both knew and approved of all the content.

The object lesson that best captures what I’m talking about is apparently a common one involving a rose. A perfect rose is held up to be observed and then passed around a circle. The kids are encouraged to touch the petals, feeling how soft they are and smelling their perfume. When it’s made the rounds, the leader holds up the now bruised and mangled flower and compares the damaged petals to a young woman who’s been with multiple partners. It’s apparently always focused on the females of the group because, as everyone knows, women are temptresses and men are helpless against their wiles, bearing no responsibility for their choices. Such nonsense is (I hope) never explicitly articulated but it is loudly implied when co-ed discussions of this nature are aimed at women only.

As absolutely infuriating as I find all this, I understand what they are trying to communicate. Sexually is tender and precious and a young woman’s (and young man’s) body should be set apart until they are ready for a relationship that works best when they have more maturity and life experience. I get it.

But the problem is that this isn’t the only message that comes through. It’s not even the loudest one. The first problem is that women are singled out for responsibility in an issue that, by definition, includes two people. And what if a young girl hears this and has already been intimate? What if, God forbid, it was non-consensual? The heartbreaking reality is that it’s nearly certain most groups will contain victims of sexual violence. As the mother of a daughter, I’m emphasizing women but here but recognize that men are also sadly vulnerable to such abuse.

Where is the space for grace or for restoration in this object lesson? Once a rose is damaged, it can’t be undone. Thankfully, our bodies and spirits and emotions are much more resilient. And what about mercy and forgiveness and second chances? Jesus allowed a former prostitute to anoint his feet with perfume and led those who were about to execute the woman caught in adultery to put down their stones. He actually has a lot to teach us about how to treat women–it’s no accident that he was the first rabbi known to accept female followers.

Made To Be Delightful

Modesty is really important. Clothing should leave something to the imagination and to make it possible to sit, stand, and move comfortably. It should communicate both self-respect and concern for others.

But the other message is just as crucial. A woman needs to feel free to embrace her own unique beauty and femininity. Her body is fearfully and wonderfully made and she should be encouraged to celebrate it rather than be shamed for having it. And the same is true for men–their bodies and sexuality aren’t gross or dirty, either. (Unless they are teenage boys who haven’t learned to care about hygiene. In which case, they should take a shower and use lots of deodorant immediately. Which has nothing to do with their sexuality but is a very needed public service announcement.)

That all being the case, a woman should dress in ways that make her feel good about herself. And while she shouldn’t share the most intimate parts of herself with any old person (in words, deeds, or attire), she also shouldn’t hide her light under a bushel. After all, a rose isn’t meant to be shoved into the back of a closet. It’s meant to be enjoyed and celebrated. It is made to be delightful.

And Torey? She’s living on her own now with a master’s degree, a husband, a job at a non-profit, and more friends than she can count. Miraculously, she made it through the dumb things people taught her and her parents’ many mistakes relatively unscathed. She is smart and funny and modest and beautiful inside and out. I couldn’t be prouder of her. And I love that she has a great sense of style. A girl after my own heart, she would never pass up a chance to visit Anthropologie’s sale room. She’s in good company–we come from a family of bright and classy women who are truly ladies.

I hope it’s clear to my wonderful daughter and all the other amazing women in my life that they can and should enjoy being in their own skin. I hope they know they are lovely and valuable and exactly who they were meant to be. And I hope you do, too.

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THE PARISIAN SPIRIT

I went to Paris expecting beautiful art, food, and history.  Of course, I wasn’t disappointed; Paris is a magical city and I love it.  I hope my visit was the first of many.

What I didn’t expect was a spiritual experience.  Everything I’ve read and heard prepared me for churches and cathedrals that were nothing more than museums. I know that statistically speaking Europe is more post-Christian than the US.  But many of the churches Jenny and I entered were far more than beautiful monuments to the past.  They may have been full of dead men’s bones (literally) but there was no denying the life there.

The architecture of a cathedral does its work well.  Entering from the bright and noisy streets, the churches are dark and cool and quiet. The church leaders clearly take maintaining a sense of separateness seriously even when they sometimes resort to having attendants whisper ‘Shhhh!’ like grumpy librarians.  But I got the feeling it’s because they know their churches are more than landmarks to check off from a travel guide.  The good news is that the reminders turn out to be mostly superfluous; the experience of entering such ancient places of worship naturally evoked a sense of reverence from most.

Everything seems to whisper, ‘holy’ as you enter.  The stained glass transforms sunlight into breathtaking colors and patterns.  The soaring walls invite your gaze up.  The metaphor is simple and it works—thoughts that were focused on tired feet or the next delicious meal or problems from home seem to turn heavenward of their own accord.  The idea of generations of worshippers over countless centuries combined with a sense of God’s Spirit brought me to tears in nearly every church we entered.  Talk about a cloud of witnesses.  I felt like I could almost touch them.

And the people weren’t simply there to either curate/maintain or tour a historical site.  In every single church, we encountered genuine worshippers.  They had to tune out picture snapping tourists like me.  Sadly, they sometimes had to navigate around keepsake vending machines that pressed pennies into likenesses of the church (who decided those were ok?!).  And at the Sacre Coeur, they had to run the gauntlet of tourist shops, street performers, overflowing trash cans, and guys aggressively trying to sell woven bracelets or bottles of Heineken.  But the sacred somehow peacefully lived among the daily.

On Palm Sunday, the three men who entered the Eglise Saint Germain des Prés (the oldest church in Paris) with me held their branches and knelt in worship as they passed the threshold.  There was something really right about the ceremony of it.  It made me feel kind of homesick.  I loved that for the rest of the day, I passed people in cafes or soaking up the sun parks whose bundle of branches signified they’d been to worship that morning.  In that same church, a very old woman—in her 80s I’d guess—sat praying before a statue of Jesus holding rosary beads for the entire time I was there.  I found myself wishing I could sit at her feet and soak up her wisdom.  If only I spoke French.  And in every church it was like this.  Visitors swirled around people who were there to pray or serve.  Behind glass enclosed meeting rooms, priests counseled parishioners—latticed confession booths gathered dust in the corners or had been removed.  Posters announced service and mission projects both locally and abroad.  And others encouraged locals to gather in community. Maybe things were different because we were there during the Lent season.  Whatever the reason, I had the sense I was connecting with something missing.

These were the last things I expected—signs of living, breathing places of worship.  And all in churches and cathedrals built by who knows how many people working together often over hundreds of years.  It was overwhelming.  Can you imagine giving the best of your life’s energy to create something you’d never enjoy?

I left Paris with a deep sense of thanksgiving for generations that gave more than I can imagine to preserve the faith for me and every worshipper I know.  I am glad God called them and I’m more convinced than ever that I want to learn from the faith practices of the past rather than reject them unexamined.  I think this experience was one more way God is underscoring the lesson in humility and teachability he’s been guiding me in.  It makes me blush to think that I actually believed I didn’t need anything much beyond my Bible and my own discernment to figure out how to live a life for God, live in community, and guide a church in ways that honored him.  How arrogant to think I didn’t have much to learn from those who had gone before me.  That isn’t Christian theology but it is very American thinking.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I want to undo the reformation (at least not most of it).  But I am left more committed than ever to learn as much as I can from those who went before me.  And I know that’s a good thing.

Check out an iphone video of some beautiful church music here.

[PS I have lots more to tell you about Paris.  Stuff like a champagne tour led by a guy named Trong, dancing in a WWII jazz club in a cave, jumping out of a metro car and traipsing through a dirty tunnel back to the station, and frites—lots and lots of frites.]

MEETING NIKHIL

In a lot of ways, Nikhil is exactly what I expected him to be.  On his sponsor card, he is cute kid with a huge smile and is described as “excellent in his studies,” “well behaved,” and, my favorite, having a “heart to respect his teachers.”  You can tell from his picture that he not likely to talk your ear off.  There is a sweetness in his expression that makes you imagine a kind and introspective boy who doesn’t do a lot of rough housing.

On our first day at Madanpur Khader, I didn’t see Nikhil.  It was on our second visit to third grade class that I spotted him. I got to tell the children that if God clothes the flowers with more splendor than a king that he’ll surely provide everything we need.  We were making tissue paper flowers as a reminder.  As I knelt to help some children near the front of the room, I heard one of the people on my team say his name.  Looking up, I couldn’t miss him—beanie pulled down to his eyebrows and sitting next to a taller girl, working intently on his flower.

I made my way over and explained that I was his friend from America and asked if he remembered getting my letter.  He didn’t J.  He kept glancing shyly at his seatmates who were much more ready to talk with me than he was.  I explained that I was going to visit him at home in a few days and asked if that was ok.  With his eyes glued to his flower, he nodded.  I learned that his favorite color is yellow and that he isn’t an only child like it says on his card and that he actually has two sisters.

A few days later, we were back at Madanpur Khader to do a skit with the kids.  When Nikhil’s class filed out, I called his name and said hello.  It was one of the highlights of my week when I got a real smile in return.  I also got to see he was never far from his best friend when they weren’t seated in the classroom.  It was so sweet to see them walk arm in arm together.

Later that day, I got to visit his home.  It was like much like the others in the community.  One room with a huge wooden slab that served as couch, dining table, and family bed and concrete walls. Nikhil’s home was a great example of the crazy juxtapositions that come up in developing nations and among the poorest of the poor—their family of five lives in a single room without running water but had a computer that was logged onto facebook when we were there.

It was wonderful to meet his gentle mother and two precious older sisters.  His mother seemed as shy as Nikhil even if there hadn’t been a language barrier between us.  His two older sisters were much more outgoing.  I was excited to hear that they are both students as well.  His oldest sister is actually studying the same subject as my college aged daughter.  She insisted on a picture with just the two of us before we left.

I really underestimated what it would mean to meet Nikhil.  Don’t get me wrong–I expected it to be really neat to be introduced to a flesh and blood person.  But it was more than that. I think the main thing that changed for me after meeting Nikhil is considering and praying for him not merely as an individual but as a son, a brother, and a friend.  I feel a connection to him and to his siblings my previous information told me didn’t exist.  I want him to grow up to realize all the promise of his gentle spirit and studious nature in a deeper way.  I want his sisters to lead change for their nation and for women in particular as they pursue their careers. I want Nikhil’s life and work and marriage and children to be forever changed because of the excellent education and kindness he received from the Good Samaritan School.  I want his family to meet a God who loves them more than they can imagine.  And for my part, I definitely want to visit him and his family again!

PS Find out more and get involved at http://www.hopechest.org/india/

 Meeting Nikhil

Meeting Nikhil

TURNING 40 - A CONFESSION

I turned 40 this week.  It is one of those birthdays that begins a whole new chapter in a person’s life.  I can imagine getting old and wrinkled and frail now in a way I couldn’t five years ago. I have started considering things like how many grandchildren and great-children I’ll get to meet.  It has occurred to me that I won’t live to see another turn of the century.  Not in a morbid way–simply as recognition.

But I have to say one thing has been really disappointing about this birthday.  I thought I’d be right in the middle of my Calling by now. I thought I’d know precisely what I was meant to be doing and would be doing it with ease and confidence.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m less sure of things than I have ever been.

I thought I knew something about how to lead people toward truth and grace and life and peace.  I thought I knew how make a difference for good.  I thought I’d studied and thought and prayed carefully enough about how to build a marriage and a family and a church.  I thought I’d done enough of the right things that life couldn’t help but turn out well for us.  I thought God’s obvious gifts and blessings around us were evidence that we were doing precisely what He meant for us to do.

I thought I wouldn’t regret my choices, my sacrifices, friends I’d lost contact with because of other (higher—so I thought at the time) priorities.  I was wrong.  The time of certainty had ended.  My life today is utterly unrecognizable to the me of five years ago.  I want to believe that is a good thing.  I want to believe it is all working together for good.  But the truth is I’m not sure of much anymore.

In my mind’s eye, I see a pile of ashes in my palm.  A strong wind swirls it away until every speck is gone.  All that is left is my bare palm.  Does it mean nothingness? A fresh start?  I want to believe the latter.

The best thing about all the pain and loss is that it has brought me a fresh and much needed humility.  I look back on the old me and see lots of qualities and choices I don’t regret.  I cared for people.  I sacrificed for them and tried to love them well.  I tried to model strength and grace and stewardship.  So did Kyle.  So did Torey.  And I don’t believe we failed utterly though I see we were much shorter of the mark than I believed then.

But here’s what else I see.  I am ashamed that I had become smug about my spirituality.  I believed I knew the truth and was willing to obey it.  I harbored a subtle inward derision toward those who were misguided about the ‘right’ way to do church, who wouldn’t let go of sinful habits, who couldn’t make their marriages or families work.  Those sorts of people hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t studied enough, didn’t love God enough.

I am so sorry.  God, forgive me and heal hurts that inner attitude and its manifestation caused.  And if you were someone who was hurt by it, I hope you’ll give me a chance to say I am sorry in person.  At the time, I was surrounded by others leaders; some of whom exhibited a pride that was more open and articulate than mine—this isn’t gossip; they have said so themselves.  It made me sad and angry for them and for the church.  But I truly didn’t see the same sort of seeds in my own heart.  I didn’t see how simplistic my thinking had become, how my definition of grace and truth and goodness had narrowed according to terms I and others had created.  As excruciating as the past few years have been, at least I’m starting to see it now.  And I think I can say it’s worth it.  At least I can today.

“He leads the humble in justice,
And teaches the humble His way.
All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth
To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies.
For Your name’s sake, O LORD,
Pardon my iniquity, for it is great.”

Psalm 25:9-11

 This is a terrible photo. It is grainy and blurry and I look pretty goofy. But I am climbing--none too happily as you can see by my expression--to an unknown summit. I think it is a perfect illustration for where God has me as I begin my 4th decade. Here's praying I don't tumble back down and break something.

This is a terrible photo. It is grainy and blurry and I look pretty goofy. But I am climbing--none too happily as you can see by my expression--to an unknown summit. I think it is a perfect illustration for where God has me as I begin my 4th decade. Here's praying I don't tumble back down and break something.

HOPE CHEST

I hope you have people in your life like this.  I hope you have people who cry with you, help you carry burdens that are too heavy for you, who really love you.  I hope you have friends who make you laugh and remind you to have courage.  I hope they help you remember that God is real and that He loves you when it doesn’t feel like it.  Because, in case no one’s told you lately, you’re worthy of that kind of love and care.  And you matter.

One thing is for sure—I surely don’t deserve all the people in my life who love me so well.  But I am awfully thankful for them.

On the one-year anniversary of the fire that burned our home and turned our lives upside down, I was presented with a hope chest full of love, prayers, and small gifts.  I love that Torey, as she was working and praying and sweating it up at Aggieland’s Impact, was covered with a similar flood of notes and prayers.

Here is just a taste of what I was given.

One woman actually gave me her grandmother’s brooch.  She said I reminded her of her grandmother—how she was full of strength and faith and loved getting fancy.  I’ve given it some thought and I truly can’t think of nicer compliment.  For now, the brooch graces a white straw hat.  I can’t wait to wear it on blazers and knit berets in the fall.

Another gave me a real live message in a bottle.  A message that has, so far, gone unread because, let me tell you, it’s harder than you’d think to get the paper back out!!  I have tried using my fingers, tweezers, and chop sticks all to no avail.  Kyle has tried.  I’m hoping someone reading this is a lot smarter than me and can tell me how to get it out.  Otherwise, a hammer is in that bottle’s future.

Someone else gave me a beautiful bracelet adorned with a swallow to remind me that if God takes care of every tiny swallow, He will surely take care of my family and me, too.

My mom gave me the crown from my first ballet costume.  I assure you I was the least graceful ballerina on that stage but I loved my gold and white costume with the tiny gold crown for our buns.  It seemed so magical.  And my mom saved it all these years because she never throws anything away ever.  She gave it back to me to remind me that I’m the daughter of a King and that I’m loved and that she thinks I’m lovely.  All of which makes me laugh and cry again at the thought.

And these are only a few of the words I won’t forget and the reminders of grace that now fill nooks and crannies around the apartment.  Thanks for walking with me, everyone.  Thanks for showing me what faithful friendship looks like.  I hope I have lots of chances to return what I’ve been given.

ONE YEAR AGO

I was getting dressed to take Kyle’s parents out for dinner when I was called from my room, shoeless with wet hair, to see the flames that were about to crack the kitchen windows and the sparks that were already raining into our beloved study.  In some ways, it seems like that just happened and in others, it feels it was an eternity ago.  We are still recovering and healing and that is a process that is far from over.  There’s lots that’s up in the air and uncertain about our lives like where we’re going to live (a great brand new house and a practically new pool and mission house are probably going to be on the market soon) and where we’re called to worship (we are still visiting lots of places and have really enjoyed bumping into some of you as we have).

But this Saturday–one year to the day after a three alarm fire burned down our home–we want to pause and remember what happened.  We want to celebrate that God didn’t allow any person (including the many wonderful firefighters who were working in temperatures well over 100 degrees to put out the fire) to be hurt.  We want to call God our Savior and Redeemer and the Lover of our Souls.  We want to say we trust His goodness and that, with His power, we take authority over the evil one who has pulled out the stops to steal, kill, and destroy our family.

On the morning of August 13th, we are going to Oliver Circle and the home that is in the process of being reconstructed.  We are going to pray and have communion.  And, like I said in my previous post, we would sure love it if you would pray for us, too.  Anytime is great but we’d especially appreciate your intercession on Saturday.  If you don’t mind, leave me a comment so we can celebrate all our friends who are joining us in seeking God.

Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.

Do return, O LORD; how long will it be?
And be sorry for Your servants.
O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness,
That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad according to the days You have afflicted us,
And the years we have seen evil.
Let Your work appear to Your servants
And Your majesty to their children.
Psalm 90:1-2; 13-16

But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel,
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!”
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; 
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.”
Isaiah 43:1-2

 Quilt made with love by Amber Littler and the rest of the Soulspring gang--it was enjoyed for many years as it hung in our entry hall.

Quilt made with love by Amber Littler and the rest of the Soulspring gang--it was enjoyed for many years as it hung in our entry hall.

 My sweet baby girl seeing what was her room. Notice the sky above her head where the ceiling used to be. That's a happy birthday sign I made for her 20th birthday that she'd kept hanging on her door.

My sweet baby girl seeing what was her room. Notice the sky above her head where the ceiling used to be. That's a happy birthday sign I made for her 20th birthday that she'd kept hanging on her door.

 Kyle's Senior Boots From TAMU

Kyle's Senior Boots From TAMU

BAD BEHAVIOR

If you are in any way connected with evangelical culture, you’ve probably heard about the facebook question heard around the world last week.  If not, here’s what happened:  well-known Bible teacher Mark Driscoll asked with characteristic style, “So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you’ve ever personally witnessed?”

A storm of criticism and debate rightly followed.  Mark has since expressed regret (http://theresurgence.com/2011/07/13/the-issue-under-a-lot-of-issues) and removed the question from his facebook page.  I’m glad he did but it seems to me that the damage is done.  And it highlights the ugly place we’ve come to in the postmodern Christian church.  So much seems to be about posturing and being tough and distancing from anything that can be even remotely accused of being pro-gay or feminist or otherwise out of bounds.  And I’m sick of it.

I am glad that Mr. Driscoll’s elders challenged both the tone and inappropriate context for his question.  I applaud him for being open to their leadership and direction.  But what I just can’t understand is why he needed to be told these things. Just because someone would laugh at it doesn’t make it ok to say.  And Bible teachers with his brusque style seem to be multiplying these days.  What is going on?

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that we who profess the name of Jesus need to set ourselves apart from a lot of mainstream culture that celebrates things He would abhor.  But bullying and fear mongering aren’t the way to do that.  Isn’t it the kindness of God that leads all of who profess the name of Jesus to repentance?  Do we really think it’ll be any different for those who either (a) don’t know Him or (b) know Him but aren’t fully walking in His ways in some area, masculinity or otherwise?  And hidden in all this is the insidious presumption that we are the ones who really ‘get’ the gospel and are walking it out with the most precision.

I agree that Jesus wasn’t sickly or weak or passive.  No one was tempted to call Him effeminate.  He overturned a table or two and threw some coins around when the situation called for it.  Whatever emotion He felt—anger, sadness, compassion, or love—He was never afraid to express it.  And He had no problem with calling people out in ways that offended and embarrassed them when they were in the wrong (white washed tombs anyone?).  He wasn’t opposed to using irony when He did so but He never crudely mocked or shamed people.  And His Word and example make it pretty clear that He’s opposed to the practice.

So, here’s my humble call:  If you’re a believer (pastor, leader, or otherwise) who wants to speak into and connect with the world outside your church—as I very much believe you should—please stop acting like a FOX or CNN news commentator and say your peace kindly.  If you can’t remember Scripture then at least remember the wisdom of Thumper, ‘If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.’  (I know, I know; I just used a Bambi quote.  So shoot me.  Get it? Shoot me?!).

But there’s a deeper issue here than bad manners.  Mr. Driscoll’s perspective of masculinity and femininity exposes an area of confusion and uncertainty in the Christian community.  See, even though the Bible called women co-heirs of the grace of life a good two thousand years before Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, the truth is that we’re still figuring out what that means in the family of God.  There are thorny issues at hand.  On the surface, Paul seems contradictory on the subject at times.  And faithful, well-intentioned people who have studied the texts sometimes disagree about their meaning, application, or both.

But here’s what I know.  God created humanity male and female.  In fact, His image is found in all people regardless of their ethnicity, sexuality, and or even their religion.  Even rapists and murderers and those who curse His name can’t scrub His image away fully; He’s in their DNA.  And I know that men and women were created to reveal slightly different aspects of His image, like two sides of the same coin.  So, should we resist androgyny and the current pressure for men to be more feminine and women to be more masculine?  Definitely.  But can’t we do it with grace and compassion rather than bluster and bravado?  To do otherwise makes Christians appear like they are either insensitive jerks or have something to hide or both.

The fact is that women are celebrated for a lot more than bearing children in the Bible.  That doesn’t make men any less valuable to humanity or in the Kingdom of God.  And the fact that Jesus took the form of a human male rather than a female doesn’t make women less worthy than men.  Jesus was born of a virgin woman, just as Genesis said he would be.  Men couldn’t be men without women.  Women couldn’t be women without men.  My advice?  Settle down and embrace who you are.  Keep searching.  Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo about gender roles (both inside and outside the church) when necessary.  Keep seeking what it means to be men and women who follow Jesus in the twenty-first century.  Just be nice about it for goodness sake.  Trust me, I’m not talking about peace at any cost or vacuous pleasantry.  I’m talking about the fruit of the Spirit.  I’m talking about searching for the truth and speaking it with love and grace when we find it.  Doesn’t that sound refreshing?

“…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…” (Ephesians 4:15)

“Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.” (2 John 3)

And, finally, a favorite passage of mine,

“Mercy and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
And righteousness shall look down from heaven”
 (Psalm 85:10-11)