Monday, March 31

Serve for the Greater Good

Dear Jacob,

I grew up in two states.  Until I was twelve we lived in Northern California where I attended the same school all the way through sixth grade. The summer before seventh grade my family moved to Wisconsin and lived there until I completed high school.  After that, I ran really fast back to California. 

As much as I loved living in California with her ocean and her produce and her stable weather, Wisconsin wins when it comes to fall. Each autumn I still look around for some kind of resemblance, some hill ablaze in color, some tree-lined street carpeted in red leaves that skip up behind rolling tires. I sniff the air for the smell of burning leaves because we all had a backyard barrel just for this purpose. I wish for a Devil's Lake State Park or a Kettle Moraine scenic drive. Grandma used to press pretty fall leaves from our yard and mail them to me when I was in college in Orange County sitting through class, stripping off my sweatshirt, trying to convince myself that the marine-layer-until-2:00 could pass for "autumn weather."  

When we lived in Wisconsin, we would rake leaves every Halloween.  In our area, each town would schedule trick-or-treating for a certain day and time, not all on the 31st and not all at night. We'd be out in the yard raking through the daylight and kids in costumes would come up the drive asking for candy. I was in middle school, too old to go asking for myself. We'd point to the basket on the porch and keep on with our work. We'd rake the whole three-quarter acre lot and pile them up for Grandpa. He'd man the burn barrel, set some aside for compost, and the leaves would be gone by sundown.


One November Saturday, since living here in Denver, we took you boys to rake leaves at a woman’s home here in town.  Something inside, or some voice in culture or some Bible verse must have informed me that this is how we grow boys in character and compassion. It's supposed to be a magic bullet toward hitting the mark of human development. We can’t have you stuck in Erickson’s stage 4 forever.  

Sam is a fantastic helper. He has always been attached at the hip to anyone who looks productive.  He often asks to help, but sometimes he just assumes it's okay with you for him to pull up a stool, grab his own hammer and wait for you to move your finger. Recently, Dad was explaining Sam’s deep sense of industry to a friend and said, “That kid has the gift of service.” When I heard those words a rush of awareness came over me; yes, he does. I saw God’s hands guiding Samuel’s, ordaining him to his destiny of working with others skillfully and cheerfully. Indeed, this isn't just a hold-over from an earlier developmental stage; it is how he is designed. Sam is a D on the DISC test and his love language is “quality time." Inviting him to stuff leaves into the bag that you’re holding actually gives him pleasure and wholeness. Raking leaves with Sam is a home-run.

Benjamin is skilled in responsibility and creativity. He's also a people pleaser. If he doesn’t like a parental decree he rarely acts contrary to it – at least verbally. He can be passive aggressive but he’s learning the value of peace and most of the time gets work done quickly so he’s completely free to create. The key to Benjamin is to present his work to him first thing so he can knock it out because once he moves into the free-form hours he’ll have a hard time tearing away from the drawing and Legos and archery targets to enter into work again. Afternoon schoolwork was always a belly flop into a tragic pool. Therefore, leaf-raking first-thing-in-the-morning is a straight-up, no-frills, clear expectation.  As long as we don’t keep discovering more trees Ben's good to the end.

You are structured and yet simultaneously chaotic. Your thinking style is "Abstract Random" -- capital A, capital R. The best days happen when two things are in play: you have a positive emotional attachment to what you're doing, and your expectations match with ours. Your worst days are when we tell you what's coming, but we give you few details, which means you have little clarity. This is where, with nothing foreseeable to depend on, you boil over in the ambiguity of it all. 

When raking leaves, you'll succeed if you can know several things: how long the job will take, how to do it most efficiently, when enough is enough, and what level of discomfort you should expect to feel. You tell us with boorish passion your complaints and we just try to keep you from going off the tracks until the goal is met. Your saving trait, is that you're a performer in the presence of others. When other people are around you'll abide by the social expectations and do so with charm. It’s this component of your personality that saved our leaf raking experience at that lovely woman's house. 

We take you guys to do these kinds of things, in spite of how you'll likely object because we feel it’s part of what it looks like to live “sent” lives. We take some of our own comfort and give it to others.  We voluntarily displace ourselves and enter into the thick of life.  It makes a better world when you shift attention from yourself to someone else.  When we're mature enough to do it, we often find some amazing people.

The woman we raked leaves for that day genially leaned on her open screen door and told us her story.  She went to college, worked for several years and then came home again to that very house to take care of her parents until they died. She was a woman of sacrificial love, who wouldn't let society bear the burden of caring for the elderly; she and her sister did it themselves. She never married, never had children. Her fluffy little dog ran merrily through our leaf piles, the only companion she'd had for years.  

She had the spirit of a woman who’d seen hardship and let it change her rather than embitter her. As a tribute to her, it was a small thing for my kids and I to take 45 minutes on a drizzly day to say, “thank you” for living a story that matters. As we swept her leaves away I encouraged you, fingers cold, sweatshirts zipped high, to push through, that there’d be another side to our labor, the side that can laugh at things to come.

The product of volunteering together isn’t always evident right away. We want you to learn what it feels like to at least inaugurate someone's healing or happiness or freedom.  Like throwing a grace-blanket over a fire and rolling it around to snuff it out, it's just the first step.  Healing and satisfaction can come when the smoke settles. 

When we come along with a sandwich for the hungry, a bed for the homeless, a kind word for the distressed we go a long way toward seeing God move like Isaiah 58 says, to guide and satisfy and make our bones strong.  In that moment we attribute worth to someone who may have forgotten what value even feels like. We move them up next to us and acknowledge that we really are all the same, broken and wanting and lost. Oh, how nice to be found and seen and cared for. How nice it feels when the fire stops burning.

I see you with the potential to be this kind of fire fighter.  Every time you serve others you internalize how easy it is to give and how lavish the Father truly is with us. But I don't think you quite see this for yourself yet.  When we stacked the last leaf bag for that sweet woman's trash pick-up I was receptive to her and I could tell there was peace welling up inside. For that moment, we seared closed something that was left unraveling. But I think you missed it. Your hands were too cold to notice anything else. Sam was petting her dog one more time. Ben was loading the van with the rakes. But I heard her say, “Thank you,” and I knew the depth of her words. We repaired the breech. We restored the streets.  

Imagine what you could do with a heart turned toward other people.  Imagine what it would be like to help someone finish their hard work before the sundown of the day or the sundown of their life. Imagine living a life of service that makes visible what has already been accomplished in Christ.  You can do it.  We're here to help.


Sunday, March 30

Sink Into Good-byes

Dear Jacob,

When Ben was fourteen months old he had only eaten cake once.

It had been on his first birthday, which happened to fall on Super Bowl Sunday -- the last one to ever be played in January. Your grandparents were with us and we enjoyed celebrating throughout the day, circumnavigating the morning worship service. I remember that Ben wore red canvas overalls a matching hat and his chubby cheeks.  He wasn't walking yet so he'd crawl to his gifts and bang on them.  And after a nap, and because Dad worked for a church, we went back there for a youth group Super Bowl party to watch the game with them.

It was there that we let Ben eat cake.  Propped up in a borrowed high chair at the back of the room, situated over a plastic sheet, ready to sacrifice those cute red overalls, we gave him a frosting-filled slice of sweetness for the very first time.  And we enjoyed the show.  He had difficulty getting some parts of it to his mouth, chunks falling through his fingers to his lap. He had to unscroll his clenched, frosted hands several times and at one point he swiped them over his face and head, streaking himself with Buccaneer colors. We laughed and cheered for our baby boy far more than we did for either football team.

After that, I naively figured I'd park his option for cake on the shelf until his next birthday. I thought that would be very sagelike and cool. "He only has cake on his birthday," I could say.  Other things are celebrated throughout the year, other birthdays, holidays, promotions, and even good-byes. It was hard to get around serving him some, but I wanted to keep his body pure because no one else would. Here's the thing though: sugar doesn't poison us half as much as closing off our heart.

Within that church where Dad worked there were many wonderful people. When Ben was born they anticipated his arrival, showered him with homemade blankets and cared for him in the nursery. They'd rescue my arms and carry him a while, they prayed for him during his eye surgery and they gave him his first Bible. Beautiful people. There was even a couple there that wanted you boys to stay close to them, to call them Mama and Papa, to be able to run to them to feel safe and loved, to be surrogate grandparents for you knowing that yours weren't nearby.

When we first met Mama Sue and Papa Lee we instantly knew that we wanted to be bonded to them, to be partners in ministry and to sneak in some moments of just sitting at their feet to learn from them. Their kind of love was rare and wonderful.  It was your Mama Sue and Papa Lee who cared deeply for you boys, encouraging me as a mother, taking care of you while Ben was being born and sacrificing time and health and money to show Jesus to the people who sometimes forgot they were following him. We spent a Christmas together and many other lovely days.  We also spent some evenings in solidarity with them, silently struggling together over the hurts that ministry sometimes provokes.

Jacob, it is good to let people in very close to your heart.  It makes it a rich place even when all around it feels barren and cold.

It was your Mama Sue who gave Ben his second piece of cake.  It wasn't a celebration of birth or accomplishment or even one of joy. It was an acknowledgement of their departing.  It was good-bye. You see, sometimes, when people leave a place of ministry there is actually a bit of a celebration, a sending, a time to gather and tell them how very much they've meant to you.  This was her party and there were some things that she needed to receive from it.

They were moving to the deep south two thousand miles away to minister to a new people in a new place. So on this last day there was cake and it seemed pleasing to Mama Sue to feed it to Ben, strapped in his stroller, kicking his feet with delight.  And because of the pain involved in the day it seemed only right to let her do it.

The void they left was so big it could swallow the land between us and still have room for the sky.  My heart ached to lose someone who cared so genuinely for me, for my children, who made ordinary days special and who pointed us all to God.  It's important to recognize these people for who they really are, treasured servants of God's restorative grace, and to hold them close because everywhere and everyone will find a way to need them as much as you do.

Serving together in a church is nothing like working together in an office or an industry. It's not a social, fraternal order.  It's not a dutiful experience. It's a crucial under structure through which, we believe, God is working to restore all things to himself. It's a living and breathing organism working together to give the world a picture of Christ. Your dad and I consider it eternal, essential. Because it's a body every time someone leaves it it hurts me like I'm losing an arm, but as often as we're allowed to, we still show up for them -- even in our sadness.

Ben was able to give joy to Mama Sue that day. I was feeling shaky, sad, quiet but as Ben took each forkful of cake into his mouth  and responded with an ecstatic look of glee, Mama Sue would laugh.  Their joy seemed equal even though I knew she wanted to leave in tears. Ben was the sweetness for her in that moment and gave her the perspective of life in a continuum. Nothing stops.  Nothing forgets.

Good-byes are the counterpart of hellos. In church ministry I know, I know, that for every hello I say there will be a parallel good-bye; sometimes tearful, sometimes even grateful.  We need to say them all and we need to say them in the ways that will grace the go-er. We need to welcome the space that good-byes make in our hearts for the next hello, and we need to recognize what that time in-between created in us and in the world.

Mama Sue fed us all so much more than cake. She fed us strength and courage and hope. These are the things you don't just walk away from. These are the things you truly celebrate. Let them sink in deep so that you never forget.


Saturday, March 29

Pause to Practice Joy

Dear Jacob,

Life is temperamental. The things that happen to us, the things we bring into it, the way we perceive its intentions and course make us shift nervous in our seat as it takes us on its rugged, uneven ride. 

I've been in a place where driving was perhaps the most dangerous thing a person could do, where people were not protected from the element of surprise, where laws couldn't defy the press of culture and desire. Driving in India was breathtaking and daunting and a little glorious.  It was actually a very real depiction of life. 

Here in America with our yellow lines and traffic cams and cordial intersections, we think we can control everything and we put on good airs toward that end.  In India, however, the sorrows are on display in the streets. The weeping and grinding, the fear of scarcity, the assaulting and toiling was all there played out between the rickshaws and tire trucks and motorcycles. There was no pretending that we were anything other than sown right into the palm of God's ruling hand. Nothing was ours to control. 

In our first days there it was hysterically hot, Dad was dehydrated, we didn't speak the language, and we were exhausted. We took an overnight train to a different city and met a man who would take us to a different village and while we were on the way, in the car with the driver and a/c, we talked about where we were headed. Through the fields of lush green on ill-patched roads, past cows and dogs and peddlers and bicycles piled with branches we talked about the church planters we were going to meet and teach. We learned of the needs, the habits, the vision and the church in that place. And we heard tell of their determination into a life of joy.

We had been given the charge to teach about a hundred church planters from the book of Philippians. Between Dan, Dad, myself and the local pastor, we taught the entire book in three days. It was a challenge and a delight. We didn't know we'd be doing it with the intensity that was needed and we didn't have adequate study materials to prepare, but it was a delight to be a part of their formation and of their journey further into Christ. 

I had the pleasure of teaching to them about joy, which is a primary theme in the book of Philippians. You see, the Bible doesn't just give instructions about what to keep away from, what to expel from our lives.  It dives into the deepest parts of our human experience.  It addresses both sorrow and joy, the training we all get across continents and cultures and crowds and class.

During my time in India I saw suffering. There were times when I was in the middle of deep poverty, when I walked past a brothel and felt the looming force of that simple wall that kept girls trapped inside, when I was asked for money by children beating on the car window, when I smelled the funeral pyre, when I was denied entrance to a holy place. There were times of deep disconnect because I was a woman, an American, a Christian. But it is into suffering that joy finds its strongest hold.

At the end of the second chapter of Philippians, there's this little sandwich of anxiety.  Paul laments a little over the fact that his friend Epaphroditus almost died.  He imagines what life would have been like without him and he feels his breath stop in his chest, his face like stone, his imagination taking him to that place of great loss. It's just for a moment, but you can feel the sorrow in his "what-if" words.  Quickly though, he remembers to rejoice but then he just as quickly moves on to worry and he warns his readers about evil people that could cause trouble.  He jumps from lament to worry -- just like you and I do -- but right in the middle, as if to save himself from truly falling, he pauses to rejoice. 

Paul practiced something important.  He practiced joy.

The praise of God can turn our troublesome days into hopeful days.  When we are reminded that we serve a God of resurrection -- of truly coming back to life from death -- we, too, can stand up to what comes next. It's not that we wash all of our sufferings away, that we push them into annihilation as if they never happened.  No. It's our sufferings that actually draw us closer to Christ, the giver of our joy. We identify with him in his death.  We taste it, see it, know it well, and in that place of deep sorrow and loss, where we can't carry ourselves, we turn our minds toward him. In that kind of moment the power of his resurrection surges us through our sufferings.  And so it is that if we didn't have the intensity of suffering, we wouldn't know the depths of joy. 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul rejoiced in several ways for different reasons and we can imitate him to find our footing on our path toward experiencing joy:
  • We can experience joy when God gets the glory for his work that we never could have dreamed up.  He'll talk to us, change our friends, move in our government and open up roads when we least expect it. He'll use people that don't even profess to know him.  He'll heal us of things that won't seem to let us go. He'll show up with power and love and we call it miracle, marvel, wonder.
  • We can experience joy when we are given the opportunity and the circumstances to be changed.  The hard things we experience can move us into bitterness and fear or they can move us into a new kind of life.  Hardship, fear, anxiety, worry, lament -- they're all his invitations to be made new.  When we choose to be changed we have the joy of a new freedom and we're not wasting that hard thing for a minute.
  • We can experience joy when others are given the opportunity and circumstances to be changed as well.  The Christian movement doesn't stop with our own transformation. It has to affect us all.  That's the very place where we once again pick up that hard thing, that death, that health issue, that failure that we had in our past and we pull it back out so we can help others through theirs as well. When we walk through our difficulties together we have the joy of knowing that we were used by God to restore faith and life for someone else.
  • We can experience joy when he answers our prayers for others. When we constantly look for God to work in the lives of others we can more readily spot him.  We just have to be looking. When we see him, even though there's chaos all around, we can point out to others the oasis of love that he is.
  • We can experience joy when God meets our own needs.  Our relationship with God is intimate.  It's personal, but it's never private.  He knows the needs that we can't even express and when we become aware of them ourselves, he's there waiting for us knowing that's where we'd need him to be.  That's his comfort.  That's his cure.
You are moving, as we all are, toward what you hope will feel like peace and purpose.  But it's not a straight line to get there. There will be detours and bridges that collapse and road closures for other people's parades. You'll travel some very dirty roads with hollows and pits and miles and miles of washboarding that makes you slow all the way down. But all is not lost. Joy is there, sandwiched between all the sorrow and worry.  Joy is next to you waiting for you to look and see the smiling child banging on the window, the skillful driver who keeps you safe, the beautiful women who are in a position to be saved, right where God can come in.  Pause to practice it. 



Friday, March 28

Take Time To Grieve

Dear Jacob,

Traditionally, lenten practices call for taking one day a week off from the "fast." Typically it's Sunday.

But today there is a great silence in our family that will never cease.
In honor and respect for the tragedy we've endured, I'm offering a prayerful silence.
It's all I can do.

You are deeply, lavishly and amply loved.

Thursday, March 27

Don't Be Afraid to Be Poor

Dear Jacob,

A few years ago when we lived in Vancouver, we received a wedding invitation from a young man who had been in Dad's youth group. He had gone off to college and met the woman of his dreams and they were getting married in Northern California.  We thought over the invitation for quite a while, thinking the distance and expense and timing of the wedding might not work for us.  But one day Dad said, "I'd like to go anyway." And so we rsvp'd late, plopped the three of you in the car and drove.

Samuel was just a toddling baby at that time and I spent a good portion of the wedding in the foyer with him, babbling -- you know how he is.  But when he was quiet I sat next to your dad and listened as the minister read off the couple's reasons for wanting to marry.  Their lists were adorable, sensitive, loving.  When the minister quoted her excitement that her groom was her ticket to a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby everyone chuckled. But then I did a silent gasp at the profundity of her next reason: She said she wanted to marry him because, "I'm not afraid to be poor."

At that point your dad and I had been married for a dozen years and had worked for two churches.  We were currently underemployed, had three children we were homeschooling, no college savings plan and no prospects for a ministry we knew we'd love. I had purged my desire to shop-for-no-reason years before. I cut everyone's hair, save my own. We went out to eat minimally, passed clothes down from boy to boy to boy and Dad drove a truck Grandpa had given him. We had learned, during our life together, to live poor.

We knew what is was to be poor. But we'd been doing it so long that it didn't feel like we were missing much. I did wish for things: for better dental coverage, for more expensive curriculum, for a way to get help for you and your explosive tendencies. But we had to make do.  We learned to be content with what we had.

On this day, however, I thought this young bride's strength was naive. She hadn't been in a place where she was providing for someone, anyone, else.  She'd never been on a church staff that couldn't pay her husband, or been unemployed with two kiddos, or been homeless. She'd never packed everything up into storage and left it there for six months while she waded through the unknown. She was just out of college and her biggest thing looming were the loans she had to pay back. What did she know of poverty, of scarcity, of drought?

Yet, on this most sacred day with flowers in her hair, she vowed that no matter what happened in her new family she would not be paralyzed by the fear of not having enough. And in that moment I wished I'd had her posture on my own wedding day. I wished I'd had the foresight to know that in the process of following a certain calling that there would be less than enough and God would make up the difference. I wished that on my own wedding day that I'd known how not to worry about the teeth that needed crowns, the brother that needed more rent, or how to pay for the hotel room we were in for her wedding.

This was a bearing I had to learn over time and through hardship. After being suffocated by the tentacles of grief, pulled under by its penurious predicaments I did rise again to know that abundance was available even if it tasted a lot like salt water. Abundance is a stance toward a life that gives us all the same stuff.  We know that God brings rain on the just and the unjust, his sun rises on the evil and the good.  How often we look and say, "There's not enough" in the cupboard of life that has all the ingredients we need for cake.

We have two choices, maybe more.  One posture toward life believes that everything is limited.  And when we travel into onerous positions we grasp onto everything and hold it tight, crying foul at the walls that threaten to bury us.  Trials are given to us in order to take something from us. Expenses alarm us when our value is based on what we have, falsely assuming that it was our great skill that achieved it in total.

Alternatively, we can face life with the attitude that there will be enough; that quantities can be redefined and resources re-purposed.  We can enter a time of trial with open hands and wonder what the trial will give us.  We can look at the impossible in front of us and throw our best at it and determine to be satisfied with the outcome. We can choose not to be afraid.
The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance. Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need – from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved – are ample in nature? Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available only to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store? The nature of our action will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions.  -- Parker J. Palmer
When you're not afraid to be poor, you're not afraid to risk. You'll look at the resources you have and build a life with them. You'll see a community of friends and build it into a church. You'll stay away from places that tempt you to covet and you'll press into the inherent value that God has given you as his capable child. When you're not afraid to risk it gives evidence to one solid, tested belief: that you are loved unconditionally and freely by a God who created you with wonder.  A God who gave you the same blood he gave everyone else who not only loves life but demands it too. When you're convinced of and have experienced God's great love for you, nothing is bleak or scarce or impossible.

Maybe our ideas about scarcity and abundance actually arise out of our experience of love. Maybe that young bride, so entranced by the love of her groom, looked in his eyes and saw the unconditional love that motivated and ensured and established the very courage of her heart. Together they would risk everything to see the limitless supply of God's love for them. Perfect love casts out fear. Rain or shine, they would move into abundant life.

A favorite author of mine wrote, "All fear is really the belief that God's love ends.*"  In the end, it doesn't come down to skill or control or stewardship; it all comes down to love.  Do not be afraid.


*Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

Wednesday, March 26

Respect that Girl's Future

Dear Jacob,

We have these conversations in roundabout ways -- conversations about girls.  Your good friend seems to be very aware of the girls around him. I think you're aware too, but you're observing, maybe unsure about the way forward. I just want to say that I think you're in a good space, that there's no rush.

There was a boy in my fifth grade class who I guess was technically my boyfriend because we'd sealed the deal in some "check this box" note one day. He and I went roller skating with our class once. This meant that during couples skate we had to hold hands and my friends all giggled when they saw that, nervous and far too young to comprehend it all.  Another time the other boys were talking about kissing their girlfriends and I think he was issued a dare and he came up to me as I sat in the school breezeway and lightning-like kissed me on the cheek and then buzzed away.  I was stunned and insulted. What the heck was my boyfriend thinking he could kiss me for?  Ack. I wrote him a note and unchecked the box.

Years later there was a boy my sophomore year who wanted to be my boyfriend and so I said, "Let's give it a try." Soon thereafter we arranged to meet at a football game with friends. During the game he gave me a bracelet that had been his as a baby which, of course, meant it was too small for me to wear so I put it in my pocket. When I ran out of things to talk about with him I walked off with my best friend to the snack bar and admitted that I didn't know what to do. When I reached into my pocket to show her the bracelet it was gone. I knew this was not good.

I did what my I-need-to-get-out-of-this-situation apprehensive teen-self thought was best. I told him that we weren't going to work out and I mournfully said that I'd give him his bracelet back but I couldn't because I'd lost it. Humiliated, he and I searched below the bleachers to find it and we never did. To this day, that man has no baby bracelet to pass on to his own kids. Don't think that I don't see the rippling effects of this.

There were a couple of other attempts at boyfriends, but none of them lasted longer than two weeks.  That was kind of my thresh hold of comfortability. I think I ended them so quickly because after about two weeks in I couldn't keep hiding my true self, the mystery wore off and I was just a regular girl trying to pass Chemistry without tears.  In that same amount of time I saw that they were just boring or smelly or self-interested or I found that our friendship was messed up by this new status of relationship so I opted out. The truth is, I was too young. 

Case in point: I had a long-distance boyfriend once.  I'd only really met him once at a camp with my cousin's youth group and then we wrote letters back and forth and sent photos. We became a thing I guess, long distance through those letters.  But when I visited my cousin again and saw him again, he was stand-offish and goofy and nervous and I think we said some surfacy things to one another and took a photo together and then youth group was over.  That "relationship" lasted about six months and was obviously not as deep and meant-to-be as I thought. Sometimes we like the idea of a relationship more than we like the work it takes to have an actual relationship.

My senior year was my first real boyfriend -- a boyfriend that I wanted to kiss me, whose ring I didn't lose and with whom I could be myself. We lasted far longer than two weeks; we were together for three years. Over time and distance we had this sometimes good and sometimes rocky relationship.  He was accepted into my family and just made himself at home around them. He came to know Jesus while we were dating and I'm pretty sure that relationship with Jesus was really about Jesus and nothing about impressing me.  I actually think that it was Jesus that held our relationship together.

I think this boy was a good place to start.  I was getting better at being real with others, though far from expert at it. Because I was older I was more willing to give my heart, to compromise, to listen.  I still had walls and insecurities, but that's going to happen as you grow up.  I was at a point in maturity where I realized that a boyfriend wasn't a trophy or a dare. A boyfriend was a person with a family who loved him more than I did, with his own goals in life and his own way of wanting to live. I couldn't force my own dreams onto him and I couldn't assume he would be my "everything."  

At least, that's what I'd say about a boyfriend now.  Back then, I sabotaged that relationship in many ways, making him move to California to be with me after I'd moved away to college, being hard-nosed at times, insulting at others, pushing curfews and telling him how to cut his hair.  I wasn't the best girlfriend there ever was.  But you learn these things as you go.  And if I hadn't dated that boy and learned all the wrong things to do in a relationship, I wouldn't have been ready to meet your dad with the maturity I felt I had gained. Nothing is wasted.

But here's the thing and I know you're still a ways off from this:  The first girl you date is a girl you will remember for the rest of your life. The first girl you kiss will be a part of your story forever. I pretty much hate that my first "kiss" was done in the way it was done. And I pretty much hate my teen-self for treating that other boy with such indifference and losing something precious to him. Obviously, these are stories I've not forgotten and you won't forget your stories either.  

Building relationships with girls can be exciting, but really it shouldn't be far different than building a relationship with boys. If you can be yourself and be accepted then you're on the right track. When you get to a point where you feel like you want to treat a girl like an actual treasure, someone you can value for who she actually is and not who she can be for you, then let's talk some more. Because as much as you don't want to begin a story full of regrets, you don't want her to be telling bitter stories about you to her kids one day either.

The choices we make in first relationships deeply affect our lives. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. So is she. We need to treat other people's hearts the way we'd want ours to be treated.  I respect yours enough to tell you this.


Tuesday, March 25

Move Toward Dreams

Hike in Acadia National Park = done.
Dear Jacob,

It's Spring Break and the three of you are wandering about with not much to do. I'm waiting to hear what my work schedule is supposed to be and so there's this listlessness hanging about.  I've decided that listlessness needs a list.

I think when I was a kid that I thought my mom was content to be doing whatever it was she was doing at that moment.  I remember that she made a lot of phone calls, she wrote a lot of things on the calendar, she kept lists and she shopped a lot. When I was in fifth and sixth grade she watched soap operas with me in the summer and we baked cinnamon monkey bread. Sometimes she would wander to the piano and play it, but that was really my territory. Mom worked at my school in another classroom when I was young, and at a different school when I was a teenager.  She didn't like to cook -- we were all pretty clear on that -- but she did it anyway. That was the one thing I remember her doing that I knew she didn't like.  But other than that I thought she was just fulfilling her dreams day by day

The thing I remember her doing most that appeared to be at least something akin to a leisure activity was sewing. To the same degree that you see me writing on a laptop, I saw her with draping fabric and pins, dropping the foot, trimming the threads. She created curtains and blouses and skirts I could twirl in. And pillows -- all the throw pillows you can imagine.  In my eyes sewing was actually my mom's vocation. Yes, she worked in a school, but at her core I called her a seamstress.

One year my mom and dad surprised us by announcing to my brother and I that they were going to go to Hawaii. You thought moving to Denver came out of nowhere. No. This news was like a flying saucer landing in our backyard pool. Why in the world would she go to Hawaii?  That place was a a bit of a chimera.  I mean, it was the backdrop for Fantasy Island (a t.v. show I can't believe they let us watch on Saturdays) and so it was a place for dreams to live in, not a suitable place for moms to go to.

But they went to Hawaii. And for a whole week she didn't sit at the window and sew, or make dinner, or drive me to school or talk on the phone. To me it felt like something wasn't right; that she had dragged herself away to a place that she didn't belong and I imagined that where she really wanted to be was home with me and all her stuff, doing the things that really made her happy.

I couldn't envision that my parents had dreams of their own, that they fancied a different kind of a day, or that they imagined a life post-children ever. I thought that what they did was what they loved.  While I do think my mom liked her life back then, I never thought for a second that maybe there was something more she wanted.

You should know that there are layers to moms, that we can love and achieve several things at once. That while, yes, I adore being a mother and all eleven years of homeschooling was exactly what I felt I should have been doing, I also think that there's more for me in life, that there are walls I can break down and new ways of living to explore. I don't think that women have to stay at home and I don't think that women who do are wrong. At this point, I can't quite put my finger on it, but I know there are other chapters to write on top of the ones that are already underway.

So, to ensure that you don't have any ill-defined assumptions about what your mom wants out of life, here's what I'm going to share with you: Your Mom's Bucket List.

Play in an orchestra -- When I was in middle and high school I played in the band.  I was First Chair clarinet until I tried out for the good band and then I dropped back to the second row. But I was really content in that second row. I loved the experience of making music with others.  I loved that everyone mattered. Years before I had chosen the clarinet only because it was the easiest instrument to carry in my backpack and the flute made me dizzy (I tried it). But I really craved to play those brass instruments and the one that always captured my attention was the french horn.

When I was in fifth and sixth grade I spent summers in Nebraska with Aunt Cyn and she took me to her Salvation Army music camp. The Salvation Army bands don't have woodwind instruments so I had to learn a brass instrument that week. I chose the Eb Alto Horn which is like a french horn, sort of, which I also loved.  And that's when I thought, "Someday, I'll do this again.  But I don't want to carry this monster on the bus, so not right now."

Someday will come. I'd like to pick up a french horn and learn it and join a local orchestra that I can practice with every week and perform with at the holidays, making musical jokes as we set up our stands. I'd like to know what it's like to have strings surrounding me and to give way to them at various interludes.  I'd like to quietly creep in after a soloist and make the mood rise with multi-layered brassy harmonies. I'd like to anticipate the tap of that tubular bell ... and then the next one. The whole thing says love and community and wholeness to me.

See the Taj Mahal  Done

Spend the night in a lighthouse -- I used to live by the ocean.  Back in the days of my young adulthood when I was in college, when I met your dad and when you were born, the Pacific was just a little jaunt away.  My friends and I spent countless hours there making bonfires on the beach and slathering on suncreen and stopping for Irish Fries on the way home.  The ocean came to me at a formative time and she will always be part of who I am.

Lighthouses were not a part of our landscape, however. Lighthouses are culturally East Coast and that's an ocean that is altogether different with her cold, fiery temper and her destructive ways. I don't see lighthouses as bastions of warmth and safety; they're the last fortress standing in the most heinous conditions. They're the brazen ones that break the darkness lest the darkness break them.  I'd love to find one that's been renovated for guests and sleep all night surrounded by the stories in the walls.

Have children  Done

White sand beach + hammock -- This is my dream vacation.  Maybe there's little grass huts connected by catwalks over the water.  Maybe there's a mossy-sided volcano nearby.  Maybe there's a stack of books and a big floppy hat.  I don't know where it is, but it might be Bora Bora.  Or the Cayman Islands.  Or Fiji. I'm not really picky.

Bungee jump off a bridge  Done

Attend an Olympic opening ceremony -- I can't think of a more frightening and yet more satisfying encounter. These days there is physical danger involved in going to places where crowds gather, but there is also that ever present danger of insulting someone of a different culture and tongue. When we go to things like this we push ourselves into that in-your-face, personal confrontation: "Here is the world, and it's not just like you."  Additionally, when I'm in crowds all my energy is sucked away and I don't hear very well so the ambient noise wears me down.

But I can only imagine the energy and power of a people who've come together from everywhere to celebrate life. What more unifying experience can there be?  I want to have a colored jacket or a colored card to flip at just the right time. I want to take photos from my seat and be there in the midst of the fireworks and the cauldron and the confetti and to think words like 'boundless' and 'immense'and have it all press down deep into my heart.

Get a Master's Degree  Done

Hike to Machu Pichu -- Before you guys were born your dad and I hiked. Zion National Park was probably our favorite place for hiking on account of Angel's Landing and The Narrows. When I was on my mom vacation this summer I went on a long hike in Acadia National Park and it felt good to move hand-over-hand in the rough spots. When I was a kid I hiked Mt. Lassen three times and wrote my name on the log in the little canister at the top.  I envision that sooner than later we'll hike a Fourteener here in our home state as well.  But someday, before I'm too old and my bones too decrepit, I'd like to venture to South America and find this city in the clouds for myself.

Get published in a magazine Done

Take you guys to D.C. and Philadelphia -- I went to D.C. when I was in fourth grade when my Dad had a business trip. My mom and brother and I walked all over that city for several days in February -- which means it was cold. Jimmy Carter was the POTUS at the time and the U.S. Hockey Team had just gold medaled at the Olympics, beating Russia for the first time in ages which the world called the 'Miracle on Ice.' And while we were at the top of the Washington Monument, we paid a nickel to use the viewfinder and saw the President greeting the hockey team on the steps of the White House. True story.

I'd love to take you to experience the magic of the Air and Space museum and the bigness of the Lincoln Memorial and to sit in the eerie silence of Arlington Cemetery. You need to sit in the chamber of the legislature and you need to count all the steps as you walk up.  And then we need to go to Philadelphia and sit in Independence Hall and know the beginnings of his place that blesses us in ways you don't even realize.

Marry well  Done

Write a book -- I wrote one when I was sixteen and gave it away to all my friends on my birthday. It was a poetic work, not prose.  When I was a creative writing major I had to write 100 pages of a novel.  It was about a young girl who fell through the ice and survived but had to have her foot amputated. I never knew how to end it so I never did and it's out in the garage somewhere.  Last fall, I began a book about living in community, but I lost steam and community cracked.  One of these days I'll do it. One of these days I'll sit down every day and bleed out onto paper what is coursing through my veins.  Maybe these letters to you are my practice grounds for doing just that.

Teach my kids to read   Done

Sit on a jury  -- My mom would never have this on her list because she bemoans every jury duty notice that she gets.  But I'm not like that. I think it could be a fascinating experience and I think it's also my civic duty.  I don't feel at all the same about you signing up for the draft, and I'm not a big flag slauter but I think that we all have a true privilege to participate in justice.  I, however, have only been called a couple of times in my life and each time I had young kids I was caring for and so I didn't have to serve.  Luck of all luck -- I received notice last week that I'm to report in April.  And I really hope I get picked.

Live in Colorado  Done

Grow a Vegetable Garden -- Your Grandpa always, always had a garden and I'd love to say that I was out there with him in the sunshine learning from his able tutelage, but I couldn't have cared less at the time.  Kids miss wonderful things sometimes. I have friends who plant these beautiful gardens and they post pictures of their bounty on social media and I look wistfully at them.  I hope that one day I, too, can just go out to the garden and make dinner from everything I grow.  But Colorado is a tough place to begin and I love perennials more than I love vegetables so I ran out of sunny places after we put in the plants and the lawn. Someday.

Teach in a Seminary   Done

Achieve MOA's -- I work out because I have a crazy family medical history that haunts me and because I have bad knees.  But if I could make one thing happen in a visual sense, I would sculpt my arms to look like Michelle Obama's.  MOA's.  I think I'm genetically predisposed to never see this happen, but while I'm at the gym I'll give it a shot.

Take a train trip through Great Britain  Done

Take you guys to a drive-in movie -- There are so many things that have come and gone that you'll never experience: 8-Track Tapes, the Sears Christmas catalog, loading up a computer game from a cassette tape, and gas that was less than $1 per gallon.  Drive-in movie theaters are nearly extinct as well.  The last one I went to was the Hi-Way 39 on Beach Boulevard in Orange County.  When we were in college we'd go see double features together with all the gang bangers.  It wasn't the cleanest place in the world.  You pretty much kept your windows rolled up and held it if you had to pee.  It's a WalMart now.  Sad.

I remember going to one as a kid though, which must have been in Redding.  When I was very young I'd wear my feety pajamas to Peter Pan and since drive-ins are only open in the summer and you had to wait until it was dark to see the movie it meant you all stayed out really late, which is, as you know, my love language. I remember seeing Xanadu and Flash Gordon, but not at the same time. You usually get two movies when you go to the drive-in and the kid-friendly one is first.  I think the hope was that the kids could fall asleep in the back seat while the parents watched the second one.  I wonder how well that worked out for people.

I'd love to take you guys just for the experience, but I know that with it would come too much dialogue.  I don't mean that we'd sit and confabulate about the movie with wit and wisdom, I mean this kind of dialogue: "I want to sit there!" and "I can't see!" and "He's touching me!" and "I just want to lay down!" and oh-my-goodness-should-we-just-go-home? kind of dialogue.  So, hopefully drive-ins will still be around when everyone can be civil and precious to one another.  It might take a while.

Visit every state in the U.S.  -- 42 down, 8 to go

See the Northern Lights -- This one includes a trip to Alaska, so it's a two-fer. I've heard stories about the Northern Lights, about friends lying in the beds of pick-up trucks waiting for them at the wee hours of the morning and hushing when they finally wave across the sky. It sounds very romantic and wonderful.  If I could imagine what it would look like for the mantle of time to tear open and for heaven to break through to earth, this is what it would look like to me. I want to lie out there in the open in the midst of something sensational and sacred.  I want to be in the presence of what must be most like the Spirit of God visible and evident and clear. I want to watch them until the very last shred of color flees from the sky and I'm left with the millions of stars to sing to me the glory that they just shared.  And when it was over I'd know that I had been in the presence of God and it would dawn on me that I always, ever am.

I know that the current version of you, isn't the you that you'll always be.  Have some dreams.  Move toward them.


Monday, March 24

Apologize Anyway

Dear Jacob,

Sometimes you might find yourself feeling slighted by social groups. I wish I could say that after high school the desire to find a place where you fit just dissolves into maturity. But it really doesn't. As an adult I still look for an accepting vocational setting, a welcoming church, an inviting circle of moms. We never outgrow our desire to live in real relationship with others.  And sometimes those relationships are hard and sticky and disparaging.

There was a time when Dad and I lived among a community that had a hard time being welcoming. And while the people were certainly and unashamedly 'nice' they stopped just short of being self-giving, preferring to stay in the comfort of self-preserving. There was a wall in that place that I could never break through and so I did my best to just work around it, smiling through it whenever I could, whenever a crack presented itself. As much as I wanted to live in rich relationship with everyone, there was a predetermined group of people that wanted to live tightly together without me.

In high school you call this a clique. And while I don't hear you speak of your high school experience the way that I lived in my own, they're around you. Cliques aren't bad for those who are in them; they're a nurturing arrangement for those inside where it's safe and complimentary and favorable.  When you encounter this kind of tight-knit friendship from the outside you can make these assumptions:  1.They have everything they need  2.They're caring for one another. 3.You're free to build relationships anywhere else.

The typical response to people who have tight friendships where we don't is to envy them.  By doing so we give them greater importance than they really have.  A level of importance that is really just a mirage because when people cling so tightly to a group of friends they do so because they have intense need.  We've all been in periods of life that made us relational consumers, but hopefully those were just seasons, not life-long patterns. We can't open ourselves up to other relationships because we can't be certain we'll be accepted as our true selves.  When we rely on the same friends to feed us, we don't know how to offer nourishment to others.  The truth about cliques is that they are self-serving.

But those on the outside fail as well. When we're around the members of a clique we feel threatened and small and we offer nothing toward a relationship. What we offer is judgment.  This is where we cease to love others, to think the best of them; this is where we back away from initiative and grace and curiosity.  We're not really looking at them saying, "I have something I can give to you." We're saying, "You have something I want to take."  It's as much of a consumer mentality as going to church in order to be "fed."  When you live outside of a clique but longingly wish you were inside it's safe walls, you are identifying with their need for deep relationship and admitting that you can't and won't find it elsewhere. When we begin to view a clique as an enemy we begin to be the problem.

If love is the ability to think the best of others, then love is the answer to cliques.  When I was living in that community that failed to welcome me, I considered what role I had played in that situation.  It dawned on me that I had participated in distancing myself.  I had seen the intense commitment they had to one another and I had simply taken my ball and played somewhere else.  When this truth came to me, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to apologize.

As much as we love to vilify cliques their love for one another isn't a downfall, their character probably isn't malicious, and their struggles are remarkably similar to yours. So, I picked a person and invited her for a walk and I said some things like this.  I told her what I knew love was and I told her what I knew repentance was (to change your thinking).  And then I admitted that I hadn't been thinking the best and I was frustrated because I perceived that others weren't thinking the best of me.  I told her my lack of presence in her life was intentional and meditated, that I kept her at arm's distance and that I understood this didn't do anything to create unity in our community.  I laid out my options: 1. I could completely disengage and wash my hands of it because the work was too hard  2. I could continue to live like it doesn't matter and build my life outside of hers, which would just continue to perpetuate a false self  3. I could be mature and call out what was really happening, knowing that I was inviting either pain or reconciliation or both.  I told her I was sorry.  I asked her to forgive me.

She was grateful and repentant and pleased.  And I think we moved forward in a different way much more aware of how we were treating all people.  This conversation freed me.  And when we hugged good-bye I went in and called another person and invited her for a walk and I did it again.  Slowly, I began to break down that wall.  The purpose wasn't to be able to join the clique.  The purpose was to crumble the wall a bit so that as we both reconstructed the landscapes of our lives, we might have some common green space where our lives could overlap.

As people who follow after God, we are people who join him in his purpose to reconcile all things to himself. This means that we are agents of reconciliation and we should go about making things right. As much as we want to be blameless in everything the reality is that we are not. We all play a role in the undoing of families, communities and the world. We all work from a place of fear sometimes and we cocoon up in a community and say, "I'll never let this go." But sometimes the letting go is the opening we were waiting for and sometimes the assumption of fault is the rupture that conquers pride.

Relationships are tricky and, of course, we should seek to have those friends who stick closer than a brother. But at the same time, as much as it depends upon you, seek to live at peace with all men.


*That photo isn't the community I mentioned.  Exposing that one wouldn't be moving toward reconciliation.

Sunday, March 23

Don't Make Worship About You

Dear Jacob,

It's Sunday morning and we're all still in our pajamas. I think it's amusing that we, a pastor's family, aren't off with church right now, but over these past years of gathering for worship on another day I've learned to love the rest that Sunday provides, the rest that Sabbath intends for us. While my last letter coached you on the merits of work, we were given a day for rest and I'm also trying to teach you what that looks like. Sabbath may be a letter for another day.

Sabbath isn't just about rest. It's also about sacred assembly. As a family, we're in this in-between time and don't have a regular sacred assembly, or worship, but we will soon enough.  In the meantime, we occasionally visit churches to remember what it is to give God worth, which is what worship means, to take part in communion as an act of re-covenanting ourselves to the story of Jesus, and to have our hearts turned away from ourselves and toward the miraculous ways of God.

On the Sundays that we decide to go somewhere to worship you fight the entire process. You should know that you're not the first person in this family to do that. Dad and I had our own moments of revolt when we were teens too. And admittedly, as a pastor's wife, I've had to force myself in the car on occasion... or for a whole season around the time that Ben was born.  Again, that's another letter.

Your reaction to attending a worship service is pretty similar to how you respond to attending the grocery store or attending the barber. You're a homebody and you don't want to leave, so this isn't unusual to just church.  But whereas you don't have to go to the grocery store and you don't have to cut the Jesus hair, worship is a different experience altogether in that, you're not attending to get something, you're being attentive to give it. I'd guess for most teens that this concept is hard to grasp.

A few Sundays ago, we went to a new church and you were so angry that you sat on the opposite side of the sanctuary and disappeared from our view. I get it. A little. You know these visits are only one-time deals, that we're not going to invest in the people or the program because we're building our own at the moment. I get that some of these sermons we've heard aren't very engaging; I've wanted to slink out of a couple myself. And I get that your insolence is a response to fear of something that you aren't familiar with, namely God. But when we go together we hear the same things, we are in a mutual experience and I'd be interested to find out what you hear and share what I hear and see just how differently one word can be communicated.

We want to be with you. We really don't like being over you or under you. We've always loved being with you. I actually don't believe that children and parents should be segregated in worship. I doubt the tabernacle in the wilderness had a kids' space.

When we went to Vintage Faith Church you had an interesting reaction: you loved to go. We'd stand you up on the chairs between us during the singing and and you'd respond to the music, read the words on the screen, ask us questions. What Dad and I remember most is that you'd get pretty touchy and affectionate. You'd rub on our backs and give us little hugs and you were in a state we rarely saw you: content. After a time of singing the kids would leave to have a lesson on their own and you and Ben were happy to trot off. The next week we'd do it again and you responded the same way.

When we were at The Evergreen Community you're reaction was different still: you loved to help. This was a start-up, a church plant, and we met in the party room of a pub in Portland. We'd move all the tables aside and set up chairs and prayer stations.  We'd light candles and set up guitars. You were all about the logistics of that.  During worship, you'd sit with us, or on the carpet set aside just for you and you'd read and lay on our laps and draw quiet pictures with our friends. When we were done, you'd lead the charge to move the chairs back. You felt like you had a place. You were a part of the community.

Now we're in this place where there really isn't a place. Church for us looks like a lot of dinner parties, a lot of whiteboard discussions and a lot of laughter. Friday night, church looked like celebrating your dad's birthday with bowling and laser tag.  Today we'll go help some friends do some repairs on their house, so today church will look like restoration.  It's hard for you to know what to expect. But you need to know that no matter what church looks like or what it does or how it behaves in the world, we always want you with us.

In wanting this, we are wanting nothing less than God wants.  He's pretty relational by nature and he created us to be in relationship with him.  He doesn't love it when we only live for him or we only get our directions from him.  He loves it when we are with him. Walking in the garden with Adam in the cool of the day had to be one of his favorite things to do.  And he gave Eve to Adam to be with him, a perfect helper for his emotions, his physical labor, his care of the animals. They were doing life together.  He wasn't over her and she wasn't over him.  That was what the fall was all about, but it wasn't what true life was all about.

Much later, in another garden, Jesus prayed that everyone who follows him would be unified, would be one in the way that God and Jesus and the Spirit are all one.  And to me that means that we are to be looking toward the same thing.  I call that thing the restoration of all things, including our relationship with God.  But when we hang out in places of dissention, we are looking in opposite directions.  It's a unity fail.  It's not "with."

We love to be in worship with you because on some level that's where I hand everything over to God again and again and again.  And since I have three sons, that means I hand you over to him every time.  It means I push a little less into my own desires and a little more into his and I'm reminded that his desires for unity are only hindered by my failures to pursue them.  Your resistance to just being with us in that context doesn't break anything anew, it just reveals that it's already, still, broken as it has been for thousands of years since that fruit was plucked from the wrong tree.

Don't be surprised when we say we're getting up and going to worship. Think of it as a parental adjustment, it's about us letting go of something, grasping onto new life again.  It can really only be about you when you determine that there's something you want to take with you and leave behind.


Saturday, March 22

Face the Complexities of Work

Dear Jacob,

This is hard work.  Each day I start by considering what is the compelling story and what does that story actually say.  Most of the time what comes out is not what I anticipated and the story takes me someplace else. That's typical when I write fiction and the characters take over their own lives, their sense of agency typed out by fingers that don't feel like mine. But when I'm telling the stories that shaped my real days of breath and gain and toil I'm continuously surprised that they teach what they do.  The hard work comes in not getting in the way.

Doing hard things can physically drain us and push us into weakness and fatigue.  Our hearts can be both filled and deflated at the same time, our minds expanded past their limits, walls of old-thinking crackling down all around. Our brains are actually wired to scout the most efficient pathways, conserving energy for the importance of the beating heart. The body seems to lay the path for us: keep the main thing the main thing.

The past two weeks I've been working.  I've been pushed to my limits of knowledge, skill and relational intelligence. My desire to do my desperate best for the benefit of others has simply knocked up against the ever-present clock and I found myself nightly asking for "just six hours" to rest so I could rise early and start again.  The projects I've completed (so thankful they are past tense) reminded me what it is to be a learner and what it is to be a servant. I don't wish to be that pressed again but I do sense the satisfaction of good work done well.

You have never been one to embrace work.  As a small baby your work was to eat, sleep and poop. You had two of those down pretty well.  The third one left me combing books and websites and mom-friends for ideas to get nourishment into your body without the stress and strain. You seemed fine with the ordeal, falling fast asleep during every bottle. I was the emotional wreck. How could feeding a baby be so hard?  But it was and you endured because I held you near, sometimes splashing water on your naked body, and said this is just what we have to do.

Walking was work. You determined to postpone it entirely until you were fifteeen months old.  One day while we were in the woods you decided to practice your skills for the very first time, propelling yourself across our pastor's camping tarp with wobbly satisfaction.  And we proudly watched all chunky twenty-eight pounds of you and said, "Finally."

Poor Ben had an even tougher experience.  Once he was up and cruising around fairly well, we threw him a curve and took him camping in a plot on a hill.  Every time we stepped out of the truck, he'd go rolling down to the tent.  He'd learned to walk in complete flatness and now he had to adjust for elevation.  We often find that the work we signed up for is not the work that we produce.

Family is exactly like this too.  What we envision doesn't always emerge and we find that living in a family is not actually for our ease.  Some days, yes, there is comfort in being known and protected and enjoyed. But family might be the hardest work there is. When you live in a home with people you didn't choose it feels sometimes like a sinister deistic plot to destroy you.  But the truth is that while it's not sinister, it is indeed deistic and it's a plot to see you rise to a new life. In family we learn to push through hard things and we can be satisfied by the changes they bring. Of course, we can find ourselves unsatisfied but that's a demeanor of our choosing.

There are some days when the socks seem to multiply in corners about the room, bowls half-full of cereal encrusted milk teeter at the edge of the counter, towels lie wet and crumpled on the bathroom floor and the remnants of boys all about the house exhaust me. There are some days when I can't create peace between the three of you for any amount of money or threat or ice cream.  There are days when children empty my account of grace long before they ever deposit a dime.  And I worry and quarrel with myself over how to elevate the situation, hoping that you will magically all go off to college with some semblance of civility and decency and respect.

I read a beautiful memoir last month by a mother who said, "That's what a family seems to be, a team of your biggest fans who are also more work than you could ever imagine."  Here's what a mother knows when she's teaching her middle son to finally sleep through the night long after his first birthday.  Here's what a mother knows when she's washing and folding the same pair of pants week after week, again, finding them crumpled on the floor.  Here's what a mother knows when she's waiting in the dentist's office for the son with the abscessed tooth and two fillings done all in one day.  Here's what a mother knows when she's wishing Mother's Day wouldn't be full of fits and tantrums from the sons she longingly wants to celebrate.  Everything is work. In order to rectify and renew we must work and push and announce and counter and build to that end.  Blaming, resting, resisting, avoiding, denying -- these only move us toward atrophy.

And it's never enough; none of our domains is safe. Relationships are work. Learning is work. Saving is work. Loving is work. Building, achieving, restoring anything at all is done through effort, intention, passion and nerve.  "Work is so foundational to our makeup that it is one of the few things we can take in significant doses without harm.  Indeed, the Bible does not say we should work one day and rest six or that work and rest should be balanced evenly but directs us to the opposite ratio.  Leisure and pleasure are great goods, but we can only take so much of them."  This is spoken by Tim Keller, a man who has worked hard to bring the kingdom of God to the good people of New York City.  And still there is work to do.  We need more workers to do it.

I thought that I was going to write a different story.  When I looked at that photo of your dad letting you go into your first steps I thought it would be a story of heart-filled love and hope, a story of anticipation filled and of a progeny launched.  Once again, that's not the story that surfaced.  And it was hard for me to let it befall.


Friday, March 21

Let Your Yes be Yes

Dear Jacob,

Today is my favorite day of the year. It's the first full day of Spring, March Madness is underway and Spring Break is upon us.  Those are all great things, but they're not what makes today my favorite day.  Today is my favorite day because 43 years ago a teen-age girl gave birth to a healthy baby boy and walked away from him.  A hospital cared for him for a couple of days until your Grandma Lou and Grandpa Wayne could get to him and name him Chip. Today is Dad's birthday and you know I love celebrating the miracle of his life.

You wouldn't be here without him. You're half him. Which means that half of you is a genetic mystery and the other half of you is pure sweetness and light just like your precious mother, don't deny it. And in the other sense you wouldn't be here without him holding me back on the days that I was at the end of myself trying to get to you listen or understand or cooperate or just get in the car.  Dads are good for their kids' longevity sometimes. Similarly, you also wouldn't be here -- in Denver -- without him.  Here you've found, at your school, a community that fits and a best friend and even have hopes of a college you'd like to attend.  Yes, you've had to tag along for fourteen years as we've lived our lives, but if you've learned any integrity, loyalty and orderliness, the credit goes to your dad because those are the things he's all about.

I met your dad at church.  Big surprise, right?  It kind of was. Dad would come to my church in Fountain Valley, California off and on with his best friend, Phil. It wasn't that Dad was a church slacker and just showed up with his questions sometimes.  Just the opposite.  Dad was a churched kid and he was in college working on a Youth Ministry degree and interning at another church in town.  Because this meant he didn't have his own community, he would sometimes come hang out with Phil and I's college group for fun.

My college group was pretty big, but more importantly we lived life together -- kind of like what you see our Core Group doing now.  It was a really formative time for me and Dad showed up right in the middle of it, and when he did I couldn't stand him.

You heard that right.

He and his best friend were hooligans.  From my perspective they were immature, impetuous and ridiculous. I was dating another boy long-distance, so I wasn't even interested in giving these guys the benefit of the doubt.  In this dreadful sense I guess you could say that I "knew" your dad for three or four years though I hadn't ever said anything significant to him. 

One time our college group went on a retreat.  And though I still had that boyfriend a long-ways away, Dad and Phil showed up on the retreat and that was the first time I actually heard your dad say serious things. We also played a silly game as a group which Dad and I ended up winning and he picked me up and carried me out of the room in celebration.  It was odd and awkward and yet I think I began to see that he was just full of fun and not quite the frat boy I thought he was.

Fast forward -- I broke up with that boy and several months later I was at my group's Saturday night Bible study (yes, we DID that) and Dad was there and he commented on something with uncommon insight.  Right then I thought, "He's not what I thought he was," and right then I also caught him looking at me.  Afterwards, we all went bowling together but Dad and I just talked the entire time.

Your dad and I had our first date on Valentine's Day.  Because you have romantic and cool parents. Our college group was planning to all have dinner that night at the Disneyland Hotel and then watch the water show that has since ended because they put in California Adventure. Dad invited me to be his date. When we were together that night, all of us clinking glasses around the table, we got all these great looks from our friends.  It was as if everyone was thinking, "This thing you're starting, it's going to last."  He grabbed my hand at one point and said, "Oh, you have warm hands." Of course, as you know, your dad's hands are always freezing so it was true, but it was also a total line.  But I didn't care. He was nice.

I dated your dad for a couple of months and then in May he had a bit of a freak-out and said we needed to take a break for two weeks while he figured out what he wanted.  Here's the thing: when Dad decides something needs to happen, he just makes it happen.  He doesn't wait around and think, "Someday."   Just like when he sold the Mustang; he didn't cry over it. He just turned around and bought something else. Your dad gets. things. done. and. moves. on. 

During this two weeks he was deciding just what he wanted out of his relationship with me. I respect him for walking away for a bit so he could think straight.  When he came back around we had this mature discussion and then less than two months later he proposed to me.  Dad doesn't mess around.  

I'm the wishy washy one.  I caught wind that Dad was going to propose to me the next day and I honestly didn't know how I would answer him.  We'd only been dating for five months.  My parents hadn't met him. I had another year of college to finish.  How did I know that he was the right one?  I had a zillion questions and I sat up all night and asked God all my questions and made a list of pros and cons and talked to my best friend in Japan (that was when long distance calls cost you about $200). I second-guessed everything and I loved everything and I was kind of a mess.  

The next evening Dad and I picked up some take-out and went to Huntington Beach.  We sat and ate dinner on a lifeguard stand and then we walked on the beach to the pier. At the end of the pier he put his arms around me, said some things and then he opened a ring box.  He'd called Grandpa and asked him for his blessing and I was dumbfounded because I can imagine how that conversation went.  Grandpa's not much for talking on the phone... to a man he doesn't know... who's asking if he can marry his daughter... poor Dad.  Heck,  poor Grandpa.  I heard later that Grandma made Grandpa watch Fiddler on the Roof after that because apparently Grandpa didn't know that this was a tradition, for a boy to ask a girl's father if he could marry her.  You haven't seen Fiddler on the Roof either, but it's all in there.

And so my words to Dad when he proposed weren't, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" or a more gorgeous, "Of course, I will."  My first words were more of a sniggered, "You called my dad?!" So he had to tell me about it but I got the really short version of it because Dad was still waiting for me to answer him and had to remind me that there was still this question hanging in the air there. That's when I said,  "Yes."  He put the ring on my finger and we giggled in his truck all the way home. 

I asked Dad later what he would have done if I had told him, "No." And he said, "I'd have taken you home and that would be the end."  I was shocked.  "Really!?  You'd have done that?!"  He said, "Babe, I was certain that I was supposed to propose to you. If you weren't certain then that would mean that I had it all wrong. And if this thing that feels so right was really all wrong then I'd just need to start all over somewhere else."  There have been a few situations in Dad's life that have been like that. When someone says, "This just isn't going to work out," Dad doesn't sit around and ask questions.  He just says, "Thank you very much." And he leaves. Dad's not easily paralyzed. Dad moves on. 

You probably have a lot of friends who don't know their parent's story, don't know the deep and powerful love that was established before they were even born.  I think that you need to know that you come from a pretty determined Father and a mother who sometimes needs reassurance and convincing. You need to know that we've never been together without also being in the Church. This thing, this body, this people is part of how we do marriage. You also need to know that I'd marry your father over again, any day, any time; that he has captured my heart and I am stuck to him like glue. Your dad's love language is "acts of service," he'll eat any kind of pizza you put in front of him and he doesn't play mental games; he says what he means.  And to him when he said, "I do" it meant "until the day I die."

When he does weddings he says, "Love is an act of the will accompanied by emotion that seeks the best of its object."  Your dad epitomizes this definition.  He loves me unconditionally, some days by pure will--  as messy as I am -- and some days by simple emotion that he lets peek out in his texts and in his touch. But the thing I notice most consistently is he always thinks the best of me.  He never acts jealously or suspects I'm doing something behind his back. He doesn't think I'm his problem when life gets tough.  He doesn't remember the incompetent things I do and he's very willing to forgive when I ask for it.  That's what it looks like to think the best of someone. That's what it looks like to love.

When you commit to love, you commit to a good thing.


Wednesday, March 19

Live into Compassion

Dear Jacob,

When you were growing up homeschooled, you missed out on something.  It was called "invite everyone in your class to your birthday party because you can't leave anyone out."  It's a ridiculous rule and yet I completely understand it.  It seems very compassionate on the part of the parents who make their kids follow this rule, but it's not so compassionate on the kids who show up and realize they're just there because everyone had to be invited.  Demoralizing. You know what? You actually didn't miss anything important.  Carry on.

When I was in first grade I went to the birthday party of my friend, Kathy. She was in my class and I don't remember if everyone in my class was invited because it was about a thousand years ago now, but since that was the generation of the Birthday Party Invitation Rule, she must have. We were rule followers in the 70's because those 60's kids were complete rule breakers.

When I went to Kathy's party I won every game; musical chairs and pinning something on something else and games like that. I have to say, winning all the games was exhilarating. The first couple wins were a complete surprise but then I was starting to track with the universe and so when I won the next game it was like, "Well, sure.  What did you expect?"  The winner's circle was a fun place to be in and when my mom came to pick me up, I remember proclaiming snobbishly that I would need help carrying all my prizes out to the car because I'd had such a wonderful time winning all the games. Thank you, Kathy, for inviting me to your lovely party. I had a delightful time. Cheers.

I'm sure my friends were highly unimpressed.  I think they got over it.  I, on the other hand, grew a tad bit more conceited and it stuck with me for an entire year.

The next year when Kathy's birthday rolled around I was invited again (Kathy and I were real friends because that year she wasn't even in my class and I still got an invitation). This time I was smart.  I didn't want to do that same complicated juggling act with my plethora of prizes this year.  And so I went to the party prepared.  I went to the party with a bag.

When the first game began, musical chairs again, I promptly lost.  I was humiliated and for the rest of the party I believe I sat in the corner and sulked.  My friends insensitively called me things like "sour loser" and "cry baby" though I don't think I actually cried so that was a little unfair especially since they were taking home all my prizes -- which should have been enough.  I was angry; the universe had tricked me and left me the victim of utter injustice. I took my empty bag and went home.

A few years ago, there was this unbalanced actor who coined the term "winning."  He'd say it sarcastically in his character role on his sitcom show and then he carried it over into real-life interviews as well.  Every time he said it people mocked him because he was never winning. He, or his writers, started it as sarcasm but when he forgot that his fake life wasn't supposed to be the same as his real life was when the term took a turn.  Now people say it when you're being an idiot.

If you have to declare that you're a winner, you're not one. If you feel the need to always come out on top you're going to hurt some friends, destroy a party and make it completely obvious that all you care about is yourself. If we have to win an argument instead of show someone love and compassion, we've completely missed the point of living like Jesus.

Think about it.  Jesus was a pretty likeable guy.  He traveled all over being kind to people.  He wasn't a blowhard.  He didn't go around saying, "Hey, I bet I can light that bush on fire faster than you." Even though he was God and he knew it, he thought other people were pretty important and he showed it in how he treated them. The Bible says that God's kindness is what brings us to repentance -- which is a fancy word for change. When we force change, no matter how that appears to play in our favor, we'll still never get wholeness.

I understand the drive to win. Competition actually is our primary posture in life.  I read a book by a great guy named Henri Nouwen last year and he pointed out to me that we are much more likely to define ourselves by what makes us different than by what makes us the same. Imagine introducing yourself to another guy in your class and saying, "I'm the one who wears jeans like you and I have glasses like that and I always sit on the right side of the room just like you."  Adults usually say what they do, "I'm a writer" or "I'm the mother of three boys" or "I'm a professor." And we don't really expect anyone to say, "Cool, me too!" We define ourselves by what makes us different.

The things that make us different from everyone else could be good things like virtue and integrity and excellent guitar skills.  They could be the good things that we do like financing micro businesses in Africa, housing a homeless friend, or serving meals at the Rescue Mission. But they could be things that get us rejected like racial conflict and class confrontations and criminal tendencies.  The point is that competition is all-pervasive.  Nouwen said, "Competition reaches into the smallest corner of our lives and relationships and prevents us from entering into full solidarity with one another."

There's the rub; that big word -- solidarity -- means unity, harmony, or teamwork. And that's really the goal of life. Rugged individualism may look cool on the Discovery Channel, but it's actually antithetical to our reason for living. We won't get anywhere as a people, as a nation or as a family as long as some of us think we're better off alone.

The opposite of competition is compassion. Compassion means "to suffer with"  which is more than just feeling sorry for someone, or giving them money to fix their own problem, or even visiting their country to observe first-hand how they live. Compassion moves us to do more, to actually participate in what their lives are like, to enter into friendship and relationship and be okay when that whole effort displaces you or changes your priorities. It requires that we view people with reverence and respect.  It requires a lot of us.  That's why we usually default to competition.  It's hard.

But it's not impossible. Jesus proved that it's not. And all the people in the world who are following him who actually demonstrate compassion prove it too. We can be empowered to demonstrate compassion but we have to face our own broken places first.  We have to deal with our posture of competition and selfishness and disunity or we'll never be able to walk with someone into their own brokenness because we have enough of our own.

If we could care less about the victories and more about the struggles, we'll go a long way toward developing a posture of compassion. I can tell you this; as long as you think you should win everything -- and even carry a bag around to collect all of your prizes -- you have a ways to go. When we identify with the struggles of others and die to our own desires for the fun of the party that's the real prize.


Tuesday, March 18

Write a Good Story

Dear Jacob,

Today is your cousin, Noel's, birthday.  She's ten today. I'm certain she had a big birthday party over the weekend with two different kinds of cake and balloons and craft stations and all kinds of Pinteresty things that her mom is so good at doing.  Some people really love doing that kind of thing, to throw parties that are whimsical and decorated and full of thoughtful details. But that kind of thing actually makes me dizzy and feverish and prevents me from making complete sentences. For the record, I threw you an awesome third birthday with a Thomas the Tank Engine cake and a bean bag toss game I painted on a cardboard box. It was just you and I and Grandma Lou and your baby brother in attendance until your dad got home.  That's about as fancy as it's ever gotten for you. Sorry about that, kiddo.  It's just the mom you got.

Noel's birthday is such a celebration because it's a crazy miracle that she's even here at all. Her mother had a very difficult time carrying her to term; bedrest and hospitalization and pre-term labor and early delivery and everything, just everything, that could go wrong did.  We were all so glad to see that little girl when she came into the world. She fits so nicely in the gap in our family, right after Ben and before Sam, the gap where Dad and I didn't have another child because things in life weren't so good at that time.  In our little family line, she's surrounded by boys but she fills in her space with all the pink and piano and leggings and lipgloss that boys just don't represent.

Noel is actually your cousin's middle name.  Her first name is Kalena and she is named after her sister. Twelve years ago, Trinity Kalena Lane came too early into the world and it was the saddest time. The hospital gave her a little dress and did little footprints and her mom and dad had to say good-bye right when they said hello.  If you ask your aunt, she'll tell you she has two daughters. But asking her will make her sad so be delicate and loving if you ever do.


The day you were born, I went to work at the church where I managed the office.  My good friend, Denise, came to have lunch with me because we'd do that every week. Sometimes we went out to lunch and took way longer than an hour because friends talk a lot.  But on this day we were brown bagging it at my office and talking about your baby shower that had been over the weekend. I was having those fake contractions they call Braxton Hicks all day long.  They're "fake" because they aren't actually staring the process of labor.

Except that these were.  This was a Thursday, a full month before you were due to arrive.  After work I went to school to take a weekend seminary class. And my cute professor made a comment to me about how pregnant I was looking and how far along was I now.  I reassured her by saying I was still a month out and not to worry.  And then I freaked her a little when I said I wouldn't have the baby in her class as long as these contractions stopped. She stared at me for a second and I smiled.

We took a break and I paced the halls because walking was supposed to make fake contractions stop.  Nothing.  After the break I gave a little group presentation which I don't really remember. When I was done, I sat down and listened to the next guy give his and he said something funny which made me giggle.  Which made me pee myself. Only it wasn't pee. It was gushing fluid that wouldn't stop and as I sat there in my comfy upholstered chair (sorry, Golden Gate) hearing it all drip onto the carpet, feeling it run down my legs I had to make a plan.  Except that I couldn't think of one.  So I waited until that guy's presentation was done and then I whispered to my classmate that I needed to leave to go have a baby and I sloshed out to my car and stood there and tried to think of what to do.

My professor came running out yelling, "Did your water break?!"  And I yelled back, "I think so." And she sent out another classmate, Patricia, who was a nurse who was going to drive me to the hospital.  She gave me a towel to sit on and asked me questions and laid out for me how this whole giving birth process was going to go down and I was sitting there trying to adjust to the fact that I was, pretty quickly, going to be someone's mom.

Grandma had come to town from Virginia and she was still at my apartment being really helpful.  She was actually going home in a couple days, but she and Dad went out to eat that night. This was the age before cell phones so dad had this archaic thing called a pager. When I got to the hospital they got me all checked in and paged Dad who drove like crazy with poor Grandma to get there. And so began the process of you being born.

Here was the best part: when my contractions were getting pretty painful and I didn't want the epidural (which is where they stick a needle into your spinal column and that just makes me all squirmy) they gave me a drug, Nubane, in my iv line. And it knocked me out cold.  I don't think it was supposed to do that, but drugs usually work overtime in my system.   I slept through the hardest part of labor and I think your dad went and got something to eat.  I don't know.  Ask him.  I was sleeping.

You arrived on the scene early the next morning and all was well and we took you home the next day.  Then the following day was Mother's Day and so I got you dressed and took you to church and got my first Mother's Day carnation with my two-day-old baby boy.

Birth stories are the beginning of something big.  You can't read too much into them; unless they go horribly wrong they don't determine the course of your life or personality, (like you obviously aren't always early to everything now) but they do ground you in your life.  One day you started, so let's just keep this train running, k?

At one point a couple years ago, it occurred to your dad that he didn't have a birth story because he was adopted and his mom wasn't actually there for his birth. One day, while he was at the coffee shop, it was suddenly important for him to know it. So he asked her and found out that his story wasn't exactly the story he'd always thought.  This affected him in a big way.

I think it's important for you to know your story.  Story keeps us from floating aimlessly across the horizon. It demonstrates for us that we aren't alone.  Our lives aren't a man-versus-nature story like that poor chap in London's To Build a Fire  or like The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, which I give you permission to never read because Hemingway equals boredom.  Our stories are more often man-versus-man or man-versus-society and when they really get good they're man-versus-self.

In order to have any kind of story at all, our characters interact. When you hear your story what you really hear is that you are a part of something bigger in the world, that your beginning impacted me and Dad but also Grandma and Patricia and Denise and my poor seminary professor and the other frazzled girl who had to start filling in for me at work the next day, totally unprepared because I was supposed to be there for another month.  From the very beginning, you were one in a line of adventurers exploring life and love and hope.

I was a big part in the beginning of your story, but you get to take over the reigns and keep it going. I don't make any claims for the outcome of your story at all.  It's yours. I just get to read it. You decide what characters to add and sometimes, to keep the story interesting, they'll be a little unsavory and you'll learn things from them.  You decide how many conflicts it will have and how many resolutions you'll strive to make. You get to write the hyperboles and the truth. If you want to throw yourself big birthday parties one day, that's totally fine with me and I won't be offended thinking that you're making up for some deficiency from your childhood.

You have a co-author, you know, and his name is God. He's got a pretty good idea of the best plot line for your story, but you're going to have to ask him for it, because he doesn't give that to mothers when their babies are born.  I made a pact with the tooth fairy, but I never got to make that pact with God.  He can help you determine who the antagonists are in your story, how to be a round character not a flat one, and to be dynamic and not static.  God can give you some hints about how the climaxes of each chapter will go and if you stick with him he'll ride with you clear through your denoument. (And, yes you should say that like the French).  Writing equals living, so get writing.  Write what you know.  And give me a little cameo.