Friday, April 11, 2014

Spring Cleaning

Sitting here at the kitchen table, I can see the kids outside in their playhouse, "spring cleaning".  They decided that since our first crocuses have opened their wary purple-gold eyes and the grass is beginning to show more than a faint tinge of green the time had come.  Brooms are being mustered.  Rags are being collected.  All is busyness and important action.

I know how those crocuses and kids are feeling, like I too am uncurling from a long winter nap, ready for sun on my face and sap to run in my veins.  And it inspires the same kind of clean-it-up fervor in me. It has been a long frozen winter; my creativity slowed to a trickle and my energy for anything new clogged up.  We've been in maintenance mode for a long time and I'm ready for an overhaul.

Lent was supposed to be my spring cleaning frenzy, inside and out.  I had big plans, bigger than perhaps was reasonable to expect to accomplish.  Problem was, my big plans didn't come with any realistic supporting plans, like how to actually accomplish what I was setting out to do. So it shouldn't be surprising that here we are, about ready to round the corner into Holy Week, and all my great expectations for Lenten discipline have come to naught, my fast worth less than the paper I brainstormed it on.  This is something at which I've discovered I'm actually quite good: creating grand schemes for accomplishing magnificent things, and then watching them all go up in smoke. All too often I'm left with the feeling of being utterly ineffective and inept as I compare my hopelessly high ideals with my messy and sputtering real.

But if Lent is "for" anything, perhaps this is the very thing.  Those dusty ashes on my forehead several Wednesdays ago meant nothing if not to remind me that "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" (Romans 7:15, 18b).  Lent is, at its heart, a six-week lament for "this body of death" that we carry around with us, day in and day out.  I've got to deal with my own personal laziness and bad choices, and also the sheer cussedness of the world which keeps me from realizing my very good intentions.  But, even deeper down, Lent is also a six-week process of stirring awake, stretching my arms toward the sun and coming alive again.  It is rebirth, renewal, revival, so that at the end of it I can say, in spite of all my failures along the way, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set [me] free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1,2).    

Let the clean out begin!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What's Making Me Happy This Week

What's better than the news that you have a healthy baby on the way?  We think it looks like she has Ana's nose too!

Friday, March 28, 2014

So Good to See You

No color editing was done on this photo.
The kids and I just got back from a week and a half of thawing out in New Mexico.  We reveled in hours outside, walks in the canyon, blue skies, and sun, sun, sun.  The kids played with lots of old toys and I got to eat breakfast burritos with green chile.  Most refreshing, though, were the hours spent in the company of family and friends: my mom, sister-in-law, and all my nieces were there, and the kids and I got to spend quality time with some of the good friends we made during our year in Gallup.  The thing I kept hearing and saying was "It's so good to see you!"

It's kind of strange, when you think about it, in this age of Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and all of the other places we post pictures and videos of ourselves, to say those words: "It's so good to see you."  We "see" each other all of the time, and the opportunity to see people from whom we are separated by thousands of miles has never been greater.  We can chat on video with Facetime or Skype and we can keep track of the minute details of each other's lives via social media in a way that that is much more personal and visual than an occasional letter of phone call could ever be.  And yet, none of that compares to the pure joy of seeing another person we love in the flesh.  I could have seen hundreds of pictures of my friend's five-day-old baby, but there's nothing that can compare to actually holding him in my arms, watching his eyes move across my face, seeing him sneeze and stretch.  I could have read the story of my niece finding a pet blender in the canyon and the way the kids washed and cuddled and created a cage for him, all the while exclaiming, "He's just so cute!" but that's nothing to actually watching it happen.  A video of six kids singing "Tractor, Tractor" around the dinner table can't hold a candle to the real thing.  Sitting on a couch in New York and talking with someone over Skype just isn't as good as sitting together on the same couch, eating the same food, seeing the same sun setting over the same sky.
Amber and Blender the Blender

I know I'm not telling you something you don't already know.  We all know this so deeply in our guts that it isn't something that needs to be explained.  And yet, I sometimes think that we are in danger of falling prey to the fallacy that relationships in the virtual world are "good enough".  I wonder if social media and the ethereal communities it purports to create encourages us to dismiss the real loss that happens when we can't be in the real life presence of the people we love and consider our virtual lives acceptable substitutes.  Our online lives and relationships can become so compelling that often we find ourselves drawn into them, even when that means ignoring the flesh and blood people in whose presence we actually are.  This brilliant video captures the situation I'm trying to describe perfectly.  And though Christians should be on the front lines of the battle against the attitude that life is best lived smartphone in hand to document, record and post every second of it, I think that our own tendencies toward gnosticism, almost as old as Christianity itself, make us predisposed to be all too willing to accept the lie that the virtual is as good as, or even better than, the real. All too often, Christians allow our belief in a very real spiritual world to morph into the heresy that the spiritual world is more important than the physical, that we've only succeeded when we move beyond our dirty, smelly, broken bodies and this dirty, smelly, broken world and enter the realm of the purely spiritual.  Of course our relationship with God is of primary importance, and ought to put all our other relationships into perspective, but very few of us (if any?) are called to live as monastic hermits, with only God and the sun and sky for company.  Similarly, none of us is called to live as virtual hermits, connected to other people only via the magic of the World Wide Web.  

Matter matters, as we Reformed folks are fond of saying, and no matter how temporarily satisfying we may find our online relationships, we must always remember that they are shabby substitutes for the real thing.  Bodies matter.  Places matter.  Real Presence matters.  Red sand and sagebrush and pinion pines matter.  The smell of pizzas cooking and the sharp flavor of someone else's favorite mustard matters. The soft fuzz of a baby chick, the feeling of someone's arms around you in a tight hug matter. The sound of children laughing together as they chase each other through the same kitchen matters.    

It was impossible to ignore the fact that the one person who really ought to have been present at this reunion, wasn't.  It's been a year and a few months since my dad's death, and the lack of his presence still represents a very real and tangible loss.  Whatever the case about where he is now, or what it means that he is with Jesus, I know that just because he has died and "escaped" the confines of his broken, physical body, he hasn't achieved final, pure perfection.  His real body still matters, just as much as it ever did.  As good as memories and pictures are, they simply do not substitute for the real thing.  The good thing is, they don't have to.  We all look forward to the day of resurrection when we'll stand under the same sun, on the same ground, by the same trees and say, "It's so good to see you!"

Cairn complete.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Training up PKs in the Way They Should Go

Our eldest has been coming up with some really good theological questions lately.  Mostly, he seems concerned with blasphemy, or what we around our house call "sputtin" (our Americanized take on the Dutch word spotten which means "to mock or deride something sacred").  He's really worried that God is going to take offense at some of the things he wonders about, or some of the things he thinks or imagines.  I think he figures that God is waiting around the corner to smite him if he pushes one too many wrong buttons or asks one too many bad questions.  His fear seems real.  I don't know where he gets this, as I honestly don't think that this view of God as vindictive, sword-wielding, and easily-offended is one either the Mr. or I ever espouse.

Iain also worries about the fact that he doesn't like church.  He feels like he ought to, somehow, and that not liking it makes him "a bad Christian."  And by church he means, the Sunday morning service.  I think he likes going to our church building just fine, and the people there he likes a lot.  He enjoys being a part of that family and interacting with everyone there.  It's just the services that drive him bonkers. Even though the child will not stop singing or humming when at home and has a soprano to rival any British chorister, he refuses to sing along with the songs at church (although one Sunday he was energetically playing air drums on one song).  He gets painfully bored, even though (or maybe because?) it's his father up there blabbing away for long periods of time.  He also doesn't like feeling stifled by his mother's insistence that he not read novels or comic books during the sermons, but sit quietly and either a) listen to what's going on, or b) draw on small pieces of paper.  The "sit quietly" part is particularly hard for him.

As days go by, I become more and more aware of what a delicate and complicated and nuanced art it is, passing along our Christian faith to our kids.  Just like the former football player who wants his kids to grow up to love the game, or the engineer who wants his kids to excel at math and science, or the wannabe actress who pushes her children onto the stage, I desperately want my kids to inherit my love for Christ and his church, and it is so tempting to force and finagle and manipulate and mandate my will upon these little beings.  There are a myriad of movies, everything from The Little Mermaid to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to Whip It, whose aim it is to show how foolish it is for parents to try to pass their careers, values, likes and dislikes along to their kids.  Woe betide the mom who tries to force her daughter into a beauty pageant career or the father who tries to make a baseball player out of his artistically-minded son. "Let them be free!"  "Let them be themselves"  "Let them be different from you!" we're told.  And "Amen!" I say. "Absolutely.  Give your kids freedom to be themselves!" while at the same time, there is a small voice inside of me saying, "but, but, but, just not in this one thing.  . . ".  The stakes for success or failure in this endeavor just seem way, way higher than for the football player or the engineer or the stage mom.

And yet.  While I am certainly not "open-minded" enough to think that whatever my kids end up believing is just fine, as long as they are "true to themselves," I find myself working with a very light touch when it comes to many matters of my children's belief.  For one thing, I don't take their faith for granted and I try really hard not to demand any belief, but rather gently feed any tiny flames I see.  I need to accept that their faith (if, and please God, when it comes) will not look like mine, but will be unique to them.  It won't even look like what I want it to look like, but rather what it has to be for their own growth and maturity.  When Iain expresses a dislike for church, though  my insides weep a little and my heart twists a bit, I try not to freak out.  "Of course you don't like it," we tell him.  "It's boring for kids." I don't sermonize or send him on a guilt trip about how lucky he is to go to church at all.  I don't force him to sing, nor do we force him to pray.  We tell them the stories in the Bible, doing our best to make them come alive, but also doing our best not to sit and preach about them, drawing out great moral lessons or using them as weapons or tools for discipline.  This whole process is complicated by the fact that we are raising pastor's kids here, and everyone knows what those kids tend to turn out like.  I don't think it's an accident that so many of them walk away from faith and the church, having had enough God talk by the time they were 18 to last them a lifetime.  Perhaps I'm getting close to "sputtin" myself here, but that's one reason why we chose boy and girl scouts over AWANA -- not only does it get our kids out into the larger community, but I'm frankly a little afraid of what all that church stuff might do to them.

This light touch, however, doesn't mean hands-off.  Iain does, after all, sit in church with us every Sunday, and will as long as we have anything to say about it.  No, it isn't fun, we tell him.  We get that. But doing things that aren't fun is part of growing up and becoming a mature person.  Figuring out how to cope with boredom and your own discontent is part of what will be the making of you!  We do try to have devotions after meals and read the Bible together.  We expect them to listen when we pray and we offer them the opportunity to pray themselves.  We do try to help them understand how to be respectful to and of God, and to speak properly of him.  Ours is not an "anything goes" kind of household.  Our kids are still at the stage where they need to be compelled to behave certain ways, "trained up" as the saying goes, and at this point, some of that "training up" I can see extended well into their teenage years.

Essentially, what we try to do is live as honestly before our kids as we can.  We answer the hard questions they ask about God as clearly as possible and we're not afraid to say "I don't know."  We try hard to avoid anything that seems forced or unnatural (we've got pretty well-developed cheez detectors that ring alarm bells whenever we veer toward the sappy or sentimental), and we aren't shy about speaking our minds. We do our best to model a faith that refuses to sugarcoat hard things, but is joyful and grateful in spite of difficult circumstances.  We talk about God and faith a lot, but I hope that we talk in a way that shows we're interested in good, solid thought, not just blind adherence to doctrines.  We're up front about decisions in our lives when our faith comes into play.  We encourage our kids to ask hard questions, and in return, try not to let any of us get away with pat or simplistic answers when we know we're capable of more.

The other night, as I was talking with Iain about his blasphemy worries, I told him, "Look.  David in the Bible was really honest with God.  He got really angry sometimes and he told God off.  He let God know when he didn't think God was being fair and he asked God really hard questions.  He accused God of favoring his enemies and letting wicked people flourish.  He complained to God and he cried out to God in anguish.  All of those things are OK to do. None of them are sputtin. God is big enough to take it all and he doesn't get offended by any of it!"  A look of relief and joy washed over Iain's face.  "Really?" he asked me?  "Is that really OK?"  "Absolutely," I reassured him.  "That's one small step," I thought to myself.  "One small victory."  And I'll be praying like mad for many more.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


I know it's been quiet around here lately.  Ever since late November, I've been finding it hard to blog or write about pretty much anything.  There are three reasons for this:

1.  Baby Makes Six -- We found out that we are going to be adding child number four to our family in August.  It's amazing how, even though it doesn't really take any mental energy to grow a baby, it has been so mentally absorbing and, frankly, exhausting.  While we are excited about welcoming another life into our home, it's also taking some major mental adjustment as I get used to the idea that the life I thought I was going to have for the next few years is most definitely going to be very different.  All of this mental churning and twisting and turning was no doubt heightened by

2.  A Self-Diagnosed Case of Mild to Moderate S.A.D. -- Just like the wide-striped woolly bear caterpillars and the Old Farmer's Almanac warned us, this winter has been a doozie.  We've been hammered with tons of snow, brutally cold temperatures, and grey sky day after grey sky day. Wintertime has always been hard for me, and this year feels like one of the worst on record.  I feel in some ways as if I have been as dormant as the maple tree in our front yard and my outlook on life about as cheery as the sludgy piles of dirty snow that line our streets.  I honestly don't believe that I've been living with full-blown depression, or even anything close to that.  But motivation to do anything other than read books, watch every episode of Psyche that I can find, and bake mountains of carbohydrate-laden foods has been severely lacking.  I haven't been able to knit anything more complicated than a dish cloth or take pictures of anything more interesting than Christmas morning.  It feels like everything creative and alive in me is in a deep hibernation.  I've tried to wake it up, really I have, but every time I've opened up the computer and started to type words on the screen, I've been struck with

3.  A Crisis of Faith in Blogs in General and This One In Particular -- Ever since my epic Advent series at the end of last year (which, by the way, did not result in the most epic of Advents or Christmases in our house -- see 1 and 2 above), I've been struggling with the whole point of it all.  Why do I do this anyway?  Though I know that I have a few faithful readers (Hi Mom!), I don't have much of a sense of community or even an audience here, that there are scores of people hanging on my every word.  I tried to keep up this blog in earnest a few years ago when I gave Facebook the boot as a way for People Who Cared to keep track of us, if they wanted to.  And I guess that's a legitimate reason to stay with it.  But I wasn't content to just make it a series of glorified status updates -- Booooriiiiing.  But then, what should it be?  And for whom?  And about what?  And doesn't the whole thing need some spiffing up anyway, if I think I want to be "A Real Blogger"?  The fact is, as I wander around the Internet, I have found very few blog spaces that strike a healthy balance between family Christmas letter and energetic self-promotion of whatever it is that the author is trying to sell (and almost everyone is trying to sell something on their blogs, have you noticed?).  But as I've been re-reading some of my past entries and trying to muddle through this sticky question, I've come to the conclusion that the purpose of this particular blog, for the moment at least, is remarkably selfish.  What's it for?  It's for me! Because a) I really like writing it.  Truly I do, and I feel a sense of joy and accomplishment in the doing of it, and the doing of it as well and beautifully as I can.  And because b) I value the way that it helps me mark time, to keep track of my days and the thoughts and ideas and experiences that mark them out.  Just like I enjoy looking at old photo albums or re-reading old journal entries, so I appreciate going back and looking at old blog entries, just to remind myself of where I/we've been and to get a clearer sense of where I'm/we're going.  So why not just keep a scrap book or a journal?  Because there's something about "publishing" it on the Internet that gives me a sense of accountability and makes me produce a product of which I can actually be proud.  And also because, even though I know there aren't scores of you, I have been so very encouraged by the people (OK, more than just you, Mom!) who do take the time to read what goes on in this space and either comment or write me an email or just tell me in person that they enjoy it.  So if my motivation is selfish, it's partly inspired by you guys too.

So, World Wide Web, I'm officially saying it:  I'm coming back, maybe with a little fear and trembling, maybe with a little bit of excited anticipation.  And to anyone out there reading this, thanks for sticking with me!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Advent 5: Zechariah and Elizabeth

Any readers out there remember back to my grand idea for a devotional book that would help families to tell some of the great stories of the Bible throughout the Christian year?  If you missed it the first time around, you might want to head to that part of my blog for a bit of introduction and context.  I haven't really made much more progress on that front (life intervened), but I have written some more devotions for the seasons of Advent and Christmas, which I'm going to post here on the blog over the next few weeks. The first week is the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and you can find it here if you're interested.

Blessings, dear friends, as you look forward to His coming!  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Advent 4: Our Family's Advent Experiment

So now to the practical nitty-gritty.  We spent years contemplating the kinds of things I've been talking about over the last few days, and the Mr. and I realized that we had to do something to change our practice of Advent and Christmas.  For us, frankly, it didn't involve a huge change in our behavior, but it did involve a change in attitude.

Last year, we consciously tried to hold off on celebrations during Advent.  We didn't listen to much Christmas music, watch Christmas movies, or read many Christmas stories.  We didn't decorate our house or put up a tree.  We didn't even bake cookies.  We got ready.  We did some Christmas shopping and purchased a tree (which stayed in the garage).  We told the kids the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth and John the Baptist.  We counted down the days with an Advent calendar.  And we talked, over and over again, about waiting, what we were waiting for, why we were waiting.  And then, on Christmas Eve, it all went up: we decorated the tree, put up lights on the house and luminarias on our front walk.  I baked up a storm and made a special dinner.  Some of you may remember this post which I wrote on Christmas Day, 2012.  Our Christmas Eve was something of a mess, to put it mildly.  But, once Christmas came, we did everything we could to really party.  We came up with twelve special, celebratory things we could do as a family (like, "Eat popcorn and watch Arthur Christmas," or "Decorate Christmas cookies" or "Go to the Children's Museum"), wrote them down on cards, each labeled with a number, and hung them on the tree.  The kids opened one a day for the whole twelve days of Christmas.  On the twelfth day, they got one final small present (think stocking stuffer type).  We had our Pandora stations tuned to Christmas music the whole time and loved it.  I haven't appreciated Christmas music like that in a long time.  Then, once Christmas was over, it all went back in the box and we moved gratefully on into Epiphany.  For me, twelve days of feasting is plenty.

Overall, I considered last year's Advent and Christmas celebrations a success for our family.  I felt less stressed and more at ease.  There was a sense of congruence between my behavior and my emotions that really felt right. There are a few things I'm hoping to do differently this year, however.  If you read my last year's Christmas post, you'll know that I left everything to the last minute, which was a big mistake.  Since we're a pastor's family, it is not a good idea to try to cram 24 days worth of Christmas prep into Christmas Eve.  We have a few other things going on that day.  We're going to try to get at least the tree and some decorations up by the 22nd or 23rd.  I'm also going to try to get most of the cookies baked and put into the freezer earlier in the month.  And speaking of cooking, I'm going to try to be more intentional about meal-planning during the season, saving special, feasting foods for Christmas rather than eating them all throughout Advent.

Here are some other ideas and resources that have occurred to me as I've thought about how people might observe Advent and Christmas together.

For Advent:

  • Advent isn't meant to be a somber, joyless affair, but rather a time of building anticipation and looking forward to the imminent birth of Christ.  Be intentional about doing something every day that helps to build this anticipation.  Use an advent calendar or wreath to help you mark the days.
  • Remember that Advent is the beginning of a new year – think about how you can use this time to evaluate some of your spiritual disciplines and set goals for establishing new habits.
  • Work hard to create family time in the midst of busy schedules.  Eat meals together that you wouldn't normally eat together.  Have family devotions (see tomorrow's blog for a suggestion!). A book that The Mr. and I have really appreciated over the years is Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, a collection of readings from respected Christian writers and thinkers, ranging from C.S. Lewis to Brennan Manning to Dorthy Day to Bernard of Clarvoix.  I also like the idea of the Jesse Tree, though we've never gone through this ourselves, because it tells the whole story, starting right from the beginning in Genesis 1.  
  • Rather than eating all your Christmas baking now, put most of it in the freezer, to be pulled out and savored over the twelve days of Christmas.
  • Explore some of your options for financial giving and service at this time of year and consider devoting some of the money you'd otherwise spend on presents toward organizations who labor on behalf of the “least of these.”  I  am really excited about the mission of The Advent Conspiracy and we are looking forward to participating as a family and with our church this year.  There are a lot of great resources on their site.
  • As you think about gifts you'd like to give other people, think about giving gifts of time and talents, rather than just gifts of things.  How can we be creative and prophetic in our gift-giving?
  • Talk with your kids about presents that they can give and work with them to either thoughtfully spend their own money or create gifts for special people in their lives.  Encourage them to think of themselves as not just receivers but givers too.  (This is going to be a big challenge. Helping the kids to give gifts is going to mean a lot of work for me, but I think it will be worth it.)
  • Get ready for the tree by making ornaments together.  Of course, the Internet is bestrewn with ideas for homemade ornaments.  Make one a week or one every few days and keep them in a box until the tree goes up.
  • Be careful with your time. This can become the most stressful and busy time of year, if you allow it.  As much as it is in your power, focus on events and opportunities that really bring you joy, and avoid the ones that you attend simply out of a sense of obligation.  It's OK to say no to some things. 
  • This isn't about legalism or "can I or can't I."  This is about a time of pregnancy, of preparation and looking forward, the fruit of which should be life, not bitter resentfulness.  Do what seems healthy and timely to you.  Do what brings you real true life, not just a sentimental, pleasant feeling.   
  • Get excited.  You're about to celebrate something really remarkable.  Talk together about things you're looking forward to.  Make plans.  Imagine celebrations.  Enjoy the anticipation.   
For Christmas:
  • Now is the time to party!!!  Get out the Christmas cookies and the candy and the chocolate!
  • In the Old Testament, the advent of the Messiah is often associated with an abundance of wine. Buy at least one good bottle and celebrate accordingly (and responsibly, of course).
  • Try to do something fun or have a treat every day during the Christmas season.  Hang twelve tags on your tree, each one with a note inside describing a different activity or treat inside, and open one a day until January 6th.  Some suggestions:  Watch a Christmas movie and eat popcorn.  Go out for donuts. Make a snowman.  Go sledding or skiing.  Make cookies or a special dessert together.  Watch old family movies or look through photo albums or pictures together.  Have an art night and draw or paint.  Go ice skating.  Drive around and look at Christmas lights.    
  • If your family does stockings, think about spreading out some of those small presents during the days of Christmas instead of opening them all in a mad rush on Christmas morning.  
  • Have another family or group of people over for dinner and a game night.
  • Sing, sing, sing!  Now is the time to revel in all those glorious Christmas carols.  If you've held off singing them during Advent, you won't be sick of them by the time Christmas comes.  Play them in the car and in the house and sing them together at mealtimes.    
  • Give some of your gifts to people who serve you (like your post person or child's teacher) during the twelve days of Christmas, rather than during Advent.
  • Send out Christmas cards during Christmas, not Advent.  
  • The first day of Epiphany, January 6th, has long been celebrated as the Feast of the Three Kings. It's the day we remember the arrival of the Magi with their special gifts and their worship of the Christ Child.  Have a special dinner that day, finished off with a “king cake” – a cake that has a bean or coin baked into it.  Whoever finds the treasure gets to be “king for the day”!  Some people save one final present to give on this day as well.  (Be sure to sing “We Three Kings”!)
I hope that you might find some of these suggestions helpful.  In a quest to offer an alternative that is different and better, I'm not sure how well any of this might succeed.  But it seems like a start at least.  When our neighbors ask us why we're not hanging up lights, or why our tree isn't in the window, we can tell them.  "Oh, that's all coming.  But it's Advent, and this year, we're waiting for Christmas."  And when we get a blank look or a puzzled expression, we can say, "Let me tell you a story, a really good story..." and see what happens.    

Tomorrow:  Advent 5:  Zechariah and Elizabeth