Category Archives: On faith

Turn

I’m a sucker for all things nostalgic — old photo albums, worn notes or ticket stubs. I can’t resist the “On this Day” Facebook pictures that pop up, showing me my posts and memories from this day just two, five, eight years ago. I’m a slow, distracted organizer because I’m constantly pausing inside drawers and cupboards to reminisce, to remember.

I tend to be better at hanging on than letting go.

Ever watched someone do this when water skiing? They’re no longer sturdy on their feet, but toppled forward, being dragged along by their arms, a face full of lake water.

Photo by Simon Caspersen on Unsplash

I find myself doing this with seasons of life. I get comfortable, get accustomed, get used to the way things are — the ages my kids are at, the activities that fill our days, the rhythms we find ourselves in. And then seasons change, the kids get older, and I find myself still holding the rope, drinking too much murky lake water.

It happens especially in the summer — when I’m at my most nostalgic, when my camera is the busiest, when I have the greatest freedom over our calendar. When I have the greatest expectations about how things are supposed to be. Or how they’ve been in the past.

There were the summers of babies, when naps governed my days — demanded that we slow down, stay in one place for stretches of time. There were the summers of early rising toddlers,  settling on the couch with cartoons and blankies until I was able to schlep everyone out to play at the park, beach, or pool. Little sleepy heads bobbing in booster seats on the ride home. And now my kids are a bit older, busier — and it’s summer baseball, taxiing, sleepovers, and puppy training. It’s balancing their push for independence with my pull for structure. It’s my oldest moving toward middle school and resisting the things my five-year-old still loves — needing permission, prodding, and space to discover that it’s still okay to play, to build a sandcastle or to run through a splash pad.

Photo by Joe Pizzio on Unsplash

That mellow refrain of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” from Ecclesiastes (and The Byrds) keeps repeating in my head: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away…”  

These words are often sung or repeated in a comforting, mellow tone, but aren’t they unsettling? The idea that things keep on turning, that life is forever changing, that the comfort of sameness is rare and is not to be our resting place? 

Photo by Daniel Roe on Unsplash

Lately, I’ve been feeling off balance from holding on too tight. But writing it down, whispering it in a prayer, confessing it aloud to a friend allows me a little to space to lament. It allows me to feel a smidge of melancholy, even on the brightest of summer days.  It allows permission to let go of that rope, climb (or get clumsily pulled) back in the boat, wrap warm towels around myself and the boys, and turn my focus to the horizon.

Photo by Simeon Muller on Unsplash

Meet Murray

I’m writing today from my sunroom table, my favorite summer writing spot. I’ve mentioned this favorite place before — the light breeze through the screened doors, the farmer’s fields lit up bright green by the morning sun, the robins chirping away. But this morning I had to make myself sit here. Make room on my writing table that is currently piled high with things our new puppy (Yes! Yes! We got a puppy!) either needs or we’re hiding so he can’t chew on them: sandals, leashes, chair cushions, a bungee cord, dog treats, Miracle Grow, a couple of beers, and a now half-eaten rug. The kids are still sleeping, and I’m not tiptoeing one inch because my new canine alarm clock has already been up for three hours and is now peacefully snoring by my feet. So, I guess I’m forced not to do all the things I should be doing — the dishes, making that pile of stuff to drop off at Goodwill today, taking a shower.

Because I can’t not share puppy pictures, meet Murray.

(Seriously, though. Isn’t he just the sweetest?! And I used to say I wasn’t an animal person…)

Just like I cannot not show you pictures of a puppy, I cannot not have at least one blog post that contains a list of (mildly stereotypical?) things this puppy is teaching me. He’s maddening, really — adorable and dreaming peacefully in the corner one moment and the next I’m muttering, murmuring and chasing him around the house trying to get my son’s underwear out of his mouth. (Yes, all you who grinned that sly little grin and nodded silently when I excitedly shared our puppy news — I see you now. Also, you are correct that I am literally measuring my days in minutes since the puppy has been outside and taken care of business.)

And so, if you’ll indulge us, just a couple of lessons from Murray…

Urgency
It is so easy to get messed up when it comes to what really must be done in our lives. I, much of the time, live with a false sense of urgency, an unrealistic view of what is really necessary or stressful. “Just a minute, I need to finish this.” But when the dog is sniffing around the living room with his tail in the air, that email I’m writing does not matter. I am running his butt to the door.

I have a friend whose husband’s mother died when he was young, and she says he is constantly reminding her that “there is big and there is little.” And let’s face it, most of our stuff, even the dog’s pittles on the carpet, are little. We are so good at knowing this and so bad at living it. We know it when Dad’s on the operating table, when we’re waiting on the test results from the doctor, when the phone rings in the middle of the night. We forget it on Tuesday afternoon when the laundry is piled up to our ankles, we realize that bill never got paid last week, the kids are being watched by PBS, and we’re already tired for tomorrow.

When I’m wandering around the backyard with my dog on a leash, no phone in my hands, no memory of what important thing I just got pulled away from, it’s amazing the way I start to breathe again. The to-do list, the work, will always be there, but just for a few minutes, I’m right where I am, too.

The Hard Yes
A huge perk of getting a puppy Memorial Day weekend is that you convince yourself you are doing an awesome job of training your puppy because you are finally outside more than you are inside. Michigan has decided to stop being cold and gray — and instead is lovely and warm: all the neighbors are out and talking face-to-face again, and we’re back walking the sidewalks; we’re at the park, the pool, the lake. It’s wondrous.

But then, a couple nights ago, it rained for several hours. And my husband and I both looked at each other, slightly annoyed and referring to the dog as not ours, but as each other’s, because somebody had to take him out in a downpour. We stood by the front door, staring at each other, umbrella and poop bag in hand for about three minutes before we decided to chance getting up in the middle of the night. We put the pup in his crate and went to bed.

Part of a getting a puppy is having to take him out in the rain.

And isn’t that the way with most yeses? We do things in life — like getting a puppy, having a child, enrolling in classes, remodeling an old farmhouse — with the full knowledge that it will require something of us, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it does. I see this with my students in the middle of hard projects. I see it with brave friends who are taking in foster children, finding space in their homes for refugees. Good yeses are not easy yesses. There are moments — in the middle of the yes — when you doubt, you wrestle, you blame, you whine. But you keep showing up with something that often doesn’t feel as much like hope as it does duty. But in the showing up, grace seeps in.

(And yes! In this case, grace was the pup sleeping through the night!)

But why?
We didn’t grow up with pets, we’ve never had a dog, we’re already busy, and like a million people have warned me, having a puppy is a bit like having a newborn. So, why do it? Why get a dog now?

It’s all the stuff you always hear — seeing your kids and your 40-year-old husband giggling and chasing a puppy around in the backyard. Getting home and having a little guy jumping up and down, insanely glad to see you. Undeserved favor, unconditional love, full-out dedication given without question.

That little puppy has my kids playing more, has us playing more. He is a reminder of the good stuff. The stuff that requires no bells or whistles or gizmos to entertain. He’s a reminder that we all have a 10-year-old inside of us. A reminder to pay attention. To slow down.

And the good stuff makes the hard stuff worth it. Which, most of the time, is enough.

At Me

One of the most maddening, is-it-bedtime-yet moments in my parental life is when, most often in the car, one of my kids whines because his brother is looking at him the wrong way.  “He is smiling at me,” they cry and whine.  Or even “He keeps looking at me.” The key words here are at me. The other person’s pleasure is obviously spiteful, rotten behavior intended to make the cranky child more miserable than he already is.

Confession: Too often I find my 38 year-old self slipping into behavior not unlike my five year-old’s. Maybe already feeling a little bit grumpy or irritable, it’s easy to look around and have a feeling that people are doing things at me: posting pictures of dream vacations while I set my alarm for work, having houses that look magazine-worthy (or even clean toilets), being thin while still eating candy bars.

It’s unnerving that I understand what is logical or even what is good for me, but sometimes it seems easier to be the pouting child in the backseat than the adult steering the car.  Sometimes it seems easier to pretend things are happening at me or to me, rather than to exert the energy to guide myself toward adult-like behavior.

My husband and I recently jumped on the Whole30 bandwagon. If you’re not familiar, it’s a 30-day dietary re-set in which we abstained from sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, alcohol – and if you asked us most days – fun. I’d like to tell you it was 30 (or maybe 28.5…) glorious and glowing days, but most of the time, it was just plain old hard and time-consuming. I got sick of shopping, sick of scouring labels, sick of prepping, sick of making good decisions. Much like the glowering kids in the backseat, I too often found myself getting irritable when I had to take the time to cut up the kiwi versus grabbing the chips from the cupboard. And, though my body seemed to be quite happy with some logical decisions I was making on its behalf,  watching my kids eat a $5 Little Caesar’s Pizza was nearly torturous.  Words like accountability and wisdom and discipline can feel a bit like older brothers smirking at me.

Don’t we wish it was easier — that doing the right thing might cost a little less? That kale might call to us like dark chocolate does? That selflessness was as easy to access as it is to talk about? That goodness could flow from us as easily as greed? Or that extravagant kindness would seep from our veins as does competitiveness and jealousy?

C.S. Lewis says it this way: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Trading my tendency from focusing inward to looking outward requires me to realize that I am the “ignorant child making mud pies;” I am the crazy kid in the backseat screaming at someone else for smiling;  I’ve mindlessly got my hand in the Cheetos bag when fresh apples and ripe cherries are hanging on the tree outside. It’s an inconvenient truth:  I am far too easily pleased.

P.S. In case you’re interested, these have become my favorite go-to Whole 30 recipes:

Creamy Salsa Verde Chicken

Brussel Sprout and Bacon Egg Casserole

The Best Roasted Carrots

Shrimp, Snow Pea, and Shiitake Stir Fry

Chicken Tortilla-less Soup

Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Bacon

Whole30 Chicken Tenders
(Have any favorites to share with me? Comment and share a link!)

Saving Up Stories

Photo: Dana VanderLugt

This blog post was originally published on The Twelve

My grandpa passed away last winter. One of the things I miss most is saving up stories for him.

My family still gathers around grandma’s table every Sunday, and most weeks my husband, kids, and I are there. My Grandpa was never one for much small talk, for casual conversation – but he loved stories, especially those told around that well-worn, oak table, and especially when the table was extended to its full length with a mismatch of chairs pulled up around it. As I grew, I was trained to be attentive, to watch and listen for captivating moments, to save up stories for Sunday and for Grandpa because I knew he would want to hear a good one, and that he’d probably re-tell it over and over to each person who visited that week.

For the past month, I’ve been gathering with a handful of people at the local pub on Monday nights, reading through the New Testament together. We sit around the table with the text open, exploring the story. We read the verses – some of which I admit I’ve read only in isolation in a greeting card – in context. We talk about what surprised us, what we struggled with, what convicted us, what gave us hope. We have better conversation than I’ve had in a church setting in quite awhile – because we’re just talking about the story. We are trying to come to some sense of understanding and allowing lots of space for questions.

This week in one of my classes we were discussing a novel just before I introduced the next writing assignment. One student’s hand suddenly rose. “Does this paper have to have a thesis?” she asked. “Do we have to come right out and tell our reader what our main point is? Because I love reading and discovering it myself, just like in this book we’re reading; I like when the author lets me figure it out rather than telling me what I’m supposed to think.”

Doesn’t it seem that sometimes stories work when arguments fail? That stories have power that facts and statistics can’t hold? That parables, anecdotes, and real-life accounts often make more room for questions and complexities than a 5-point lecture or pages and pages of statistics? As a teacher, I find myself scavenging for good stories, for examples, because facts, figures, and tricky vocabulary often can’t close the gap.

There is no doubt I’ve been fed physically around my grandparents’ table throughout my life – buttery rolls fresh from the oven, ham garnished with horseradish, apple crisp made with Cortlands from the family orchard. But words have filled me there, too. It’s where I learned my voice, learned how to spin a tale – what details mattered and what might be better left out. I grew up on a steady diet of familiar fables, of images and lines worth repeating. Those stories shaped me and gave me an appetite for more. Stories nourish; they fill us up in a way that arguments don’t. They introduce us to new flavors, new ideas, different ways of seeing the world. There’s space and mystery in a story – it’s not all given to us; there is not one right answer. Stories provide a way back to each other – and make room for the rough edges of life.

When life is complicated, when there is wrestling and uncertainty, when there are disagreements with those across the aisle – or the dinner table – stories are the sound of chairs moving and of making room for each other.

Photo: unsplash.com

 

Hidden Hope

 

(A version of this piece was first published on The Twelve.)

During the summer, my schedule permits me to take a walk nearly every morning, just after sunrise. I pop in headphones, tune into a podcast, and head for my favorite path. Quiet neighborhood sidewalks open into a paved trail that winds through a farmer’s field, sometimes dotted with freshly-rolled bales of hay. I make my way around a small pond (albeit a former gravel pit with condos along one side), cross a bridge over Buttermilk Creek, and then veer off to a two-track under a canopy of trees.  I rarely make it back home without a feeble attempt to capture a shot or two with my camera phone – it might be the sunlight reflecting on the water or a purple wildflower standing proudly in a drainage ditch.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the snow had melted enough to allow for a February walk along this same trail. The sun couldn’t find its way through the clouds, and the gray sky matched the barren trees, but I caught myself snapping pictures of details I hadn’t noticed before – just as the voice on my podcast spoke of how almost everything has an “underbelly,” a hidden side we avoid or don’t know as well. I noticed tree roots twisted into the creek banks, the shimmer of ice hugging the pond’s shore, and that same canopy of trees – in shades of gray instead of forest greens.

I found hope on that walk. Hope in the beauty of the gray: like God gently tapping me on the shoulder to remind me that things don’t have to be shiny and perfect to be good, that grace meets us where we’re at, that creation still cries out in the midst of a dark day. And it’s led me this week to notice more of this, to keep a list of hopeful things.

Extra chairs pulled up to a table.

The sudden, distinct memory of my Grandpa’s deep voice singing his favorite hymn.

A student with down-syndrome, who passed a basketball to a student in a wheelchair to make a basket. Bleachers full of middle schoolers filling the gym with cheers.

An eight-year old shaking the hand of a refugee, no words exchanged, just shining eyes.

A well-written 8th grade literary analysis. The thesis: there is beauty in the ugly. And ugly in the beauty.

The yellow of a sunrise on a barren, winter field.  

The friend, an atheist, who found herself in a church pew at the request of her son, and said she just may come back.

A child dancing without music.

A driver who stopped, smiled, and waved me through an intersection.

The Writer’s Almanac. A poem each day standing calming amidst a cluttered inbox of advertisements.

Bible Study in the brewery.

Friends who listen. Who need say little more than, “me too.”
On Ash Wednesday, I’m remembering that author Barbara Johnson says that we are “Easter People living in a Good Friday world.”  That even in the dormant seasons, God’s story – for redemption, restoration, for the world to be made right again – is not at a standstill. We wait and we work with hope, grateful for a God who shows up in small and big ways.

A messier manger

It was nearly five years ago when Caleb and I participated in a craft night at church to make a nativity scene. I remember that when it was time to draw the faces on our little wooden figurines, I cringed as he grabbed the black Sharpie and haphazardly scratched in the eyes, noses, and mouths. I did a couple for him, including the baby Jesus, to try to show him the “right” way to do it.

This year, when I took that little scene out its box, I was now cringing that I had helped him at all — that instead of two more faces drawn by the little fingers of a kindergartener (who is now as tall as me), I had two smiley faces drawn by a 30-something mom more intent on giving advice than letting her child play.

And two days from Christmas, I’m fessing up that this is still my struggle. Like with that manger scene, I’m always trying to clean these days up, make them a little warmer and fuzzier and more manicured than they want to be. But listen closely and you’ll hear the sounds of my boys fighting over the strains of Christmas music. Ride along in the car and you’ll hear me lecturing about materialism as we run yet another errand.  Look closely and you’ll see I have three strands of lights attempting to cover the burnt-out ones that still hang on my tree.

We press expectations of perfection upon Christmas — a day that at its core is about meeting us in our mess, about light entering a world of darkness, chaos, and brokenness.

Everywhere I’ve gone this week, I’ve been given nudges to let go of the polished “Silver Bells” version of Christmas (where everything is shiny and hustling and bustling). I’ve been noticing not just the beauty of the imperfect, but our need for it.  Without acknowledgment of our brokenness, of the dark, dark days of December, who needs Christmas? Who needs saving — who needs a savior — when we’re trying so hard to sculpt perfect Christmas moments that we live under the illusion that we can sanitize and save ourselves?

My pastor reminded me last week to be “startled by wonder.”  Not the wonder of a magazine-cover holiday, but the wonder of an inside-out Christmas. A reminder that Jesus was born into hopelessness, brokenness; he was born in a smelly cave, not a stained-glass cathedral. And that the news of this birth first came to dirty shepherds: those who didn’t count, who didn’t matter, who were ignored or disdained.

And so when things the next few days –or few years — don’t go exactly as planned (because they won’t), maybe I can remember that God comes into our mess, invites us into other people’s messes, because don’t things have to get messy before they can get good? Isn’t that the heart of the gospel?

I’m not a fast learner, but the reminders keep coming.

A few days ago, I scolded my youngest for writing on the pages of my brand new notebook, for not using scraps of paper (that I can covertly recycle after he’s in bed.) But then yesterday, I got out my notebook to scratch down thoughts about imperfection, about doing more things badly, but with passion. And I found these doodles.  Perfectly imperfect evidence of a real, abundant life. 

Let me keep being reminded this Christmas that I don’t need to clean up so much, that I don’t need to sculpt every moment into something Hallmark-worthy. Because the good stuff can only be found when there is also room for the mess. 

 

P.S. Giving credit to Jack Ridl for inspiring me to get that notebook out yesterday, and passing along this gift to you, as my cousin Sara, did for me yesterday. This is from a couple of years ago, but it begs to be watched today, right now. Jack is one of the good, good teachers I’ve had, and his stuff about “with” is wisdom I try to carry with me everywhere — into my classroom, my home, my marriage, my writing. I need to hear these words about showing up, showing up perfectly imperfect almost all the time, but especially in December.

Falling

Oct. 21, 2015

“By facing God, we also face our own inner chaos.”

— Henri Nouwen

It was a warm, fall, Michigan Sunday; what I knew would likely be our last for awhile. Twenty-some family members had just left my house, and the dishes were in the dishwasher, the floor was swept, and my husband wanted a couple of hours to laze and nap. I, on the contrary, had visions of a wistful walk through the woods as a family – basking in the fall colors. You know, something straight out of that Instagram or Facebook post that instantly makes it seem that other people have life figured out, and I can’t quite seem to get it together.

And so, I solicited volunteers – two boys (ages 3 and 6) – and we piled into the car and headed to the nearest nature center. I parked at the trailhead, and we were not more than 20 feet up the path when the oldest declared this walk “boring and stupid.” The youngest meandered and wandered and panicked whenever he dropped one of the 30 leaves that had haphazardly become his prized collection. What’s more, he didn’t even pick the best leaves, the ones I deemed prettiest, but seemed content with the browns and molded yellows.

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We slowly made our way as I tried to appreciate the beauty despite the whining, despite the fact that one son had now disappeared down another trail to sulk and the other would not stop talking (don’t the woods inspire silence?) and was now begging to be carried the rest of the way to the car. I took enough pictures to feel like I had record of the sunshine and something suitable to resemble a perfect family moment (or millisecond).  

Back at home, I walked through the door a bit more tired and a lot less energized than what I had gloriously envisioned when we left. As I stood in the kitchen, contemplating what to feed these boys in my house who had somehow managed to get hungry again, my husband came up behind me and tapped me gently on the shoulder, saying, “You try so hard.”

Trying is my thing: it has always been my thing. I come from a family of hard workers — farmers — who have taught me to get a move on, to get things accomplished, to not slow down (besides, we might fall asleep if we did). We don’t need rest. We have things to do. We are “yes” people. We must have something to show for our time.

But the problem with trying is just that — it’s a try. Trying is not foolproof. Effort alone does not always guarantee expectations are met.  Trying may earn occasional admiration for hard work and commitment, but it doesn’t get any of us across the finish line 100% of the time. Trying can earn us approval, but doesn’t often fulfill our purpose.

And, when we’re honest, we can admit that trying can also feel a whole lot like like bluffing, like pretending. It feels like trying to convince ourselves that we’ve got it under control, that we can do it all, that if we focus and work hard enough, we can fool people — or maybe ourselves — into believing we can keep the world — our at least our world — spinning.  

It can feel a bit like posting a picture of a beautiful walk in the woods when no one can see our kid’s scowl or our own frustration on the other side of the camera.

For a long time, I believed I needed to “let go, and let God,” which is one of those trite phrases that is easy to repeat and has had very little practical applicability in my life. This is mainly because I still envisioned that if I let go, God would make me soar, make me succeed, makes things turn out “right.” God would clean up the mess — rather than meet me in the mess and accept me there.

I’m realizing more and more, letting go looks more like falling than expecting everything to fall into place.  Letting go is acknowledging my shortcomings, acknowledging that trying will probably not be enough, and then accepting that. Maybe even celebrating that.

One of the problems with trying — with that pick-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps mentality — is that it isn’t truly compatible with grace, with undeserved and unconditional love. It’s like saying, “Well…I sorta need saving, but I’m doing pretty well on my own. I can handle most of it, God, if you can just help me out with the last 11% or so.” Trying too hard doesn’t truly leave room for grace because both hands never completely let go of the controls. We just lift a pinky at a time and then clench the rest of our fists harder.

And when I’m not ready to truly receive grace, it also becomes harder to dole out. Because if I’m hustling and working, everyone else should be, too. (And that starts to sounds like a lot like competition, doesn’t it?) I’ve heard grace referred to as a “simple act,” but that’s just not true. Grace is a whole lot harder and requires a whole lot more trust and faith than makes most of us comfortable.

The problem with trying, pushing, and hustling to prove our own worthiness is it doesn’t leave room for the messiness of grace, for the gift of rest, for the discomfort of understanding that I will not — cannot — get it all right because the world is broken, I am human, and there will always be more to do.  It doesn’t leave room to collect and celebrate those brown and yellow molded leaves. Or to accept that life rarely can be molded, manufactured, or pressed into perfection.  

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Out of tune

 

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, veeterzy.com
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, veeterzy.com

I was in choirs when I was a kid. I loved to sing, and I thought I was pretty good at it.  Along with my cousins or youth group friends, I’d even perform “Special Music” (a phenomenon of 1990s West Michigan church culture) at night services, and was always among the first to try out for solos at school.

But sometime around the end of middle school, I realized that my performances weren’t so cute anymore. No one cringes at a slightly out-of-tune 3rd grader, but the judgement — or awareness of judgement — sets in around the age of 12, 13.  As I grew older and more self conscious, I quit all choirs, and started to sing quietly in church, making sure my voice wasn’t heard outside of the crowd, outside of the other muted voices.

During a recent Sunday morning during worship, an adult with some cognitive impairments stood a few rows behind me, singing over the crowd. Her voice was out of tune and out of rhythm — and beautiful. It was raw. It was real. With this voice behind me, I dared raise my own voice a bit. Add into the chorus the sounds of a baby babbling  nearby, and I really felt free to air my own imperfection.

Maybe this is more of what our churches need, more of what I need. We need to welcome more out-of-tune voices, more babies crying, more messes in the pews, and through the doors.

I recently had the chance to interview Gregg Taylor. Gregg is a friend of my church, and currently serves as the President of the Board of the National Association of Christian Recovery.  He’s also works with Houston reVision, an organization that helps gang-effected youth and kids on the edge to revise the stories of their lives toward a hope-filled future. Prior to joining reVision, Gregg was the pastor of Mercy Street, a church in Houston that creates a safe place for the hurt, the lost, and the seeking to experience  radical grace. 

Gregg told me the story of how he ended up working at Mercy Street after spending 17 years in campus ministry. The experience is best shared in his own words from an interview we did together:

I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. My dad was a child of an alcoholic. My mother was a child of alcoholic. Our family could be a case study. (Laughs.)

A friend of mine, the founding pastor of Mercy Street, was transitioning out, and he called to see if I would talk with him.  And I said no; I like it where I am. But he pushed and pushed, and I finally relented. He said, ‘Just talk?” And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll talk.”

I knew of Mercy Street, but I’d never been there. As I sat down in that service, I thought, ‘Wow. This is the kind of church where Jesus would show up.” It was raw, it was celebratory, it was broken, it was a mess. There was an energy of palpable grace and connection.

But the kicker for me…My dad passed away right before I accepted the job, and he was sick during this entire conversation. My dad was 10 years sober when he passed away, and those last 10 years had been great, lots of reconciliation. When I was explaining to my dad about the possibility of coming to Mercy Street, I said, “Dad, there’s a bunch of drunks in this church and people in AA.  And he goes, “That sounds like the kind of church I could go to.” And I said, “Yeah, dad, that’s the kind of church that would welcome you with open arms.”

You see, he grew up in a hellfire/damnation, shame-based, fear-filled church. His Dad made sure he was at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights — every time the doors were open — but then at home, his dad would beat the hell out of him. And my grandfather would beat my grandmother. This spiritual toxicity had seeped into his soul, and he didn’t want anything to do with God. There was a lot of fear and shame; he was beat down, but AA helped him recover from that and return to himself and God. AA became his fellowship of faith. By the time he died, he was no longer atheist or agnostic, but the God of his understanding was compassionate, grace-filled, and loving. My sense was that if Jesus could show up at Mercy Street, and this was a place where my dad could show up and be welcomed with radical hospitality, I could say, “Yes.” And so I went.

Gregg went on to share stories with me — stories of a homeless woman with no teeth learning to serve and smile, stories of bringing his own son to rehab and feeling love and compassion rather than whispering gossip about a preacher’s kid who needed help.

Gregg said a church that welcomes recovery “creates a space where brokenness is not a problem — whatever brokenness we bring is actually a pathway to grace. God doesn’t turn his head to that, but it actually becomes the conduit to where compassion, restoration, and grace flow.”

The truth is that we’re all in recovery. We’re all dealing with junk. We’re all cracked and broken. And grace is available to all of us. But those who are willing to admit when they’re broken soak up that grace a little more easily.

As a rule-following, oldest child with a history of trying too hard, of trying to control situations and manage the people around me, I’m not always being very good at admitting when I need help or when things aren’t going well.

In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning writes, “Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber’s license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, ‘I think I can fix this.'”

Showing up real and vulnerable to God — or anyone else — is impossible when it becomes all about trying to have it all together, all about performing.  Especially because we’re out of tune much of the time.

I stopped singing loudly  for the same reason many people never want to step a foot through a church’s door again. It’s hard to pretend you’re good when you’re not. It’s hard to show up and be a mess. So often, we get very good at pretending or we shut up, we stay away. And too often, grace and love — radical hospitality — aren’t the first thing people feel when they walk inside a church.

We can learn a lot from our friends in recovery. We could learn a lot by admitting we all are in recovery. It isn’t a place for pretending to be perfect or whispering quietly  — it’s a place to be honest and broken enough to be fully present, fully known, and fully loved. It’s not only about showing radical hospitality, but accepting that gift, too.

Gregg Taylor blogs at meditate-this.org. Visit him there. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo courtesy of unsplash.com, by Geetanjal Khanna
Photo courtesy of unsplash.com, by Geetanjal Khanna

 

 

Middle

Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something

 Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.

Photo credit: unsplash.com; Alex Jones

When I tell someone I teach in a middle school, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”

I teach the years most people try to forget.

“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains mid-developed, grading essays that are half-finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are only able to partially listen.

There’s no hiding the realities of these places — students try so very hard to appear to have it all together, but pull it off very poorly. Even those who appear the most composed are doing their best to stay that way. It’s a place where an untidy vulnerability hangs heavy in the air.  Everything seems a little shaky, a little fragile, when so many are trying to hard to look the right way, say the right thing, and be the right version of themselves. (This is also exactly why I feel anxious at bridal showers.)

Oh, and on my warm days, my classroom smells like puberty. (When prepping him for “the” video to be shown in his 4th grade classroom, my oldest son said,  “I don’t know what this puberty thing is, but it sounds disgusting.”) The aroma on May afternoon serves as very tangible reminder that this stage of life is often awkward and uncomfortable. 

Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it — how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything (but trying).  It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.

But in the middle, magic can also happen. There is a reason so many books that have become classics are coming-of-age stories. (If you hated To Kill a Mockingbird when you were assigned to read it in high school, can I beg you to try it again? You weren’t ready for it then, but you are now.)

 There is a single account in the Bible of the adolescence of Jesus — when he was 12 years old and left behind in the temple while his parents traveled three days back home before realizing in panic that their boy was missing. (Doesn’t this make you feel better about your parenting skills, too? If it happened to Mary and Joseph…)  Upon their reunion, we see this God-as-a-boy stopping to ask his parents, “Do you know what matters to me? Didn’t you figure out where I would be?” The process of figuring out identity, a gentle moving toward things that matter, is not a clean and simple process.

I’m slowly figuring out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.

Adolescence is one inevitable “middle” in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) parenting, faith, friendships, family intricacies, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.  

We can try to ignore the hard stuff, try to push it out of our minds, try to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The “middles” of our lives are not shiny, easy, or non-stop fun. Many moments don’t make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing. Or sometimes, taking a nap.

Redemption can be found in running out onto the other side, but much of the time, redemption looks more like crawling out, a clumsy stumble onto dry land, with months and years before we can make any sense of it.

When life gets overwhelming, I find a strange comfort in knowing that I am just a pinprick on this planet, just one player in God’s greater story — a story much, much bigger than I can see.  We are all confused adolescents in the noisy cafeteria.

We are loved, we are chosen, but we are not alone, and everyone else is loved and chosen, too.

Do you know of the Russian Matryoshka dolls? The wooden dolls that nest one inside the other? My days nest one inside another, adding up into phases and seasons (some harder than others), adding up into a lifetime, but still nesting inside a bigger story.  And as much as I may try to work and prove my worth, I am already resting — being held safely — inside that larger space. I’m not going to earn my way in or out of that safety, God’s nest. I am in the middle, but I am secure. I am imperfect and flawed and irritable — but I am loved anyway.

Photo credit: pixabay.com; jacqueline macou

I wonder if my time spent in the middle — inside my 8th grade classroom; inside that car ride with the kids when the word “Mom” whined one more time makes me feel this close to snapping; inside the hospital waiting for word from the surgeon about Dad’s surgery — could remind me to stop trying so hard and just rest in the mess with assurance that I’m nestled inside a larger story.

The magic of the middle may be that though life’s messiness cannot be comfortably navigated, we are, in fact, “closely surrounded, encompassed on all sides.” We’re not crushed in the middle, but held safely in the “midst of its storms.”