Tag Archives: faith

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.”