The Best Advice

I listened to a podcast this afternoon as I cooked dinner that featured the best advice people had ever received.

The one piece of advice that stood out to me was given to a young mother with 4 children.  She said that she spends the bulk of her day doing things that will be undone: feeding children who will get hungry again, washing clothes that will soon be dirty, cleaning up toys that will be on the floor tomorrow.  The best advice someone gave her was to do one thing each day that cannot be undone.

She writes in a journal, or paints one wall in her home, or does one other long-lasting thing each day, grounding her life with meaning and permanence.

I really liked this idea.

I thought about the many ways I could concretize (is that a word? I don’t think so.) my days into something with permanence.  I could write more on the blog.  I could do things that make my largely invisible existence more visible. I could finish painting the fourth wall in my dining room.

Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90 came to mind: “establish for us the work of our hands.”  I could definitely (and might) choose to do one thing each day that can’t be undone.  It sounds like a fun thing to add to my list of things to do.  But mostly I think I will pray that God’s grace (Moses prays that God’s favor would rest on his people directly before asking for the establishing of the work of their hands) would make the largely unseen and mostly undo-able work I do each day count for something permanent.

In the lives of those I love and in the humility I learn, establish for me the work of my hands.

 

These Are the Days, January 2016

These are the days of…

hot tea to combat cold winter weather.  I’m on my sixth cup as I type.

reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  My husband and I are close to fighting over who gets to read it at the boys’ bedtime.  It’s that good.

a four year old who narrates the world and his entire existence in it.  At times adorable, at time maddening.  He also starts over if he’s interrupted.  At the beginning of his paragraph.  I’m not making this up.  (Please don’t interrupt him.  Please.)

Transition.  My church moved locations, my husband is entering his last semester of grad school, my children are changing every day.  So many new things on the horizon.  I waffle between wanting to throw my arms open in anticipation and wanting to throw up.

basket time.  We have a basket full of the books we need to do memory work and reading for homeschool.  Listening to my son recite poetry and Psalm 23 and the Apostle’s Creed is always a high point.  Why didn’t I memorize these things when I was little?  Instead I know all the words to Billy Joel’s best songs.

epic Monopoly games.  We set it up almost every night, my biggest “versing” (versus) his father/the four year old “versing” me.  We play with intensity, then mark down on the white board where everyone is and put our properties and money in designated envelopes.  When things are really intense, we set it all back up before breakfast for a few rounds too.  I hope my children remember this with fondness.

hard things.  I have some friends and some family members who are facing hard things, and I face these with them in solidarity, although not in the same way as they must.  Illness, children who are ill, loss, the breaking apart of things that were meant to be permanent.  Was life this complicated when I was little?  I pray my children see us live a complicated life depending on God and also that they are protected enough to not see much of the complications, yet.

cold feet.  I wish I could hold my tea cup with my feet.

intention.  I can’t articulate how or why but intention is my word this year.  Each day I choose an intention.  Today it was to live with compassion toward all those I interacted with.  Life is different when I have an intention.

 

 

These Are the Days, December Edition

In August I posted a list inspired by Emily Freeman sharing the moments and ideas that were making up my days.  Using the same attention to my true moments and days, rather than the ones I want to have or have vicariously through some form of media, these are the days of:

Grief.

Being thankful for the history of the Church, and how it informs my daily life today (in particular, for the Council of Orange)

Creativity: starting painting classes again, trying to draw more, writing

Reading less: I’m noticing a pattern.  I gorge myself on books that others have written and suddenly I don’t have the appetite to write or paint or draw.  The year that I deliberately limited my reading was one of my most creative.  I think it’s time to go there again in 2016.

A baby learning to walk.  When did she get so big, and could this really have been my last first year as someone’s mother?

Returning to the Psalms

New habits.  I read Better Than Before and have been thinking a lot about habits, and how to have ones that reflect who I am and who I long to be.  One new habit that came out of a small group we led this fall: I can only check my social media after I’ve spent time meeting God in Scripture.  There have been some weeks where I haven’t checked in to Facebook at all.  But more, I find myself able to make time to read the Bible when before I might have mindlessly scrolled through a lot of status updates.

Attending to God in the midst of activity.  My one year old can open the fridge by herself.  That’s probably enough to summarize my whole life right there.  I’m needed and loved and interrupted by the moment.  I’m learning to love God and listen to his voice in the midst of serious motion.

Reading Geronimo Stilton.

Loving those fresh moments right after a young child has woken up.  I can’t explain it but those first few minutes of I’m-just-waking-up newness feel as magical as when I first held them.

Ice chewing.  (I’m not anemic.  I just really like to chew ice.)

A technology-free bedroom.  (New habits on display here.  Try it.  It will change your life–no phones, no laptops, no iPods, nothing.  People, books, beds.)

Transition.  A church move, and soon enough: graduation and a move for us.

New possibilities.  The canvas is in front of us and it feels very blank.

PG Tips.  Worth every penny.

Morning pages.  Three pages, written long-hand, every morning as a creative act.  Never to be shown to anyone, never to be mined for ideas for publication.  Just there to get the brain dumped on paper so I can attend to the creative work of crafting my life, including my normal writing.

New beginnings.

Anything marking your days that you’d like to remember them by?

Needing to Blog

I don’t know if I want to blog but I do know that I need to blog.

Last year I managed three posts.  That means it takes me over 100 days to remember to blog again.  

As I’ve sat with the nuns at the Community of the Transfiguration the past two days and reflected on the past year, I’ve come up against one major obstacle: my memory.  I have never had a great memory.  I am terrible at taking pictures or building scrapbooks to help me remember.  I regularly find myself anxious about what I will and won’t remember in a few decades, about all the wrong stories I’ll tell my children, about how they will feel when I tell them something they know isn’t true as our memories collide.  

I can’t seem to remember to blog but without blogging, I’m not sure I’ll remember the shape of my days.  So I want to set an intention to blog with regularity.  To share the moments of my days, to chronicle what I’m learning and how I’m growing, to explore my spiritual formation out loud on my blog.  

I only hope I remember to do it.

These Are the Days

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I’ve been enjoying the writing and thinking of Emily P. Freeman lately.  Her thoughts on smallness and the kingdom of God resonate deeply with me.  One way she practices a mindful awareness of her life and the presence of Christ with her in the life she actually has (not the one she should have, or wishes to have) is to make a list that she calls “these are the days” lists.  She jots down what her days are full of, slowing just enough to experience the presence of Christ in the moments that are passing quickly.

For me, these are the days of…

Burning candles to remember that Christ is with me.

Staying in pajamas and mopping with tea tree oil instead of being productive on a rare day without children.

Fly infestations in Kalas Village.

Learning spiritual formation in the joyful crucible of young motherhood.

Being disillusioned and disappointed in the expression of my faith community (Anglicanism, for me) while knowing that “the tree that is not taller than you does not shade you” (African proverb).

Meditating in motion, not stillness.

Teaching from a place of rest, not hustle.

Beginning new things (spiritual direction training for me, a Th.M. for Joel (we think!)).

Buying my firstborn Hobnobs at ridiculous cost so he can taste his favorite cookies from his life overseas.

Telling the truth, even when it is very, very hard.

Believing and trying to live into this: that God’s sovereignty does not excuse my (or others’) unwillingness to become mature and lead from a place of emotional wellness.

Resurrecting my blog, apparently.  Two posts in one week.

Laughing at myself because I can’t help but thinking that “these are the days of” should be completed by “Elijah”!

Elijah.  :-)

Stuck in the Middle of a Crowd

Sometimes, memories pop up from living overseas that surprise me.  They aren’t part of my “normal” memories…they aren’t stories that ever made it in a prayer letter or a photo book.  Usually they are stories that are hard to understand even for me, someone who lived in a Somali context for enough years to have some scaffolding to understand experiences in the Horn of Africa.  For this reason, I don’t share them, lest people from my home culture grossly misunderstand my host culture.  They are stories that grieve me, or hurt me, or scare me.  Mostly, they are stories that I’ve put on the shelf to think about and grieve “later.”  Later hasn’t come for many of these memories.

As I was cleaning under my couch, I found a page of questions I had written in red crayon.  Maybe when my boys were coloring, I was praying in crayon.  I don’t remember writing these questions and I have no idea why they were under my couch, along with 27 fly corpses, dozens of Legos, and my husband’s book that has been missing for days.  But instead of crumpling the paper up and throwing it away, I smoothed it out to see if it was precious.  In a way, it was.

My questions, directed in prayerful writing to God, included ones that sparked my memory: “What was it like to be surrounded by religious leaders?  Was it like that day in Eastleigh?  Were you ever afraid of them?  Were you afraid that day?”  

For some months, I taught in Eastleigh, the primarily Somali neighborhood (you might call it a slum) of Nairobi, Kenya.  The streets and my classes were full of people who had just escaped different crises in Mogadishu and the surrounding areas.  It was a time of powerful aggression by Al-Shabaab, and my students shared stories that are too raw and too private and not mine to share.  Full of fear, full of pain, full of grief.  Eastleigh is also home to many Kenyan Somalis and to a strongly Muslim religious community.  If you’ve ever read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s writings, you might remember some of her descriptions of Eastleigh from her time there (which were by no means objective).  Otherwise, unless you’ve been there, it’s probably not a place you’ve heard of or ever will.  

I worked at a Mennonite Community Center that had been in Eastleigh for a long time, and had a decent enough reputation to remain.  At the moment when I taught, it was understaffed and being boycotted by the local community.  A short-term missions team from the States (bless their hearts, if you know what I mean) came in and in a fundamentalist, conservative Muslim community, tried to teach sex education.  Like I said, bless their hearts.  The class caused a ruckus, religious leaders instructed young people to boycott the community center and I arrived, ready to finish my grad school requirement for a teaching internship but with almost no students.

Thankfully, a regular teacher of ESL with an American accent and passport overcame a lot of the boycott, and I found myself with enough students to teach four mornings a week.  I didn’t have a place to stay in Eastleigh and I’m not sure I could have convinced my bosses to let me live there, frankly.  So each morning, my husband fought Nairobi traffic (again, if you haven’t experienced it, I probably can’t describe it well enough, so I’ll just leave it at that) and dropped me off in a sea of men leaving the mosque and insane matatu drivers and sewage running in the road and people yelling to me in Swahili until they realized I answered in Somali.  

For the most part, I was welcome enough.  I didn’t have the welcome I enjoyed in other Somali communities in my five years in the Horn of Africa but I was ok.

One afternoon, waiting for my husband to come and pick me up, I popped over to my local copy shop who had been printing all my lessons for me.  Coming back out at the time that midday prayer dismissed left me in the sea of young men and several older, religious leaders.  I was an anomaly–my skin shouts out that I’m not Somali, my head covering mumbles that I’m aware of being in a religious community that values modesty, my language skills defend my presence there but clearly show that I’m not a true belonger.  The sea of men around me turned quickly from disinterested, to curious, to openly hostile.  Again, in case it needs to be said, this is one of only a few incidents over years of living abroad when I experienced hostility on this scale.  My normal days were full of welcome and hospitality and generosity and love.  

The religious leaders started grilling me, ridiculing me, yelling at me.  I didn’t feel completely out of control but also knew that, unlike my daily life in Djibouti, no one else in the crowd was defending me, or telling the shouters to knock it off.  Quickly, I saw that I was at the mercy of a group of people who really didn’t appreciate my presence that day.  It took a while, and involved some aggression on their part and a somewhat fierce standing of my ground.  Soon enough I saw a small white Subaru bounce along the potholes and washboard road, and I thanked God for my husband’s arrival, and for His providential guidance out of a scary and potentially harmful crowd.

I’ve been, briefly, at the mercy of hostile religious leaders who would like me gone, or at least humiliated, and maybe hurt.  What was it like for Jesus to live there, often, for the course of three years of public ministry?  Was he afraid?  When they surrounded him with the intention to kill him, to throw him off a cliff, he didn’t get to teleport away to a safe location.  He had to look at eyes full of hatred and anger and listen for the voice of God, showing him his next steps.  

He didn’t sit down and have a friendly debate.  There were rocks picked up, and likely rocks thrown.  I’ve had a few thrown my way too, and while a few rocks don’t kill, they do bruise.  What was it like for him to live with the hostility of religious leaders in his community directed toward him every day, every time he worshiped?  I don’t know the answers but I feel strangely comforted to know that he understands fully the quiet fear that can quickly turn to panic when you find yourself in the middle of a crowd, with palpable anger pulsing through the group, with men who believe they represent the Creator of the universe at the heart of this group, turning toward you, turning on you. 
I wonder if my lack of trust for men in religious authority comes both from the stories of religious leaders that the Gospel writers share, as well as my own experiences.  And I’m thankful that my Savior lived his life in the will of God, even when that meant dying at the merciless hands of those who were to be the leaders of mercy in their day.  And I pray for those in religious authority in the places I worship, that they will know the true place of their power and use it in service, humility and grace.  

Five Minute Friday: Encouragement

It’s a new year and time to start writing again, if only life will cooperate.  Since life almost never cooperates with my desire for long spaces of silence and peppermint tea, I’m writing for five minutes with the community at Five Minute Friday.  My goal is to write each week on Friday but here it is week #2, Saturday and I’ve already missed week #1.  If you enjoy writing in community, consider joining us.

Last Tuesday night, a community of women (plus Steve) I gather with listened to our teacher talk about our will to be loved.  Why is it hard, she asked, for us to receive compliments?  To accept gentle and loving touch?  To let ourselves be loved?

My husband doesn’t think I have this problem—he says my only love language problem is that I’m fluent in all five and like a sponge, can’t soak up enough.  In a way, he’s right.  I tend to say, “I receive that,” when someone compliments me.  Not because I’m sure it’s true but because it does grow old to always be on the defensive, fighting off any encouragement people care to give.

As I thought about what my teacher shared, and why it can be difficult to trust the good that others see in us or want to give to us, I could only think about control.  Being in control makes us the masters of our own fate but we are woefully inadequate for the task.  So we shrug off the shoulder squeeze, the kind word, the insight that makes us uncomfortable because we are really living poorly as our own masters.  The encouragement that comes is meant to strengthen us for our true task: living as reflections of God’s beautiful image; when we are living as our own god, encouragement does nothing for us but call our attention to our humiliating failures.

Living with limits, being ourselves, reflecting God’s image: these are the places where encouragement can give our wobbling knees and faltering hearts the courage they need to go on.  Moving ahead in our idolatry of self only makes the kind words of a sister fall flat.

Wet on Wet

Blotches that became trees, with my formation class in mind.

Blotches that became trees, with my formation class in mind.

I don’t actually paint. But in an effort to spend time with women from other cultures in my painfully mono-cultural Kentucky life, I’ve joined a painting class on Thursday mornings at a large gathering for international women. It was there, a few weeks ago, that I was introduced to painting “wet on wet.” Using water colors and thick, absorbent water color paper, we splashed colors all over and watched them have their way. They bled and smeared and spiraled out of control. We watched and waited. We grew bored and turned our attention to another project while we waited. The paint dried and suddenly we were faced with the real creative work: how to turn these splotches of color into a picture?

Most of us mimicked nature, offering the sincerest flattery to the One who creates beauty from ashes through our imitation. These unremarkable spots of color are transformed—sometimes beautifully and sometimes not—into flowers and trees and landscapes. After some effort, a picture is revealed in more wholeness, a kind of Rorschach transformation of art.

It reminds me of what I’ve learned through the women (and Steve, our lone man) and the readings of my formation class. Not a single one of us knew what we were going to get in this life. We were born into a situation we did not control, not one little bit. We didn’t choose our family or our looks or our generation or our birthplace. That none of us were born on the steppes of Mongolia in the 7th century is only this: God’s gracious choice for us. For others, the steppes of Mongolia were exactly what he graciously chose.

Life unfolded. We grew up. Many of us married. Who knew how it would all turn out? The longer I am married, the less responsible I feel for choosing a man of solid character. I have friends who were divorced within a few years, surprised that a man who showed no signs of it previously was abusive or adulterous or both. We birthed children; we waited for the adoption referral. We chose colleges and careers and spouses and geographies. We chose well. At other times, we didn’t. And life began to resemble those blotches of color—beautiful, confusing, bleeding and spiraling out of control. What would we make of it?

Formation gives me, and us, the space and the vocabulary to begin making art with our lives. In the same way I learned what “wet on wet” meant a few Thursdays ago, I learn from the writers and the leaders and the communities of formation in which I engage how to make beauty out of that which I do not control. On Tuesday evenings, I gather around a table of people who are full of humor and thoughtfulness. Women who are transparent and aware and innocent. People without guile and people full of hope and people who are flourishing. I gain courage as I watch them live and learn the art of grace. I find inner gentleness, a listening heart, an attention to my Creator as I dwell on their lives and their sincerity around the table. They show me how to live wet on wet and create beauty when I can only see blotches.

A Bosch Mixer

I have wanted a Bosch mixer for nearly ten years. These are the Ferraris of kitchen mixers, a bread baker’s delight. These are not for cookies and the occasional loaf of mainly white flour bread. These machines are work horses, the oxen of the whole grain bread-making world (and yes, that world does indeed exist). The problem is not that they are 110 volts and I often find myself living in a world of 220 volts. The problem isn’t that one would take up too much room in my luggage allotment. I hand carried a twenty-two pound grain mill over eight time zones in order to mill my own flour. I love baking bread that much, so I would find a way to get the Bosch mixer wherever I go. The problem is the $400 price tag.

One Christmas, my dearly loved husband gave me enough cash he had squirreled away in his wallet over months to buy me a mixer and then some. I paid the car insurance ahead of schedule. He occasionally instructs me to buy one from a small savings account we have. I can’t. I fret over money although God has clearly shown me in actual experience than He can feed me without my anxiety fueling the provision. Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God, and neither is wringing their hands fretfully over me.

This season, the longing for a Bosch mixer has awakened from its nap. I have a tab open on my computer that I look at every few days, the order form from a company I trust that sells Bosch mixers. I was nearly ready to put on in my cart and then I decided it is very definitely not a need but a want. I feel encumbered by living with too many wants fulfilled and fear that I could shipwreck the calling I know I have. So I just look at the website and dream about what it would be like to have a Bosch mixer instead of two hands to knead bread. And pizza dough. And so many other things my heart desires.

I was praying about this desire. It seemed silly but it kept bubbling up, so the feet of Jesus seemed like the right place to leave it. I prayed, “God, I would need a $500 check with “Bosch mixer” in the memo to believe that you are offering this gift to me. Otherwise, I’m sticking with my hands to knead bread.” I figured that I had give God an impossible challenge; I would remain Bosch-less.

My husband and I were traveling down I-75 South, home to Kentucky after Thanksgiving weekend at my in-law’s. A text beeped through; I looked down. My mother-in-law texted, “Grammie Pauline is sending you guys $500…especially for the kids.” I told my husband and laughed, more like Sarah than Abraham. I reminded him that God would have to send me $500 ear-marked for a Bosch mixer, not the kids. He, of course, wanted me to buy a Bosch mixer. This prayer of belief married to unbelief surged forth: “You wouldn’t really give me this, would you, Lord? Not when $500 could go so far in helping someone else. Not when $500 could go so far in meeting our bills. No…” I didn’t really expect an answer.

At the moment my eye was caught by a beautifully painted barn. I even craned my neck around to see the other side as we flew past. The far side was white-washed, with a large red rectangle calling attention to words that made me laugh again, this time more like Abraham. “The Father loves you.”

Indeed. He loves me. Right now, he loves me without a Bosch mixer. One day, He might love me with one. I will not be surprised if my husband manages to stash away money again; this time, I might let him grace me with a gift he longs to give to me. I might let go enough to receive grace which would be a better gift even than a Bosch mixer.