My Epitaph, from an 8 year old

 

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An 8 year old friend at our church gave this mug to me last night at Life Group. Isn’t it adorable?

Since then, I keep thinking, If that’s what it says on my tombstone someday, I’ll have done alright…”

Until recently, I have given no thought whatsoever to what I would want carved in granite over my body’s final resting place. The plan is that I’ll be hanging out in heaven (where the events of the past 7-8 years have secured me an EPIC condo with simultaneous views of the Atlantic, Pacific, and a wide swath of the Mediterranean…) So I haven’t considered how I’ll be remembered here on earth.

Then last week, my friend Sonya, in town from Hawaii to speak at our women’s retreat, invited me up to the North Shore to spend a day writing together. We had solid artistic intentions. But it turns out what we both needed was time to talk. It was as if we each had pieces to a larger puzzle of shared experiences, and this was an opportunity to see  how they fit together.

We had a long breakfast overlooking the ocean. Then out of nowhere she asked, “Do you want to see my favorite headstones?”  

Of course, my gut reaction was No. I mean, that’s weird, right? We were by the ocean, drinking coffee, with an endless supply of carbohydrates. Why would we move?

But of course I said Yes. I’ve been at this Jesus thing long enough to know that when a respected friend invites you to do something a bit peculiar, the Kingdom of God is often at hand.

So off we went.

A few winding miles from our breakfast table, Sonya introduced me to two of her heroes:  Ebenezer and Abigail Cleaveland.

They lived on Boston’s North Shore in the late 1700’s. He was a pastor. She probably was too, although that sort of thing was entirely informal in those days.  They lived long lives in a tough climate. What stood out to me most was that they believed in free grace – the idea that we don’t earn God’s love, or Jesus’ salvation, or the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We receive them. We respond to Jesus’ offer of love, forgiveness, freedom and help. And as we respond, we are saved. This was a radical stance in Puritan New England. And yet Ebenezer and Abigail lived long, full, intense lives…and they finished well.

Sonya said something so poignant as she showed me these headstone inscriptions: “We make public statements about who we are and what we stand for every day on social media. But back then, this was your one chance to tell the world what your life was about and what mattered to you.”

I’d never thought of it like that.

She described how, in the aftermath of a difficult season in their lives, she and her husband Jordan found comfort in this couple’s legacy, as well as faith to move forward toward their own. Sometimes when you’re in the midst of betrayal and loss, it helps to have someone to look to who has forged a path through the darkness. You need someone up ahead who is saying with their lives, The Light is real. Keep going. It matters! 

And then I got to tell her how she and Jordan have done that for us.

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We had a good time, there in the cemetery. As we watched the boats fishing out in the harbor (Ebenezer & Abigail have A VIEW!) it made me wonder in a new way what it means to be from a place. Not in terms of preferred sports teams, or whether or not you own winter clothes, or if your reaction to an approaching stranger is to invite them in for dinner or pretend you don’t see them. But to be the ones who were born into God’s plan for a place. Perhaps those things matter more than we realize. Steve grew up in Cambridge. I’m from Southern Maine. In some way, we’re decedents of Ebenezer and Abigail, charged with living out the message that even in the midst of this harsh, beautiful New England climate, God is near and He has something better for us.

This morning, as I look at this mug from my sweet little friend, it gives me vision for how I want to live these days in this awesome place. I’m usually funny – it’s a genetic thing. Sometimes I’m kind because I try. But happy has been a bit of a stretch goal. Enough so that when it comes, I know for sure that it’s God. Telling stories about how that unfolds is a fun way to spend a life.

I want that to be my legacy – that we helped others make that connection, here in this place that I’m convinced really IS the best place in the world to be. It seems like something worth living…and dying… for.

The Rest of Yesterday’s Story

Yesterday I had a bit of a rant. I wasn’t sure whether or not to post it. It had the potential to come across as full-on ungratefulness for all I have, and I am astoundingly blessed. It hasn’t been that long since I felt astoundingly NOT blessed (to the point where Steve and I actually had the conversation, “Do you think we might be cursed? Because in the Bible, lives like ours mean you’re cursed…”)  and so I don’t take what I have now lightly.

But here’s the thing: every answered prayer brings with it parts that drive you bananas. And every “here’s a look at my life” blog (or book) brings the temptation to only show the parts where you’re crushing it – not the parts where it’s crushing you.

I don’t want to do that. As disappointing as it is to watch someone who has something you’d give ANYTHING to have complain about it, it’s even worse to witness their seemingly perfect life and wonder why you’re not as constantly chipper and celebratory and just as thrilled to be alive as they are.

I’ve had those thoughts.

Why aren’t I capturing our lives in heirloom-quality candid photographs? Why don’t I have a capsule wardrobe? Or a in-home craft corner? Or a partnership with artisans in emerging nations whose wares I feature on my blog? Why don’t we do game nights? What does it mean that Steve wants to give up on the 1000 piece puzzle we attempted during vacation but I want to leave it out because it means we can just eat dinner in the kitchen? WOULD WE BE HAPPIER IF WE HAD CHICKENS??? 

I’m not even kidding. I’ve actually wondered if our lives might be more peaceful & happy (and heirloom-quality photo worthy) if we installed a coop of pecking, pooping BIRDS in our backyard. Because nothing says SERENITY NOW! and HONEY, TAKE A PICTURE! like your dog’s mouth filled with the feathers of Clyde the Clucker. Thankfully, my sister reminded me of the time THAT NIECE came home from a farm visit covered in bird lice. That cured my chicken fantasy once and for all.

But why did I have it in the first place?

I share about the things I struggle with in an attempt to make my online life look a little bit like my actual life. Yes, I untag myself from unflattering Facebook pictures. But then I circle back and tell you that the tummy rolls are so out of hand, they require professional intervention. 

The other day, someone asked me, “Who reads your blog?” I thought for a moment and realized that in my imagination, you guys are curious about adoption, wondering about what faith looks like in the midst of real life, and/or just interested in an entertaining story.

All of these things have ups and downs, and none of them are true or encouraging or memorable if they skip the hard parts. But to be really good, they also need a satisfying ending that leaves the main character in a place the reader feels good about. So let me do that for you:

My day yesterday was not all bad. Yes, the morning was rainy and rocky and emotionally perhaps not my best (given that whole hiding out on the third floor thing.) But then it was REDEEMED. The sun came out. I had lunch with a friend. I’ll call her JESUS POWER GIRL because she is so openheartedly encouraging everywhere she goes. She was full-on hands in the air praising God for something right there at our lunch table in the middle of Cambridge yesterday (not a common sight, to put it mildly) and the people around us were all smiling and nodding because the happiness is so contagious when she’s around. Then she told me about when she had three teen boys living with her, and how she was grossed out for years by the household aftermath of those sweet, smelly young men. But now they’re successful, launched actual men, and it’s worth it.

And with that, I got my eye back on the ball.

Thanks for hanging with me when there are dips in the ride. I know they’re not as fun as the slow climb to new heights. But if someone told me about a roller coaster and didn’t mention that I’d be terrified and furious for significant parts of the experience, I’d find it hard to trust them.

I’d rather have you trust me than think I’m perfect.

The Story of Our Staycation

In an Easter miracle that feels every bit proportional to Jesus rising from the dead, we managed to pull off a school vacation that didn’t suck.

Easter 2017

I am awed and grateful. I’m not even sure how to describe it, so I’ll just post a bunch of pictures with a few words to record this moment in time.

First, we had the two year anniversary of the day we met the Cherubs. We did not celebrate this, however. I tried that last year, asking #2, “What do you remember about that night?” to which she replied, “We just cried. We didn’t want to leave where we were to go live with strangers.” Yikes. So this year, we left this one right alone. Next month, we’ll celebrate Adoption Day, and then Moving In With Us day in June. But now we leave Nice To Meet You Day out of the picture. Lesson Learned.

We DID celebrate Easter, my favorite holiday.  At church we had art by Grace & Reena, and music about the incredible things we believe.

I preached about the Boston Marathon, and how cool it is that, four years after the Marathon Bombing, no one talks about who did it or why. Instead, everyone talks about the overcoming that happened in the aftermath, and how the words Boston Strong define who we are and what we love about living here. There are Boston Strong signs and t-shirts everywhere. I love it.

Then we prayed for Gwen & J.J. our two friends who’d be running the next day.  So inspiring.

Speaking of inspiring, Steve & I had a date afterwards! The Cherubs went on an overnight with their grandparents, and we went out for long relaxing lunch, after which we came home and RIPPED UP our bedroom.

And no, I don’t mean that as a metaphor.

Remember I told you about the stairs? And how that led us to some conclusions about the gross, hazmat-y rug?

Well, the project expanded in scope almost immediately. Replacing the floor somehow led to repainting the bathroom sink cabinet, pulling up all the baseboards, and taking down a wall.

Here is my inspiration photo:

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Here is what I woke up to this morning:

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Really, we’re practically there.

But I’m happy to report that there are now 10 contractor bags of gross rug down in a bagster next to the driveway, and our floor is now covered in lovely maple boards on which no dog has peed. I’m taking that as a win.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the week was watching Gwen finish the Marathon. Her friend J.J. flew up from Florida to run with her, and spoke at church about how friends run all different kinds of marathons together, cheering each other on and helping through the touch stretches. A bunch of us gathered in an office space overlooking the finish line to watched them cross, and as they crossed, we all pretended to have something in our eyes. Tissues all around for the big wins.

Finish Line Gwen and JJ

 

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Then Steve, the Cherubs & I walked back over the bridge into Cambridge. It felt like such a long distance, but our attitudes were kept in check by all the tinfoil wrapped people we passed who’d just run 26 miles, and the glorious sky over the city, and the fun of having something like this happen for people we love, in a place we love. Really, it was all the gushy feelings, accompanied by some sore legs.

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Speaking of sore legs – I went to the gym. Three times. My first session was with a trainer who is Irish and seven months pregnant, which means we looked like twins. I won’t post pictures of that. I’ll just say that I’m glad I can slide in my socks across the new wood floors as a form of travel rather than having to pick up my feet for each new step.

Happy Monday, All.

He is risen, indeed.

Celebrating the Good Moments #2

TODAY’S ADOPTION QUESTION!

Steve & I are often asked what advice we’d give someone considering adoption from foster care. It can be hard to answer, because I want to tell everyone all the things, yet I’m aware that each experience is really unique and not everything will apply. But yesterday afternoon I realized one thing that is universal:

REALLY enjoy the good moments. 

I know that sounds cliche. But seriously. Do it.

When things go well, notice it, savor it, write down what happened in a journal, snap pictures if you can. Tell the story of the good thing that happen to anyone who might listen. Replay them over and over in your mind so that they become integrated into your internal soundtrack of what your life is like right now.

Stressful memories will accumulate on their own. You’ve got to intentionally stockpile good ones.

In your early months as a new adoptive placement, once the honeymoon phase wears off and you’re not all tiptoeing around one another anymore, there comes a time where it feels like your life used to be a nice snow globe…but then it got knocked off the table and landed upside down in the trash. Nothing is the way it used to be, you’re not sure how to rebuild your life from the pieces you can find, and everyone is exhausted from the new emotional demands of creating a family out of strangers. (That’s not bad news, and it’s not forever. It’s just an unavoidable stage.)

So when you get good moments, they are like GOLD.

But if you’re too focused on the stress of rebuilding, or lost staring at the piles of your former life, you will miss these moments.

Don’t.

Yesterday, I was home with my son after school. He asked if he could cook mac & cheese for a snack. He expected me to say no (that child needs protein!) but my lifelong understanding that mac & cheese = happiness won out, and I said yes. Then the moment came: He wasn’t sure how to make it, would I help?

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Now, you ALL know that I am unlikely to have many “let me teach you my favorite recipe” moments with my children. It’s taken me 12 years to figure out basic dinners. But mac & cheese is my THING! I made it in a plug-in kettle in college, a microwave in law school, my little apartment stove in Philadelphia, and the “real” stove I had in D.C., where my Italian roommate (who was practically a chef, just via genetics) watched on, horrified and amused by my enthusiasm. Teaching #1 Cherub to make mac & cheese is closest thing I’ll have to a culinary legacy. So I took pictures, and made all kinds of jokes about how much his future wife will love this special recipe, passed down from his Mom :)

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How much is THIS DOG hoping that some of those shells fall out of that pan???

It was a good moment, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Celebrating The Good Moments #1

EARLY Sunday morning, I saw a post from my friend Stephanie Elliot  on Facebook that inspired me to ditch the whole second half of my sermon to make room to share the story of how she handled years of rejection and disappointment in her writing career.

Her book comes out today :) 

I know Steph in real life (if you’re a longtime blog reader, you may remember this road trip from Chicago to Wisconsin in a tornado with my friends Manic Mom & Swishy? Manic Mom = Steph!) She overcame SO MANY NO’s to get to this very big YES in her writing career. She inspires me with her perseverance. She understood that if anyone was getting their books published, then it was possible for her, too. And here she is!  I’ll be waiting out on my porch all day for my copy of  Sad Perfect to arrive. It’s YA, a hardcover book for just over $10, and has GREAT early reviews. Looking to escape into a good story with a personal connection? You should click over and grab a copy, too. Congratulations, Steph! xoxo

On a related note…Lent begins tomorrow!

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In He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, I devote a whole chapter to my first experience of Lent and how pivotal it was early in my faith. There have been some rocky years since then, but this year, our church is reclaiming this observation as an opportunity to take a chance on God once again. If you don’t have plans for Lent, join us!

Everything you need is on the Greenhouse Mission Site:

The Study Guide tells you a bit more about my experiences with Lent, as well as how we’re approaching it this year through three traditional practices: Bible Study, Prayer & Fasting. You can do these on your own, or with friends. (I do better with the buddy system to keep me afloat, but it works with just you & Jesus, too.) Each week we’ll post a Weekly Bible Guide  with links to the daily reading, along with some thoughts on the passage and ideas for prayer. There will also be sermons you can listen to, book recommendations, and – God willing – some cool testimonies of what God is doing in our lives. I hope you’ll join us from wherever you are (and I mean that both geographically and spiritually :) )  Let me know if you’re joining in, and how it’s going. It’s good to cheer each other on and believe together.

(Looking for today’s Adoption Answer? It’s here, in a second post!)

 

Adoption, faith & the 1st thing we’d do differently.

Today’s question comes from Donny:

Religion is a big part of your life – how are you raising the kids within a faith-based environment and why is it important to you and Steve?

One thing Steve & I have learned over the past 2 years is that our Christian faith is THE THING that gets us through the rockier patches of adoption. But it’s also THE THING that has the most “What the heck? I didn’t sign up for THIS!” response from the Cherubs.

The Cherubs ask us repeatedly, “But why didn’t you TELL US  you were Christians?” I never know what to say. We didn’t withhold it. I’m pretty sure it came up the second time we met them.  But in the same way we didn’t tell them at our first meeting that Steve watches every Bruins game, or that I love to sing but can’t carry a tune, faith seems like something you show more than you tell. To say, “We’re Christians” seems meaningless without context, especially as something they were being invited into.

But in hindsight, there’s something we could have done to ease this process.

When the kids’ social worker, Janna, first told them about us, she brought them photo-books Steve & I put together to introduce ourselves and give them a glimpse into their new lives. (Walgreens did an amazing job with these.) This way they wouldn’t be left to wonder what we looked like, or what our house looked like, or our dog. It gave them something tangible to look at as they struggled to wrap their minds around this strange new reality.

[Because not much is stranger than being told that you’re going to meet new people tomorrow, and those people will be  your new parents.] 

We personalized a photo book for each of them. The opening page had pictures of us, with notes about our jobs, hobbies, how we met, etc. Of course there were pictures of Bergie. (We suspected – correctly – that she would be a selling point even when they weren’t too sure about us.) There were pics of the outside of our house, and of the rooms that would become their bedrooms. Then we showed some shots from around our city, including their new school and some local places where they and their future friends might hang out.

(Note: We can’t take credit for the photo-book idea. It was suggested in our MAPP training class, one of many ideas and resources that helped us during this process.)

I thought of including something about faith in their photo books, but I couldn’t figure out what to use for a picture. We weren’t attending a particular church at the time, so I couldn’t anchor the concept with a building. And a picture of a Bible seemed daunting and heavy, which isn’t us at all. We enjoy our faith – it’s a fun, empowering part of our lives. Since they’d be living it out with us, it seemed like something best explained in person.

In hindsight, we probably should have used a picture of a beach or a sunset, or even of a page in one of my books where I describe what it was like to get to know Jesus. Something to suggest that this was important to us, and help start the conversation about what that means. I’m not sure it would have made the Cherubs more amenable to faith, but at least they wouldn’t feel like it snuck up on them.

Even though the Cherubs aren’t always psyched to be Christian, Steve and I really are. There have been countless times when we’ve said to each other, “Only Jesus can help us now!” Sometimes we’re being funny, but other times – when we’re discouraged and at the end of ourselves – it feels like the absolute truth. I think parenting might be like this generally, but adoption is especially so – we just don’t have what it takes. We don’t. Steering and shepherding another person’s life is too big an endeavor, especially when you come into a life that’s already well in progress. So in the moments when I don’t have vision for a good future for them, or for us…I know for sure that God does. And so I say that, repeatedly: “Jesus, thank you that you love these kids,  that you have a plan for their lives, and that it’s a good plan. Thank you that you have what they need even when I don’t. Bless them and help them…”

Shockingly, it works. There’s something about not being in it alone, about not being the biggest authority in the room, about having spiritual power available when earthly power is fruitless, that makes SUCH tangible difference in our lives.

Jesus saves my bacon, time and time again. No joke.

Now that they’ve been around it awhile, the Cherubs see this, too. Our church recently started a Life Group that meets on Wednesday nights. It’s massively inconvenient for us to get there – the kids have to rush through dinner and bring their homework, and the drive + parking takes forever. But after the second or third week, they noticed how much of a difference that time with friends in prayer & scripture study makes in our happiness.  #2 Cherub has said to me more than once when I’m worried or stressed, “You’ll feel better after Life Group.” #1 Cherub has asked Steve to pray for him about different things. And they both tell us about people and situations, asking if we can pray for them as a family. By watching us live out our faith day to day, they’re absorbing the understanding that this gives us access to help we wouldn’t have otherwise.

That’s the WHY for us. We want our kids to have access to all that God has for them, and the way to that is Jesus. But we can’t just say that. We have to live it, and answer questions about why we do things this way, and give them the chance to make it their own.

Only God knows what the Cherubs’ faith journeys will look like down the line. But we want them to have a foundation to work from – something specific to respond to, wrestle with, make decisions about – rather than leaving them awash in all the possibilities of all the religions. To walk in ANY direction, you need something to stand on.

In the Bible, God promises that if we “train up a child in the way that they should go, when they are older they will not depart from it.”  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will live their faiths exactly like we do. It just means that Jesus will guard and guide them, steering them back to his best again and again.

***

Tomorrow, I’ll dive into HOW we’re doing this, and what it’s been like to plant a new church in the middle of our adoption process.

Thanks Donny, for the great question :)

Give God 5 Years

This weekend I was texting with a friend from MAPP class, who is also adopting. “Can you believe how much has changed in just a year?” I asked.

At exactly this time last year, we were in our final adoption-licensing class. I’ll tell you more about the whole thing in another post, but suffice to say that that morning, I was not capable of comprehending that in one year, I’d be waking up at 5:45am to drink coffee before getting kids off to our local middle school, trying to remember to make them dentist appointments, and deciding how much to push a cherub who is not excelling in one academic subject when s/he is a rockstar in the others.

Life has changed SO MUCH.

It makes me think of another conversation I had 6 or 7 years ago with a different friend. She was new to Christianity, but had been exploring faith for just long enough that the initial, “Wow, this explains everything!” feeling had worn off, and she was looking for more tangible life improvements. We all go through this, I think: Jesus promises abundant life, so we look around and ask, “So, um, where is it?”

(By the way, I think this is a totally fair question, and Jesus can handle the pressure of being put on the spot about His promises.)

“Give God five years,” I told her.

She looked at me like I was nuts.

“Here’s the thing,” I said.  “Sometimes, God comes through before we even have the chance to ask for something. We all love those moments. But other times, He needs to move some things around. In us, around us, in people we haven’t even met yet, or places we’ve never seen. God has both short and long game, and we don’t always know what’s what. But give Him five years. If you really want your life to be different, I believe it will be.”

When I offered these earnest words (after which I thought, “Well Jesus, I just bought you some time. It would be great if You came through…”) I had no idea how intensely they’d apply to MY life, as well.

I thought things were pretty well established back then. Sure there were a few areas of disappointment. If my life was a house, I kind of knew it could use the equivalent of a paint job and some new windows. Instead, God tore it down to the studs and started over.

God has changed EVERYTHING over the past five years. Aside from Steve, my contact lens prescription, and one favorite pair of jeans, every part of my life is different than it was in 2010:

-I live in a different house

-in a new town

-with two new people.

-I have THIS DOG instead of THAT DOG.

-Steve works for a different company.

-The publishing world is rebuilding after a bit of a collapse, so I’m encouraged.

-We’re rebuilding our church family after a bit of a collapse, so I’m encouraged.

-I’ve used the treadmill we bought more for running than as a hanger for clothes, so I’m encouraged.

All in all, it’s pretty groovy. But it’s taken a full five years.

Here’s what I’m learning: if you’re looking at Jesus today and thinking, “Hey, whatever abundant is, I don’t think THIS is it,” that’s okay. (Snarky, frustrated prayer = still prayer).

Think about the things you’d like to be different; the places you’re discouraged, or have lost hope, or see happening around you that seem out of reach. Or just take a couple of things you’re furious about. Whatever. Give Jesus five years. Mark the calendar. Tell Him this: I’ll do what You suggest, I’ll go where You lead if You make Your instructions clear to me. You promised that you’d light up my path and guide me, so I’m taking you up on that promise.

It’s not the quickest path, or the flashiest. I mean, sure, seeing people miraculously healed and lives miraculously transformed is incredibly cool. It’s great to not feel shame about my treadmill. But let’s be honest – following Jesus? Socially awkward.

Still totally worth it.

Teaching The Cherubs About Faith

Once Steve & I met The Cherubs, we began thinking about how to teach them about faith. About Jesus, specifically, and the Bible, and why these things matter so much to us that we’ve built our lives around them.

The first step, we thought, was to find a church, one that would (hopefully) become a spiritual home for us as a newly formed family.  So we started visiting on Sundays.

The first church we visited had a kids’ curriculum based on a Jesus who taught morality: things like, Don’t be a bully and Be nice to people in need. Our kids seemed to have picked up on those lessons already, so we kept looking.

The second place we went looked so impressive as we walked in. The building was enormous – there was a 3 story fountain in the foyer. But beyond that, we loved how diverse it was. It reminded us of our life back in Cambridge, and how when people don’t look alike, you get to figure out what you have in common based on who you actually are. It’s a pretty cool way to live.

A volunteer proudly led us to the WING of the building that housed their youth/young adult program.  It was jaw-dropping. In the class for 5th graders, there was (I’m not even kidding) a 20-something guy doing a hula-hoop by the door, greeting the kids as they walked in. Behind him there were video screens with games on them, foosball and ping-pong tables, and an arts corner that could rival any classroom at RISD. Down the hall was the space for the junior high & high school kids, only this wasn’t a class, it was a cafe. Dim lighting, giant couches, more video games, pool tables. I felt like we’d fast forwarded ahead 6 or 7 years and were now touring colleges.

But when we left that day, we knew that church wasn’t for us, either. We don’t want to teach our kids that church is primarily entertainment, or that the main value is whether or not they’re having fun.

While I’d prefer that The Cherubs not hate church, I don’t really care if they love it.

This is, I suspect, because I grew up Catholic. In Catholic church, NOBODY CARES if the kids are enjoying themselves. Or the adults, for that matter. The whole point of Mass is that it’s not about you, it’s about Jesus, and we are all there to receive something from Him we need and cannot get any other way. So in every Catholic church you will see toddlers running toy cars across the pews, middle schoolers squirming and zoning out, and high schoolers trying not to get caught staring at the cute guy or girl three rows up.  And as they play and zone and oggle, they absorb information about God. Some of it might be the specific message of the day (although I remember very little of that – I needed ten years of Protestant Bible study before I could even understand what was going on at Mass). But there’s also a sense of priority – that faith matters enough to invest an hour a week, even if it’s boring, and a sense of belonging – you are part of the family of God, and when the sh*t hits the fan in your life, you know where God lives. Even if you’ve never connected with Him there before, you have a place to start now.

That’s what happened for both Steve and me: When we sensed God speaking to us about taking Jesus seriously, we had a starting point.

I think there’s a lot to this. So for the past few months (after we visited a third church that had all the kids DANCE in front of the whole congregation to a song our kids had never heard before) we’ve been doing church at home, here in our living room. It’s been fantastic. The Cherubs are relieved. Sometimes on long drives we listen to podcast sermons from a church we love in Hawaii, led by friends of ours who used to live up here. (We’ve listened to so many of these that the Cherubs now consider Pastor Jordan their friend, too, and #2 Cherub wanted to hit him up for a magazine subscription in last week’s school fundraising debacle.)

***

As we teach the Cherubs about faith, we try to give them spiritual tools they can use right now. (For example, #2 Cherub has a big event at school today and asked us all to pray.) But more than that, we’re trying to situate them within the larger faith, a larger family, and a larger way of seeing what is possible and what Jesus offers that they cannot get anywhere else.

As with most things, the results are mixed. Yesterday, I had this conversation:

Cherub: My throat hurts!

Me: Aw…can I pray for you right now?

Cherub: (rolls eyes) It doesn’t hurt THAT much.

But just a week ago, I when Steve was home sick, that same Cherub blurted, “Please God, heal Steve!” Now, the motivation was that she needed Steve’s help with something later, but still, I’m excited that they’re picking up on the truth that when there’s nothing WE can do, there’s still a lot God can do. They’ve seen us do this, and so they’re trying it out.

It’s not what we expected, but it’s what God is doing, so we’re going with it.

I’m learning that our kids are picking up more about life with Jesus from watching us live it than from anything else they encounter.  So I’m trying to live it BIG, so they get to see all the ways it plays out- the impossibilities and possibilities it offers – and why it means so much.

And in this, I’m holding on to this vision of church – A place where we connect with Jesus, are encouraged & challenged in our mission, get pushed into absurd situations that could only be orchestrated by God, and get to see miracles as a result. Where people whose faith we admire help fill in the gaps we’re unsure about, just as we help them do the same.

Easier said than done, I know. I guess what I’m saying is this: don’t settle for a foosball table & an earnest kid with a hula hoop, if that feels like “not what I’d hoped for but I guess it’s good enough.” It might be enough – bless that hula guy! But if it isn’t for you, trust that feeling.

***

A few weeks ago, when a friend asked me how it feels to finally have children after so many years of praying, I told her this:

I see now that when God comes through, it doesn’t feel like you’re settling. I don’t feel like I’ve settled. I feel 100% like these precious Cherubs are THE KIDS I’m supposed to raise. I’m astonished that life can feel this good.

The same applies to wanting a great marriage, or meaningful work…or a church family that feels like home, where you and the ones you love (along with a few you’re not so crazy about) absorb and try out what it means to be Jesus-ey. A place where we and realize that the gifts and promises are for us, too. If any area of life right now feels like you’re settling, then God is not done yet.

Praying

The other night a friend & I had a long conversation about prayer, and how weird it is when the challenge of your faith shifts: When it’s less about the fear that you’ll disappoint God, and more fear that God might disappoint you.

I’m not in that season right now. But I’ve been there. And I figure it will come again someday, because that’s how seasons work.

When you’re in those times, you realize that while it’s true that God delights in blessing us, He also has a larger mission going on, and we don’t necessarily know  our role. Faced with this reality, it’s tough to know how to pray…or if prayer even matters.

Early in my faith life (the Christian part), the main image I was given for prayer was this: that there are these bowls in heaven that receive our prayers. When the bowls are filled, an angel adds incense and some sort of heavenly power, and then POW! There’s an explosion and the angel pours the bowl out onto the earth in answer to our prayers.  It’s based on this passage from the Biblical book, Revelation. From this, it seemed easy to surmise that there was an order of magnitude for certain prayers: world peace required a bigger bowl than relief from seasonal allergies.

I LOVED having such a tangible picture. I went after the HUSBAND prayer bowl like it was my job.  And that prayer was answered rather directly (even though it felt like it took forever at the time).

But prayer has never worked that way for me since. In other ways, to be sure. But never the thing with the bowl. Recently, as I re-read that scene in Revelation, I realized that we’d taken that passage completely out of context. If you keep reading, the Bible doesn’t describe a flood of answered prayers flung throughout the earth. Rather, after the prayers and incense in the bowls, after the pouring out and the lightening/earthquake power, come seven trumpets that unleash, one by one, SEVEN HORRIFIC WOES, and the destruction of a good part of the world. Essentially, it’s the beginning of the end.

We prayed for this for years, dutifully filling up the bowls. Bless our (driven, results-oriented) clueless little hearts.

I’m not that into speculating about the end of the world, but it strikes me that the temptation to make God and prayer, and the realization of our dreams, seem attainable and manageable seems more like a lie than a blessing. But the truth is revealed, eventually, and we’re left to reckon with this counterfeit version of what a real relationship with God looks like.

That’s what my friend and I discussed. How the real thing is complicated. We disappoint, and are disappointed. We’re also blessed beyond measure and loved more than we could ever know.  It’s both/and, in the most frustrating way.

And that’s okay.

We pray on. We wing it. We talk to God like He’s our friend or boyfriend or some random person we met in an airport. Really, it depends on the day. I’m not sure what it means or how prayers do or don’t add up. But I’ve found that somehow, things are better when I engage God than when I shut Him out.

And yet I’ve also learned that it’s okay to take a break. To let your silence do the talking. God can handle that too, and it doesn’t mean we’re leaving some heavenly bowls half-filled.

This is the upside to there being no real system…it makes it possible for us to be real with God in every season.

Shalom Shattered

Last night I was going through documents on my computer, trying to bring order to the chaos.  I found notes from a talk I gave a couple of years ago at a women’s retreat in Maryland, called “Shalom Shattered.” It stuck with me, especially after reading Sarah Bessey’s blog yesterday about how reluctant we are to admit (let alone deal with) trauma.

***

The retreat coordinator had asked me to talk about my experiences with faith & friendship. in the first session, I’d shared about the first time I’d tiptoed, terrified but intrigued, into a CHRISTIAN church (I thought of that word in all caps back then, so strange was it to me) after years of running my life via astrology, feng shui, and whatever new spiritual ideas I found in the New Age aisle at Barnes & Noble. I told them about the friends I made at that church, and how well they’d loved me even when I was a complete pain in the ass, and how they’d stuck around during the extensive, messy process of Jesus sorting me out. I love telling that story, because it illustrates so clearly how God puts people up around us like protective bumpers to keep life from crushing us as we’re being transformed.

But to keep things honest, I knew I ALSO had to tell these young, eager, tattooed hipster Jesus-loving girls the rest of the story. How, like any writer knows, the key point in any plot outline is Shalom Shattered, the moment when your perfect world is blown to smithereens.

That was talk #2.

In an effort to keep things light, I illustrated my story by asking for volunteers to come up front and be passengers in an imaginary boat. I lined them up with signs that designated different leaders from that same church that had been so central in my life, and then described the ways they’d fallen (or jumped, or sometimes pushed others) out of the boat. I described how the rest of us, flabbergasted by this turn of events, had turned on each other with accusations, how thick layers of mistrust settled in.  I described the sadness of watching that beloved boat sink, and the frustration of knowing we couldn’t ever go back there, because there was no there to go back to.

Thankfully, by this time I had a couple of years between me and these events, so I had some hope to share. Because one of the things I learned during that season was this: Just because we look around and think, All hope is lost, doesn’t mean that God agrees.

Around that time, I read this Proverb I’d never noticed before that says, “What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desires will be granted.” (Proverbs 10:24)

It prompted me to ask: How much of my thought life was now devoted to dread? (A lot.) What did I desire? (I had no idea.) It felt like I’d witnessed a huge collision between good and evil, and I had a choice to make about what I’d look at and for.

-If I chose to look at blank spot on the water where the boat used to be, it was easy to believe that the disappointment, pain and heartbreak would keep accumulating; that loss was our new normal. This was so easy to imagine.

-But if I chose to look at God, He hinted that something better was possible.

I wanted to focus on God. But it was hard.  I was so clear on my dread, and it was so easy to replay all the things that had been said about me (or even right to me) as these friendships blew up: That I was uppity, too full of myself, bossy, flighty, lazy, too big for my britches, rebellious, attention grabbing, too guarded, and even dishonest.  I was terrified that those angry, hurt, scared former friends might be right. What if I was all those terrible things, and I just didn’t see it?

And yet bumping up against this litany of accusation was the voice of one wise new friend (who’d been through something similar about a decade earlier). He’d asked me, “How can you ever prove that you’re NOT something? All we can do is show who we ARE.”

He was so right.

This left me with a new struggle: who was I without my church, without my friends? Who did God want me to be? At a basic level, If I wanted to exchange my dread for desire, that meant I had to desire something.

You’d think this would have been easy, but it wasn’t. My dread felt safe, familiar, and even responsible. It felt like the smart thing to do was to focus on those accusations and somehow remake myself into someone BETTER. (By which I meant someone to whom this awful, painful process could never happen again).

But every single plan I’ve ever had to remake myself has failed. Every. Single. Plan.

I sat there, caught between handing off my dread and having nothing to grab in its place. And as I sat, God quietly planted seeds of desire in me, seeds I knew nothing about until they started popping up like little blades of grass. They were pretty pedestrian, truth be told:

-I wanted to live in a suburb, not in the city.

-I wanted a family.

-I wanted real friends.

-I wanted my life to have purpose. (I kept trying to yank this last seed out of the ground, because wasn’t it PROOF that I was full of myself and attention grabbing? But God kept pushing it down deeper in the dirt, away from my grubby hands.)

I didn’t even water theses seeds. I was sure they’d die. I couldn’t let myself get attached. It was too scary to REALLY want, so I just sort of shoved these wants off in their own corner, like someone else’s groceries being stored in my fridge for a few days.

But despite my neglect (or perhaps because of it) these seeds shot up through the ground. They were surprisingly sturdy. They had buds on them, and signs of sweet fruit. Where there was nothing, God planted new somethings. It was a thing to behold, and I can’t take credit for any of it, because I was just sitting there trying not to be a terrible person.

After sharing all this, I invited the retreat women into an exercise, asking each of them to write down a dread they wanted to trade in.  Then we crumpled up our dread, gave it to Jesus, and asked Him to give us desire, instead.

The results of this talk were mixed, truth be told. At first, there were tears of hope and joy as women filed forward, paper in hand, crumpling up their fears at the foot of the giant cross (placed next to a giant buffalo head) at the front of the room. Throughout that day, so many of those woman took me aside to share desires God had whispered to them, asking me to believe with them that they might be real.

But the next week when I got home, I received a message from the pastor’s wife. She expressed concern for my plight, and suggested I join a church she’d found online that was an hour away, because all believers really should be in a church.

***

Looking back on this retreat experience two years later, I see how most things are like this, actually: The results are mixed, we don’t get to know the full story, and we have to believe way out beyond what we can see, trusting that if God tells us to do something, that means something, and it will amount to something that matters.

I wish we got to see more. I wish the seeds of my current life hadn’t been planted in scorched earth. I wish I could have hopped into my car, driven to that church an hour away, and replaced all those lost friendship with a smile and a prayer.

But that’s not how life (or God) works. Loss leads to new life. But it’s still loss. That’s okay. In heaven, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, of the old order of things will have passed away.  But for now, we’re here. We dry our tears, choose where to look (at what we dread or for God’s desire) and head out into each new day the best we can, looking for signs of heaven here on earth.

I’ve found that it’s worth the effort.