Brave: Beyond Rollercoasters and Roaches

My son was on one of those whirling amusement park rides that circled the clouds like a frenzied dog chasing its tail.  Somewhere vertical in the sky he spun so fast that the metal contraption that contained him angled sideways – much like my stomach felt down below.  I could barely stand to watch him, and I fervently prayed he wouldn’t end up with whiplash or vertigo or otherwise be thrust into outer space.  I’ve always been the girl at the park who held the drinks, the jackets, and whatever else the “fun” people couldn’t take on the thrill rides.  I am okay being this girl. I don’t feel even the slightest pang of regret for my union with solid ground.  I hang out with squirmy toddlers in their strollers and watch pigeons as their heads bobble in search of food.

So, I don’t typically think of myself as brave.  That’s a word I associate with the kind of courage it takes to ride a rollercoaster or kill a roach without screaming and spastically throwing shoes. I am not that girl either. I yell for my husband, sons, and even the cats (who look at me in disdain as if I’ve just equated them with some kind of animal).   If no one is nearby, I resort to evacuating.  I figure shelter is overrated and the roach can have my residence.

This year, I aim to be brave.  This doesn’t have anything to do with rollercoasters or roaches, but instead, my relationship with God.  For the last several years, I have focused on surrender. Surrender is one of those words that is easily confused with defeat.  Yet in the battleground for our souls, Read more

Under the Tree: Overrated

It was Christmas Eve and I couldn’t wait for Santa to come.  I am not even sure I believed in Santa at this point in my childhood, but I believed in presents and that was good enough.  I had trouble sleeping, and hearing the rustle of last-minute gift-wrapping upstairs only heightened my anticipation.  During the weeks leading up to Christmas, I prowled the attic, my mom’s closet, and any other place I could think to snoop. The idea of being surprised was overrated.  Practically speaking, I could just as easily be surprised by looking inside a plastic bag while standing barefoot on the attic’s plywood floor.  I felt certain that I had watched enough television to feign astonishment on Christmas morning.  I even fantasized about my Emmy-award winning performance.  It would be as bright and colorful as the lights on the tree that would spotlight me.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for during all that prowling but that’s part of the journey of discovery, right? It’s the thrill of seeking, of what could be, — maybe even of finding something better than we imagined. In my case, what I found didn’t compare to the curated wares hawked in the Spiegel catalog I carefully perused as a pastime. There was a Tootsie Roll piggy bank filled with chewy chocolate jerky.  Meh.  Fun socks — as if those two words could possibly go together.  Toys that were obviously for my brother.  I certainly had no use for G.I. Joe.  He was too short to use as a suitable partner for Barbie.  Then there were a few miscellaneous clothes that I hoped were for my sister because they weren’t quite cute enough for me.

I wanted a fur coat like the one I lovingly pet in the department store inspiring a lecture from my mom on animal cruelty.  What seemed crueler was her begrudging me this accessory that I was certain would make me look as glamorous as Sue Ellen on the Friday-night soap-opera, Dallas.  (If they didn’t want children to watch such smut, they should not have run it after an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard).  I would have settled for a rabbit’s foot keychain like some of the other girls at my school had.  They were supposed to bring good luck.  Who wouldn’t carry around two inches of a dead animal foot in exchange for a little luck?

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Hearing: It’s Not 400 Children and a Crop in the Field

I was in mass listening to the cantor sing the responsorial hymn, “These are the people the Lord has chosen, chosen to be his own.” I thought, “Seriously? Really, God, these are the people you chose to be your own?  Was no one else around? It must have been some seriously slim pickings.”

I know this sounds rather cynical, but truly, we can be scary people:  mass shootings, human trafficking, abortion, sexual predators, greed, self-glorification…. well, just pick any day and read the headlines.

And I do believe people are good.  I do believe they mean well. I even think when someone claims they don’t believe in God that they really do – it’s just a little deeper inside – right beyond where they have looked.  And I always have hope that they will look a little farther someday and come to know what they believe.

Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately choosing our hot mess of a people that makes up humanity.

I peeked over to look at my husband’s missal wanting to read the words for myself. That’s when I realized, I misheard the lyrics.  It’s like when Kenny Rogers sings “Lucille.”  You may think he’s singing, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with 400 children and a crop in the field.”  But it’s really not 400 children because that would be excessive, even by Catholic standards.  It’s four HUNGRY children! (Although, by either account, that was harsh of Lucille.)

What the cantor was singing was not “These are the people,” but “Blessed are the people that the Lord has chosen to be his own.”  Reading this, I felt the kind of relief that Kenny would have, had Lucille shown back up with a bucket of fried chicken, some biscuits, and a heap of cousins to harvest the crop.

It made more sense to me to contemplate the blessings of him choosing us.  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9).  Yet, he didn’t just choose us as an entirety of humanity but as individuals who he loves and longs for intimacy with.  “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me,” (Isaiah 49:16). Read more

Vanity: I Look Like a Basset Hound

Lately, when I catch a glimpse of my face it appears to be melting like candle wax or colorful taffy in the hot Florida sun.  It evokes the hollow horror of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” Since I haven’t taken any LSD, I figure this droop must be part of aging.  I spoke with my doctor about the way my origami shaped eyelids are folding in on themselves, and she said that she thinks I could qualify for the medically-necessary surgery to put them back in their proper place so my vision isn’t impaired.  I didn’t know whether to feel validated by her comment or virtually hopeless.

Earlier that day I was speaking with a friend who is teaching a class on the Book of Ecclesiastes and he mentioned its humanistic view of vanity which goes beyond society’s obsession with appearances.  The only thing I knew offhand about the chapter is the passage that begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

It reads like beautiful poetry, a cadence of simplicity making sense of a senseless world: “a time to be born and time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,” (Ecclesiastes 3: 2-3).    A time to be young and cute with body parts in their proper spot and a time to have your eyelids tied up with thread so you can see every new crevice of decay.  Somehow that line must have been edited out.  I suppose for the sake of brevity, not lack of validity. Read more

Battling Between Balance and Busyness

When my son was seven years old, he was trying to balance.  One minute he was excitedly saying, “Look, mom, I found the spot!”  Moments later, mid-wobble, he said, “Oh, wait.  I lost the spot.”  Of course, it was losing it I related too.

Somewhere in the zig-zag of daily life is the sweet spot where we teeter in balance between work and rest, fun and fulfilling, and, social and silence.  It seems sometimes like we live in a world of extremes.  We have tiny houses and McMansions, hoarders and minimalists, and fast food and the slow-food movement.   There is polarization in almost every category of modern life. Perhaps it is our obsession with busyness, where this extreme has become most evident.  Busyness has become a badge that says my career is at a crescendo, my family is an extracurricular expert, and my personal life is a page-turner.  But are we really living a harlequin-romance novel amidst kids and career, or are we huffing and puffing from here to there, texting our spouses our agendas and their assignments, as we scurry our kids to their next activity?

The other day I was rushing my son to an orthodontist appointment when I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the car window I was squeezed between.  To my dismay, I was only wearing one hoop earring.  I looked like a rogue pirate without the talking parrot companion.  Instead, I had a teenage boy who doesn’t speak as my counterpart.  He only repeats “okay,” “I know,” and “fine,” as a series of responses.  “Polly wants a cracker,” has become, “Mamas going to go crackers if she doesn’t hear a complete sentence soon!”  (But that’s another conversation for another bottle of wine, as a good of friend of mine likes to say.) Read more

Fear, Fullness, and Underwear

I never understood the advice on public speaking about imagining your audience in their underwear.  Maybe it’s because I don’t multitask well but I can’t imagine talking about God’s mercy while also trying to focus on an array of undergarments. Besides, it’s just creepy. While the intent may be to make the speaker more comfortable, I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than a room full of people wearing only bras and briefs.

I considered the absurdity of that advice while trying to identify what would make me most nervous about public speaking.  I figured if I addressed any unease, I would be better prepared. I wasn’t overly concerned about a word stumble and since I fell on my face in Kindergarten, I figured I had gotten that out of the way.  What I realized made me the most nervous was that I would hurry through, wish the moment away, and just get it done. The worst thing that could happen would be that I would miss my own talk by not embracing every moment with my fully clothed audience.  It is a gift to speak about mercy.  I wanted to be present. I wanted to experience the joy of it.

It made me realize how often in life I have shrunk from the fullness that God created.   I have held back.  Blended in.  Been too careful.  Too many times, I have listened to fear over the only one who can deliver me from it.  “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,” (Psalm 18:2).  I’ve always had a relationship with fear.  Maybe on some level, I thought if I kept it close, it would keep me safe.  But fear doesn’t keep us safe, it keeps us small.  It keeps us living in the shadows when God has called us into his light.  By trading fear for trust in God we can live in the freedom of his truth.  “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety,” (Psalm 4:8).  With God, we don’t need to be afraid.  He is strong enough to carry us through our suffering and merciful enough to heal our hurts.  Having a relationship with him doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t fall on our face or some creepy person won’t picture us in our underwear.  It just means that with him, through him, fear is a farce of the devil’s making.  We don’t need strategies and sayings to make us courageous.  We simply need to trust that God has us in the right place to carry out his plan in our lives.

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You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Virginia Slims cigarettes used to have an empowering ad campaign directed at women, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  If we ladies had come a little farther they would have left off “baby,” but it was the seventies and that’s as far as we had come: an anorexic cigarette, marketed specifically to our gender, empowering us to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.”  (That was another ad campaign for Enjoli perfume).

Personally, my idea of “coming a long way” has nothing to do with being someone’s baby or frying bacon.  Our world perpetually bombards us with messages meant to define the standards by which we measure our worth, success, value, and attractiveness.  These cultural norms permeate everything from what we put in our coffee to what we ink on our bodies.  A renaissance woman’s body would be considered chubby by today’s trends, just as the waifs of the eighties are considered a wisp of the athletically acceptable body type of today’s ideal woman.

And where is the God in any of it?

Would he measure how far we have come by what we smoke?  Or how we smell? By how we look in a pair of lululemon leggings? Or how capable we are of having a successful career while we fry bacon for our families?

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Sin: Hold the Mayo

I am not sure how it started.  I think there was a picture frame hanging on the wall that I thought was too small.  In an attempt to fix it, I moved every single piece of furniture in my living room and adjacent dining room.  Even though I feign weakness when there is something to lift that weighs more than three pounds, if there is furniture I want to move and no one is around to help, I become the unknown twin sister of the Incredible Hulk.  Of course, it’s not pretty to turn the color of the jolly green giant but to be able to move ginormous slabs of wood around the room, one has to sacrifice vanity for vein-popping strength.

I know you aren’t sure where this is going because that’s how it is when you move furniture from wall to wall trying to see what looks best.  You try one thing, decide it’s meh, flex the muscles, and drag it in a different direction.  It’s really a lot like life.   One little crooked sin that we tell ourselves is just a small defect becomes a catalyst for chaos.  We ignore it and focus on all the righteous things about ourselves – we don’t beat our children, we call our mothers, and we return the shopping cart to that little island that is nowhere near our parked cars (most of the time).  There are a lot of things we do right – that makes us good people.  Since we figure sin is inevitable, we minimize our particular habit of hurting God.  What’s one measly sin – usually the one we make over and over again – really going to hurt?

After purging the china cabinet, armoire, and buffet of their contents so that nothing would break when huffing and puffing furniture to different walls, the house looked like a hoarder’s delight and a husband’s horror.  But, I knew it could be made tidy again and began the tedious work of putting tchotchkes in their place. That’s when I noticed a giant scratch traversing the floor from my living room to my dining room.  It read like a road map of a wayward wife who watched too much HGTV.    So smitten with all that I had done right in the room – the balance, scale, and symmetry I created – I ignored the scratch.

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Wrinkles in His Will (and some tips on boiling corn)

I was talking to Jesus one night before bed and told him that his will for my life appears fairly willy-nilly.  What are we really doing here, God?  This?  That?  Does it even matter?  It’s as if he thinks I can read the signs he sends.  I can’t even read a map much less fold one, so why he thinks I can discern his will is a mystery to me.  Still, I come back to that longing to know.  It’s like a kid the night before their birthday trying to figure out what their gifts will be.  It’s a sleepless mix of exhilaration and anticipation and longing for the relief of just knowing.  What a gift the knowing would be.

The next morning, my son had an appointment to have his high school senior pictures taken.  I had reminded him the night before that mama doesn’t iron and he needed to have his clothes ready.  When I saw him half-dressed in a half-ironed shirt, I was wholly annoyed.  He explained that he had ironed his shirt and the wrinkles weren’t coming out.  He said he was going to wear it a bit and that would make the wrinkles come out.  Lord Jesus, I am supposed to send this child to college in a year?  I told him to give me the shirt and I would iron it.

It’s not that I am unwilling to iron, it’s just that most things that have to do with domesticity fail me.  The day before I texted a friend to ask how long to boil corn (10 minutes).  It’s frustrating to do things that we aren’t good at.  When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a stay-at-home mom.  I know in today’s world that is terribly lame but that was my wish, my will.  While I’ve been able to do that and mostly love it, I can’t say I am particularly good at it.  So, there I was ironing the already-ironed shirt wondering why the heat and the pressing and the willing weren’t working.  Since we were running short on time, I called a friend for advice.  She reminded me she was in a different time zone and still asleep.  I explained my domestic emergency and necessary disregard for her slumber.  She suggested that I spray the shirt with water.  It turns out the spray bottle under my sink is a mix of soap and water so when I sprayed the shirt it bubbled up like a wound doused in peroxide.  I just can’t imagine things like this happening to June Cleaver.

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Mercy at the Bus Stop

I was doing my teenage Uber driving duties and thinking about the advice that encourages parents to talk to children in the car.  After all, they are a captive audience, don’t have to make eye contact (because God forbid, we have any of that), and both parent and child are physically restrained –that might not have been among the reasons listed but it does seem worth noting.  We were on the return portion of our journey into silence and I was lamenting the misery of it when I looked out the car window and saw a man sitting on a bus stop talking to himself.  Our eyes met and for a moment he silenced.

He was smoking a cigarette in the mid-day Florida heat.  I checked the temperature on my dash and it read 98 degrees.  I considered my relative comfort in the air-conditioned car and the ice cream in my freezer I planned to eat when I arrived home as a consolation from both the heat and the unwelcome hush of angst that tormented my drive.  I recalled the smoking man in the intolerable heat, sitting in solace, speaking to himself.  I thought of that moment our eyes met, and how for the first time that day I felt seen.  It mattered not to me what I was seen as or how I might have looked or what he might have thought of me. The moment reminded me of the universality of God’s mercy at a time when I felt somewhat desperate for connection.  I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me, but through him, I saw a reminder that suffering is not the only thing that is universal, God’s mercy is too.

While I consider my circumstances are likely better than his – the reality was at that moment, I felt as miserable as I perceived him to be.  It’s easy to compare ourselves to others.  We have standardized what we consider justifiable levels of loneliness, pain, emptiness, and grief, and if it doesn’t fall on the spectrum of horror or woe that we heard on the latest podcast then we feel like we need to buck up and go write in our gratitude journals.  Before I understood the mercy of God, I would have thought the same thing.  There were so many times that the pain and challenges in my life became a wedge in my relationship with God because I didn’t think I had the right to seek his mercy.  I didn’t bring God what appeared to be trivial and trite by the world’s definition of suffering because it felt too small and I had been given too much.  The problem with that thinking is that it separates us from God and from the mercy that heals, comforts, and forgives the wounds in our heart.  We may not be worthy of God’s mercy or deserve it.  Regardless, it pours out of him – a gift of unfathomable consolation that we choose whether to accept.

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