Friday, December 6, 2013

Joining the Fellowship of Saint Nicholas

We knew it was coming. We knew it wouldn't be long before Benjamin discovered the truth about Santa. But watching his devotion to writing Santa almost daily through our Elf on the Shelf, Sparkle--with the purity and innocence of a boy enchanted--we thought we might just enjoy one more season with the magic intact.

Unfortunately, the chapter of childhood where reindeer fly and elves become North Pole pen pals and Santa defies time and space to visit all the children of the world in a single, jolly night has closed for Benjamin.

Last night, we took the children to see Santa at the Town Square's annual Christmas tree lighting. On our way, I mentioned that this Santa might look different than the Santa we saw in Evergreen. Abby wanted to know why. I fumbled for words when Benjamin jumped in with an explanation about how there are fake Santas who help the real Santa, one in each state, but the real Santa is the one who delivers the toys on Christmas Eve. He said it with the conviction of one who knows, and Abby was convinced.

We continued driving, listening to Christmas music, but a few minutes later, Benjamin said, "Mommy, tell me the truth. Do you and Daddy put the presents in our stockings?"

I hesitated. Josh and I had talked about how we would answer questions about Santa if the kids really wanted to know. We agreed that we would answer them honestly rather than continue with vague and cryptic evasions, but I was in a predicament with Abby in the car. I couldn't ask my clarifying question, "Do you want the magical answer or the real answer?" without raising her suspicions.

Instead, I hedged with, "Can we talk about this later when we're in private, Bug?"

"Why?" he asked, curious. 

Always with the "why's"! In hindsight, I'm sure he was thinking, why talk about it later if you're going to tell me Santa fills our stockings.

In hindsight, when he said, "Tell me the truth," I don't think he was really interested in the truth.

In hindsight, I should have just asked, "What do you think?"

Hindsight, hindsight. It's always 20/20.

Fortunately, he dropped the question, and we arrived at Town Square to find the main street filled with vendors, activities, and holiday cheer. Josh, who arrived before us from work, was already in line to see Santa. Once we joined him, the kids wanted to walk over and see this Texas Santa, so the three of us wandered down and peeked at him from behind the photographer. Santa saw Ben and Abby looking and waved to them, smiling. Their faces lit up. I exhaled. All was well.

When their turn came, the kids climbed onto Santa's lap together, smiled for the camera, and then were ushered off as quickly as they had settled.

Once we had reconvened, Benjamin said with some indignation, "He didn't ask what we wanted for Christmas."

I echoed his surprise. "Really? That's strange. Maybe this year we can write our requests and mail them instead."

Abby then launched into an explanation of how she had already written her Christmas list for Santa in her very best handwriting at school that morning, so she wouldn't need to write again. She skipped down the street at my side toward the restaurant for dinner. 

Benjamin, however, didn't move. There in the middle of main street, the realization dawned on him. He folded into himself and began to cry.

Josh picked him up in his strong Daddy arms and held him with great tenderness. When Abby and I walked back over to see what was wrong, Josh walked with him the other way. I took the hint and ushered Abby back down the street.

When they joined us a few minutes later, Benjamin's eyes were teary, but he was smiling. Abby offered him part of her candy cane, her little-sister attempt to comfort.

While they opened their candy, Josh quietly told me, "He knows. Someone at school told him."

My heart sank.

"But he's okay," Josh continued. In his wisdom, Josh had begun sharing with Ben our escapades to make their Santa requests come true."He's kind of enjoying being in-the-know."

Once settled at the restaurant, Josh and Abby left the table to use the restroom. Benjamin came around to my chair and said, "Mommy, I know about Santa. Daddy was telling me stories about finding Santa gifts for us. Can you tell me, too?"

So with as much drama and suspense as I could create, I began telling him the story of the Santa suit we put together for him when he was five. We laughed together, and there was new joy in sharing the back story of Christmas with the newly initiated. He even seemed to glow a bit in his new status.

After dinner, Abby rode home with Josh, and Benjamin rode home with me. We talked the whole way, piecing together the mystery for him. We talked about some of the gifts that were more challenging to come by. We talked about the fun and beauty of this tradition, where folks from around the whole world work together to create this magic for children. We talked about Saint Nicholas, the real story on which Santa Claus is based. When I mentioned him, Benjamin did the story-telling, having read a book called Santa Claus as a Kid. His summary started with, "Well, there was this boy who wanted to be like Jesus..." And so we talked about how Jesus, the main Story of Christmas, is absolutely true.

"Yes, Christmas is Jesus's birthday, and Santa Claus is one of our holiday traditions," he confirmed.


And of course we talked about the importance of not telling other children who still believe. "It wasn't right of your friend to tell you before you wanted to know." He nodded, understanding completely.

"I'll keep writing notes to Sparkle so Abby doesn't find out!" he suggested.

The conversation was sweet, sweet. There was no sense of betrayal or anger. Just disappointment. "I still wanted to believe," he said, looking out the window. 

When we got home, he began getting ready for bed. He pulled on his pajamas and said, "There's just one thing I don't know yet. Who wrote the notes from Santa?"

Each year, next to the empty plate of cookies on the hearth, Santa leaves a hand-written thank you with a few personal notes and encouragements for the kids. 

"Papa writes them," I said.

Benjamin's eyes twinkled. "Papa?" I could see him turning this information over in his head. "And does he eat the cookies?"

"We all eat the cookies," I admitted, smiling. 

He smiled. 

Josh and I tucked the kids into bed and retired to the couch to debrief the evening. 

Several minutes later, we heard Benjamin crying in the bathroom. Josh went to check on him and learned he didn't want to cry in his bed in front of Abby, so Josh invited him out to talk with us, and Benjamin grieved a little more. 

"This morning when I went to school, I believed. But at recess I didn't anymore." He told us the full story of how he was told. When he had shared everything, he went back to bed and fell asleep.

Though he is enjoying his new role as an insider to the tradition, there is loss. 

In truth, I was surprised by the ache in my own heart last night. It feels, somehow, that we've lost a dimension of Christmas. Not in a sacrilegious way: of course, the truest, deepest meaning of Christmas will never change. But in the realization that Benjamin had to grow up a little last night, that we had to usher him from the fellowship of childhood to the fellowship of Saint Nicholas. His focus was shifted from his own delight to that of Abby and the other children who still believe. 

It's healthy, and it's good, and I know this process will repeat itself over and over as he matures, because the biggest milestones of growing up require us to turn our focus away from ourselves and towards someone else: working a job, getting married, having children... 

But I would have been okay prolonging this particular joy a bit longer. 

There is beauty in the way a child asks in faith and receives with open-handed delight. Perhaps this ability to receive everything as grace, as gift without strings, is why Jesus asks us to come to him like little children. There is value in beholding the world with eyes of wonder and mystery and delight and faith that someone benevolent and kind loves to give us good gifts.

Anyway, before I climbed in bed last night, I wrote Sparkle's response to the note Benjamin had written yesterday morning, wishing he didn't know I was the author. I tried to incorporate a little humor for his sake, an insider's wink to keep the process fun for the child who knows while we continue to create the mystery for Abby.

And this morning, Benjamin came out to find Sparkle and read her new note to Abby as he has every morning this week. Then he sat down at the table to write another letter, doing his grown-up part to maintain the wonder for his little sister. 

I was so, so proud.

For the rest of his life, now, he participates in the Santa tradition from the perspective of Saint Nicholas. He joins us and the world in a conspiracy of generosity, inspired by a babe in a manger: God incarnate, who first walked this earth as a child, marveling at the wonders with the same open-handed delight of Benjamin and Abigail and all children, before growing into a man whose joy it became to give everything.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Elf on the Shelf, Santa Claus, and the Spirit of Christmas

Sparkle, our Elf on the Shelf, arrived overnight. Benjamin noticed her sitting above the microwave this morning when he turned from his oatmeal to look at me in the kitchen.

"There's our Elf on the Shelf!" he said, and after I read him her note, "Welcome home! Love, Sparkle," he promptly scooted off to tell Abby. She came to the kitchen and saw for herself, smiling her coy half-smile, the one she can't contain when she's truly delighted.

"It's really magical," Benjamin observed. "How did Santa get in here to drop her off when all the doors and windows were locked?" A lively conversation about all the possibilities ensued.

Josh and I had thought this might be the year Santa would be found out. We've talked about how to deliver "the truth." They've begun asking questions, even wondering at the Thanksgiving table, "Is Santa really real?" Grandma, in her infinite wisdom, answered with a question: "What do you think?" Which led them into explanations of the real Santa versus Santa helpers before the conversation changed subject.

I'm not naive enough to think the kids won't hear something at school or question more earnestly, but as of this morning, it appears Benjamin is happy to suspend disbelief a little longer, reveling in the wonder of miracle still.

He asked me when they would get to see Santa this year.

I answered him honestly, "I'm not sure."

In Evergreen, we saw the same Santa and Mrs. Claus every year at the Lake House. This particular Santa and Mrs. Claus embody the Spirit of Christmas so purely, I nearly believe in them myself: they are warm and kind, gently soothing babies who are uncertain, patiently drawing out the more reserved children. They encourage children to be kind to their parents, to look for ways to give during the season in addition to receiving. They seem to remember many of the little ones they see each year, and a certain glimmer of recognition in their eyes leaves each visitor to their velvety red laps feeling as though they are known.

We don't know Houston well enough yet to have figured out where to see Santa. I'd prefer to avoid malls with their long lines and barely-plausible imitation Santas. The kids do understand that not every person in a Santa suit is the "real" Santa, so perhaps this solution will suffice. But to be honest, I guess I had assumed we wouldn't see Santa this year, not wanting to cheapen the experience with a visit that is "less than" what we had in Evergreen.

Benjamin, however, decided to take this issue into his own capable hands. He sat down at our coffee table and penned a note to Santa:

"Dear Santa,
thank you for being so kind to us each year. we're still very new so we don't know w[h]ere to go so we can see you in person. Please write back to me if you know w[h]ere, or if we should make Christmas Lists.
Sincerely Benjamin."

Then he drew a quick picture of Santa on the front and said, "Mommy, read this!"

When I read, "We are still very new so we don't know where to go," I confess I had to fight a welling-up of emotion. There is an honesty, a deep vulnerability in his phrase that strikes the chord of unfamiliarity and foreignness I feel deep down here. Indeed, though we've settled into school and activities and much of life in Texas, there is no denying that we still feel fragile and vulnerable away from all the people and places we depended upon for so many years. His note reaches out of this fragility to ask one whose kindness has led him to trust, "Please help. We don't know our way yet."

He taped the note next to Sparkle so she could deliver it to Santa this evening when she returns to him.

As an afterthought, he wrote "Welcome to Texas" on a post-it and stuck it on the piece of tape holding up his note. Eight-year-old hospitality.

It should be noted that Josh and I were drug into this whole Elf on the Shelf gig reluctantly. Kicking and screaming, really. We had said we'd never buy one, both because we didn't like the premise of Santa having a "spy" to report to him the naughty and nice behaviors of our household, but largely because, frankly, Christmas gives us plenty to do already.

We maintained that conviction firmly. Until Abigail set her heart on having one last Christmas. She heard about the escapades of the elves from friends at school. So when she climbed into Mrs. Claus's lap last year, she asked for an Elf on the Shelf.

We were doomed.

Because we love our little girl to pieces, because we desire to keep the magic alive as long as we can, Abby came downstairs to her stocking Christmas morning to find a little elf peeking out from behind her stocking holder, from Santa. She named her elf Sparkle, and here we are, a year later, making this story come true, too.

After this morning, though, I see that the additional effort (which, in reality, is pretty minimal) is so very, very worthwhile. This glimpse of Benjamin's gratitude, of his earnestness and sincerity, filled my heart to overflowing this morning. Indeed, when I dropped the kids off at school, all our spirits hummed with the Spirit of Christmas.

Buying this elf, and now plotting her adventures for the next few weeks, is a small sacrifice of time and energy on our parts. But as we undertake this new element of Christmas out of love for our kids, as we witness their wonder in response, what felt like sacrifice becomes joy.

I've been reading through Herself, a collection of Madeleine L'Engle's thoughts on writing. L'Engle has authored many books for a variety of audiences, but her most famous is probably A Wrinkle in Time, a now-classic children's fantasy that won the prestigious Newberry Award. In section IV of Herself, "Faith Foundations: Writing from Truth,' she writes:

"If we want a God we can prove, or an Incarnation we can prove, aren't we making an idol, rather than falling on our knees in awe of the wonderful mystery? It's a lot easier, a lot safer (in finite terms) to worship an idol than to expose ourselves to the fire of the eternal God--not the flames of hell, but the flames of love. Perhaps that's why some of the best theology is found in story--Jesus' stories, the stories of Daniel or Gideon or Esther or Jael; the novels of Dostoyevsky, the plays of Shakespeare, the stories of O. Henry; and--yes--stories written for children."

Then in section V, "An Accepted Wonder: The Wisdom of Children," she writes:

"Children are far better believers than adults; they are aware of what most adults have forgotten. They know that the daily time-bound world of limited facts is a secondary world. And stories, paintings, or songs--though they are not themselves the primary world--give us glimpses of the wider world of our whole selves, the selves which are real enough to accept the world's darkness as well as its light...A story where myth, fantasy, fairy tale, or science fiction explore and ask questions moves beyond fragmatic dailiness to wonder. Rather than taking the child away from the real world, such stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy."

I am reminded this morning that what we do is far less important than the Love behind it. Whether we do Santa or not, whether we buy an Elf on the Shelf or not, the Spirit of Christmas, the Truth of Christmas--Love incarnate--is what shines through. This Love motivated Saint Nicholas's generosity once upon a time. This Love leads an elderly couple in Evergreen to bring the saint's story to life for hundreds of children. This same Love moves us to create magic for our littles.

In the seemingly silly exercise of placing Sparkle above the microwave, the kids feel this Love, receive it, believe it. They act on it by writing letters to Santa with "courage and expectancy," an expression of the faith and hope they are learning. And so all these other tales of Christmas are brought into harmony with the miraculous story of a baby God, lying in a manger, for love of the whole, wide world.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When the Leaves Drop

On Thursday, we will gather around the same table we gave thanks at last year. We will join hands with Josh's parents in their beautiful home surrounded by valleys of pine and oak and gypsy deer and hummingbird illusionists and resourceful squirrels burying food for hard times, and we will say, "Thank you, Lord."

As we did last year.

As we have every other year of our lives together, whether we were at this table or ours or others'.

But Thanksgiving will require something different of us this year.

Because this year, the blessings have been less shiny. This year, the easy, obvious objects of our gratitude--cozy home and mountain grandeur and precious community and family near--have been loosed from our grateful grip. This year, we find ourselves in circumstances that have been the antithesis of what we had asked and hoped and prayed: a forced relocation thanks to a layoff, living in an aparment in suburban Texas while we pay the mortgage on a house that hasn't sold, all the while coming to grips with the reality that the dream job is less than dreamy.

Our gratitude in years past didn't cost us anything. It was the gratitude of abundance. Of stability. Of clarity. We recognized the blessing and we appreciated the goodness and we were truly, sincerely grateful for every gift. The thanks poured out of us, out of our cup running over.

But this year, as we grieve what we've left, as we long for answers to what's around the corner of time, we are asked to find the gratitude of want. Of uncertainty. Of confusion. Of disappointment.

We will gather around the table, remembering how this year we've wiped tears from our cheeks and heaved prayers like sobs and asked why and said, "Please, Lord, please..."

This year, though we wish we could return to the life we led last year, we learn to say, "Not my will but yours."

Like children, we are learning patience, faith, obedience. We are inhaling grace so that we do not tantrum like petulant children who didn't get their way.

This year, we discipline ourselves to say thank you for the heartsickness of missing family and friends and infant nephew milestones, for the months of stress and wondering and frustration and sadness, for the sheer exhaustion of whittling a new life out of question marks.

This year, we raise our hands to our Maker in praise, like the near-empty branches of the tree outside my window, whose leaves--once their splendor and beauty and life--fall one-by-one to the ground. Though we perceive lack, we know, deep down, that we are stripped only for a season. There is beauty in the process, in the surrender.

In the golden remnant of fall, we give thanks that the Lord is good. We give thanks that His love endures forever. And that truth is sufficient. More than enough, really, to sustain us in any circumstance.

Because miracles are found in the messy, grief-stricken disappointments of this world: in a manger, on a cross, in a winter that turns into spring. So surely they can appear in Texas. And as we look for the incarnation, we remember that our true home is each other's arms. We are awoken from our default routines and invited to a life full of infinite choices, possibilities, adventures. We purpose not to ride out the rest of our lives as idle passengers of complacency.

This year, we remember that thanks is something we give, not something we receive. One leaf at a time.

An offering that leaves us with the illusion of emptiness.

Until we find that our emptiness becomes a cornucopia...of faith and hope and love.

We believe. Lord, help our unbelief.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Great Parenting Paradox

This morning, Benjamin came into our room at 6:30 and laid on the foot of our bed, chatting with us about whatever. He was content and smiley and gentle and sweet. His guard was down, his spirits were up. It was the very best of who he is, the real Benjamin, the Benjamin who at times amazes us with his maturity and selflessness.

Josh got up to get ready for work, and Benjamin crawled up closer to me, so we were facing each other. I began squeezing his arm playfully, and he giggled, tickled. He flexed his bicep, and I oohed and ahhed and then flexed mine back. He looked at me and grinned, his smile all big kid teeth. And I thought, I love when we're in this place with each other. How do so many mornings get off track?

Twenty minutes later, our happy train derailed.

He tested a limit, we enforced a consequence, he reacted with drama and sarcasm and blame, I addressed the disrespect, he honored me with his lips but his heart was far from me, I wanted desperately to get us back to the peace we enjoyed on the bed earlier. There were tears, words, anger, hurt. And then, as quickly as the cloud appeared with its thunder and lightning, the skies cleared again. He finished his breakfast, grabbed his backpack, hugged us before walking out the door, and proceeded to chat with me on the way to school as though nothing had happened.

Sometimes I get the impression the kids forget these tantrums as quickly as they start them. I, however, am left reeling, playing the conflict over in my mind to see where I could have diffused the situation rather than escalate it, wondering if something I did incited such a reaction. My tendency is to extrapolate these moments into generalizations about how we're doing as parents, how he's doing as a kid. Is he feeling loved enough? Is he getting enough affirmation? Why did he feel the need to make such a lame choice on an otherwise delightful morning? And then, why didn't he just acknowledge the lame choice and move on so we could return to our delightful morning?

But perhaps these are just the normal, everyday products of childishness. Maybe his attempts to usurp control are actually a necessary exercise of childhood and not a reflection of something we're doing wrong. Perhaps our error is in expecting otherwise. I mean, the kid is winning citizenship awards at school, so he must be taking something worthwhile away from our home, right?

Some books say that kids will act out most at home where they know it's safe and secure to do so. In this way, they learn what is acceptable and what's not from those who will love them no matter what. Is it possible our son is actually quite secure? That we should receive his misbehavior as a sign of trust? I generally regard these statements with some suspicion, the perfectionist in me reluctant to believe that imperfection--his or mine--could be purposeful in his growing up. It feels like the pipe dream of a weary parent.

And yet, I think there may be some truth there. If the law came in that sin might abound (so let that be a lesson to us: make fewer rules), and if God consigned all men to disobedience so that he might have mercy on all, then disobedience is not a sign of our failure as parents. If it were, God would, by definition, be the worst parent ever. And perfection must not be our goal, since God made disobedience a condition of humanity. Despite everything we've been told, despite every voice in my head that says if I were doing my job as a mother right my kids would be all sweetness and light every day, raising ever-compliant children is not the point. It's not even possible.

The opportunity for us as parents to demonstrate mercy and offer forgiveness and display love unconditional, is. Over and over and over. Day after day after day. Until, by some mystery of grace, mercy and forgiveness and love becomes the very fiber of their being.

It's a messy, infuriating notion: we get emotionally crucified, they learn love. And isn't love what we're really asking of our kids in all our rules? Benjamin, Abigail: please think of the people around you before you act on your own desires. When we distill misbehavior to its essence, it is simply selfishness at work rather than love.

The great parenting paradox is that our children learn love by experiencing forgiveness for their un-love. Our children learn obedience by receiving mercy in their disobedience. There is no detour around the frustrating to the delightful.

Perhaps Benjamin loves well--in selfless displays that at times leave me speechless--because he's disobeyed and been forgiven much.

I screw up, too. Some days, many days, it is really my unreasonable expectation or grouchiness or need to get out the door right. now. that incites the meltdowns of behavior. My own selfishness spirals us into the tears and anger. But then I have the opportunity to receive forgiveness, to remember how absolutely hard it is to be a human, and in this state, I am drawn to greater compassion for my littles, to greater love for their precious hearts that are doing the best they can in a world that demands so much.

We find our common ground in our failure--and our common joy in loving each other anyway.

Well, it would sure be easier if the process were different: I say something reasonable every time, he obeys with a smile every time, and we all live happily ever after. But that picture of sanitized family is dimensionless and textureless, devoid of the richness and vibrancy and security found in conflict and resolution. The illusion of perfection is better left in the realm of the merely acquainted.

Family is made in the gut-wrenching mornings like today. We chat, we giggle, we feel each other's biceps. We rail and argue and bump up against each other's feelings. And then we pack lunches and hug and ask forgiveness and go about our day, theoretically stronger for having witnessed, yet again, that nothing will break our love for each other.

May it be so.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Failure is Not an Option

Watching Abby ice skate yesterday was an exercise in breathing. I had to discipline myself to exhale, to let the visions of cracked skulls and ER visits exit my anxious mind through deep breaths out. At times, I had to make myself watch her, because everything inside me wanted to cringe and look away.

The thing is, Abby has no fear of falling. Or pain. Or injury. We put her on skates yesterday, stepped onto the rink, and then watched her feet move those skates as quickly as they could without regard for the balance or stability of her upper body. There was no easy-does-it. No starting slow and working up speed proportional to skill. She entered the rink like Bambi on the frozen lake: all runaway limbs slipping and sliding out from under her.

At first, Josh held onto her, coaching her while keeping her vertical when she began to topple. But it wasn't long before she began pushing his hands away, fiercely determined to master the ice by herself. Eventually, she found her center of gravity and kept herself upright without our help. But her method of learning involved skating as fast as she could until she a) fell, b) ran into the wall of the rink, or c) was caught by her vigilant mommy or daddy.

Several times, we watched her legs and arms flail wildly, searching desperately for equilibrium. Occasionally, she found it. "Nice spin, Abby!" Josh would joke with a smile. Abby's eyes would twinkle.

Most of the time, she went down.

Remarkably, she'd right herself and skate on each and every time she fell, often back on her blades within a matter of seconds. Down, up, down, up, down, up. I could practically hear her quads groan as she pushed herself to standing again. And again. Though her clothes were soaked through and her body battered, she smiled with pride each time I caught her eye. Abby paid no attention to fatigue. Only once did she agree to a break, and even that was short-lived. Tenacity ruled.

We've seen her apply this same persistence to gymnastics. Anytime we find ourselves in a park or yard with enough space, we watch her do cartwheel after cartwheel, hand stand after hand stand, determined to master the skill no matter how many times she lands on her shoulder or back or head, no matter how tired her weary arms are.

In class, we see her practice whatever skill they give her with an absolute commitment to mastery. She probably completes twice as many reps as the other kids, because she begins the task again the moment she finishes the first attempt. No matter what they have her doing--hopping across the balance beam, swinging on the bar, flipping into the foam pit, kicking into handstands against the wall--she executes her move over and over with the work ethic of a true athlete.

And her persistence has paid off. Her cartwheels look like actual cartwheels now. When she kicks her legs up into a handstand, she gets her whole body straight and stiff, even holding it for a second on her best attempts.

This girl was born with discipline: disregard pain, disregard failure, disregard everything but mastery. 

When we climbed back into the car two hours after beginning our icecapades, Abby's nerve endings finally caught up to her. "My body hurts," she told us, not whining so much as observing a now overwhelming fact. 

We gladly spent the rest of the evening snuggled up on the couch in our pajamas, watching a movie. Before bed, I read to her while she soaked in a warm bath to ease the soreness in her muscles.

She inspires me. She's conquering ice and gravity. What's next?

Whatever it is, Josh and I will be there cheering her on...and drawing a warm bath after.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scripture: Portraits of Love

Last night, after we finished our chapter of Narnia, Benjamin said, "Mommy, where's that verse about a harsh word and a gentle word?"

"The one that says, 'A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger'?" I asked.


"I think it's on your door, your bedroom door."

"No, that's the one about the honeycomb," he corrected ("Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones").

"Oh, yeah." I thought a moment. "Maybe that one's on the refrigerator door. Why?" I asked, wondering what had triggered this sudden interest.

"I've found myself thinking about it a lot in my head lately," he said, all thoughtfulness and sincerity.

"Mmm. That happens to me sometimes. Do you understand what it means?" I asked.

"Not really..." he said, his words trailing like an invitation.

So we defined "wrath" and talked about what happens in a conversation when someone is angry. We discussed why a gentle response helps a person settle down inside while a harsh word makes him even more angry. After, I prayed and sang with him and tucked him in bed, marveling that the verses are finding their way into his heart.

Several weeks ago, I had been thinking about how often I return to the Scripture I have memorized, how utterly valuable those words have proven in my life. One of the greatest gifts my dad gave me as a child was that he quoted Scripture consistently enough that the words became engraved in my mind. Years of Sunday School and Bible studies and sermons and reading added to the well of verses from which I draw. They serve as a kind of compass in my life, pointing me true north to what is unshakeable, unchangeable, even as the sand shifts beneath my feet.

Always, they return me to faith, hope, love. Ultimately, they renew my mind, transforming my perspective, and, in turn, my actions.

I long for my kids to have this same reserve of truth to turn to when they're frightened or confused or despairing or tempted to believe a lie. I want them to have these words buried deep in their hearts, not as some kind of prescriptive that meters out rules and regulations and shoulds and should nots for them and those around them, but as a source of strength and comfort and steadiness to rest upon when the vertigo of life sets in. I want them to know the Scriptures for themselves so that when they hear someone else twisting them and turning them into weapons of fear and hate and judgement, they will remember this is what matters: to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God.

So one morning while the kids were at school, I hung about a dozen Bible verses up around our apartment: in the kids' room, on my bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator. I chose verses that reflected promises or wisdom relevant to our family's daily life and wrote them in black sharpie on funky notecards I bought at Target for lunchbox notes.

The kids came home that afternoon and immediately ran around reading them all. Abby asked me to read the longer verses with harder words. As I anticipated, they paid attention to them for about twenty-four hours, and then the notecards faded into the background of sleeping, waking, eating, playing, arguing, laughing, crying, loving.

Last night was the first evidence that the words are taking residence within them. I love that Benjamin has found himself pondering that verse. Indeed, as the verbal round and rounds escalate here, I find myself thinking about what kind of response helps and what kind hurts.

Does a sharp response ever help my little people recover from their spiraling emotions? Does raising my voice ever improve the attitude of an incensed eight-year-old? Harshness may temporarily win outward compliance, but it leaves a wake of anger in our relationship.

In truth, I've held on to the premises and promises of Scripture more tightly than ever before as I've navigated the failure-fraught waters of motherhood. No other life experience has magnified my short-comings as clearly as parenthood. No other endeavor has required as much faith in God's ability to redeem me and my messes, my kids and their messes. Daily, I return to verses like these:

"He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it."
"Perfect love casts out fear."
"Love is patient, love is is not easily angered, it keeps no record of always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
"He who is forgiven much, loves much."
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and He shall make your path straight."

Which means daily, I am returned to God, who IS perfect Love and casts out fear of failure and evil and forsakenness. Through Scripture, I am pointed to Jesus, through whom we've been forgiven everything so that we will love without limit. I am reminded that I am not required to keep a record of wrongs for anybody, including myself.

Scripture shows me what Love looks like in a fallen world, and the more I ponder those glimpses, the more I love and forgive. And the more my kids are loved and forgiven, the more they will love and forgive. Through these verbal portraits of our Maker, we come to see the character of God as gentle, kind, forbearing. We learn that he hopes all things, endures all things, and believes all things for us. And we come to know in the depths of our souls how wide and long and high and deep is His love for us and this world.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do!

We took the kids to a professional soccer game Sunday afternoon, an opportunity provided by the kids' soccer league for teams to enjoy each other outside of practice while watching the way the pros play. None of us had been to a pro soccer game before. In fact, the kids and I didn't even know the name of the team until Josh informed us: The Dynamo!

Nevertheless, we undertook this endeavor with gusto, wearing our boldest orange and cheering from our seats in the very last row of the stadium under the relentless glare of the afternoon sun.

About three quarters of the way through the game, after the other team scored its third goal and our team continued to shoot miss after miss on the other end of the field and the huge strawberry lemonade we bought for a small fortune was empty and the sun just would.not.quit, Abby, whose body had long since given up on sitting still, announced in her poutiest voice, "I'm bored. I did NOT come to watch the other team score."

And I, who was amazed she'd lasted this long, did NOT hold back a chuckle.

Fortunately Josh, wise sage that he is, found words to calm her frustration. "That's probably how the teams you play feel when your team keeps scoring," he said with a smile and a trace of jesting detectable only to me.

And with that unarguable dose of perspective, Abby settled back in to watch the Dynamos finish the game scoreless without another complaint.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Redefining "Home"

As well as the transition has gone, as much as we are enjoying our new life here in Texas, it still doesn't feel like home. I told Josh a few night ago that this still sometimes feels like a strange, extended vacation. Josh, the breadwinner among us, said, "I'm not sure I'd go as far as a vacation." Fair enough, but he did get what I was saying.

I suppose it's not entirely surprising. We're living in a 2-bedroom apartment without any of our regular furniture. We've made it a functional space with enough decor to keep it from feeling sterile, but it doesn't quite feel like ours, or us. We are making wonderful memories together in this makeshift residence, but it just isn't "home."

Is this a function of our privilege? I've thought about this, how so many people live their entire lives in spaces they don't own, in apartments smaller, in conditions dire. Here, we simply don't have our "stuff" or a place to call "ours" completely. Does that say something about us? That we could live our lives fully without most of our household? That we feel adrift because we don't have walls we can drill at will?

Our situation is a function of the fact that our house in Colorado still hasn't sold. It's been at once embarrassing and infuriating. It has made me feel both dumb for not figuring out the secret to selling it and out of control, because all reason says it should have sold by now, so the fact that it hasn't means something, Someone, greater is at work.

For months, this tension left me feeling every duality possible: anxiety and peace, claustrophobia and freedom, responsibility and surrender, exposure and security, suspicion and wild faith, impatience and gratitude. And it all hinged on whether, in any given moment, I believed I was in charge or God is in charge. The plot changes dramatically depending on the narrator.

In the first months of selling the house, I would be seized by moments of intense panic. It would grab my chest, wrap its fingers around my mind, and squeeze until the pressure felt unbearable. During these moments, I would greatly question the benevolence of God and then call Josh or my sister to make crazy suggestions like maybe we should cut the price in half and throw our furniture in with the deal. Then I'd email my precious group of friends and say, "I feel like God's out to get us," and they'd email back prayers and assurances of God's goodness, they'd remind me of all the reasons I could trust Him, they'd help me believe The Plan is for our good, not for our demise. And for a few weeks, I'd be able to breathe again.

Most of the time, I believed The Plan. But still, there were moments.

Once we arrived in Texas, there was a permanent shift, though. I started reading Ann Voskamp's book One Thousand Gifts, and I felt the anxiety release. Completely. It was a miraculous transformation of perspective, thanks in part to Voskamp's beautiful prose but largely to her assertion that gratitude--the act of noticing the thousands of tiny gifts in our seemingly unremarkable day-to-day--changes our heart and mind to see the miracle. That "eucaharisteo," thanksgiving, in every moment, even the disastrous ones, trains the eye to "see" accurately, that we are not forsaken, that we are not lost, that we and those around us and our circumstances are not hopeless, that in every time and place, God is working the miracles of mercy and grace and redemption. Right now is not the end of the story, and yet right now, we can notice the signs of what's to come.

My journal is full of insights, hers and others. She writes, "My human experience is the sum of what the soul sees and I see precisely what I attend to and what the eyes focus on is what the life is" (p. 133).

What will I attend to? What will my eyes focus on?

Our apartment doesn't feel like "home" in the same way our mountain house of 11 years did, but...

I look out these windows, and I still get to see trees, huge oaks and pecans reaching higher than the three-story rooftop,

And the kids and I get to ride our bikes or walk to school each day, ten-minutes of time precious for its slower pace, its space for conversation or easy quiet, its opportunity to greet the other neighbors who walk to and fro, its reprieve from the next task,

And we have less to clean and put away,

And the kids share a room and giggle with each other in the morning and make forts and spend the last five minutes of their day talking with each other,

And I have time to read and write and learn and recharge because I am not unpacking and decorating and settling in, nor am I overcommitted because I am new and get to make new decisions about where to spend my time,

And Josh gets to learn about other cultures and perspectives over lunch with coworkers who come from every continent,

And the kids are perfectly content riding bikes in the parking lot and throwing the baseball near the garages,

And they get to do this most days because it's rarely cold outside,

And Merlot is learning to let dogs walk by outside the windows without issuing a huge, echoing bark,

And we are happy, together, in our simplicity that is still an abundance,

And, and, and...

In truth, this place may not feel like our physical home yet, but in some ways, I've never felt as at-home in my own skin.

This season untethered by square feet is a gift, so as long as the time lasts, I will continue to focus on what is in front of me: Josh, the kids, new friends and old, this page. I will trust that this timing is a blessing, not a curse.

And I will be grateful.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Beautiful, Upside-Down Gospel

Most nights before bed, Josh and I watch Jon Stewart's The Daily Show in order to get a chuckle from the otherwise despair-inducing lunacy of the political realm. A couple nights ago, we watched Jon Stewart interview Malala, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year in retaliation for advocating for education for girls. Miraculously, she survived, and her platform has exploded. She was even nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

If you can watch the interview, please do (ignoring Upworthy's summary at the top...not quite accurate). About four minutes in, she makes a statement so pure, so beautiful, it stuns Jon Stewart and evokes uproarious applause from the audience. He asks her how she felt when she learned she was being targeted by the Taliban, and she responds with this:

"...even after the threat, when we saw it, I was not worried about myself that much. I was worried about my father, because we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child, because I was fourteen at the time. But then later on, I used to, like, I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come and he would just kill me. 

But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do, Malala?' 

Then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him' [audience laughter]. 

But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' 

Then I said, 'I'll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well,' and then I would tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you. Now do as you want.'"

In the face of imminent death, she wishes to bless her enemy. She decides she will not fight hatred and violence with the same weapons of destruction. She will not be like them. Instead, she will lay down her life for the sake of all children, even his.

Did you hear it? Did you hear the voice speaking through this precious Muslim girl, through a mouth now lopsided from the Taliban's bullet? She speaks Love. She speaks Mercy. She speaks Grace. She offers body broken and blood shed to the Taliban, to some of the hardest, cruelest of hearts who claim to act in the name of God.

The audience went wild. Jon Stewart, giving all due respect to her proud father in the wings, asked if he could adopt her. The video has since gone viral on facebook and news outlets. The world does not stand in the presence of such Love unchanged.

It's an upside down gospel. The crucified conquer, not the powerful. The last and the least become first. 

And ultimately, I believe the "first" will be won by the glorious beauty of grace, too. 

Because one day, I believe the Taliban will stand before Love and Truth. There may be weeping and gnashing of teeth as they recognize the great wounds they've inflicted upon this world. But they will find themselves before one who says, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And if they will receive the grace, if they will not hide in fear and shame, they will put down their guns, surrendering their religious ideology to a person. Then they, too, will know Love. 

In fact, it's already happening. They've already glimpsed it in Malala.

It's such good, good news.

"Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


At this time last year, I was writing through Genesis with the children's minister at our church for the Sunday School curriculum. We started "In the beginning" and worked our way chronologically through the first several events and families of the Old Testament, wrestling through even the more difficult stories and subject matter, though we omitted the sexual violation that occurs throughout (you don't realize how much subject matter in the Bible is, in many ways, "inappropriate," even scandalous, until you dive in cover-to-cover without skipping the messy parts).

In our writing, we endeavored to put the Biblical language into more of a narrative form, taking the sometimes stiff timeline of people and events and creating a more recognizable story with language accessible to first through fifth graders.

Our hope was that the children, listening to the storyteller on Sunday mornings, would begin to really visualize these people and events, which otherwise tend to feel confusing and distant and irrelevant. We believed that if we remained true to the chronology, simply presenting the stories as faithfully as possible, the children would begin to make connections between the stories and also between themselves and the characters and events of the Bible. We prayed that as they watched God call, invite, provide for, and protect the characters in these stories, they would come to recognize Him in their own lives.

We dreamed that the children would begin to see the relentless love of God--perhaps more obvious in Jesus's life told in the New Testament--in these crazy Old Testament stories, too. After all, it's all one story: the same story from before the foundation of the world to the fullness of time and into eternity. God's love, God's plan, does not change from creation to revelation.

What I didn't anticipate was how much this process would transform my own life. By living within these stories as I wrote, by having to examine more carefully what the characters' motivations were, by searching for reasons why God would ask or command or discipline in certain ways, by looking for the kindness and compassion of God even in circumstances that appeared difficult or cruel, I found myself convicted of the same short-sightedness that those, at times, imbecilic-seeming Israelites experienced.

In turn, I found myself undeniably changed.

When I dove into the story of the Tower of Babel, my childhood understanding was challenged. I had always learned that the people built the tower in order to reach heaven by their own might and skill and so make a name for themselves. Vain glory, I thought. A motivation rooted in pride. However, when I read the text more carefully, I saw this: "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4). The primary motivation for building the tower was not simply pride or ambition but a desire to not be scattered.

In reality, the people were driven by a desire to remain, to stay, to maintain the status quo. They built a city and a tower so they could continue to enjoy the safety, comfort and security of their togetherness. They believed that together, in a great city marked by a great tower that could be seen for miles, they could take care of themselves. With the tower to guide them, they would be able to find their way home no matter how far they traveled. And the great name they'd build for themselves with their great tower would surely dissuade any who would consider attack. This was their plan to ensure they would not be scattered.

The only problem was that, from the beginning, God had been commanding his people to scatter, to fill the earth. This was his command to Adam and Eve. This was his command to Noah and his sons. Fill the whole earth.

Ultimately, the flaw in the construction of the Tower of Babel was a faith in each other that superseded their willingness to rely on and obey God. It was a different form of pride.

I sat at my desk in our office at home, writing this story for the kids, and I recognized in myself this same desire for stasis, a craving for the comfortable and familiar, a loyalty to the premise of not being scattered.

There had been times over the years when Josh had wondered aloud if we should consider relocation for job opportunities. Every time, without hesitation, my response had been an adamant "No." No way, no how. We could never leave. We were safe and comfortable in the mountains.

I had built a tower of permanence, finding security in our beautiful home, the kids' wonderful school, a church that truly sees the goodness of God, a community of people who love us sincerely. Even before my family had arrived, I was convinced we shouldn't, couldn't uproot our little family from our idyllic life in Evergreen. Above all, I wanted to remain.

Just 21 verses later, I found myself absorbed in the story of Abram (later Abraham), the father of Israel, who was called away from his home and family of seventy-five years into God's plan. I wrote the story like this:

"Once upon a time, a man named Abram lived with his wife, Sarai, and his parents and his brothers and their families in a land called Haran, near Canaan. Abram and Sarai did not have any children for Sarai was barren, but they lived comfortably and happily with their family for many years, sharing meals and holidays and work as families do.

One day, the Lord came to Abram and said, “Abram, I want you to leave this land. Leave your relatives and your dad’s house and go to the land I will show you, and I will make a whole nation from you. I will bless you and make your name famous, and you will be a blessing, a gift. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse the one who curses you. And in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

So Abram did what the Lord said. When he was seventy-five years old, Abram left his home in Haran with Sarai and his nephew, Lot, and all of their possessions and servants to make the great journey to Canaan, a place he had never seen. They would be strangers there, like pilgrims, foreigners. But Abram left everything that was familiar and comfortable to obey God, because he believed God’s promises."

I could just as easily have written, "Once upon a time, a woman named Shaundra lived with her husband, Josh, and her parents and her sisters and their families in a land called Evergreen, near Denver...they lived comfortably and happily with their family for many years, sharing meals and holidays and work as families do..."

I wrote this story on November 1st, 2012, months before Josh lost his job and we learned we would be leaving Colorado. As I wrote, though, I felt a perceptible shift. Somehow, in the mysterious way He has, God began to prepare my heart for change, to soften my resolve that life in Evergreen, surrounded by family and friends, was the only possible path for the rest of our lives. I recognized and related to Abram's cozy set-up, but I also saw God's call for him to leave as one rooted in a desire to bless not just Abram but the whole world through him. I didn't think anything would come of it, but that day, a conviction was born that staying put in the familiar for the sake of comfort, security, or even family, should not be my primary goal.

So when I answered my cell phone in the car that cool Monday morning in March after dropping the kids off at school, and Josh told me he was packing up his office and would be home in a couple hours because the company had laid off most of its staff, my resolve was no longer to stay but to follow. My hope was not to rely on ourselves but to rely on God's provision. My mind was no longer wrapped in fear but in faith that whatever was happening was happening for our good and not for our demise, for blessing and not for harm.

I'm not suggesting that God's plan for us in Texas is as grandiose as His plan for Abraham, but the stories, you see, had changed me.

"So Shaundra did what the Lord said. When she was thirty-five years old, Shaundra left her home in Evergreen with Josh and her children, Benjamin and Abigail, and [some] of their possessions to make the great journey to Missouri City, Texas, a place she had never seen [before the job hunt]. They would be strangers there, like pilgrims, foreigners. But Shaundra left everything that was familiar and comfortable to obey God, because she believed God's promises."

It sounds dramatic, even melodramatic. Or cliche. Isn't that how the Bible reads sometimes? Yeah, yeah, so the dumb people built a tower. Obviously that wasn't going to work. So Abram left his family in Haran. Big deal.

Until you find that you are the one building cities and towers of security, that you are the one asked to leave. Then you need to know what kind of God you're following. The stories come alive, and you see that they are so much more than a crazy old text. So you look for the thread of goodness. You see past what looks like arbitrary discipline to the heart of God.  Can you believe His promises? Can you trust His plans?

Abram's story continues like this:

"Abram and his group arrived in the land of Canaan and stopped at the oak of Moreh. Here, the Lord said to Abram, “I will give this land to your descendants.” So Abram built an altar to the Lord there, giving thanks.

They continued their journey further into Canaan to the mountain between Bethel and Ai. Here Abram pitched his tent, setting up camp, and he built another altar. They hadn’t arrived at their new home yet, but they worshipped God, calling upon the name of the Lord.

Abram and his group traveled on, trusting God to provide their new home."

Well, I'm writing from my couch in Texas. We've been scattered, called as strangers to an unfamiliar place. We've pitched our proverbial tent in this two-bedroom apartment while we wait for what's to come. We haven't arrived at our new home yet, but we are giving thanks.

So we sojourn on in our day-to-day, trusting God to provide our new future. Because we can.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Silencing the Censor

The kids didn't have school Friday thanks to the county fair. We had planned to head to the parade that morning and then take advantage of the free fair entry for students after, but when we woke up that morning, even Abby, our most vocal parade-attendance advocate, said she would rather have a quiet morning at home.

We are all introverts, the four of us. After busy weeks of school and sports and parties and stimulation, the kids especially needed a day of nothing. Nowhere to go. No one to see. Just one, long, unscheduled day to color and make-believe and ride bikes and otherwise relax. I was more than happy to oblige.

At first, the kids played separately, Ben in their room pretending something with sound effects and props made from household items, Abby coloring princess pages on the family room floor. They were perfectly content, absolutely at peace in their respective solitudes. I picked up the book I borrowed from the library the day before, The Artist's Way, and read with only the occasional interruption to admire a new finished picture.

After a while, Abby pulled out a book she received for her birthday with instructions on how to draw animals. Benjamin found his way to her side with his own drawing board, and the two sat on the floor drawing together for over an hour. At times, Abby would look at Ben's picture and say, "Oh, Ben, that's great." Other times, Ben would say, "Abby, what are you working on now?" They didn't talk much, both happy simply to be near each other. Companionship in its truest form.

At some point, Benjamin grew agitated with his drawing. Frustrated, he said, "I'm a bad drawer."

Without hesitation, Abby said, "Don't say that, Ben. If you say that, you will believe it."

I marveled that this principle, one that is difficult for many grown-ups to grasp, had flowed out of my six-year-old's mouth so readily. We've been talking about this idea more and more lately, as the kids meet with greater challenges in their childhood worlds, faced with decisions about how to respond to perceived failures or their own insecurities: the importance of making accurate statements about ourselves, statements that do not define us by one action or mistake or failure.

Just nights before, Benjamin had a rough warm-up in the batting cages before his baseball game, and as he walked to the field for game time, a stream of negative self-talk filled the airways. "I'm not a good hitter," he said (though hitting is actually one of his strengths). "I don't want to play in the game tonight" (first-game nerves getting the best of his courage). As we walked the sidewalk through the fields together, I gently encouraged him to revise his statements. "I had a tough warm-up," "That wasn't my best batting practice," "I need more practice," I suggested. Anything that recognizes this is one disappointing performance instead of deciding he's a hopeless performer, anything that leaves room for improvement, growth, miracles, surprises. Because saying he's a bad player isn't true, but he can make it true if he believes it. Sports psychology, any psychology 101.

That's why, ever since I first internalized this concept from the book Siblings Without Rivalry when the kids were wee, I've tried to avoid making blanket generalizations and labels about my kids, all too aware of how doggedly persistent words, judgement, can be. Having revised my own words about them, I'm trying to help them do the same.

"You're not Mommy, Abby," Ben said on the floor, his voice laced with frustration. Abby--who often handles Benjamin's irritation with the qualities of rubber, allowing his jabs to bounce off her rather than absorbing their impact--continued drawing.

I decided to step in here, affirming Abby's willingness to speak up and echoing the truth of what she said.

"She's right, Bug," I said to Benjamin. "Better to say, 'This is a bad drawing' or 'This didn't turn out well' rather than 'I'm bad at this.' Especially since just yesterday you talked about what a good artist you are."

As is often the case when kids are given a lecture or advice, Benjamin gave the minimal response, determined to maintain his bad attitude.

I asked him if I could share something I was reading.

Lately, he's been interested in hearing about the books I read. Books have become a common language between us, one that holds even if our own words fail us. The night before, we sat on my bed together, reading side-by-side. I laughed aloud at a passage from Rowing to Latitude, a memoir about a woman who has rowed thousands of miles along the Arctic's edge. He asked me what was so funny, so I read him the passage. As a teenager, she attended a camp where they kayaked in the ocean. As they rowed back to shore, her group found themselves surrounded for a few miraculous moments by whales, which no one believed when they returned--until they inhaled. Drenched in whale spout spray, the kayakers reeked of rotting fish. For weeks, no matter how many times she showered, this girl stunk. The smell was so bad that when she started school a week after her camp, she was called to the principal's office to discuss her hygiene. Benjamin found this predicament hilarious, laughing and laughing in his cutest, uncontrollable giggles as I read.

So there in the family room, I asked him if he'd be willing to listen to something in my book, and he agreed. I told him that this book was written for artists to help them create. Then I read this passage about self-criticism, with a few paraphrases and ad hoc revisions where the language exceeded his comprehension, substituting his comments about drawing where she drew on writing examples:

"...we feel we never do enough and what we do isn't right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The censor says wonderful things like, "You call that writing? What a joke. You can't even punctuate. If you haven't done it by now you never will...' And on and on. Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor's negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice..." (p. 11).

He looked at me while I read, and when I made eye contact with him after I finished, his eyes had softened, his pupils no longer the tiny pinholes they had been in his defensive posture. Mommy's words echoed by an authority: the Censor is always a liar. Perhaps they are worth considering? Benjamin returned to his drawing, persevering in his work despite his frustration.

I went back to reading to myself.

The author goes on to liken the Censor to "a cartoon serpent, slithering around your creative Eden, hissing vile things to keep you off guard." I do believe this correlation. The serpent does slither around our lives, hissing accusations, declaring defeat, inviting us to judge ourselves wrongly, with shame and fear and failure. We believe we are hopeless, when in fact we have been created in the very image of God. We proclaim a false word about ourselves, and come to believe this shadow identity. We allow one bad practice to derail our desire to play the game.

We see ourselves properly only when we surrender our negative proclamations, our Censor, our self-judgment, to the one Word that trumps all others: Jesus, whose judgement is mercy, grace, and love unconditional. When we believe that Word, light enters darkness, truth exposes lie, and we are defined by Him, transformed in His image.  Little by little, day by day, with each thought taken captive to Truth, the Censor's words are silenced, replaced by the living Word, who says, "I created you. I have a plan for you. I see you are more than the sum of your failures. Get out in this world and play your heart out without concern for being perfect, for I am using even your imperfections to win this battle against the serpent."

It starts small, with the discipline to not label ourselves and those around us with our failures. But this discipline is a powerful shield against the Censor, the serpent. I pray that my children will trust me as I coach them to revise their thoughts and words, and come to believe the Truth of who they are: beloved masterpieces created to fill this world with faith, hope, and love--truth serum in a world bullied by the hisses and whispers of a slithering Censor.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Headed to the Poor House with Love

Abigail turned six over the weekend, and this birthday was marked by a love of American Girl dolls. Josh and I have not encouraged this interest, largely because we hope one day we can afford to send our children to college. Nevertheless, a few friends in her inner circle received dolls in the last year, and so the desire took root and grew in sweet, innocent, six-year-old girl fashion.

Over the summer, she poured over her AG magazine, circling the items she was interested in, discussing the merits of the different dolls she was considering, informing me each day as her favorite doll and accessories changed. She day-dreamed about these dolls like a middle schooler about a crush. One day she said, "Mommy, I just can't stop thinking about my American Girl doll." Her eyes sparkled and her lips curved sweetly into a smile.

We decided to make the doll a reward for finishing the huge Hooked on Phonics set she's been working through for the last year. The set consists of five boxes of reading materials that begin with basic letter sounds and consonant-vowel-consonant words like "cat" and "fit" and end with more complex phonograms like "igh" and "kn." By the last box, she was reading words like "string," "knapsack," "phone," and "shimmer" in increasingly longer books and stories. The whole set is a behemoth task for a five-year-old, representing hours of dedication and work. To encourage her investment, each individual box she finished came with a small prize, and the American Girl doll became the grand prize. Toward the end of summer, her motivation for her doll was so great, she worked her way through the fourth box in a weekend, insisting we read together in every spare moment we had.

So it seemed appropriate that her birthday follow this love. We made reservations at the cafe in the AG store for her and two little friends to enjoy a small dinner party. She finished her fifth and final box of the set just days before her birthday weekend so that she would have her own doll to bring to the party, where they have highchairs for the dolls, who are served with tiny teacups and plates when the girls receive their drinks and meals.

The night before her birthday celebration, Josh, Benjamin, and I drove her to the store to pick out her doll and one accessory (the prize for completing her fourth box). She walked the store thoughtfully, carefully considering all her options before settling on Josefina. She radiated gratitude and joy, carrying her doll gently, adorning her with her little accessories, and smiling that coy smile of hers that comes out when she can't contain her inner delight.

All summer, Benjamin and Abby had been discussing which doll accessories he would get her for her birthday. So that night at the store, Ben pulled me aside and said, "I want to get something that Abby can wear to her party tomorrow." The store sells matching outfits for girls and their dolls. Since her party at the cafe was to be followed by a slumber party at our house, I suggested a set of matching pajamas, which he agreed would be perfect. I made the birthday purchases out of Abby's sight, shook my head at the price tag, and then we all went to dinner together, Josh and I exchanging smiles as we observed Abby's excitement. "It's happy new mommy day for Josefina," Abby proclaimed over mac and cheese, embracing this role completely.

Toward the end of dinner, Benjamin sidled up to me to whisper in my ear, "Mommy, I want to get Abby a bed for Josefina."

I heard the love in his voice but said quietly, "You'll have to talk to Daddy about that, because I think we've spent all our birthday budget already," catching Josh's eyes across the table.

Ben walked around the table to his daddy and whispered his desire in his ear. With Abby engaged in her care of Josefina, Josh mouthed across the table to me, "How much?"

I shrugged my shoulders that I didn't know. "Probably a lot," I mouthed back.

Josh turned to Ben and said, "Why don't we go look and see." So while Abby and I took care of the bill, they went back to the bastion of girly-ness, two boys who adore our little girl, to see about a bed.

I watched the door, waiting for them to walk back out, wondering what they'd decide. A few minutes later, they emerged with a large bag in hand, smiling. As we climbed in the car together, Josh said, "I just can't say no to our son when he loves her so much." We drove home through the rain, Abby cradling her doll in the backseat, my heart glowing with affection for my husband.

And I thought, this must be how God reacts to us. When he sees us giving to our brothers and sisters on earth, sharing lavishly, illogically out of a pure heart of love, I'm sure He must say, "Sure, Son. Go ahead and get that for your sister. I'll find the money somewhere. Give freely. I'll figure out how to pay for it."

Something about the whole exchange rang profoundly true.

The next day, Abby dressed her doll up for the party, enjoyed a sweet dinner with friends, and came home to find matching pajamas laid out for her and Josefina with a little bed next to her big bed for her doll. Ben couldn't contain his excitement, telling her all about the bed and how they chose it. When he started to walk out of the room to show Abby something else, she ran up behind her brother and threw her arms around him, saying, "I love you, Ben."

And when Abby opened the rest of her birthday presents two days later, she shared her new crafts and activities freely with her big brother, without concern for how much he was using her gifts. It was all freedom, all generosity, from a spirit overflowing with gratitude and joy.

We love because we've been loved. We give because we've been given. We share because we've received abundantly. And in this communion of love, the very heart of God, whose resources know no limit, is revealed.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

All-American Night

Benjamin had his first baseball practice ever last night. By the time practice began at 6:30, the sun had retreated enough to cast a warm, sunny glow over the fields, leaving the temperature comfortably warm. A mild breeze kept the bugs at bay. We walked down the path to the green lawn near the batting cages to find his coach and team, Ben and I both quiet, butterflies in our bellies, wondering how this new endeavor would go. Texas takes their kids' sports seriously. It's a different level of intensity than we've experienced in our mountain town's leagues.

Abby, of course, bounced down the path, chattering away, oblivious to our nervous energy.

Josh has been working with Ben on his fundamentals since we signed him up for the season. During Abby's Thursday night soccer practices, they bring their mitts, balls, and bat to an empty corner of the oak-shaded field to work on throwing and catching, batting and fielding. I watch them from where Abby plays, heart overflowing with affection for my husband, whose patience and encouragement instill confidence in his son. More important than the skills is the time. After a summer apart, Benjamin soaks up Josh's undivided attention, visibly swelling with contentment as they swing, scoop, throw, catch. The skills follow.

We met the coach, an affable dad with a presence that put us both at ease. Benjamin joined the other kids in warming up until they called him into the batting cages. He made contact with most of the pitches, hitting a few with solid power. His coaches made a few corrections to his form, and Ben listened, hitting a solid line drive after adjusting his stance. My mama heart swelled with pride in this little man who's worked hard these last several weeks and who receives instruction like water. He is growing up, my little boy. Pushing himself to try new things, devoting himself to improvement, recognizing the cause and effect of effort and growth. 

I exhaled. He's going to have no problem here.

Ben rejoined the other kids on the grass, alternately fielding grounders and catching the fielded balls. My attention moved back and forth between him and his sister, who practiced cartwheels in the grass until her hair matted down around her face from sweat. 

Every time she landed correctly, she beamed at me, all pride and glory. Determination abounds in her, too.

The sun continued to drop so that, by the time we moved to the baseball field for the second half of practice, the sky was colored pink and orange and purple. 

I watched Benjamin sprint the bases while Abby tried to capture the sky in my phone. 

"He's a good runner," I heard one coach say to the other. 

Ben ran over to the fence with a grin:"I think they like my speed!" he said, and ran back to the line.

Abby looked up at me with a face that shone adoration for her big brother: "I think Ben's a good player," she said.

"I think so, too."

It was the loveliest evening: baseball, cartwheels, sunsets, joy. Quintessential Americana. 

I'm not sure what it is about life here, but it feels easier, somehow, to give the kids opportunities to try more, to step out in independence, to work and accomplish more of what they desire. Perhaps it's just a matter of timing. They're old enough now to handle an occasionally later bedtime, a fuller schedule. Perhaps it's the weather: warm and breezy evenings that insist on being enjoyed. Perhaps it's the proximity of activities to our home that allows us to spend more time doing and less time driving. 

Whatever the case, life feels rich at the moment. The kids are happy. Not in the superficial sense, but in the deeply contented and fulfilled sense. Two nights ago, Abby walked up to a little girl during Ben's soccer practice and struck up a conversation, asking her which school she goes to ("Me, too!"), who her teacher is ("Oh, your class is across the hall from mine!"), what her name is ("Mine is Abigail"). It was an actual conversation initiated by my newly poised and engaging little girl. At some point in the exchange, Abby said, "Come on! Let's go admire the stars and stuff," and off they skipped into the grass under the Texas sky. I turned to this little girl's dad after they left, and we both chuckled aloud at the cuteness.

In all aspects, from their new school to their new activities to their responsibilities here at home, they are working hard and seeing their efforts rewarded. They are developing confidence, a sense of self, an awareness of who they are in this world, a willingness to step out of the known and secure to engage new people, new activities. They are maturing before my very eyes.

I'm still not sure why God initiated this move to Texas, and I'm certain the answers will continue to unfold with time, but for now, watching the kids thrive is all this mama could ask for.

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