Saturday, January 29, 2011

of births and birthday parties

we celebrated eliza's birthday and her life today. over the years of eliza's life and through the three birthdays since her death, we have developed some traditions. despite the fact that eliza never tasted any real food, much less cake, luke has never been able to comprehend a birthday without cake, so today we had our fifth cake (okay, cupcakes this time) celebrating eliza's life. for sam, a birthday warrants a party and worship, and a party warrants a crowd. today was no different. for me, i have found it meaningful to give gifts to others when giving birthday gifts to eliza is impossible, so we have historically visited the intensive care nursery at duke hospital, where eliza spent the first ten weeks of her life, with gifts for the patients' families and nurses on her birthday. today, my third-trimester exhaustion and a string of mid-winter illnesses--stomach bug, colds--prevented our continuing that tradition. i've also always taken time around eliza's birthday to send letters to people with whom i don't have regular contact but who were significant in eliza's life--nurses, doctors, etc. not sure if i'll manage to squeak those out before the day is over; i've got two hours to go...

one thing did feel different today, though. sam and i both felt it: somehow, it was easier today to separate the joy of eliza's birth from the grief of her death than it has been before. last night, as we ate dinner with friends, we were able to laugh at the memory of my being in labor but being determined to finish my mexican dinner before going home to pack my bag and head for the hospital the night before she was born--and that untainted by what the result of that labor would be. i was able to reminisce about the fact that eliza was born just hours after her baby shower, fifteen days early--and to laugh at the possibility that her little sister could do the same, as her baby shower is scheduled for just three weeks before her due date, and this without marring the anticipation of anastasia's birth.

historically, i have fought such evidence of "getting over it." i'll confess to feeling some of the same this year. part of me wants to be sadder than i am; i somehow want to dwell on the grief and have it overshadow the joy. i'm sure i've written about it before, about how clinging to the pain of loss feels like some last way of clinging to the person you've lost; i know i'm not alone in having felt that way. but as today ends, i am choosing instead to cling to the joy. i am choosing to delight in so much of what was delightful about eliza's life: in the awe of two birthday parties here with us when she was never expected to experience one, in the joy of how many people she brought closer to us and to each other, in the sweet lessons our family learned from loving her.

happy birthday, indeed. and many more.

happy birthday

celebrating having my life turned upside down five years ago today--

Sunday, January 23, 2011

playing with fire

my husband sam was lamenting today how americans don't really know what to do with a spark.

we heard this morning about some of what folks from our church learned from a visit to our sister parish in rwanda, africa last summer. one talked about community; another, joy in suffering; yet another, prayer; and another, the huge impact of small ideas. if you know sam, you'll have guessed that the community bit struck him especially strongly, hearing how our brothers and sisters in rwanda are truly living out acts 2:44-45: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." later, he commented to our small group that he finds it frustrating that we all nod in agreement, all laud our overseas brothers and sisters for their faithfulness, all agree that this is what scripture calls us to...and then never do anything about it. monday comes, sunday a distant memory, and we're back to our usual lives. do we even think of acts 2:44-45 again? probably not.

a spark is momentary, fleeting. when a spark jumps from your fireplace onto the hearth, if it doesn't meet something to ignite immediately, it dies. i know because i was always fascinated with the fireplace as a child, watching those sparks--what happens to the ones that fly up the chimney?--and how, as long as they stayed on the tiled hearth, they were of no consequence. but if they made it to the rug, or if a flammably-clothed child was sitting close enough to be the spark's recipient, the danger of that spark becoming something was real. becoming something. just that little spark could become a fire that would consume our house or me, i knew. i liked living on the edge of the hearth, as it were. i've never minded just a little playing with fire, to be honest.

i had the joy of sitting with a boy in church this morning who experienced a spark. he's in fourth grade, i think, or maybe fifth. during the same part of the service in which sam heard what seemed to him a spark worth inflaming, this boy was listening intently. the speaker was sharing the story of a woman he met in rwanda. he explained that she has not been able to return to her home since the genocide sixteen years ago because the very same people she witnessed killing her entire family live right next door. they know that she knows who they are, and so it is not safe for her to return.

upon hearing this story, the boy next to me, who had been listening quietly to the sermon and the special reports from the rwanda team members, exclaimed, "what?!" he absolutely could not understand why she couldn't go home. "why can't she just call the police and tell them the murderers live next door?" he was incredulous. "it's not safe," i whispered quietly, trying to figure out how to address this complicated question in the middle of a church service. "it's not like here." he asked one more whispered question, i think, and i gave one more feeble answer. it's a conversation i need to remember to tell his parents about so they can follow up and explain, a conversation i'd like to take up with him again soon.

and soon is the operative word. there was a spark there for a moment when this boy realized that somewhere else far away, in a place he can't quite imagine but which maybe--just maybe--became a little more real to him today, there is unimaginable suffering and injustice. that the world he lives in, where he knows the rules and has expectations that are consistently met for how things work, is only the tiniest piece of the whole big world that God made; and that the people that inhabit his predictable little world are just a few of the many created in His image. that the injustices he suffers here weekly--be they playground taunts or scuffles with his brother--are a very small thing indeed compared to what his brothers and sisters overseas live with in their weeks.

what will happen to that spark? what will be ignited in this boy's soul as a result of his momentary incredulity at what the world beyond his world holds? will that story change his life, his heart? or has he forgotten already, gone home to a fully satisfying lunch with his living, intact family, a home that will, Lord willing, always be safe, with kind neighbors and trustworthy police on call?

whether that spark ignites a passion for rwanda or a passion for law enforcement work; a yearning for reconciliation in the world or a desire for peace with his own younger brother; a calling to care for the homeless or a motivation to help make his home a haven for his family, my prayer will be that that spark manages to overshoot the safe hearth and land on something flammable. and my hope will be that i can continue to develop a role in this boy's life and in the lives of other children like him where i can wield the bellows that will keep sparks like that alive. may i be sitting close enough to the fire to be burned myself.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

i would love to, if not for the baby

warning: this is going to be one of those posts for which you need to hang with me for a while. ready?

it's funny, isn't it, that i changed the motif of this blog to the wine glass thing--"some of the words i might share with you over a glass of wine"--while i was pregnant. if you know me, you know that i'm pretty careful not to drink alcohol while i'm pregnant. which says nothing about those who choose to--more power to you--i'm just a legalist like that. (and oh, how i'd savor a glass of wine right about now...but i digress.)

the fact is that from day one, being a mom changes your life. completely. but back to that in a minute.


in our church staff meeting yesterday (in case you don't keep up with my comings and goings unless they're mentioned here, i have been the children's minister at our church for about seven months now and recently left my second part-time job as the marketing editor at the local community college), we were talking about discipleship. what is it? how do we do it? what does it look like for the people in our church?

if you're a churchgoer, you've probably heard the term used. but can you define it? our church recently hosted a discipleship weekend, and when someone asked me what that was, i found myself at a loss. i can tell you about Jesus' disciples, that is, his followers. but what is discipleship for us, then, practically speaking? because to say we're being like the original disciples--following Jesus--is all well and good. but what does that mean we're actually doing?

merriam-webster online defines a disciple as "one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another." that's helpful, i guess. but more practically speaking, what does that look like? at a friend's ordination service last week, the presiding bishop described the new priest's role as looking like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from behind, both following Jesus and leading others to Him at once. there's something to that, too. but what both of those definitions miss is the overwhelming commitment of discipleship. when Jesus describes to His disciples what it means to follow Him, there's no question that it's a radical commitment. to paraphrase, take up your cross and follow me (luke 9:23), let the dead bury the dead (luke 9:60) sell all you have (mark 10:21), if anyone does not hate his family, he cannot be my disciple (luke 14:26) etcetera--this is not an easy or half-hearted calling in the least. it's no small deal to become a disciple. so as i've thought about what it means to be a modern disciple in the context of our church staff's discussion, i've had all those pieces of the puzzle in mind.


and this is where the mom thing comes in. i know that if you've ever been a mom--and perhaps even if you've ever been married to one or even just had a mom of your own--you've guessed the connection by now. there is no other role in life that i can think to compare discipleship to in terms of the degree of commitment (and nothing sacrilegious or child-worshipy beyond that, please note) than that of being a mom. from the moment your child is conceived, your entire life revolves around that child--and it will, in many ways, forever. from making you forgo that first glass of wine to changing what you like to eat, what smells you enjoy, how you sleep, what you think about (and how clearly you are able to think), that child takes over your life immediately, even before you get to meet him or her. and then once s/he arrives? your entire life is dominated by that child's needs. all day long, and all night long. from feedings and diapers to carpools and rehearsals to relationships and decisions to long-distance phone calls and friendship, you will not sleep or wake without your child in mind ever again. even if you lose that child, the round-the-clock awareness of being his or her mother will never change.

(this is different for dads, i suspect. i don't know, i guess, and i also don't know whether i'm overstepping to apply it to all moms, either. but i suppose that since this is my blog, if i'm ever going to overstep anywhere, this is the place to do it.)

anyhow, the point is that being a mom doesn't just consume your life, and not for a little while. it becomes your life. and although there may be fleeting moments when you think you'd like to escape it, the reality is that you cannot imagine ever going back to your life before your child. and really, you don't want to.


in my head, which is always searching for the right metaphor with which to understand and explain something, that model of absorption by a relationship--of utter abandonment to a person without any limitations whatsoever--can be the only metaphor sufficient to describe what discipleship ought to look like. there's no looking back, no questioning whether it's right, no doubt that you would without hesitation do absolutely anything for this person. and everything you do is with this person in mind, always.

as a mom, i know that to be a tall order. and perhaps, as a metaphor with all its concomitant limitations, it's not all that helpful in a practical way after all to address the question our church staff was asking: how do we do it? at least it's not practical in a programming sense--what events will we schedule, or to what will we invite people? but if we want to talk about what discipleship really ought to look like, i think it's helpful at least as an image. and maybe it is the thing to which we ought to be inviting people: total, radical, and joyful abandonment, with no strings attached.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

gratitude noted

(confession: this is a cross-posting from my church's blog, to which i contribute posts occasionally as a staff member [children's minister]. thus the formatting differences--i just can't bring myself to go through and get rid of all the capital letters...)

One of the beautiful things about working in ministry, I’m learning, is the frequency with which my work overlaps with what is really important in life.

It was the week before Christmas, and there was too much to do. Too much work: preparing for Christmas Eve service, two Sundays’ worth of activity preparation for the kids, year-end budgeting, nursery clean up. Too much preparation at home: hundreds of truffles to make, a monstrous scrapbook gift to finish, a day-long road trip to the frozen tundra looming two days before Christmas. Too much planning: gifts to buy, laundry and packing to start (and finish!), stockings to stuff, family outings to organize. And too much “regular” life with which to keep up: dinner to make, dishes to wash, pine needles to vacuum, family to care for, third trimester to endure.

And on Monday of this week of too much, I had ministry thank you notes to write. Nearly forty children’s ministry volunteers to thank, each with an individual note. It would take all morning. But if the notes were to get in the mail, Monday had to be the day. So I turned on some Christmas music, closed the door, and settled in to the task I envisioned to be slow and frustrating and not the best use of precious time in which I could do too much else.

And this is where my work in ministry reminded me of what my too-busy real life ought to be about. Because as I wrote each volunteer’s name, as I thanked each person for what s/he has brought to the ministry for the past year, as I really considered the sacrifices each of these people makes to care for and teach and love on our church’s youngest members, I had time to stop and pray for each one. I had time to lift up the burdens that I knew some were carrying, to give thanks for the joys some others were experiencing, to give thanks for the faithful service of each one.

On paper, all I accomplished that morning was to check off one item on my list: write thank you notes. But in reality, in the quiet moments I spent realizing how grateful I was for each volunteer I checked off my list, I accomplished something much more important, something that is a perpetual struggle for me. I was still and grateful. I was in the presence of the Lord, alone in my quiet space, and I was reminded of his many gifts to me—that day, I was specifically reminded of the gifts of all the people that come alongside me in ministering to our church’s children. And I had the time and space to thank him for that gift, on that day of all days when I had no time for stillness or quiet or gratitude.

My scrapbook didn’t get finished in time (and it’s still not finished). My laundry didn’t get done. My packing was disorganized and insufficient. I didn’t get nearly enough sleep. But my soul was rejoicing in God’s great gifts, and in a world of too-much-all-the-time, it is yet another good gift when my job reminds me to be still and revel in those gifts. And what better way to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus—God’s very best gift—than to do just that?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

home again, home again, jiggity jog

"You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time--back home to the escapes of Time and Memory" --thomas wolfe, you can't go home again.

our annual christmas trip to the frozen tundra (we make an annual summer trip there, too, when it's unfrozen) got me wondering: can you, in fact, go home again?

there is no doubt in my mind that there are things about syracuse, new york that are more home to me than any other place ever will be. from the people, of course--my parents, my sister and her husband, my in-laws, brothers- and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, as well as old family friends who may as well be actual family--to the places that were significant throughout my life, to the tastes and smells and sounds that are unique to that place--all of those things define "home" in one sense that will never be redefined.

my parents live in the house we moved into when i was in sixth grade, and though the paint colors may change and the furniture may be rearranged, there are many things that are so familiar in that house, more familiar than anything in any other house may ever be. i know the scraping sound of someone sliding a chair out from under the kitchen table, for example, even when overheard from the upstairs bathroom clear across on the other side of the house, through a closed door. i know which of the identical kitchen cabinets latch magnetically shut correctly and which require the firm nudge of a knee to open or close. i still remember never to flush the toilet before starting the shower--or even worse, while someone is in the shower--for fear of scalding. my heart still beats faster than normal when i back out of the driveway for fear of repeating the removal of two porch column panels from behind the wheel of my high school oldsmobile tank.

there are things about that place, that city, too, that could never be more familiar than they are now. i know the smell of worms washed from the rich, dark soil--so many worms!--and the precise look of a sky before the snow. i remain unsurprised by the black squirrels that show up all over that city, even though i've never seen black squirrels in any other city before. i know which streets to drive on during a snowstorm and which ones to avoid because they probably won't be plowed. just like the driveway at my parents' house, one traffic light gets my heart beating faster even to this day for the memory of having received a ticket for running a red light there as a high school senior. i know how to get to places--the apple orchard in the country, the nature center, the hair salon--despite the fact that i know none of the street names and could never give you directions. except that i'm remembering just now that the hair salon has moved...

despite all that, though, it matters how you define "home." while all of those things are in fact evidence of how much syracuse is still home to me, it is undeniable that durham, north carolina has become very much my home, too. i realized it when i was checking out in a store at the outlet mall near syracuse; the cashier asked for my zip code and then went on to describe to me how to make a return "back home"--that is, in my north carolina zip code. do i sound like i'm from north carolina? i wondered. i think, to my southern friends, i've always sounded like a yankee; but my northern sister, in particular, likes to point out whenever she visits that i've acquired some sort of southern accent. i have lived in north carolina for going on eleven years now--and those all of my adult years, moving here as i did less than a month after graduating from college. and i've lived in my current house nearly eight years, longer than the number of full-time years i spent living in my parents' house. and i realize that i know this "home" and this city in many ways as well as i know my "home" in syracuse.

i know the spots where the faux painting i did on the bathroom walls is less-than-thorough because i was doing it after dark, in a tiny room lit only by a lamp, in order to find toddler-free work time. i know the one spot in the whole house where the floor creaks and how to avoid stepping on it for fear of waking a slumbering child (or husband). i know how to pull the front door closed and turn the key all at once with only one hand in order to make sure it locks. i know the rhythm of the dueling ticking clocks in the living room, the smell of the heat when it's first turned on for the winter, the sound the refrigerator makes when it's making ice--even when heard from all the way upstairs. i know the places where the carpet is wrinkled from too much furniture moving and poor installation, and i know the sound of the mail truck from even a block away.

and this city? here, too, i can get places without thinking though i can't give you directions. i know the smell of the humid wall that descends in the summer, into which you must walk as you exit the door of the house in a mad dash to your skin-scaldingly-hot car. i know what kinds of birds to expect at the birdfeeders and in what seasons, and i know when to expect to hear the pair of owls that live in the woods behind our house. i know the sound of a female fox in the spring--finally identified as decidedly not a pterodactyl as we and some of our neighbors had feared. i know which playgrounds to go to on a too-sunny day, which attractions to avoid in the last weeks of school, which checkout lanes to choose in which grocery store. and the people? while they're not blood family, so many have become so close that they may as well be.

are those the things that make a place home, then? the very-familiars? the things i know as well as i know the patterns on the palms of my hands? and if so, can one have two "homes"? right now, when i leave durham to go to syracuse, i tell people i'm going "home" for christmas; when i leave syracuse to come back to durham, i tell people i'm going "home" now that the holidays are over. but which is it? am i talking out of both sides of my mouth, or can both statements really be true?

or does the dichotomy represent something deeper, a longing for "home" that neither city--nor any other--will ever fulfill completely? i try to imagine the home for which i am made, a place where i can't list the things that are familiar because there is nothing unfamiliar at all. the home where all the smells and sights and sounds are not only completely known but perfect as well. the home where there is no need for directions or air conditioning or snowplows or bird identification books. the home for which i'm created. better than my two "homes" here? it's hard to imagine a place that makes these places look like foreign lands. but philippians 3:20 tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. if my two earthly "homes" can be as good as they are, i can't wait to find out what that home is like.