A Mother’s Credentials

When people hear that I am a trained marriage and family therapist, they usually corner me at dinner parties, asking my advice on fixing either their child or spouse. They suppose I am uniquely equipped because of my training. In some ways, they are correct: I teach marriage and parenting courses, I can devise a chore chart in my sleep or train a parent or spouse in active listening. But, in other ways they are far more equipped than I am, and just don’t know it yet. Heading into my 16thyear of marriage, that produced 5 wildly different children, I’ve come to realize, good parenting takes a different kind of expertise.

With each child my husband and I welcomed, I became increasingly aware that I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. The little I think I know, I am ill-equipped to carry out. My children are so unique, so rapidly changing and growing; I spend much more time on my knees than I do skimming my psychology books. The more time I spend pleading with God, for insight, for wisdom and patience, the more I see He is much less interested in modifying my children’s behaviors, and much more interested in transforming their hearts, alongside mine.

Through these times of prayer, God has impressed upon me my unique gifting and calling as their mother. It is not my schooling that equips me for this task, but the great Helper, the Holy Spirit in me. Through the Spirit, I have a unique vantage point to see my children, to bless them and call out their giftings. God made these children for me and I for them.  The same is true for every mother reading this article: whether your children have come to you through adoption or birth, you have the right credentials, God hand-picked you for this job. You have insight into your child that was bestowed by God and is not accessible to their teachers or even grandparents. You may not know it yet, you may spend hours on your knees before you see it, but it is there.

God gives generously to all who ask for His wisdom and when you ask Him to show you your child’s strengths and weaknesses He will open your eyes to them. He will delight you with their fantastic quirks; He will show you their tender spots. He will readily show you the pitfalls, the weaknesses, the creativity and temptations. To all who seek, find.

In a day and age when we are assaulted from all sides to conform to social norms, the mother’s calling is as unique as it is pivotal. We delight in our child’s differences; we accept them as they come to us, not as we wish them to be. In addition to may daily prayers, I echo Numbers 6, Moses’ blessing, over my children nightly before they go to sleep. I don’t even fully know what I’m praying when I place my hand on their warm, soft heads, or the power and majesty of what I am claiming, of what I am calling down upon them. I don’t need to know. I only know that I am their mother, and that makes me the right woman for the job.

The Potential of a Temple Body

Growing up, I had a friend named Caleb* who lived down the street and on school days we would walk to the bus stop together.  We would often catch up with Sarah* and together they would bemoan what happened the day before in Catechism. While they mourned the loss of time it took from more worthy endeavors, they painted a picture for me of lavish ceremonies and girls in crisp white dresses. While they lamented, I was enchanted.  I didn’t know much about this secret Club, but I knew I wanted in.

I pull my memories like taffy and as far back as I can go, I remember an attraction to the mystery of God. As a young teenager, I visited my aunt and uncle in Wheaton, Illinois.  On my second day with them, I found myself on the campus of Wheaton College, open-mouthed as I walked through the maze of the Billy Graham Center.  I went room to room, reading every verse on plaques lit from within. The last room featured a giant, imposing, glass cross, glowing blue and white.  I stood at its feet, transfixed, strongly resisting the urge to reach out and touch its glossy edges.  The Halleluiah Chorus flowed from unseen speakers. I pushed through the exit door into the glaring sunlight and immediately started back at the beginning.

At home, we had a large, black Bible in the cabinet where we kept our photo albums, and some days as a pre-teen, I would sit on the tan shag carpet and slowly flip through its pages.  Far before I knew for certain there was an unseen Audience, I laid motionless in my quiet room whispering secret prayers into the dark. Back even farther still to Caleb, whose family had the real and bloodied Jesus on their walls, and who touched their foreheads and shoulders when they prayed.  Even though I only saw them do this the one time I ate dinner at his house, it lent legitimacy to his case. While they bowed their heads, I snuck glances at the half-naked Man, displayed on the most prominent wall in their home, blood in perfect droplets from His crown, from His hands. I was transfixed by His eyes, those steady, placid eyes, that calmly observed my deviation, in the midst of the slaughter scene around Him.

My parents exchanged glances at dinner one night when I asked if I could go to this catechism.  My father, a lapsed Catholic, gave an audible sigh, and looked at my mother pleadingly. My quest for faith was not overtly rejected.  It was more like my mother and father held two ends of a blank canvas for me when it came to figuring out God. They kept up this non-judgmental white space, while I mulled over paint choices and made haphazard strokes. They took me to weeklong Christian summer camps every year that I adored. In my teenage years, they dropped me off at Audio Adrenaline concerts and Wednesday Night Youth Group, elbowing my older sister to keep her eye rolls to a minimum. They bought me T-shirts with the Christian fish on it. They gave me the incalculable gift of grace and space to figure things out for myself, for which I am forever indebted to them. If they were dismayed, they suppressed it, while they obliged my every request, for there was no sin in my family as grave as the sin of closed-mindedness.

My father told me that it wasn’t until I got to college that it dawned on him that this phase might stick.  He was convinced that an Evangelical Para-church organization I was attending, was indeed a cult (“are they asking you for money??”), and my mother thought that raising funds to go on a summer missions trip with them was unseemly.  In fairness, some of it was.  And it was there that I learned there was a Code of Conduct For The Evangelical Christian Woman.  It was within this context that I first learned my body was a Temple of the Spirit of God.

Applying for a mission trip within this same organization meant signing an ‘Agreement’.  There were Rules. I was still on the outside looking into the Club but I was starting to understand the price of admission. One of the numbered lines said I was ‘submitting to a dress code of modesty, so as to not make someone of the opposite gender stumble into sin.’ At retreats in high school, I had heard similar themes presented to women: modesty, submission, gentleness, quietness.  Without having attended the men’s events, I suspected they ingested a different curriculum.  It seemed that the older we were getting, the more heavy-handed the topic became. I was becoming suspicious that the topics of modesty and submission were reserved for only half the Club, the half with boobs, the half with the duty to keep those boobs covered up. When I brought up these concerns it became clear to me that others had long ago received the pamphlet on the Code and that I was way, way behind.  And so, my introduction into what it meant to have a temple/body of God began and ended with what it was not to do, what it was not to wear, and where it was not to go.

I felt about this Club, and perhaps the Church in general, since I had not yet parceled out the two, similar, maybe, to how an astronaut feels hovering outside the Earth in space. Their home, their belonging and belongings, everything they’ve strived for, everything they love is reduced to a tiny, suspended marble. The Church, and its rules and its codes and its crisp white dresses and suffering Savior with the gentle eyes was my beautiful marble and I rolled it between my fingers, deliberating. I ached for the beauty of it from the outside. I tried to make sense of the lines, discern their coming and going. I wanted to make myself small enough to jump into the ocean blue of the marble, to be swallowed up in belonging.  Some days I wanted that more than I have ever wanted anything else in the whole world.

Other days I wanted nothing to do with the misogynistic undertones, the contradictions and restrictions.  I couldn’t seem to make sense of what was learned and what was true.  I read a book that argued Christian women were equipped to teach in the nursery but not in the sanctuary.  This made absolutely zero sense to me. My mother, the first female litigator in her law firm’s history, showed me by example, her equality to a man. My father, a self-professed feminist, had looked me in the eye, more than once to promise me that in this life I could be anything I wanted to be. Were these just boosts to my self-esteem? This bolstering, ingested from infancy, were these made to keep up my magical thinking? Like how my parents took my gift tags to work and had their co-workers sign my Christmas gifts from Santa Claus? Or were they empirically true? Could these, my earthy parents think more highly of me, want more freedom for me than my Heavenly Father? My parents thought I was just as good as any man, but did God?

I saw that my parents had good reason to fear my increasing obsession with religion. They knew things I was just beginning to learn. But they also knew that forbidding my travels to these corners would only ignite my teenage rebellion to do the things they forbade. So, they let me keep painting. I was still painting on that blank canvas but I was no longer depositing indiscriminately.  And I was learning to be more careful where I procured my paints.

To be clear, my faith was shaped for the better by organizations, like these, that had things like rules and dress codes. They were the ones who invested most deeply in my spirituality and who taught me to read and understand God’s word. While I have found their container at times restricting, it was that container that gave me context and language to form the most crucial parts of my faith. Also, I want to do things like dress modestly and hold a loving awareness of how my choices affect the temptations of others. But what if the conversation didn’t begin and end there? What if when we talked about our temple bodies, we began with what it can do instead of what it cannot? Instead of starting with no’s: no sex, no drugs, no midriffs, what if we started with possibilities? I’m beginning to think that this is what actually matters: not only what shouldn’t we do with our temples but what our temples should do, what our temples can do.

For Lent this year, I went through the book of Exodus.  On January 1st, I began a ‘read through the bible in a year plan’ which I am historically terrible at completing. Because of my slowness in keeping up with it, the book of Exodus in this plan, coincided with my Lenten readings on it. For at least 2 full weeks they converged on the instructions regarding building God’s Tabernacle, His dwelling place. I was reading about the length of the wood pieces and the color of the fabric and the golden candlesticks and yada yada get on with it, Moses, until it thought I could take it no longer. I decided to give myself a break from the saturation of details, so one morning, instead, I opened my contemplative prayer app (‘Pray As You Go’-get it if you don’t have it). Wouldn’t you know it, that day’s prayer, too, was out of Exodus.

It was at this point that I realized God was trying to get my attention. God was giving an excruciating amount of detail to this one thing, and He was having me double-down on that specificity. Jesus in all His teachings, never touched on homosexuality, never talked about birth control, talked only a few times about sex and marriage and was surprisingly vague about a lot of details He knew we would contend with on a daily basis. The Epistles themselves leave quite a bit more grey than my black and white thinking would prefer. Yet here’s chapter after chapter, after nauseatingly detailed chapter, about how to build, decorate and engage with God’s dwelling place.

I got so tired of reading it that I decided to cover the days’ passage on audio. I put on my tennis shoes and started walking because, I figured if I had to do this, I might as well be productive. I got to the part (for the second time that week) about God’s spirit dwelling on the masonry workers and designers building the tabernacle. Years ago, I read a book about Christian creatives that said this was the first instance in Scripture where God’s Spirit is said to rest on a person, here, in a creative capacity. This time I heard it though, I stopped in my tracks.

It took hearing it/reading it/ ingesting it a number of times before I made the connection between the Tabernacle, the coming Temple and the human body. The tabernacle’s purpose was to contain the Ark of the covenant of God, the holy of holies, the place where God dwelled. This holy place was then transferred to the Temple where everyone came to worship, where a priest could only enter once a year to offer sacrifices to God. This is the same place where the dividing temple curtain was torn at the moment Jesus died giving access to God’s dwelling place, the holy of holies, to all people. At Pentecost that dwelling place split into a million tongues of fire and dwelled in the hearts of mankind as the prophets said it would. The tabernacle, the temple, the body: the dwelling places of God. Suddenly it became perfectly clear to me why the writers were taking this much time and giving this much detail.

As I’ve been thinking through the care and specifics of the tabernacle and temple, I’ve been thinking about the implications on my personal life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of proximity. What does it mean that my body is now the temple, now the dwelling place of God? What does it mean when I, in my body, am in proximity to the poor? What does my presence alone, mean, if anything, when I engage with the pain and suffering and brokenness in the world around me? What does it mean to purposely bring the temple near to other people instead of demanding that they make their way to a temple?

And what does it mean if I refuse to be in proximity to the poor? (I’m referring here to materially poor as well as spiritually, emotionally and mentally). What does it mean if I settle for writing checks in lieu of interaction? Does it matter? Does my engagement or disengagement matter? To what extent am I neglecting God’s call on my life if I insist on keeping my temple to myself?

These questions have surfaced as I’ve become more engaged volunteering with a local non-profit whose tagline is ‘mentoring families out of homelessness.’** This organization, backed with some really interesting new scientific data on the topic, is figuring out that relationship building is the most solid way out of addiction, homelessness and crime. Imagine that: Jesus, who told us loving God and neighbor was paramount, was right all along.

We forget that this is the thing He told us to do. We can get easily sidetracked, we wring our hands over what a woman can and cannot do in the church. Can they stand on the altar or only on a stage? Is what they’re doing ‘teaching’ or ‘preaching’? We get tied up in knots over this, making sure everything is fair, making sure our theology is on the right side. But in the meantime, there are places and people desperate for temples that don’t have them.

What if instead we started here: every single person, male or female, gay or straight, whatever the shade, whatever the denominational banner over their heads, any and every person that confesses Jesus as Lord and believes that God raised Him from the grave, has a body that is a holy, amazing, unique, intricately designed, precious, irreplaceable temple. Let’s talk about what that means, the extravagance and the responsibility. Let’s start with the potential over the problematic. Let us repent for where we have failed to go, for surely the Owner of the temple expects a yield on His purchase. Let us have the courage to take it out of its comfortable inertia and bring it near those who need it most, trusting this kind of temple was made mobile for a reason.

*names changed

**For more information on Imagine Whittier go to www.thewholechild.info or www.imaginela.org

French Fry Eucharist

Yesterday was Dress Like Friend Day at my kids’ school, part of a week-long ‘Spirit Week’ effort to erode the parent’s will to live. Maybe I’m the only downer in the group; everyone else seems to have fun with it. The playground was full of nothing but smiling faces and I will say, I don’t mind evaluating my parenting based on how well my kids can independently put together a ‘decades’ outfit without my involvement. They can work their way around a hot glue gun, so, essentially, my work here is done.

However. When I saw the notice, I immediately thought about a boy my son had conflict with the year before. In an effort to place the boy, I had asked who this kid’s friends were.  My son said, “Oh, no one wants to be friends with him.  He makes weird noises and gets mad a lot. Plus, he uses bad words.”  Already, in third grade, this child was classified.  He is weird.  He is other.  My neck tingles at the thought of this child, this same time last year, alone on the vast open black top at recess, in a non-matching shirt, his aloneness amplified and exposed.

At the time, I asked my son who the child’s mother was in an effort to place his invisible face in my mental Rolodex.  I silently wondered if I should invite her for coffee or for a play date.  But because it is the nemesis of kindness, apathy interrupts me. The reality of engagement reminds me that I am busy and sleep deprived. I just want to relax for the few and precious minutes of down time between changing diapers and cleaning up messes with friends, not strangers.  I don’t really want to take the chance of my kid being poorly influenced, or picking up bad language.  I don’t want to step outside my comfort zone. I’m usually so overwhelmed at the needs of my own family, what makes me think I can I take on the needs of others?

I find myself often at this crossroad: my goal to raise a child who shuns apathy, who goes forth kind and brave and bold into this world yet I myself clutch kindness to my chest like it is hard to come by. This death to self, other’s first, God’s kind of kindness is costly and I am frugal. In the end, the decision was made for me. Once I worked up the courage to get her details for that coffee date, I found the family had left our school.

My daughter announced that this year she was dressing up with a friend she had never mentioned before. Without my prompting or bribing, she had picked a girl who had no one to dress up with. I felt undone; ashamed at my amnesia. This is the same child who came home last week genuinely stressed out because too many kids wanted to play with her at recess. “I’m trying to make time for all of them” she lamented, without a hint of arrogance. I find notes from first graders in my son’s backpack, love notes from his groupies for landing a lead role in the school play.  My children do not struggle to make friends, and that is precisely why, as their mother, I’m beginning to see this as my problem.  Maybe this is what thoughtful people have been trying to say about race relations in America. It is the person with privilege, the person with power, the person with too many friends to play with that is responsible for the people without friends, without power, and without privilege. It is their voices, withheld from the conversation, that cause it to stall.

I’m beginning to see this is my problem and my work and I cannot outsource it. And this is not my side hustle. This is the job. It is unfortunate, since I am perhaps the least equipped person to deal with our cultures problems: brokenness, alienation, loneliness, anger, anger so explosive it takes on the form of a gun to express it. But the children yanking on my pants while I chop peppers, and sit around my table, the people whose toes I scrub in-between are the very people who, tomorrow, will take their place in boardrooms, in classrooms, and behind guns. Our home, which more often resembles a Chuck E. Cheese than a sanctuary is still, unfortunately, the first and best place to form a soul. Like it or not today’s cranky, coffee-stained and sleep deprived parents are on the frontlines of tomorrow’s, most likely worsening, problems. It is unfortunate, but here we are.

In high school, my two best friends came from Evangelical Christian families. I remember riding in their cars, their mothers took us everywhere: voice lessons, musical rehearsals, The Mall. Sometimes they would take us to their own homes where we would raid the pantry, breaking and passing and giggling in warm, sunny kitchens.  Jamey used to pick us up in her brown, beat up AstroVan, Amy Grant playing softly through the speakers. We would all cram into the seats in the far back, making her our chauffeur. Teenagers are the absolute worst. Another mom, Susan, would sometimes pick us up for voice lessons with fast food French fries in bags. After a rough day of navigating 10th grade dramatics I remember feeling like I’d entered a shelter from a storm climbing into that familiar, warm, van that smelled of salt and grease.

I don’t know why these little moments stand out in my mind, now, like buoys in an ocean, as if my own wonderful parents didn’t buy me French fries hundreds of times. Maybe it was precisely that I was not her child. It was something in the way she would casually toss her waxy paper bag offering to the back seat, like I deserved it, like I belonged there. In hindsight, I see this was my first Communion, my first pieces of Jesus incarnate. I think I was beginning to see God for who He was in vans with faded fabric seats with 90’s worship music playing, and a French fry Eucharist. I want to ask these women now, Were you tired? Were you annoyed at the inconvenience of carting me around, another place to go, another mouth to feed? Were you scared of me, unchurched ragamuffin that I was? Did you know how important you were? Did you know that I loved you?

I think they would say no.  I think they would say they were just doing the next right thing God put in front of them to do.  I think they simply said yes to taking me from point A to point B with their kids.  I think they made coffee dates I was too scared to make. I think they were just themselves, puttering around their kitchens, listening with one ear to boy drama while we emptied their refrigerators.  I think they did the small, needed, seemingly-insignificant, sometimes-inconvenient thing, not knowing at the time that it looked a lot like God to me.  It looked a lot like God waiting for me, every day by the curb at school in a big, brown van, smelling like French fries.

Lenten Reflections

My father-in-law, who also happens to be my church’s pastor, asked me to share some of my Lenten reflections at our Maundy Thursday Service. This is similar to a Good Friday service but we do it on Thursday because we like to get a jump start on the activity, or perhaps we are simply extra spiritual. Now that I think about it, in hindsight, he didn’t actually ask me, I think he said, “I’m going to have you share some thoughts”. It feels good to be known. Me? Thoughts? Well, I wouldn’t know where to begi- Pass me that microphone.

I think I’ll start with the first time I became aware of Good Friday. I was maybe 2 years past my cancer diagnosis and still going into the oncologist’s office every three months for lung x-rays and brain MRIs. The melanoma was deep enough to get labeled stage 3, and they suspected that since it had already travelled to my lymph nodes, its next resting place would be my lungs or brain. I was, perhaps, 22 at the time.

I had been in to the office a few days before for all of my exams and they found a mole ‘suspicious’ just below my neck. Because it was such a prominent location on my body, and since it would require a stitch or two, they asked me to come back Friday, when the surgeon was in to biopsy it.  I returned, dutifully, and sat in the chair in the office I had dubbed ‘my chair’. It was nearest the exit. I was easily the youngest person, by a good 30 years, in any of the waiting rooms, but this one, more than the x-ray one or the lab one or the MRI one, made me the most uneasy. This was the waiting room filled with hairless, genderless, sunken faces. This was the waiting room with Cancer Support Group laminated cards dusting the coffee tables. This was the waiting room where I could hear labored breathing and feel eyes boring into my spine as I got up at the sound of my name. Maybe they assumed I was here waiting for someone else.

What I hated most about that waiting room, though, was that it put me face-to-face with my life’s two possible outcomes: either this was the place of people whose fates I had narrowly, and gratefully, escaped or, this was the face of my future. My 22-year-old brain handled this philosophical trauma by spending as much time as possible at the nurses’ station checking in before taking my seat. “Are you sure you got my insurance card?” “Oh, hey Wanda, how’s the grandkids?” Eventually the nurses tired of my inane jabber and went about their actual jobs, trying to save the lives of cancer patients, and the like.

On the large whiteboard near their station, instead of the usual general welcome, were the words, “Happy Good Friday.” I thought about those words when my name was called and my spine was set ablaze with stares. I thought about it as I settled myself on the crinkly, papered table. I thought about it when they injected my skin with anesthetic and when they did the quick slice. I thought about it when they stitched me up and told me they would call me in 3-5 business days. When they left the room, I sat for a long time in silence, in my gown, alone. This is a good day to get cut, I thought. I guess that was the thought I’d been waiting for since it got me off the table and back into my clothes.

And that is all Good Friday has meant to me since, only in ever increasing layers. It is a good day to get cut, a good day to get a scar. It’s a good day, a good a day as any, to experience pain, brokenness, loneliness, disappointment and loss. In a culture, even a church culture, that prioritizes health and wealth and safety and happiness, it is good to have one solid day set apart to prioritize suffering. All of Lent, actually, has come to symbolize lamenting for me. In a world where everyone seems shiny and successful and put together, Lent gives me a container for my suffering. It gives me language for sadness, and loneliness, making it normative, holy and expected. In a day and time where we can stuff our brokenness and ailments and aging and raging mental illness safely behind closed doors, Lent invites us to open them up and give them some air.

I needed Lent this year more than I ever have before. My mother-in-law is dying and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It feels really good to say that out loud. I think I’ve been spending all of my energy since her diagnosis trying to stay on the Easter side of things. I tell myself I have less faith if I say she is dying, we never know what God will do! Also, I am one of those Kooky Kristians who believes in real life miracles. They’ve happened right under my nose. I was told by two doctors, before the cancer diagnosis, that I would never have children. We all know how that story ended.

I know God can. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. But I don’t know that He will. And although I’ve seen miracles with my own two eyes, those same eyes are currently watching one of my favorite people on Earth get eaten up from the inside.

The only thing I knew for sure was to let myself stay on the Good Friday side of things this Lent. I’ve sat for these 46 days and let myself be sad, let myself sit in the unknowing and the fear. This does not come naturally for me, I don’t like to get too close to the edge of that cliff, or like the Israelites, the edge of the mountain. The Israelites spoke to me this Lent season, as I read their story in Exodus. I needed to travel with these people who were called out of bondage, released and freed from slavery just as I am, but at the slightest bend in the road, beg for that slavery back if it means a steak dinner. The same people that ran and hid from suffering and who in fear ‘stood far off, while Moses drew near, to the thick darkness where God was.” Lent was my invitation to draw near, even if it is cloudy and dark and scary because it is where God is.

It was Thomas Keating that said, “silence is God’s first language, everything else is a poor translation” and that made me think that maybe darkness was God’s first dwelling place. God created light, God separated the light from the darkness, but it never says He created the darkness. Darkness was already there, presumably with God in it, working, breathing, plotting, loving. That is why His rod and staff comfort me when the valleys He created out of darkness become dark once again, shadowed by grief and death. I’m reminded He not only dwells in the darkness, He is in charge of the darkness.

I think that’s what happened to me that day when I sat on the crunchy, paper table. I let God be in charge of the darkness and I began to let suffering do its work in me. I stopped running so fast, I stopped pushing it away. I saw with fresh eyes that Jesus navigated a way by going before me, taking on all suffering as His own. No suffering is uncharted territory. I’m more thankful this year than I have ever been that Jesus came to us not as a shiny, polished, mega-preacher, all crisp and packaged and put together, but as a wounded, suffering Savior. I’m thankful that He showed us how to suffer, and showed that it is ok that we do.  For we are surely an Easter people, but we live in a Friday world.