Flu Season Survival Guide

Below you will find a list of items for you, parent, to have a fighting chance at conquering this year’s flu season. I will link everything to Amazon, not because I am paid, but because that is how I live my life. I was lying in bed the other night debating ridding myself from the shackles of a Prime membership because if the hand causes you to sin you must lop it off. And handless, I would be greatly impeded on my quest to spend mortgage money on books.

You can be confident in these recommendations because, with five children, the flu remains my greatest adversary, and yet, I feel I am destined to conquer it. The year all seven of us jointly succumbed to its powers, our youngest was only three months old. The big kids were desperate for snow, so we decided to spend a weekend at a friend’s cabin in the mountains. My husband, henceforth Patient Zero, was hit on Saturday. By Sunday he was barely awake for packing, and two offspring had begun coughing. He dozed off twice with coffee in his hand. Because he was becoming increasingly disoriented, we decided to get off the mountain as soon as possible. Unfortunately for us, there were two hindering factors: one, the onset of a major snowstorm, and two, the snow chains we borrowed from a friend got wrapped around the axel of our van as we exited, a quarter mile from the cabin.

What happened next is a blur of activity in which I wrapped the baby in every available blanket and rushed him back to the cabin. I must have entrusted the other four to God. I remember yelling something to that effect into the howling wind. We had no food, no way off the mountain and AAA wouldn’t give us the time of day. Patient Zero spent the better part of the morning feverishly ripping chains off the mangled axel while we helpfully stared at him from inside the warm cabin. We skidded partway down the mountain without any chains at all until we stopped at a gas station. Patient Zero had exerted himself to the point of collapse and could barely switch seats with me. I saw him close his eyes, unable to open them again. I looked at all my babies in the rearview mirror. I watched the flakes pile up on the windshield. This is how we all die, I thought. I spotted 3 teenage snowboarders and offered them all the money in my wallet to put the chains back on our car. The tallest one flicked my hands off his collar as he leaned away from me. “Woah, okMa’am”, he said to me. Even though I would drive down that mountain and straight to the E.R. where Patient Zero would get promptly diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis, and even though my fear was so strong that I tasted the death of my entire family like metal on my tongue that day- the memory that sticks the most is that punk calling me ‘Ma’am’. I had not yet been made aware that I was old enough to be aMa’am. I felt my shoulders relax as I unclenched my fists from the lapel of his puffy jacket. I plastered on a thin smile and willed my forehead wrinkles back into place. It was all very distressing.

Anyhow, flu season.

You will need towels. These towels are henceforth dog grooming towels and barf towels only. Choose wisely. You will cover your children and every surface they touch.  You will line the floor next to their bed with them because a towel is easier to bleach than a whole swath of carpet. You will also need tiny washcloths. Not the basic ones. You need the infant ones, that are thin and soothy. Get them wet and they refrigerate/freeze nicely, and are perfect forehead size. Most importantly, they do not require parental readjustment every 30 seconds like the heavy, grainy, waffly ones.

Hot humidifier. Not cold. Now, this is up for debate because of the steam/toddler combination. This is good for infants who haven’t yet mastered a crib escape or pre-school aged kids and up who can harness their ill-fated desire to burn off appendages.

UV wand: Amazon, do you see all these links? Give a girl some kickbacks. You weaken my resolve to give you up. Before you, where would one have procured such a device? The angel on my shoulder says, “you don’t even watch the free shows, and who knows how much you could save if everything you liked wasn’t one click away?” and the devil prime troll says, “where would you be without your UV wand? You’ve spent too much time purchasing from the couch to even find such a thing in the real world.” Anyhow, I’m not entirely sure how this works but I hover it over our toothbrushes and the handles of my refrigerator and feel better about life. I think it sets germs on fire or explodes them. Whatever UV rays do. Science.

Hidden sustenance: you’re going to want to find a spot in your home where you can hide a few bottles of juice and crackers. Hydration in flu season is key, and unfortunately sickness brings out kids’ natural finicky-ness about their sustenance’s. Do not, under any circumstances, leave this to chance. Otter pops stashed in your freezer are gone in minutes. Otter pops pre-frozen in the back of the pantry are gold to you when the kids start barfing and your spouse has abandoned you to work since “someone has to pay the mortgage”. You are in this alone. Make a stash in the back of the pantry today. This is not hard. Everyone in your family only scans the front row anyway. Anything behind the front row is like the wardrobe in Narnia, it is a whole other world. Magical centaurs could be back there and nobody would be the wiser. You could hide specialty chocolates or bars of gold back there and I bet not even a robber would find them. Don’t come break into my house thinking I have gold bars. I don’t. But maybe I should get some now that I’m thinking about it. I wonder if they’re on Prime.

Queen Blow up Mattress– I cannot overestimate the importance of this item. This has saved my life on so many occasions that I now have a whole section of my linen closet dedicated to the sheets that match it. Here’s why. The flu will begin at night. I don’t know why this happens, but without fail, everyone is rainbows and lollipops at dinner. “Kids, anyone want more of this 8-layer lasagna? Did everyone get enough blackberry cobbler? Maybe if we get peckish later we can finish off the queso! Why not? We won’t ever see it again!”

But we will. We will see it again.

Around 2 am, there will be a creak on your floorboards and a whispered confession from a warm, wet, distant source. This murky voice will come to you in waves, ripping you out of a wonderful dream. It is the marsh-like quality of the voice and the accompanying stench that will drag you out of your slumber. It will whisper, “I think I threw up in my bed.” Kids like to declare actualities as though they could be possibilities. I assume this is meant to soften the blow. They say things like, “I think the T.V. stopped working”, knowing full well they tried to wedge a bagel bite in the DVD player to see if it would spin. “I think my project is due in the morning.” “I think I threw up in my bed, I might not have. It could have been a dream. I’m not entirely sure. My breath may be that of a skunk corpse rotting in a compost heap simply by chance.”

At this point you will bolt out of bed to confirm the sad reality you already knew deep down in your heart. You have one of two options here. Option one: Take the child into bed with you and throw an aforementioned towel on the carnage. No one is here to judge. Option Two: strip the sheets off the bed and start from scratch. Neither of these options are viable, and I’ll tell you why. If you remake your child’s bed, you will surely repeat this charade in 45 minutes. This could go on all night, or until you run out of sheets. That may tempt you to give up and bring the child into bed with you, reasoning that you will hear the first gags and be able to rush the sleeping child to the toilet. This is also a mistake. The child will absolutely barf again, and you have misjudged your late-night prowess. You will be in such a state of exhaustion you will miss the cascade until it is in your hair and dripping through your mattress pad. This choice has long-lasting repercussions. Even if you bleach every aspect of bedding and mattress, vomit is a smell that cannot be fully eradicated. It will come for you 3 months from now when everyone is well and your life is at ease. You will turn over in the middle of the night and catch the faintest whiff of fermented queso. Is it your imagination? Are you coming down with something? You do a gag test to see. Can it really last that long? Personally, I could sense the remains years after our incident. I never really had peace again until a decade later when we upgraded to a king. Learn from me. In-bed vomiting is a merciless ghost.  She will haunt you for life.

Enter option 3! The blow-up mattress. So many things about this are applicable to barfing children, that I don’t even understand how this is not already a niche market. You unroll it from under a bed or wherever you store it. You press a button, it blows up. You don’t even have to fully wake up for any of this. It has a wipeable surface, so who even cares. It is low to the ground so the barf bowl is eye level. I could go on.

Now is not the time to be a cheapskate. You’ll noticed I linked to a queen mattress. Not a twin. A queen. A king is too big to fit on the floor of your bedroom and a twin means you won’t fit on it with them. It is imperative that they think you are sleeping with them, so that when they finally drift off to sleep, you can ninja roll off it, into your own bed, which does not smell like vomit.

Godspeed, fellow warriors.

 

 

Counting the Cost

I met Nancy in 1999 in the Jamba Juice located inside the lobby of Webb Tower at USC.  My dorm room was located in Webb and I would exit through the lobby to head to class and mysteriously I would see Drew Pryor there, more often than not. He did not live in that building, but he was always there. I just thought he really liked overpriced smoothies.

I went back to that Jamba Juice last week to prepare for this moment. They’ve ruined it, of course, and turned it into a Starbucks. I went there because she loved to talk about the day we met. We were in Mongolia two months ago and she would introduce me to these really important ministry leaders and for some reason she would tell this story. Maybe it’s because I’m a solid head taller than most Mongolians, but she would pull me out from behind her and say “This, THIS is my daughter-in-love. I remember the day I met her, I said, “wow! You’re so tall! Not like some of these waify chickadees, I said to myself, ‘here’s a real woman’!” Why she thought the Mongolian Campus Crusade staff leaders cared about her first impression of me I have no idea. But as with most things, nothing could stop Nancy. She wanted me next to her at all times on that trip and in every scenario she would say “She is mine- this is my daughter”. By the end of the trip she even began to drop the ‘in love’ part. I didn’t correct her.

Part of the reason we travelled to Mongolia, was to celebrate 20 years of the teacher’s ministry there- something Nancy was a part of almost from the inception. They rented out a giant auditorium and thousands of Mongolians from all throughout the providences who had come to faith through this ministry were there. The man who organized the first ever trip to Mongolia was asked to give a charge to the next generation of Christians. He got on stage and asked them to think and dream about where God might be calling them to go- where God might want to sendthemto share the gospel. “North Korea?” he asked, and I could see the audience start to mutter to each other. He continued, “you have to remember- when we first came to Mongolia back in the early 1990’s- it was not considered a ‘safe’ place to go. But it was where God had called us to go. We counted the cost, and went where God called.”

Nancy pointed at the stage when he said that and elbowed me. That was a theme she came back to over and over again on the trip, as if she finally had the language to express what she had been feeling. “That’s right”, she said, “that’s absolutely right. We counted the cost.”

Toward the end of her life, Nancy would have these moments of sharp clarity. Maybe she had rested enough and the medication would have worn off enough, but when the conditions were perfect we would get these moments of lucidity from her, moments where she was absolutely herself again. They were gone quickly so you had to take them when you got them. My oldest son got a good one. She fixated on the topic of girls and since he was the only unmarried one in the room, locked into him and downloaded all kinds of advice about how to pick a wife. I think he may have been mildly traumatized, but hopefully some of it stuck.

She had a moment like this with me a few days before she died. She got locked in, and said, “I never thought of myself as an evangelist. That’s was a label other people put on me. People love to say ‘God gave me this gift, this is my calling, this is my purpose’ but all of us have the same purpose, to love God and other people. I never thought I was especially called to evangelism, I still don’t. I don’t think I was especially equipped or gifted. I just loved the next person God put in front of me to love.” This is what it meant for Nancy to count the cost for Christ. She loved God and loved the next person God put in front of her to love.

I think a lot of people in this room might be tempted to put Nancy on a pedestal. She went on all these amazing adventures, she had people on every continent of the world praying for her in illness. She has a picture of herself and her walker on top of the Great Wall of China. But the uniqueness of Nancy was not in these big trips- those were easy for her to do. She loved different cultures, she loved a good adventure, and she really loved people. She said to me in Mongolia, “Can you see how wonderful these trips have been for me? I feel like they were always my honeymoon with Jesus”. I wrote that down in my journal right after she said it, because I was afraid I would forget it.

We might be tempted, especially in death, to elevate her to sainthood. I don’t think that does her justice. I don’t think it’s fair to put her in some kind of separate category, like she was somehow more spiritual than the rest of us- like she was a Super Christian. As if she was more called and equipped than any of us. She told me very clearly that she was not. And even if she hadn’t- I lived at their house for almost a year. I did life day in and day out with her in my family for over 16 years. She could be difficult, she had flaws, she was wonderful and maddening and loving and drove us crazy. She was unique and special and talented but also an absolutely ordinary human being.

She asked me, right after her diagnosis to speak at this celebration. She didn’t say what she wanted me to say, only that it was important that I talk about her. A couple of weeks ago, lying on her hospital bed, she broke the news that she wanted me to share the gospel. “What?!” I exclaimed. “I have to be the one to evangelize at the evangelist’s funeral?? No, Nancy, I can’t.” You know what she did? She shrugged at me. That’s the breaks, kid.

What kind of gospel can I share with you in the context of Nancy’s life and death? It cannot simply be an altar call. It is not enough for me to stand up here and tell you God loves you and has a plan for your life, or that you are separated from God and need the saving work of Jesus Christ. Or even that you need to repent and believe.

Those things are gospel, but it’s not a presentation that will do in this space. Because, the gospel Nancy preached she preached with her actions. Her whole life was a sermon. Nancy did something very few people actually do. Nancy took Jesus at His word. When He said “This is it, everything in the law and commands boils down to these two central, super important things: Love God and Love people” She actually did it.She didn’t go to seminary for it, she never wrote books about it, I never heard her preach a sermon with power points on it- she just actually did the things Jesus said to do.

The beauty of the gospel of Nancy’s life is how ordinary it was. When her MS flared up, she still Facetimed with Khongorzul in Mongolia to encourage her. When her muscles weakened she made herself ride her stationary bike, to keep up what muscle strength she had.  When her fridge was empty she made trips to Costco. When her toilet was dirty she scrubbed it. Even when she received the cancer diagnosis, she kept up with her many discipleship appointments. If anyone had a free pass to sit on the couch the rest of her days and watch Netflix- it is her. But, interestingly, very few things about her life actually changed after her terminal diagnosis. I wonder if that would be true for any of the rest of us. She had already built an entire life around doing the only thing that mattered- so what else was there to do in the end but keep pressing on?

The gospel her life preached was never an altar call or ‘one-time decision for Christ’ it was a minute-by-minute decision to take God at His word that He was who He said He was. Her entire life was oriented to that reality. She believed that God was not satisfied to have one slice of the pie of her life. She knew God wanted all of her.  Many of us hear the call to love God and love other people and think, well yeah, that’s Christianity 101. That’s the basics. But the truth is, if you give yourself over to that way of life it becomes the most advanced level there is. It turns out loving God and loving people is simple but very, very difficult. Because people are difficult. They take us for granted. They abuse our kindness. They gossip about us and hurt our feelings. They take our time and energy. And God! We say, “here God, you can have Sunday morning” and then He tries to take over our whole week. We give Him part of our money and He tries to weasel into the rest. God is never satisfied to stay contained in the places we make for Him. Nancy counted that cost too: She gave God an inch and He took a mile.

 If there’s anything you admire about Nancy it was that she counted the cost and paid what many of us are unwilling to pay. We want a gospel we can tuck in our back pockets so we can keep living the lives we want. We cling tightly to our pride, our sexuality, our time, our bodies, our energy, our sleep, our goals and dreams and our precious money. We are unwilling for God to get His grubby fingers all over what we think belongs to us. And God has no room to move in us- we are stuck and stifled. Nancy counted the cost of giving her whole self over to God day-by-day, minute-by-minute and the payoff was that God was able to have free reign- to move and live and act freely in her life.

And I had a great seat. I got a front row view to watch her life play out. I watched her live simply: no fancy cars, almost no expendable income. Instead of being self-sufficient and self-assured where every paycheck was coming from, she spent her energy fine tuning herself to the movements of God. She would feel called to do something or go somewhere and then she’d say “well, if God wants me to go- He’ll provide!” She spent her life giddy and expectant for how God would show up. Not if God would show up- but how. I was blessed with the vantage point to witness with my own eyes God come through and provide for her over and over again. (I asked her for 24-hours to pray before saying ‘yes’ to Mongolia. When I texted her the next day and said ‘I’m in’, she wrote back, ‘good. Because I already raised all the money.’) I watched her serve her husband faithfully, and I watched him change her diapers at the end of her life. I watched her count the cost of forgiveness- and it is a high price to be paid for sure- but she trusted Jesus’ words that the call on her life was to walk in forgiveness and peace. I watched a life defined by built bridges instead of burned ones, of reconciliation and peacemaking. I watched her spend her life being about the gospel and I watched thousands and thousands of people who didn’t know Christ a few years ago, worship with their hands raised high. I watched her count the cost and I watched her reap the reward. And I only got to witness her earthly reward, the smallest part.

I’m only up here right now because YOU are the next person God put in front of Nancy to love. You are part of her final wish- that the name of Jesus would be proclaimed in her memory. And that perhaps, new life would come out of her death.

Divine Hospitality

I keep thinking about bodies lately. My own body- as I pick something I can control, say my kitchen floor, and scrub it furiously, convinced that keeping it clean can fix things, change things, make things better. I think about Nancy’s body- and my presence with it, not only physically but, emotionally and spiritually. I think about Jesus’ body- what it meant that He even had one, that it got all banged up until it was unrecognizable. I think about that unrecognizable-ness while I rub Nancy’s feet, swollen and purple.

I lift a straw to her lips but she cracks a joke, so I wait with the water. I don’t want her to choke.

I’m re-reading Marjorie Thompson’s “Soul Feast” and her words are doing the healing work words can sometimes do. She calls the incarnation, God coming to us wrapped in human skin, “the second great act of divine hospitality”. The first, she states simply, was Creation. In both we are invited into action central to what it means to be human: eating, walking, dressing, conversing. God is hospitable to us by putting on a body and making these boring human-y things somehow, holy. Nancy’s body is currently dressed in a bright orange “Urban Immersion” t-shirt, and to the best of my knowledge, no pants. This, to us and to her, is a dignity upgrade from the starchy, breezy hospital gown. This is home- and at home one wears home clothes.

I watched her body in that orange T-shirt for a long time yesterday. I watched her one good lung heave to inflate, the other lung still enough to place a chess set on. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was watching her disintegrate in slow motion. Last week, the check-out guy at Trader Joe’s asked me how I was doing as I stood there dumbly- $70 worth of smoothie making materials on his counter for someone who could no longer swallow food. “Not great” I replied, and proceeded to detail why. He was surprisingly gracious to me. We fell silent as I watched him scan my items: protein powder, almond milk, chia seeds. I thought of a cheeseburger she ate last month in Mongolia that was so big we took a picture of it. She had to eat it in quarters. Then she ate half of my fries. I opened my mouth to tell him this story, but he was already done and handed me my receipt.

As my body sits next to her body, I appreciate the imagery and language of “divine hospitality”. But these are just words and words cannot fix everything. That is hard for me to admit because I want them to. I love words. I gather them around me like a hoarder, or people who have lots of cats, hoping their very presence will give me what I need. Sadly, words cannot take me where I need to go. My mind cannot ingest enough information, listen to enough sermons, read enough theology; my mind cannot heal a broken body- hers or mine.

Minute by minute this feeling grows stronger. I feel like I want to claw out of my own skin some days. It’s like my body needs to participate in grief in a way that my mind cannot. It’s like my internal world and external world are so incongruent that its making me crazy. I just want to spend all day in bed, or at least on my knees- that would feel more authentic. Instead, I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s and wiping my toddler’s butt and putting gas in my car like everything is normal. I feel like a fraud, and like maybe I might feel better if I could just go to the bank on my knees.

I know that doesn’t make any sense but the words coming out are failing me just as much as the ones going it- which is really disappointing. So instead, I’m making sure I’m early for church- I do not want to miss worship. My body does not want to miss that opportunity to align the inside with the outside. My body wants to be in my garden and rip out weeds with deep, tangled roots. It wants to do long, slow laps in the cold pool. My body finds people it can cry on, with no explanation or qualifiers. My body seeks out Hannah, the one-woman Ministry of Hugs, without which I’m sure our Church would not stand.

And I’m drawn to gratitude, of all things. I’m overwhelmed that Jesus would become one of us- to elevate our smelly, sticky bodies to holy status- to intimacy, to connection, to enjoyment. It feels like gratitude that these basic human tasks, eating, sleeping, urinating, become transformative simply because He did them too. I’m watching my husband and my brother, sister and father-in-law buzz around Nancy’s still frame. They act like caring for her body is the most important thing they could possibly do. They help her eat, and then manage all the variations of what can happen to the food after that. They bathe her, rub her, console her, turn her. A few days ago, Aya changed her abdominal bandage, reverently smoothing the edges of it, and when she thought no one was looking, kissed it gingerly.

Maybe my mind just needs some time to catch up to what my body has known all along- that to rub her, cool her, feed her is my ultimate act of hospitality, not only to her, but to God. When I open myself up to her suffering, I open myself up to Christ, who dwells in her, even as He dwells in me. I receive divine hospitality, when I welcome Christ in any way that He comes to me.

We read Scripture or sing her a song, watching as her struggle softens. Christ in her becoming bigger- taking up even more space than He already did. Pretty soon He will take over completely.

 

Running From My Shadow

I have recently, and probably temporarily, graduated from therapy. When I began two years ago, I recounted my depression struggles: the run-of-the-mill kind, the seasonal kind, the clinical kind and the post-partum kind. My therapist listened patiently while I told her my strategies of keeping the darkness at bay: my sleeping and exercise routine, my commitments to healthy eating and regular community. I confessed that although I teetered since stopping medication, I had found a way to stand on the edge of the canyon of depression without falling in.

My therapist let me finish and then shrugged knowingly saying, “Well, you knowwhat Jung would say about it”, and at that point I clamped my mouth shut. Ah, yes. Jung. Carl? My therapist often refers to me as a peer rather than a client. Since we obtained the same degree she assumes that I have retained the same information she has. She does not know that over the last decade and a half all of my essential marriage and family training has seeped from my brain and been replaced by episodes of Paw Patrol. Because I do not get out much, my starved ego is easily enticed by a professional treating me like a peer. This is one of many times where I will nod along knowingly. Carl Jung. Obviously! Yes, I know him. Please. Go on.

“He would say that you are struggling against your shadow side, and that you must learn to integrate it into your life.” Hmmm. I tapped my chin. Yes, excellent point. I side-stepped that landmine of conversation until I could go home and dig through dusty bins in my garage for my old psychology books. Flipping through pages it came back to me in bits; “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Generally, we understand our shadow side to represent negative or repressed emotions. The ones we all have but don’t want other people to know we have: anger, fear, resentment, shame. The Canyon of Depression. I thought about my own shadows, how I walk away from them but they keep following me around no matter how many things I pack into a day, and no matter how efficiently I do them. It was as if a spotlight had been turned on, and in its glare, my shadow’s edges sharpened. With clarity, I watched it cling to me wherever I went, turning with my decisions, speeding my heartrate, shaping my words. I felt keenly the amount of resistance I deployed to keep it from showing, tucking it firmly behind me in place. I began to worry that Jung was right and that my shadow was only growing stronger, stewed in waiting.

I wondered what it meant in 1 John, that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. What does it mean for me, a child called to live in the love-light of God, to integrate darkness into my life? I realized my resistance was partially tied to messages ingested from other Christians about the nature of darkness itself: that it is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst. Trade in those negative thoughts for positive ones! There’s a corresponding verse for each one! But under the spotlight, my shadow seemed less a barnacle to scrape off and more an attached appendage. And to deny it was to cut off a limb, becoming a willing accomplice in my own disability.

Also- I know better. I know darkness is the environment where God has historically done some of His best work in my life. Jesus liked to prove it to people so He talked all the time about growth, branches, fruits and the genesis of them all: seeds. He reminded His listeners over and over that the soil is what counts.  Unless a seed can burrow into the fertile, black underground- nothing good can grow. This is Jesus’ way, to fashion beautiful things in the dark for the purpose of bringing them into the light.

This year has been a good one to begin the practice of facing my shadows. My beloved mother-in-law is dying of terminal cancer and there is not a single thing I can do about it. My shadow has the upper hand, it hunches over me as I hunch over her: distended, suffering, moaning in a hospital bed. I can no more rip it off my back than I can pry myself away from her. This shadow I cannot turn away from, compartmentalize into neat, safe shapes, or attempt to outrun. This shadow keeps perfect pace and the only way forward seems through- to open up my arms and embrace it.

Yesterday, I sat on the edge of her hospital bed. The room was full of shadows and the beeping, rhythmic whir of her oxygen machine. Less than a month ago, I took her on one last adventure to Mongolia. Trying to manage her wheelchair and luggage I nicked her hand, the paper-thin skin tore instantly, dark magenta oozing out. The wound, now dark and purple, hasn’t even had time to heal. It wasn’t that long ago. It wasn’t that long ago that I fed her that piece of watermelon because the beans were too spicy and her face screwed up in laughter and mock-pain. It wasn’t that long ago- and I finger the mark that proves it. With my other hand, I turned to psalm 139. “Even the darkness is not dark to you”. I spoke into a room packed shoulder-to-shoulder with shadows: fear, anger, sadness, distress, pain, suffering. The corner of her mouth turned up, knowing these words by heart, knowing what I was doing; her smile a flash of beauty tucked inside the shadow of grief. I see you, I thought, inviting the beauty closer, even knowing grief kept pace behind. She gripped my hand and we faced them together. “If I go down to the depths, You are there” I continued, reciting ancient imagery meant to convey the epitome of darkness. “Even in Sheol,” I almost whispered, “You are there. Your right hand holds me fast.”

Summer Sabbath

I am exiting this week on fumes. Between Drew working 6 out of the last 7 days and the demands of meeting a writing deadline, I feel as though I am limping into summer vacation. The kids and I exited Church Sunday and immediately bought two pizzas, then paid actual American dollars to rent a movie on Apple TV. What are we, the Rockefellers? I doled out paper plates and without a hint of guilt stepped over toys and clothes and spent the rest of the day in the pool with the kids. Sabbath, for me, has increasingly become defined by praying and playing- exhaling and rolling around in the extravagance of God.

The older I get the more thankful I am to God for setting apart one whole day to rest. Embedded is an invitation to look inward: What does rest look like when I have 5 small kids, and am alone many Sundays? What does it mean to pursue holy, Sabbath rest instead of settling for zoning out? What is rest, and what is work? I take God up on this invitation. I review not only what was actual work throughout the week, but what taxed me, what was draining. I scan the horizon of my days to see what gave life and what zapped it away.

As we begin summer, I’m mindful of the offer to slow down as the pressures of school end along with the busyness of extra curriculars. Summer can be a type of extended Sabbath, a blank slate of possibilities. I take this mindset into my summer- identifying work from rest, vivacity from what has gone stale. Stale: schedules, school projects that require my involvement, responsibilities, being on time, getting out of bed before 6.  Life: sun, books, water, nature, board games, mojitos in the backyard while the adults catch up and the kids watch a movie on the grass under the stars.

You’ll find me posting less this summer, since I’m embracing this season of rest gratefully, gleefully and with both fists. I might post about our travels, if sharing falls into the life-giving category. I’ve been an exporter of words, faithfully, diligently, since January and now it is time to consume some, hopefully by a beautiful body of water.  We are driving the RV all the way up the coast, until we can drive no more and renting a craftsman on Puget Sound for a few nights. Then we will turn around and do it all over again. My main goals are to read as many novels as possible and create as many variations of s’mores as we can think up.

Mostly I’d like this season of rest to be a reflection, because reflecting always makes me grateful. This summer, my oldest turns 13 and I turn 40. These two numbers are significant to me because I never planned on staying at home this long to raise the kids. My ‘temporary’ career hiatus will become a teenager. My doctors never thought I’d make it to my 20-year cancer anniversary, but at 40- here we are. One doctor recently retired and his replacement looked at my file, cancer history, kids, and said, “Well, you certainly didn’t let that slow you down.” I’d never thought about it like that before.

I think mostly, I’d like to link the adventuring and the reflecting- to remind myself that nothing about my life has been stagnant. The world would tell you that you must cram in all the thrills before having kids, since once you do, that ship has sailed. They see my cacophony of children and pull down the corners of their mouths at us at parties, or exiting Target as though I am in need of their sympathy. But these kids have been the greatest adventure of all: teaching me more about God than I ever learned in Seminary, fulfilling me in ways a career never could, stretching and expanding my old Grinch heart many more sizes than I thought it could go.

I’m hoping for you, a season of rest as well. A season brimming with sandy clothes and campfires; of slow mornings and board games. A season of adventuring and reflecting. I know by august 1st, I’ll be twitching for a schedule and a routine. But until then, may your coffee be iced, your feet be bare and your heart be at peace.

 

On Calling: Part 3…Image Bearers and Cross Carriers

If you were to see a picture of my sister and I, you would know we are siblings. In most ways, we are wildly different: she’s a night owl, I’m an early bird. She’s a procrastinator, I’m a planner. She’s Mensa and I’m…not Mensa. We only share one genetic parent, but somehow the essentials came through: auburn hair, relentless freckling in the slightest sun, green eyes, full lips. It’s like, against the odds, when God made us, He gave us the same stamp.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means that we are Imago Dei, made in the Image of God, and how that applies to our calling. Romans 8:29 says the main call on our lives is to be conformed to Christ’s image, so we might be Jesus’ brothers and sisters. We are already crafted in God’s image but, somehow, the more we move toward our calling and purpose, the more we look like a sibling of Jesus.

I read something this week that has stuck with me. Robert Mulholland says, “Our cross is the point of our unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised with God into the wholeness of life in the image of Christ”. I like that imagery. It reminds me of the Celtic cross with its circle around the intersection of the two beams. Like its saying, “look over here! This is the important part, focus on this!” This intersection is who you’re meant to be, Imago Dei, but you’ve been trying so hard to be someone else that it’s gotten mucked up. Maybe you’ve self-obsessed and self-destructed for so long that the image is hardly recognizable to you. Or maybe you’ve been hurt and abused and your image of yourself and your image of God is deeply distorted. Whatever it is that has tarnished the original, beautiful stamp, the cross restores it.

My husband offers the best example I know of this. This year, after many years of trying, he launched a non-profit that unifies all the churches in our city. He believes with his whole heart that if all the little ‘c’s can come together, the big ‘C’ Church can change the world. It’s been a decade-long effort and it has been uphill every step of the way. Wonderful things have come from it- the homeless Symposium and, subsequent, Coalition- which is making a real impact on our city’s most vulnerable citizens. Without it, we wouldn’t have launched Imagine Whitter (remember the time I asked Facebook and Google how to write a grant and because God delights in using fools, we got all $100,000 funded?!) On the other hand: it pays zero dollars, it costs him almost all of the time he has off his real job, and a lot of our time as a family. No one asked him to do it, no one applauds him for it, and few people actively support it. But he still does it. He can’t not do it.

In part one of this series, I asserted that our calling is not about us. Last week, in part two, I talked about the flexibility required to follow what God might have for us. This last installment is a combination of both thoughts: God is in the process of transforming, shaping and molding us, for a specific purpose and in a specific way: to look more like His Son. I think we can get confused in today’s culture where we equate ‘living out our calling’ with a polished, finished product on a shelf. We begin to think our calling is meant to make us happy, pay our bills, give us validation or maybe even make us successful. Jesus followed His calling and it did none of those things for him. Jesus followed His calling all the way until it killed Him.

I’m grateful I live with someone who sees God’s calling as an intersection, since we both hit that intersection almost every day. God gently presses at the point at which we are least like Him. Without this example, I might have neglected God’s call on my life because it looked like dull, hard work. Transformation is often messy and laborious and repetitive and boring. And the real bummer is that it is never finished. Sometimes I feel like I’m working myself to the bone and then look up and realize no one is asking me to do it and no one will know if I don’t. That’s the intersection. I think it can serve as a type of litmus test for the rest of us: the first and best way to know if you’re following God’s call on your life, is at the end of the day, you look more like Jesus.

Thanks for those who followed along on this series- What should we tackle next?

On Calling: Part 2…Can God’s Call Change?

When I was 31 years old, I stood outside of a Target, trying to corral my 2 and 4-year-old boys into a shopping basket. I was approximately 92 months pregnant and like the perfectly round circle that I was, resembled the sun while they -my tiny planets- orbited around me at high speeds. An older woman passed me on her way out, and pausing, looked me straight in the eye and then at my stomach. “For your sake,” she deadpanned, “I hope that one’s a girl.”

This woman was merely one in a string of what I’ve come to call ‘helpful strangers’, people who, instead of offering actual physical help and support, settle for offering their helpful, helpful opinions about things that are none of their business. “Are you trying for your girl?” was another popular one, several helpful strangers had chirped at me that week. As if by sheer willpower, I could command the growing fetus inside me to magically form the preferred genitalia, with the powers of my mind. As if my offspring were like a box of Dot’s candies, and if I just kept shaking long enough, I would eventually get the yellow ones that I liked best. As if my two precious boys, always at my hips, did not have ears to hear them.

This coming baby was a girl, although I almost never told anyone that. To the helpful stranger in Target, I merely rubbed my belly and said, “Twins. Boys. We couldn’t be happier.” But to the people I liked, or who were buying me presents, I let out she was in fact, a girl. This garnered its own helpful follow up. “Oh, you got your girl. So now, are you done?” There is nothing like pregnancy to highlight one stranger’s investment in another stranger’s ladybits.

Of course, for me, these questions became deeply theological in nature. I began to ask questions of my friends, “How does one decide to stop having kids?”, “How did you know you were done?” “Is there a magic switch?” “Is mine broken?” I began to ask questions of myself: How does God view children and childrearing? Who actually creates a baby? Who creates life? If God creates life, then am I sinning by standing in God’s way? If the church teaches that each person is an eternal being, who am I exactly, to determine how many people I bring into eternal bliss or damnation? Why isn’t anyone talking about this, or better yet, telling me what to do? Am I secretly Catholic?

You would think that by my 3rdpregnancy and having lived 3 whole decades on this earth I would have grappled with at least some of these questions, but you would be wrong.

My friends’ answers were as varied as the people answering them. Many of them were with me in the trenches of sleep deprivation and tantrums. They based their decision to stop having children on the fact that they did not desire to have any more children. Others reasoned that finances should play the biggest part, that one should not bring children into the world without a planned college fund. Some told me stories of horrific miscarriages and near-death deliveries resulting in debilitating anxiety. This topic often brought up touchiness, heartache, shame and fear. Part of my difficulty in navigating these waters was that I was poking the tenderest of nerves within myself and mothers around me.

My Catholic friends were generous in answering my questions and recommending books. I scoured websites. I stumbled upon a ‘Quiverfull movement,’ something I’d never heard of before. A lot of their resources validated what I had been wrestling with. If your body is doing what God created it to do, they argued, why would you stop it, why would you surgically alter something within you that is healthy?They put words to my inklings about our culture’s viewpoint of children as burdensome and the general disdain for childrearing. But the Quiverfull’s and I differed at one key intersection: They believed leaving one’s fertility open was a call on the life of all believers, I only suspected that it was God’s call on mine. Quiverfull’s may get even more wrong than that, but they were the first, and sometimes only, people allowing me the space to work out what I was feeling.

I wouldn’t have been able to admit it at the time, but I secretly knew God was calling me to trust Him with the number of kids we would have. I didn’t know why or how, I only knew, in the quietest moments of my heart, an assurance that He had never let me down.  I didn’t suspect He was going to start now. I had no way to articulate it or defend it, but it sat like a seed in my heart, and it began to grow.

I brought up my feelings with my husband whose first response was, “What? Like the Duggars? I don’t get it; we just keep having them?” To which I promptly rolled my eyes at his clear cultural saturation of family planning. Why is our fixed starting point one of refusal of children until it suits us to welcome them? I argued from my soapbox,Why not the other way around? Where does Scripture give us this kind of authority over life?I pointed out that George Washington was the 5thchild out of 10 in his family, and Mozart was the 7thand last in his. During this phase I was a joy and delight to live with, and I can only assume that is why my husband eventually acquiesced.

Fast forward through the birth of children 3 and 4, where I remain deeply committed to God’s call on my life to leave my fertility open. It is my calling. It is who I am. I have long hair, and maybe will buy some ankle length denim skirts. No one can be sure where this train is heading.

When my 4thchild was 5 months old (another girl), I had a panic attack. This panic attack, as they often do, sparked other panic attacks, and I found myself traumatized, depressed and afraid to leave the house. I went to see my doctor and after the exam he casually mentioned that the antidepressant he was thinking of for me was not tested in pregnancy.  “But you don’t want to get pregnant again though, right?” he said buried in his laptop, which I knew stated 4 live births. He looked up at me and I froze. Want? Did I wantto get pregnant? Well, um, no, since I hadn’t brushed my teeth in God knows how long, I was leaking breastmilk through my shirt and at that exact moment wearing two different (but both black!) flip flops. No. Getting pregnant again was not at the top of my to do list. But what did ‘want’ have to do with God’s call on my life? Since when was a calling promised to be easy? I left with a diagnosis of “Post-partum anxiety and depression” and a laundry list of pills.

I collected my prescriptions at the pharmacy and took them home and dumped them on my dining room table.  One was a general antidepressant.  One was Xanax in case I felt a panic attack coming.  The third one was birth control. I laid them all out as if seeing them all at once would cause a solution to surface. I started to cry.

My tears were mostly that of disorientation. I had felt so sure of God’s call on my life. It felt almost euphoric to be so safe inside that sureness. Now, I didn’t know what direction I was supposed to go. I’m convinced most Christians, like myself, exist here much of the time, and we are not really sure how to move forward. Theologian Walter Brueggemann offers a framework for understanding the Psalms, the best book I know on disorientation. He says the movements of the psalms highlight the movement inherent in the life of the believer: first we are oriented to God, where everything has a black and white answer. Everything is sure.  Then we become disoriented by actual life, the greys of scripture, the pain of suffering. God seems far away. Then the real process of growth for any believer is the last stage of reorientation to the person of God.

I have found, in this situation, and since then, that when the specific instructions on my calling become murky, I must remember what is true about God. His unchanging character is the best re-orienting device I have found. When I’ve gotten stuck at this disorientation/re-orientation crossroad I want to solve the tangible problem- so my prayers reflect this: What job, God? What city, what spouse, what school? I look to temporal things to reveal what is hidden. I’ve noticed now- that God will allow periods of disorientation to reveal more of His character to me.

Sitting at my dining room table, I called my best friend and choked out my dilemma.  She waited a beat before answering. “What would you do if it were me?” she said, “What would you tell me?” “I would tell you to hang up the phone and start popping pills,” I said, “It’s not that I’m against anti-depressants, you know I’m all for them” I went on, “It’s the birthcontrol.” “But you can’t do one without the other.” She said, “And if I were feeling like you’re feeling, what would you say to me?” I paused, “I’d tell you to take it-” “Why?” She countered. “Because you need it” I said, choking up again, “because it would help you, and because I love you and want good things for you.” She paused. “You do.” She said gently, “And are you more merciful than God?”

I’d like to tell you that was the end of it. Instead I struggled for weeks to make a decision.  Her question kept coming back to me, Do I think I’m more merciful than God?God loves me. God wants me to be well. God would want me to take medication that could help correct the chemicals in my brain, even if that meant ‘controlling’ my fertility, something I had purposed in my heart not to do. I felt like I was at a crossroad, at the intersection of God’s call and God’s character.  They seemed in conflict. Which one wins?

I thought about Peter. Peter who was just trying to be a good Jew and follow Christ at the same time. When Peter got the vision of the clean and unclean animals, he argued with God like I did. To which God warned, Don’t call something unclean that I have called clean. Was Peter like, “Uhhh, but you didcall it unclean”? Maybe by the third time the sheet was lowered, Peter heard God’s whispering that I was hearing now, “I know what I said. But will you let me do something new?”

Our first natural tendency, when conceptualizing calling, is making it about us: This is who I am, which I talked about last week in Part One. And the second comes out of that. We think, If this is who I am, this is how that will play out and this is where I will be in 10 years. I don’t know that our calling is ever meant to serve as our crystal ball, or even our compass. I’ve seen in my own life, that the more I am oriented to Christ alone, the freer and more flexible I have become and the less I know about what the future holds.

It’s helpful for me to remember God’s trademark is new life. He is in the business of bringing dead things to life and making everything new.  That involves change, transformation and sometimes, first, death. Scripture repeatedly likens us to clay and to sheep. Clay is malleable and sheep are dependent which tells me that God cares a lot more about our pliability and our flexibility than He does about any specific thing He can accomplish through us. He is in the process of making us moldable, flexible, and transformable: glory to glory.

“We don’t have to hold so tightly to this,” my husband reminded me. “If God wants to grow our family, He will.” (The discerning reader will note we have 5 kids, not 4. Life is weird.) And as difficult as it has been to live life open-handed toward God, I’ve seen it is the only way to engage with a living God who molds and changes His children in real space and time. If I hold white-knuckled onto to my old ideas of how God has worked in the past, if I cling to my old ways of relating to God, over time it wears thin, like a wineskin full of holes, wasting any new life the Spirit pours in.