To Rachel

It took a lot of observation, a lot of waiting, a lot of writing and rewriting, but I think I’ve finally finished a poem that captures my sweet but mysterious Rachel. It’s called “Puzzling” in honor of her love for puzzles and the way she likes to discuss the patterns in our family and the attributes that make her an important piece of the whole.

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I’ve never been able to master the

Intrigue of silence.

The way it leaves space

Compels others to speak their piece

Show their hand, waste their breath.

The way it hesitates.

 

But you know how to bide

How to look as if you’re giving up

Then go find another gate.

 

And how to hide—

How to transform ordinary objects

By holding them behind your back

Until you find an audience who can appreciate.

 

You do not resist the cut that carves a curve from you

So that others can snap into place.

You know how to accommodate.

 

I take for granted, forget or neglect

The very things that captivate you.

 

I don’t know how to pray for you

Because I don’t know what forces compel you,

How or why or what motivates.

 

I get the idea that every object you bring me in a hidden hand

Is a clue.

 

So I just pray, again and again,

I won’t fail to appreciate

The detail that captivates

You.

Dear Younger Me

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Though it is not an age you’ve ever really looked forward to, you will eventually turn 33. You probably think there is nothing to look forward to about being 30-something. If you could look ahead, you might even roll your eyes at the cliche suburban mom you’ve become. (“Oh, a minivan? How original.”)

But it’s not that bad. I promise.

What they don’t tell you when you’re young is that you get to decide how to measure your life. Sure, it may not measure up to someone else’s standard, but it doesn’t have to. You can’t win at everything, dear. (And yes, I know you hate the condescension of being called dear. Get over yourself.)

I have a facebook friend with a wall full of little glass jars of sand collected from beaches all over the world. Every few months, it seems, she and her husband are off to another exotic beach. That’s her way to measure her life. It isn’t yours.

I have friends who have careers, who make more money than their husbands and are always well-dressed. I have friends who have 5 or 6 children and still manage to get adorable photos of all of them in matching outfits. I have friends who have no children and no husband who seem always to be reading something new and interesting. I have friends who have children and husbands and careers and still manage to run crazy mileage per week… and I have hardly run since 3 pregnancies ago. You simply can’t compete with all of them.

That’s okay because the good news is? Life isn’t a competition against other women.

Whew. That’s hard to say even at the ripe old age of 33. It’s hard to acknowledge how much that competitiveness has driven me, still drives me even after I recognize it has no hold on me.

Competing with other women turns everyone into your enemy, especially those who are doing better or doing more than you.

It will take planting a garden for you to realize the real enemy. The real enemy is weeds. Yes, this same world that is so full of beauty and promise and so good at perpetuating and sustaining human life, is also the world that produces weeds and decay and disaster. Don’t worry: you still buy most of your food at the grocery store. You haven’t turned into a canning pioneer woman… yet. (Is there a competition for that? Because you totally could win it. Just kidding.) But even in the process of growing a few vegetables and flowers and maintaining a raspberry patch, you will learn your true enemy is the blessed, blasted soil. Everything you need to sustain life is in that soil that soaks up the sun and the rain that are freely given year after year, yet everything that frustrates and hampers growth is also in that soil.

The world is cursed. You know this already, or at least you think you do. You know all about Adam and Eve and the curses they receive, the back-breaking labor that accompanies all planting and all childbearing. You’ve experienced the pain of childbirth and pregnancy four times now. (Really! Four kids! Did you ever think THAT would happen?)

Every endeavor you undertake will be a lot like planting seeds because the success of your endeavor will be dependent on precisely three things: the quality of the soil, the work you put in, and the mercy of God to provide the sun and the rain. By learning about gardening, you’ll find an analogy that helps you understand what it means to say that world is really and truly blessed and cursed in ways you haven’t imagined yet.


The Soil

Everyone has their own patch of Earth to work with. These are the givens in your life–the talents and energy you’ve been given, the amount of money and time you have to work with, the raw materials you have access to. I would even include in this category the people you can depend on: in your case, your family, friends, and your generous church family. Some people have natural advantages in this category but it is really no use comparing. And while you can change some of it (like a farmer could bring in a big load of fertilizer), much of your success comes in learning to make the most of the life you’ve been given. And not unlike gardening, you’ll find it is sometimes the really smelly stuff, the seeming garbage, that enriches your life and prepares you for productivity.


The Work

Here’s the thing you will be tempted to think determines all your success. If you just put in the work, you’ll succeed, right? Well, sometimes. You can get a long way on hard work. And success in any endeavor requires a lot of quiet, determined behind-the-scenes work. You’re not afraid of that. The mystery is that even those who’ve put in the hard work, sometimes don’t see the results they want, so you also have to learn to rest. There is a certain pride in working hard, a certain sense that everything depends on your effort. But this kind of hard work fails to take into account the importance of…


The Mercy

Listen, farmers know this better than anyone. You can have the best soil and be the hardest worker, but your success or failure rests on having the right kind of weather. You need enough but not too much rain, and enough but not too much sun. Even more mysteriously, your success really depends on the invisible seeming impossibility of a seed bursting out with roots and stem, and learning to bear new life ALL BY ITSELF. When God multiplies your efforts with his gifts, your seeds can yield a harvest 30, 60, even a 100 times what you’ve planted! This is true in life, as well. Every endeavor is mysteriously dependent on factors you can’t control and on invisible processes you can’t force. This is what you need most to learn, I’m afraid.

You must learn to work the earth and watch the sky. And wait. And do it again tomorrow.

Even harder, you must learn to put in a good days’ work then rest. You’ll never feel you’ve done enough to earn your rest, but remember that rest is given not earned.

Harder still, you must learn that sometimes good things simply fall from the sky without your work, and you must have the humility to accept them. This is the humiliating and wonderful reality of being a pastor’s wife. Sometimes you simply can’t afford, can’t create, don’t have time or energy or resources to produce some thing that you need. You will learn to accept gifts from the hands of generous, loving people. This sounds easy, right? But it isn’t. It’s humbling to feel so dependent on others. To not be in a position to pay people back.

This is where your true power lies–in prayer. You have access to the merciful God of heaven who makes the earth yield it’s harvest. You learn that even when you feel invisible to the world, stuck in the four walls of your house and buried in laundry, you still can pray in a way that reaches to the ends of the universe. You can pay people back through prayer. You can ask for what you need when you can’t seem to produce it yourself through prayer. The answers will surprise you.

And when it comes to raising your kids, well, prayer is the work. You serve them with your prayers–your prayers are the way that you feed and clothe and teach–but you also pray for the years to come when they won’t need you to serve them. (Note to older me: When your kids no longer need your service, your prayer is your work. Don’t forget.)


The Weeds

There has to be a more elegant way to express these ideas (a poem, perhaps?) but here’s the metaphor: the earth that produces life-sustaining goodness also produces frustrations galore. Even at 33, I’m still thinking that I can just find some magic solution to just prevent the stupid weeds from growing. Every year I have renewed hope that I’ve found a weed solution. Every year I grow more weeds than seeds.

I always envy beautiful gardens and wonder how the gardeners manage to create such beauty and order in their plot of ground. I get competitive. I get defensive about my garden (I have a million excuses why my garden seems to grow more weeds.) My enemy is not my neighbor with the beautiful garden. My enemy is the same as theirs–the weeds. Get out there and tear out weeds instead of wasting time comparing gardens. Ask for help or advice if you want, but instead of resenting them their beauty, try complimenting it instead. It will be good for your soul to learn how hard it is to grow good things and thus what an accomplishment it is when your neighbor succeeds. Celebrate that.

The weeds are the sins already in your heart. They aren’t something that comes from others. Your weeds are pride–always pride–and competitiveness. These choke out the good things that God is trying to grow. Your weeds are bitterness and envy which grow like thistles do: when you’re not looking. Before you know it, you realize you’ve let it grow up all over the place. And once it takes root, it is almost impossible to remove. Your weeds are easy frustration and a hare-trigger anger reflex that can overreact to anything. You aren’t going to eliminate the potential for weeds, but you can get better at recognizing and removing them earlier and earlier.

I suppose this is all I’ve really been trying to say: Your work counts. Your effort matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. When you look around at the world and see people succeeding at all sorts of different things, recognize and applaud their work and its beautiful results. (Choke down your pride and give compliments to other people. It doesn’t hurt as much as you think it will!) But in your heart, recognize and understand that it isn’t just the amount of work that sets your lives apart. It’s also the plot of ground you’ve each been given, the mercy from heaven you’ve each been given. And you all have your own sets of frustrations to work against. Don’t bother trying to compete.


 

Your oldest daughter Claire asked you to play the game of Life last night and you did. (Yay you! You set aside dishes, laundry, and your own hobbies to spend time with her!) This game is stupid because you “win” by getting more money than other people. It is also stupid because everyone has to make the same choices at the same time in Life (time to buy a house!) and because there are some choices you don’t get to make (I hate when I land on a spot that tells me to install a $30,000 home gym??!)

So you get to the end of the game and Claire asks “Did I win?” and you say… “No. I have way more money than you.” (Finally a competition you can win! Board games against 6 year olds!)

And you immediately regret it because there are so many better ways to measure a life than retirement savings.

So don’t live your life like it is some stupid board game. Go out there and plant the seeds you want to grow and wait to see what you and the ground and God can produce. Trust me, you’ve got a lot to look forward to…

 

To Claire (As Daring as Dandelions)

You insist on being noticed wherever you appear

Optimistic yellow in a sea of green

 

I had a teacher who told me

They were only weeds if you didn’t want them.

That even dandelions could belong in a bouquet

If you invited them.

 

You seek them out, stopping to collect them from hillsides and curbs,

Wherever they thrive away from the attentions of more fastidious gardeners.

I receive them by the handful

With a practiced false enthusiasm you can already see right through.

 

Is it to my shame that I’ve tried to mow you down?

Be quiet. Sit still. Don’t argue.

 

So here is an invitation

for the girl who doesn’t need one:

 

Go ahead and bloom.

Let them mutter. Even me.

And when you decide it is time to move on, don’t

Bend over in defeat the way the peonies do

Or shrivel on the stem

Or drop your petals one by one.

No, at night, when no one is looking,

Transform yourself into something lighter than air,

And then wait for it…

To Luke (Because you can ask for anything in my name…)

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You use my name like a prayer

Ask for all with the one word you speak.

It’s sufficient: I am always there.

You assume what I have I will share.

You want, you ask, you seek

Your whole life is a prayer.

You demand boldly–declare

my name while your thrown cup leaks–

frustrated when I seem not to care.

In pitiful offerings of tears

over curled lips and wet cheeks,

my name is your desperate prayer.

Even silent, your aim is clear.

Arms up, unashamed to be weak

before one whose love drives out fear.

Could he possibly beware

the day my name won’t suffice?

Will he call on the name that I preach?

Will he still hang his hopes on a prayer?

To my son, on the occasion of your first poetry class

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I’ve seen it before, the way you watch the world as if it were being created before your eyes. You separate darkness from light, day from night, dry from wet. You follow creatures as they move along the ground or fly through the air. Your eyes brighten at the sight of the ones you know. You grow content when you taste and see that it is good.

But I fear I have seen your future in those teenage boys, heads bowed in worship to the almighty app–a whole crowd of kids as silent as a screen.

I hope you remember that you are the man who drives the machine. You are the only thing in all creation that can solve this equation: A seed is a kingdom. A man is a lamb.

If I can give you one gift, it is this. You don’t need a window to see the world. Life AS IF the world is yours.

I will teach you the language of the world of weeds and seeds and trees–these things our mothers and fathers have always known but we’ve forgotten.

I know you will always have hungers your fingers cannot feed. I count it my privilege to feed you. Here is bread. Here is milk. Take and Eat.

They say don’t meet your idols…

…But when your idol* is an Anglican priest-poet whose book on poetry and faith literally changed your life and he happens to be teaching a rare class in one of the coolest cities in North America, well, exceptions can be made.

Here’s the story:

I quit my teaching job 2 years ago and I made myself 2 vows:

One, never to read To Kill a Mockingbird again. I love the book, but 7 years of reading and teaching it were starting to kill my enthusiasm (kind of like when I overplayed John Mayer songs…)

Two, I vowed that I was going to get to the bottom of why literature was so important to me. I felt a constant need to defend the reading of imaginative fiction and poetry in light of a recent push towards the value of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) subjects and towards reading and teaching more non-fiction texts. I’m all about giving kids good skills to recognize the difference between good and bad logic, but I know there is still a hunger for good stories. And I wanted to be able to understand why I loved stories and explain why they were still important.

In this pursuit, I stumbled upon a really intriguing review of Malcolm Guite’s “Faith, Hope and Poetry.” So I bought it and I read it. It was really hard to read because it was so impressive–so thorough, so thoughtful, so moving. When I finally finished it, I told Paul “I need to take the class where this book is the textbook. I need to meet other people who want to talk about this book.”

Paul filed this away and completely surprised me a year later when he announced this spring that we were heading to Vancouver so we could each take a class. Him with J.I. Packer. Me? With the one and only Malcolm Guite. And thus….

This, my friends, is Malcolm Guite. He is, in my opinion, a contemporary version of the G.K. Chesterton/C.S. Lewis brand of wit and wisdom, and I’m confident his defense of the “baptized imagination” is just beginning to gain steam.

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He was generous enough to allow me to wear Caleb to class each day. (Caleb was an absolute gem and slept almost all of it!) My classmates were everything I expected–writers and readers from all different fields (I sat between a doctor and a lawyer) who have a vision for how the arts can bring new hope to people. And everyone was incredibly gracious about my crazy request to bring a newborn along to five 3-hour lectures.

Can I just take a minute to talk about the people I met? I can’t explain how we all arrived there except that we’ve all been called. I don’t usually subscribe much to the mystical idea of calling, but it was really clear that this was a room full of people who were feeling some similar need for poetry and metaphor, some hunger for a new defense of the imaginative and creative, some vision for how art can renew the culture.

So what was it like? I’m struggling to narrow down the pages of notes I scribbled while babywearing, but here’s a start…

We need metaphors to even attempt to explain certain parts of the human experience. For example, think of all the ways we use tree metaphors to explain things. We talk about “having roots” or “getting back to our roots.” We talk about “branching out” or “going out on a limb.” We talk about growth and fruitfulness. We talk about our families in terms of a tree. Try to imagine discussing these concepts without using a tree. Tough, isn’t it?

In essence, we look for good analogies and find them deeply satisfactory as ways of explaining ourselves. This demonstrates a deep kinship between human beings and the created world around us, which makes sense when we recognize that we have the same creator. In a sense, God gave us trees, seeds, yeast, sheep, vines, etc. to explain concepts that might otherwise be inexplicable. When Jesus came to Earth, he relied on metaphors and fictional stories to explain to us what the Kingdom of Heaven was like. Using our own baptized imaginations, we can, for example “consider the lilies” and find a rich depth of imagery and connections that can prove profitable in helping us to understand our relationship to the world and to God.

There is much more. So much more. I’m still digesting it all. (Digestion is another metaphor! See what I did there?)

Malcolm did not disappoint. I made some new friends and came back with a lot of new ideas that will feed my soul for a long time to come. And my husband made it all possible.

 

*Just to be clear, I’m using idol in the “James Corden/geeky-fan” way, not the “breaking the third commandment” way.

My Favorite Books of 2015

2015 was a GREAT year for reading. I’ve read so many excellent books that I simply feel compelled to compile my reading year into a post, if only for my own benefit. Not many of these books are actually books released in 2015. They are just books I’ve stumbled upon this year and found transformative. (Don’t worry… there are a bunch of good fiction picks at the end, too!) So, without further ado, my top 10(ish):

saving_leonardo_coverI declared back in March that Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey was my favorite book of all times. That is still true today. I’ve recommended it to countless friends and bought copies for any of my family members who expressed even a tiny amount of interest. Pearcey’s spot-on analysis of the contemporary mindset and her exploration of the way that the evolution of ideas has affected the way we view art, music, math, science, history, and politics was incredibly helpful. The book provided me a better sense of history and, most importantly, better categories to use when discussing ideas I see in commercials, movies, TV Shows, art, and music. Bottom Line: If you want to understand the Christian Worldview, I don’t think there’s a better place to start than this book.

 

The second-most recommended book I’ve passed around this year is The Supper of the Lamb, closely followed by A Meal with Jesus. Both of these books transformed the way I saw and appreciated the spiritual implications of the food I eat and prepare. This was not a topic I thought I was particularly interested in, but the sheer poetry of The Supper of the Lamb convinced me that there was more to this subject than I’d realized. Saving Leonardo + A Meal with Jesus = Getting addicted to Chef’s Table on Netflix. Paul and I had a lot of fun watching and discussing the way our worldview affects how we eat.

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“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”
I said, “Jesus Christ.”
And Troy said, “Oh.”
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

I am glad I finally convinced myself to finish this novel. I really had trouble connecting with Jayber Crow at the beginning of the book, but it is always worth the effort to spend time listening to the quiet and elegant wisdom of Wendell Berry. Though his stories always make me long for a way of life that seems impossible to find anymore… which leads me to my next three picks:

One of the new hobbies I discovered over the course of 2015 was reading about the way technology is affecting our public discourse and our personal thinking. No one is more astute than Neil Postman, who saw this all coming with almost eery clarity almost 30 years ago. Amusing Ourselves to Death ought to be required reading for the internet age. Sven Birkerts writes even more beautifully and personally about his own grief over losing the world that literature built in The Gutenberg Elegies. These essays really are elegies, sad songs of mourning as he watches the world change before his eyes. As a child who grew up in the world they both anticipated and feared, I found myself reflecting frequently on the ways in which I can fight back agains the aggressive affects of our highly connected and visual world. I guess fighting for my own attention span by reading is the best solution I can come up with. These books are an excellent place to start. (The Shallows is on my reading list for 2016).

the world beyond

Actually published in 2015, this accessibly work of philosophy was a complete surprise for me. Though I initially wasn’t sure how to rate this book on Goodreads, I’ve since realized that Crawford’s ideas in The World Beyond Your Head have permanently altered my own way of thinking and I’ve had to upgrade this book to 4 stars simply because of how influential it has been. His premise–that there is a world beyond our head–is only groundbreaking in a culture like ours where we see no reason why the physical world should impose any sort of restrictions on our hopes and dreams. Crawford reminds us of the beauty of refusing to be distracted and persisting in learning a physical, tangible skill. I’ve never read a more enchanting explanation of the thrills of riding a motorcycle, or a more memorable discussion on the downfall of the Mickey Mouse cartoons. (Or a more disgusting and eye-opening description of the paralysis caused by gambling addiction. Yikes. And it all comes together in his thesis, somehow.) I keep coming back to this book’s ideas, which is also true of the next book I’m going to recommend from this year.

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This was actually a Christian apologetics book I re-read this year. I got a lot more out of it after reading Nancy Pearcey’s far clearer explanation of the fact/value split. Her categories helped me better understand C.S. Lewis’ argument that we are becoming less human and more animal as we celebrate giving in to our urges. My one sentence summary: “We need to be able to measure our feelings by some rational, transcendent standard of value in order to rule over our animal instincts and behave like humans.”

faith hope and poetry

And in the category of “My Favorite Book No One Will Ever REALIZE They Really Want To Read” is Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite. I would lend it to you, but I can’t let it out of my sight. I refer frequently to its pages for the beautiful poetry and for Guite’s unparalleled insight into the ways that poetry does a better job of explaining meaning than any other form of inquiry or communication. This book is a tribute to the history of poetry. Guite’s thesis reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton once said of poetry: “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain.” If you read this, I promise you won’t regret it. I think everyone should read it, but realize no one is likely to!

 

I don’t feel like I read as much fiction as I used to, but I do manage to read a handful of books each year. I’m very picky so I pretty much only read books I know I’m going to like. This year was no exception. I enjoyed all of the above, but I’d like to give a special shout-out to The Age of Miracles and When You Reach Me for taking me back to my Madeline L’Engle loving youth.