Theology and the Two Year Old

Earlier this week, Ellie suddenly announced, "God is everywhere."

"Yes, Ellie, that's right," I returned, impressed at her early grasp of this truth.

She giggled.  "God is eveywhere.  God is everywhere.  God is everywhere," she repeated, obviously rather proud of herself.

"Who told you that, Ellie?" I asked, wondering where she'd picked up this sudden fascination with God's omnipresence.

"Mommy," she declared, emphatically.

I smiled, remembering that sometime in the past few weeks, she had asked where God was, and I'd tried to explain that He was everywhere.  At the time, I hadn't been sure she'd gotten it.  Now, I felt rather proud of how I'd seized the teachable moment.

* * * * *

Last night, I was giving Ellie a bath before bed when holding up her washcloth, she suddenly announced, "I will show God this washcloth."

"But Ellie," I said, smiling at the thought of Ellie proudly showing her wet pink and green striped washcloth to the God of the universe, "remember God is everywhere.  You can show Him right now."

Without missing a beat, she replied, "When God comes from everywhere to our house, I will show Him."

I guess we're not quite as advanced as I thought we were.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #25: In Laws

Ok, so I know I'm 31 now, but I'm determined to finish this series...

For most of my life (24 years in fact), family was a relatively static entity, existing in its narrowest form with my mom, dad, and two younger brothers.

There was comfort in this, in the known contours of the five of us, in our defined roles and rhythms, even in our repeated fights and annoyances.

Things were simple, just the five of us. When we went somewhere, we could all fit in one car. We all came home for every holiday.

And then, in the span of three years, I gained two sisters-in-law, a niece, a nephew, a daughter, and a second family, consisting of a mother-in-law, a father-in-law and a brother-in law.

Family is no longer simple. Planning for the holidays involves weeks of e-mails, schedule juggling, and phone calls. A simple dinner out requires car seats, booster seats, and several vehicles.

We are still trying to figure it out, these new family rhythms, trying to learn what we are as a whole and how we fit together, piece by piece. It takes more work than it used to, this figuring out. It takes time. In some ways, we are still getting to know each other. We are family, but we are becoming friends.

There are times when I miss the long, leisurely, intimate conversations, just the five of us. I miss the simplicity, the knownness.

But I have also gained much in these new additions to my family.

I have gained another example of deep faith and of love and lifelong commitment. I have gained two more people who delight in blessing me and serving me.

I have gained a partner in keeping my husband humble and a worthy Settlers of Catan opponent.

I have gained the two sisters I prayed for as a little girl, sisters to shop with and bake with and raise babies with.

I have gained sweet cuddles and baby laughs and the endless joys of new life.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #23: Nate

Nathan means "gift from God." My parents named him that because he was a "surprise," a baby they hadn't been expecting. Over the years, I've often commented about how grateful I am that God surprised our family with Nate.

There are many reasons I am thankful for this youngest brother of mine. For one, our family would be incredibly boring without him. Let's face it - Joel and I are both pretty standard, play-by-the-rules, overachiever types. Sure, we both like to laugh and can be funny from time to time, but Nate has that special spark (what an old man in the K-Mart parking lot was probably referring to when he said, "That kid has a lot of juice!"). He's the one who brings out the silly in the rest of us and has often made us laugh until we cried - like with his "pillow dance" on our family road trip out West and his "Circle Up" interpretive dance on a rainy beach day. What a gift those memories and laughs and countless others like them have been to our family.

Nate is not only full of life and humor, but he ia also the one in the family with the strongest artistic genes. He's the kid who basically taught himself to play the piano and the guitar, who takes beautiful photographs, and who can decorate a space with the best of them. He's a pretty amazing writer too. Some of my fondest family memories involve Nate at the guitar and the rest of us joining him (with far less rhythm and pitch) in singing worship songs.

Another thing I love about Nate is that he has good taste, and he knows what is "in" before most people catch on. This means he is not only fun to shop with, but also that he is the one who has introduced me to some of my favorite music (everything from John Mayer to Joshua Radin to Glen Hansard).

When I think of Nate and his impact on my life and on our family, the word "richness" comes to mind. Before him, we were a family, and this was a good thing. But in His abundance, God wanted to give us more - more life, more color, more beauty, more music, and more energy. He wanted to give us Nate. And I am so, so glad that He did.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #21: Bethany Beach

On the East Coast, or at least in the mid-Atlantic region where I grew up, going on a family beach vacation is a summer ritual right up there with baseball games, ice cream cones, and flip-flops. In Pennsylvania, where I spent my childhood, most families favor Ocean City, Maryland or the Jersey and Delaware shores. In Virginia, where I live now, the Outer Banks seems to be the favored destination.

For our family though, "the beach" has always meant one place - Bethany Beach, Delaware. For years, we rented a place there for a week each summer, and then when I was in high school, my grandparents bought a bayside cottage that I've visited at least once almost every year since, with family, and with friends from college, church small groups, and work.

While I've been to beaches in Maryland, New Jersey, Canada, California, Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, it's hard for me to think of visits to those places, as amazingly beautiful as most of them are, as a true beach vacation. For in the same way that home, with its familiar, well-worn rhythms and rituals, is uniquely comforting, thirty years of trips to Bethany Beach has made it feel like vacation in a way that no other place does.

Part of that is its steadiness throughout the many changes in my own life. Sure, as my dad is quick to lament, dunes now prevent beachgoers from sitting under the boardwalk, and new, trendier restaurants like Five Guys and Baja Beach House have sprung up in recent years. But it is still a small beach, a family beach, and today, like twenty years ago, there are still the quaint, book-lined shelves of Bethany Beach Bookstore, the greasy comfort of Grotto's Pizza, and salt and vinegar laden DB Fries in their signature yellow paper tub.

But perhaps even more important to my conception of Bethany Beach as my vacation spot, it is a place that holds a lifetime of my memories, beginning with childhood visits to the rental house with the spiral staircase. Our family friends the Mellingers often joined us there, all six of us children crammed in the back seat of a station wagon at the end of each long beach day, sun-kissed and sandy, surrounded by piles of towels, beach pails, and boogie boards. When we weren't on the beach, there were bike rides on the boardwalk, endless games of pool and the card game War, and half-hearted attempts to fish and crab in the brown canal waters behind the house. And more often than not, my birthday happened that week, simple homemade chocolate sheetcake and candles, perhaps a present or two, surrounded by family and the closest of family friends. Pure happiness.

My teen memories of the beach are more introverted ones, long, lazy days of reading for pleasure, naps in the sunshine, shopping at the outlets on rainy days, people watching on the boardwalk. A welcome respite from honors classes, track practice, and college applications.

Then, for several years in college, my friends and I descended on my grandparents' beach house the week after exams for what at the time felt like the ultimate experience of community life: Techmo Bowl tournaments, National Geographic puzzle marathons that lasted until 2 a.m., puppy chow making sessions, football and frisbee on the still empty spring beach, laughter, and long conversations about life, love, the ever-looming future. Sweet moments of friendship, of life on the exciting cusp between adolescence and adulthood.

In recent years, the beach has become a place to both retreat from and explore the complexities of an ever-changing life. It is a place where CJ and my sister-in-laws have become, in a deeper sense, family. It is a place where I've gathered with friends to retreat, to pray, to fellowship, and in one case, to grieve. It is the place where I cuddled my baby niece while pondering the early days of the small life growing inside of me, the place where morning sickness first made me run to the toilet. Rich times, painful times, deepening times.

The future, as always, is uncertain. My grandparents are aging, and what might become of the beach house remains unclear. CJ and I are starting a family, and what sort of family vacation traditions we might institute with our own children are yet to be decided. I don't know if I'll spend as much time at Bethany Beach in the next 30 years as I have in the past 30. But I do know that I'm grateful for the gift of a home away from home, a place that has been the backdrop for so many scenes in so many seasons of my life, a place that will always be the storehouse for so many special memories.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #20: Dad

My mom will often say that she "lost out" when it comes to the temperments of my brothers and I. In contrast to her steady and generally upbeat personality, the three of us, while certainly different in many ways, tend to be more like our dad - emotional, contemplative, deep thinkers who are sometimes downright moody.

When I think of the influence my dad has had on my life, I keep coming back to how much I am like him, the ways in which our brains and hearts work similarly. Some of that may be explained by genetic contributions neither of us had much control over, but I believe that, perhaps because of our many similarities, my dad, more than anyone else, has taught me how to live as the person God made me to be - how to use my strengths, how to rely on God in my weaknesses.

He has shown me that it is okay to cry at the end of Hallmark commercials and in the middle of a small group meeting, that a soft and easily affected heart is a great gift to others - the suffering, the broken, even those for whom tears simply do not come easily.

He has modeled for me what it is like to think big thoughts about God's kingdom and dream big dreams about advancing the gospel, and he has also modeled how to walk in faith and obedience as a visionary who is sometimes misunderstood and often asked by God to wait on His timing and to trust Him when the gaps between vision and reality are overwhelming.

Even though he would never describe himself as "artsy," he has passed on to me his love of books and music and writing. It was his voice through which I first encountered the Adentures of Maxi and Mini, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Bible. It was he who encouraged me to write, who first made me feel like God had given me a gift in that area. And even though he can't carry a tune, he was the one who danced around the living room with me as a toddler, record player at full blast, and who, ignoring my teenage complaints about the country music he often played in the car, taught me to love the sound of a raw acoustic guitar and the rhythms of bluegrass.

Most important of all, he has both modeled and taught me to love Jesus above all else. Morning after morning, I came downstairs to find him already up and in his study, reading his Bible and spending time in prayer. I watched him at church, singing with passion and joy to a person He knew intimately. I listened as he talked to and around my brothers and I about how God influenced his thoughts, actions, and decisions. And time after time, when life has been hard, I have gone to him for counsel and received compassion, hope, and guidance from someone who knows what it means to wrestle with God in deep places and to be pulled up from the pit.

I am blessed to have a dad who knows God and knows me and who, in knowing me, helps me know God.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #18: Discipleship

Discipleship can be defined simply as following Jesus, living life in obedience to His commands and out of a desire to serve Him. In some Christian circles, the word discipleship is also used to describe the one-on-one relationship between a more mature Christian and a younger Christian, where the more mature believer tries to help the younger Christian grow in his or her faith.
I owe much of my spiritual growth to several women who, over my thirty years, have walked alongside me in this kind of discipleship relationship. I think first, and primarily, of my mom, a joyful, steady homemaker who I know began teaching me to know Jesus before I can remember it. Our's was not a formal discipleship relationship with a regular weekly meeting time or topic, but it was discipleship all the same, eighteen years of living life together in our home and as we interacted with our shared community. The things she taught me were often more by example than by word, but they were rich, important lessons about what it means to be a woman of God. Time after time, I saw her patiently and joyfully lay down her life for her family and friends, wrestle honestly with God through hard things, and humbly admit her weaknesses. And as I watched, God showed me a picture of the kind of woman I want to be some day.
In the first weeks of my freshmen year of college, suddenly on my own and feeling very alone, I met a woman who would disciple me in my pivotal undergraduate years. Karly, a blonde Iowan, was a recent college graduate herself, but in my eyes, she was old and wise and oh-so-grown-up. She did, after all, have a car and a real apartment and a college degree. She also led the freshmen Bible study I ended up joining with the Navigators campus ministry, and she took an interest in getting to know me. We did fun things together - going out for ice cream, playing pranks on some of the guys in our ministry, working out at the campus gym - but we also talked. A lot. We talked about boys and about school and about sharing our faith on campus. Karly had an awesome laugh, one that came deep from her throat and made her nose crinkle, but she was also willing to cry with me about my struggles. During the three years I met with Karly, I learned the importance of talking about my spiritual journey with others on a regular basis, and I caught a vision for investing in other girls, like she had invested herself in me.
The summer before my junior year, I moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado for the summer to participate in what the Navigators called a Summer Training Program (STP). Imagine 50-60 college students living on the grounds of a Christian conference center, working on housekeeping, grounds, and kitchen crews, sharing cramped living quarters, and doing Bible studies and attending services together. Throw in some hikes up Colorado's many fourteeners, some midnight runs to Sonic, and lots of crushes and ultimate frisbee, and you've got the basic idea. That summer, I met with my team leader, an older, married woman named Carol, for regular discipleship times. I liked Carol immediately because she was taller than me, a rare and always delightful occurence in my world, and because she was a natural visionary and leader. I can't remember many of the specific things we talked about that summer, in various Colorado Springs coffee shops and on hikes up red-rocked ridges, but I do remember that Carol saw God-given potential in me, that she encouraged me to use my gifts for God's glory and to dream dreams as big as the Colorado sky.
My senior year of college, after Karly had moved on to pursue other ministry opportunities, I began meeting with the senior staff member of our campus ministry, Cathy. Cathy, who is perhaps the most sincere and caring person I know, wanted to help prepare me for life after college. In her living room and over Cokes at the Arby's in downtown State College, we talked our way through a five-part study on Biblical womanhood. But we also talked about life and about the Bible study I was leading for younger girls on campus, and I think in the end it was those conversations that most prepared me for life after college. Many of the girls in my study were dealing with deep issues like past abuses and depression, and Cathy wisely helped me learn how to help them and who to point them to when I couldn't help. In many ways, it was my first deep taste of the harsh realities of a fallen world, and Cathy's counsel prepared me to care for broken, hurting people - both in my Bible study and for the rest of my life.
After college, I moved from quiet, insulated, central Pennsylvania college town to the sprawling bustle of metropolitan DC. And God sent me Connally, a former English teacher turned Navigator staff member, whose ministry focused on twenty-somethings making the transition from college to career. That, thankfully, included me, and oh what a transition it was. Connally patiently listened to my desperate tales of a life that wasn't turning out the way it was "supposed to" and graciously drew me out about my unfulfilled desires for marriage and community and church. Time after time, God used her ability to understand me better than I understood myself to gently point me toward eternal truths that stood firm in the midst of the internal chaos I was feeling. And she also helped me to realize that I approached life as not only a thinker, but also an artist, a term I never would have applied to myself previously but now embrace as part of God's calling for my life.
I can't think of five more different women. In fact, the only thing they all have in common is that each of them loves Jesus and has committed her life to following Him. But God brought each one to me at the right time and used their particular strengths and gifts that I might grow to know Him more. Through each of them, I have been blessed.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #9: Mom

Selflessness is always taking the smallest helping so that others can have the choicest pieces.

Selflessness is praying and fasting for your children and for their spouses.

Selflessness is thirty plus years of baseball, football, volleyball, soccer, and basketball games.

Selflessness is waiting up until midnight to make sure everyone makes it home safely.

Selflessness is caring for your aging father, counting pills, paying bills, loving even when it's hard.

Selflessness is allowing your introverted husband to have peace and quiet, even when you'd rather talk to him.

Selflessness is helping to paint my kitchen ceiling.

Selflessness is caring for the thousands of patients who haven't been able to care for themselves.

Selflessness is dying to your own preferences about weddings and joyfully serving your children to help make their vision reality.

Selflessness is dropping everything when one of your children calls.

Selflessness is rejoicing when they rejoice and weeping when they weep.

Selflessness is thousands of diapers changed, meals cooked, boo-boos tended, toilets cleaned, cards written, piles of laundry folded, pants hemmed, and phone calls made.

Selflessness is my mom.

Happy Birthday Mom! I'm so grateful to have had these past 30 years with you and to have seen God's grace so richly displayed in your life. I hope that one day, when I have children of my own, I will be able to follow your example.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #7: Joel

I originally intended to post this entry on Saturday, the day of Joel's marriage to my wonderful new sister-in-law, Jen. However, I got too busy with the festivities to make that happen. All the same, this post is in honor of Joel's wedding day - I love you brother!

Joel and I in Paris on our family European Christmas trip.

Joel is my little brother who is not so little. We're only 22 months apart, so I can't really remember life without Joel. We are similar in some ways and very different in many ways, but I am so grateful God gave me Joel as a brother. Here are just a few of the many things I appreciate about him:

Joel is strong. One of the things I remember my parents saying to him time and time again when we were little was, "Joel, you don't know your own strength." Often, they said this after he pushed his tiny friend Sarah over in play or after he shoved our youngest brother Nate a little too hard. After all, Joel went on to become a heavyweight wrestler and a football lineman. But I think Joel is strong in more ways than just the physical. He is strong in his convictions about God and the gospel. He is a strong leader in his church and in his work in campus ministry. And he has been strong in the midst of suffering and persecution, putting his hope in the Lord even when it would have been easy to waver.

Joel is tender. Even as a small child, he was quick to notice and care for the weak and the suffering. One time, a few years back when I was still single, he sent me one of the sweetest birthday cards ever, reminding me of my beauty in God's eyes even when it is unnoticed by others. His words helped encourage me in a difficult time. I have seen him continue to grow in this area, showing incredible tenderness to his bride.

Joel is curious. I distinctly remember conversations at the dinner table with a three-year-old Joel that began something like this...Joel: Mom, why is ketchup red? Mom: Because it's made of tomatoes. Joel: Why are tomatoes red? Mom: Because God made them like that. Joel: Why did God make them like that? You get the idea. Joel always wanted to know why and loves figuring things out. My brain is much less scientific, but I so appreciate Joel's love for and curiosity about the natural world. God has richly gifted him in this area, and I look forward to see how God will continue to use these gifts in the future.

Joel is competitive. He once threw a checkerboard at me, pieces and all, when I beat him at Checkers, and we've each had our fair share of bad attitudes in family game nights. I appreciate Joel's competitiveness though as it has sharpened me and as we've grown together in humility and as gracious losers.

Joel is intentional. He likes to plan and strategize ways to run his life most efficiently - there are few other people I know (besides my Dad and myself) who can get so excited about organizational systems, and I love that about Joel. He has also been an example to me in the intentionality of his conversation. He does not waste any opportunity to draw people out and find out what is really going on in their hearts. Joel was the first person to call me out on being too guarded about what I was really thinking, and though I wasn't grateful at the time, his challenge has stuck with me as I've worked to grow in vulnerability over the years.

Perhaps the most lasting impact Joel has had on my life is the way my relationship with him helped prepare me for my marriage to CJ. Both Joel and CJ are men whose personalities are an interesting mix of strength and tenderness, men who like to debate, and men who value truth and theology. Growing to value Joel's strengths in these areas and to learn how to relate to him in spite of our differences has greatly served me in my relationship with CJ.

Joel, I love you much and so grateful God gave you to me as a brother. I hope you are having a fabulous honeymoon, and I can't wait to see you soon!