His Story

Last Saturday evening, I sat in the living room of a couple I'd just met and listened while they shared the story of their past four years, a story marked by five miscarriages, the unexpected death of a best friend, and a baby they were told by doctor after doctor would certainly not survive birth.  They bounced this sweet, so very alive baby on their laps as they talked, a tangible reminder of answered prayers in the midst of so much unexplainable loss.

On my way back to Virginia the next morning, as I rounded the Capital Beltway near the lofty peaks of the Mormon Temple, Pandora began playing a song I didn't recognize and can't remember really, a song about God and the way He builds His kingdom, the sort of song that is supposed to inspire believers to march forth and do great things for God.   I generally like this sort of song, like to feel inspired by grand visions and lofty missions.

But today, I thought of the family I'd been visiting and of all the families I've been talking to the past year.  I thought of the collective pain of their stories:  decades of waiting for babies who didn't come, dozens of babies lost, lifetimes of pain and struggle and lingering questions and doubts.  I thought of all the things these people might have done for God if they hadn't had to spend all this time suffering, and I tried to reconcile the reality of their lives with the advance of God's kingdom, with His call to reach more people with the good news of salvation.

It didn't make much sense to me.  Why would God allow His children, the very people He's appointed to spread His message, to languish for years in pain and suffering, to wrestle with questions, to doubt the very truths He wants them to share with others?  To me, it would seem the gospel would advance best and most efficiently through the strong and healthy, not the broken and the suffering, the grieving and the doubting.

But in that moment, God reminded me of another story, the story of Ruth.  I thought about Naomi losing her husband and both of her sons, coming back to Bethlehem far from an exemplary spokeswoman for God's kingdom.  "Don't call me Naomi," she says.  "Call me Mara because the Almighty has made my life very bitter" (Ruth 1:20).

And yet, in spite of her pain and the resulting bitterness, God worked - both in her lifetime, to bring her joy again in the form of a grandson, and after her death, to bring the Savior through the bloodline of that grandson and to include her story in the greatest book of all time.  Her life, messy and broken as it was, became part of the advance of God's kingdom in ways she couldn't have ever imagined, even on her death bed.

I realized in that moment that my vision of kingdom advancement to this point has been very people-centered, based on strategy and vision and human initiative.  And while I do believe God calls us to think strategically about carrying the gospel forward, I am learning this is not the only, or even the primary way.

I am learning this:  the gospel is His story.  He writes it. And He's very comfortable with not only our sin, but also with our suffering selves, with the wounds we carry with us.  He advances His kingdom not by leading a parade of the triumphant and mighty, but by carrying in His capable arms the injured and limping, those of us who sometimes can manage nothing more than to whisper His name.

Life Right Now

My brain swirls with things to do:  meals I want to freeze, piles of clutter to tackle, Pinterest projects I want to make for the girls' new rooms.  CJ says I am creating projects, orders me to stop and relax and rest.

And then there is this book I am writing, so many more interviews to transcribe and chapters to draft. My goal is to have most of the rough draft done before the baby arrives.  I know I won't have much time after.

It all seems so important.  I wake up each morning hardly knowing where to begin, watch my to-do list getting a bit longer each day.  There are only seven weeks left, maybe fewer.

In a rare moment of quiet, I read Matthew 6:31-33:  "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."

And I know, in the moment I read this, that I am to write, to leave meals unfrozen, rooms undecorated, clutter in piles.  I am to write because God has asked me to, because that is to be my priority right now.  When this baby is born, God will provide ways for us all to eat and function even if I am unable to prepare in advance the way I'd like.

This seems like a small thing, an easy step of obedience, but it is not.  My soul wars against being told to choose the uncertain value of writing over the seemimgly certain value of plans and preparations.  I'd love to be a full-time nester, not a full-time mother and a part-time writer.

But my calling is clear.  God has spoken.  I know there is joy in obedience, as hard as that obedience might be.  Lord help me.

An Overdue Book Update

I realized this morning it's been quite some time since I've mentioned my book here on the blog, and it occurred to me that some of you might think it's gone the way of some of the other writing projects I never quite finished.  While that would be a fair assumption, I just want to say that the book is still very much in progress and very much a priority.

I've been interviewing lots of families these past nine months:  families who've suffered infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth; families who've adopted, fostered, and pursued fertility treatments; families who had children after loss and families who didn't.  I've written four chapters so far and just last week started the process of sending my book proposal out to agents.  I have ten weeks left until baby girl is due to arrive, and I plan to spend as much time as I can during those ten weeks conducting a few more interviews and mostly writing, cranking out as many chapters as I can before, Lord willing, life here is consumed by change.

It's been healing to talk to all of these families and to try to put their stories into words.  As I've listened to them, I've felt less alone in my suffering.  I've seen my faith built by how God has met many different sorts of people in many different ways.  And I've had the privilege of spending time with a colorful assortment of families God has built.  In their homes and at restaurants, over dinners and Play Dough sessions and at soccer games and picnics, I've watched them together, and I've seen the beautiful way God makes families out of pain and heartbreak and disappointment.  They are not perfect families, but they are families full of love and joy.  God's fingerprints are all over them.

Last weekend, I flew to Maine to spend time with and interview a couple who's adopted five children from Ethiopia.  This week, I've been working on writing a chapter about another family who's grown primarily through foster care and adoption.  On the front end of each family's story is a lot of pain and disappointment, greater suffering related to childbearing than anything I've experienced myself.   In order to welcome children into their homes, each family took great risks and still face many unknowns about the future.  But it is clear that each of their children feel loved and safe, clear that God has led each parent to embrace risk with faith.

I won't share too much now about all I've been learning through the process of listening to and watching and asking questions of these families.  After all, that's what the book is about, and I hope I can convince you to buy it some day!

But I will say I've been thinking this week about stories and about how God often writes the stories of our lives in ways we never would have chosen for ourselves.  I've been thinking about my plans and dreams for family and home and life and about how much time and energy I pour into making them become reality, about how much I struggle when, in in big ways or small, my plans fall to pieces.  I've been realizing that my goal in life ought not to be to make my agenda come to fruition, but rather to respond to what God brings into my life - be that motherhood, writing a book, or talking to a friend - with faithfulness and obedience, trusting that He is doing good things, things seen and things unseen.

It sounds simplistic when I write it, but there is something profoundly freeing there too.  I don't need to focus on achieving or creating what I think should be.  I need to set my eyes on serving and responding to the One who has good plans for what will be.

Being a Neighbor

A policeman knocked on my front door this afternoon. He came to tell me that a neighbor a few townhouses down from us had apparently committed suicide over the weekend, to ask me a few questions about him.

I wasn't much help to him as I hadn't seen or heard anything unusual, didn't know the man or anything about him really. I knew so little about him that I couldn't remember if he had a dog or a son or if I was thinking of another neighbor I didn't know well either. I had only a hazy image of him in my mind, way too vague for a man I've lived a few feet away from for over four years.

After the policeman left, continuing to work his way around our little court of townhouses, knocking on door after door, I watched him through our kitchen window and allowed myself to feel the horror of it. Sometime this weekend (was it when we were out to dinner with CJ's parents Saturday night? While we were sitting in our basement watching the Olympics? While we slept?), this man had shot himself, and he had died. Just a few houses away from us. He had been alone, and he had decided that his life was no longer worth living. And most likely, we were just a few steps away.

I wish I had talked to him at least once, wish I had tried to get to know his story, wish I hadn't just assumed that he was a man who didn't have time for or interest in me. The reality is I didn't take an interest in him, didn't have time for him. I'm not saying I'm to blame for his suicide in any way, just that it makes me wish I thought of people differently, that I thought of them first instead of myself, didn't assume that if they didn't reach out to me, I shouldn't reach out to them.

I make excuses for myself, tell myself that I don't want to bother people or interfere, but the truth is that I am selfish with my time and energy, that reaching out toward others exhausts me, that sometimes I'd rather just get my kid and my groceries into my house than stop to talk to my neighbor, to really care about him.

But Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if i were hurting or lonely or thinking about suicide, I would want someone, anyone, to care, to take initiative, to reach out to me even if I didn't know how to reach out to them. I know this because I've been in dark places, know what it feels like to not know how to even ask for help, know how it is literally life when someone shows they care.

Today I mourn the loss of the neighbor whose name I don't even know, and I grieve the reality of my own selfish heart.

Jesus, My Shepherd

Do you ever get the sense that God is good, but only to other people? Do you ever struggle to believe that God is with you, for you, and actively doing you good?

I do. I haven't suffered much, and yet when I experience pain and difficulty, when I wrestle with doubts and confusion, when things do not seem to be what they should, I often find myself wondering where God is. He feels distant from me, a God whose glory, joy, hope, and peace seem stuck in worship songs and Bible verses, miles away from little old messy me flailing around in the muck.

In those moments, I usually can't help but think that if God truly loved me, He would make my struggles go away or, even better, that He would have prevented them from happening in the first place.

Enter this morning. In the midst of my sadness at the seeming absence of God in some challenging circumstances in my life right now, God reminded me of Psalm 23, the first set of verses I ever memorized. I was particularly struck by verse 4 - "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

And I was reminded that God's presence is known not because He prevents us from facing challenging circumstances, but rather because He leads us into them and through them, like a shepherd who must occasionally lead his sheep through rocky terrain on the way to greener pastures. Our every step is designed and guided by our sovereign God for our good, and the very fact that I feel His staff prodding me down paths that are not always easy should comfort me.

He is with me. He knows what He is doing. This path is the best one for me, and He cares enough to keep me on it even when it hurts. While I would sacrifice growth for comfort and ease, He is not so short-sighted. He loves me too much for that.

Letting Go

She said getting to God is like grasping a strand. Any strand will do – prayer, fasting, even smiling at the strangers you pass on the street. You just have to pick one and hold on.

My church-going, Bible-reading, pastor’s daughter mind smiles at her foolishness. I know there is only one strand. After all, Jesus said He was THE way, THE truth, THE life.

A year ago, this would have been the end of my story. Smug self-righteousness.

But today, I realize that my heart understands her metaphor. I realize now that I too am a grasper, leaning toward a system of morality that will pull me into God’s favor. Being married has taught me this, that I have strands I didn’t even know I was holding. The constant rub of another against the confines of my world has revealed rules I’ve followed because deep down, I’ve believed that doing so would somehow keep me safe.

You can drink wine with dinner

But only one glass

Sometimes two

But only once a week

Never three

Except on weekends

Or when you’ve had a REALLY bad day

You shouldn’t work too much

Not more than 40 hours a week

Unless you have to

But even then, you should do so begrudgingly

Oh, but working doesn’t include helping people

Or doing activities at church

It’s only work you get paid for

That’s the only dangerous kind

They’re complicated these rules, full of caveats that condemn others and let me off the hook. But they’re written so that I can hold on, so that I don’t fall away.

The problem is though that I do fall. I break these rules and other, more obvious ones. I fail to be kind to my husband, to be gracious to my students, to work joyfully, to stop complaining. Lately, it feels like falling and failing is all I do.

I hate failing. I so desperately want to hold on. But I’m realizing that I need Jesus as much as the lady with her single strand, that in fact, I probably need Him more because I have so very many strands and because I keep dropping them all, every last one.

Reflections on Paul

Do you ever feel like Paul attended some spiritual boot camp you missed out on? Or that when He was blinded by God, he was not only converted but somehow became extra holy?

I do. I mean the man says some crazy things, things like:

*"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).
*"I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8).

Really, Paul? Dying is gain? Everything is loss? Everything? Don't get me wrong. I want to believe these things. I believe that I should believe them. But most days, I just don't live like they are true.

Lately, this has had me feeling condemned, like maybe I'm not really a Christian. But yesterday, as I fought intense gusts of wind and lugged my aching, I-haven't-done-aerobics-in-years body across campus with my overflowing briefcase, stack of essays to be graded, coffee cup, and lunch bag in tow, God spoke to me. He gently reminded me of some other things that Paul said, things like:

"I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Phil. 4:11).

"We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3).

And suddenly, my weary body was filled with hope. Though I was still fighting wind, aches, and the heaviness of my load, a burden lifted. For I saw that what God had taught Paul, He could teach me. And I believed that He would.

Many Hats

Here in Northern Virginia, where your job means everything, people I meet often ask me what I do. For the first five years after college, I had a simple answer: I teach eighth grade English. Last year though, things became more complicated. I could say that I was a graduate student and TA, but that opened up a whole other series of clarifications and caveats. I am studying creative nonfiction writing. Yes, that means I write about myself, but also about other issues in some sort of creative way. Well it's true that I'm a TA, but I'm not really assisting anyone. In the future, I'd like to teach and write--and get paid for it. Somehow.

I thought that when I was graduated and figured out a new career path, I'd return to a simple answer. I'm a college professor. Or I do freelance writing. Or I tutor high school students in writing. What I'm finding though is that I prepare for marriage and for my fall teaching assignments, my "jobs" are only becoming more complex. I am simultaneously a part of or preparing to be part of so many very different worlds.

Currently, I am a nanny two days a week for a family with two kids, aged 2 and 5, in a suburb of Northern Virginia. On those days, I function as a surrogate parent, as a temporary member of a unique suburban community -- navigating a stroller through seemingly endless streets of large, identical houses, sharing a playground with sorority girls turned mothers and affluent immigrants from India and the Middle East. On those days, I think about parenting, about what my life will look like if and when CJ and I have kids. I think about what it means to be a wife and mother, how it is that one builds a home. I think too about the strange place that is Northern Virginia, diverse and yet homogeneous, affluent and yet needy.

When I'm not nannying, I spend most of my time at home, dividing my attention between wedding planning and preparing to close on a home and move. On these days, I am in administrative mode, running endless details through my mind. I am a bride and first time home owner, trying to reconcile my desire for a beautiful wedding and home with the reality that nothing's perfect and the truth that marriage and home are much deeper than aesthetics and planning, that there is a spiritual reality more significant than the number of stripes on the wedding cake design or the exact match of ivorys on the chair covers and linens.

And then there are the two jobs I have lined up for the fall. I'll be back at George Mason University, teaching an upper level composition course for humanities majors. I will be a professor, a member of academia, a deep thinker, a creative teacher. I'll be working with students who have a solid academic background, who are preparing for a host of white-collar careers.

But I'll also be teaching two introductory composition courses, one of them a remedial section, at the local community college. And while I don't know exactly what to expect, I know it will be different than GMU. I'll have students who couldn't get into a four-year college or didn't bother to apply. I'll have students who are recent immigrants from other countries, students older than me who have been in the workforce for some time and have now decided to come back and pursue higher education. I will be forced to look beneath Fairfax County's veneer of perfection, to see the poor and struggling, to teach those for whom education and learning don't come easily.

As I think about all of these places, all of these jobs, I feel like my mind is being pulled in a thousand different directions. I am excited about all of the roles that lie in my future, about the many paths that my life might take in the next few years. But I also feel fragmented, wonder what it means to be the woman God has created me to be in all these different spheres, to wear all of these hats for His glory: wife, homemaker, professor, resident of an area that is home to so, so many different types of people.