Gratitude My world last week was debilitating neck pain.  It was peripheral awareness of ebola spreading and ISIS advancing.  It was sadness for a friend's profound loss.

It was a long, heavy week, the kind of week you survive by allowing the laundry piles to spill onto the floor, the dust bunnies to remain untouched.

On Saturday, we woke up to the laundry piles and the dust bunnies, to children who once again needed to eat and be entertained.  CJ and I snapped at each other, tired and frustrated, burdened with the responsibility of it all.

But somehow, some way, grace broke in.  We ate chocolate chip pancakes.  We listened to our little girl giggle with one of her good buddies.  We invited friends over for a spontaneous lunch, and all four kids played quietly for fifteen blessed minutes. Other friends made us dinner and brought it over, allergy-free dessert and all.  It was a sweet day, and we went to bed feeling gratitude for the palpable fullness of it.

And then there was Sunday and Monday and Tuesday - days marked by the deep suffering of another good friend, by a fussy baby and a napless toddler, by my vain efforts to keep up with the piles and the dust bunnies.

At one point in my life, I would have gotten stuck here, frustrated by these very real days, certain that I was entitled to a week's worth of Saturdays.

But I think motherhood has taught me a particular gratitude for the sweet moments - for the little miracles of both kids sleeping in until 7:45, of children playing in peace, of conversations (and friendships) sustained in the chaos.

Life is hard.  It just is.  Sometimes, it's unbelievably, unbearably hard.  Often, it's simply exhausting.

But every now and then, in the laughter of children, in the swirling leaves of a perfect fall afternoon, in the companionship of seasoned friends, we get a little taste of what we were made for.

And when those precious, holy moments come, I am learning, we don't grab on tight and try to figure out how to recreate them.  We hold them loosely, and we simply whisper, Thank You.  

Race Day Reflections

On Sunday morning, I ran a race.  Actually, more accurately, I put one foot in front of the other, very slowly, sometimes running, often walking, for 3.1 miles.  When I signed up, I had high hopes of being in shape by the time this race came around, but the honest truth is that before crossing the starting line, the only running I'd done in over a year was chasing my toddler at the playground.  I was (and am!) woefully out of shape.

Still, it was a gorgeous morning, and as I pushed the jogging stroller around the front of the Capitol building, I couldn't help but be thankful for the opportunity to participate.  There was beauty in the glistening sunshine and the hum of the crowd in an otherwise quiet city, and there was even deeper beauty in the thousands of people running and walking for love, carrying the names of those lost to and those fighting brain tumors on their sweat-drenched backs.

I'd sent CJ and Ellie on ahead after the first half-mile, knowing I'd only slow them down, so it was just a sleepy Celia and I as we neared the finish line.  "Go Moms and Dads!" cheered a supportive onlooker from the sidelines to myself and several other parents with jogging strollers close by.

To my left, one of those dads suddenly slowed to a stop, lifting a toddler out of her seat and setting her feet on the ground.  I realized what was happening as I passed them by.  He was letting her run the last 100 yards or so of the race.  How sweet, I thought, what a great way to give a kid a positive running experience, to let her taste the joy of the finish line even though she's not old enough to do the real work of getting there herself.  I made a mental note to tell CJ what I'd seen, to suggest we let Ellie try something similar at the next race.

It wasn't until the next day, when I thought back on that moment again, that I heard the gentle whisper of God's voice illuminating what I'd seen:  You are like that little girl, Abby.  So often in your life, I've let you cross the finish line.  I've let you taste the adrenaline rush and the thunderous applause and the outstretched hands.  And like that little girl, you've thought you'd run a race, been proud of your accomplishment.  But the truth is, I carried you.  I pushed you.  I set your feet down near the finish line, when all you had to do was take a few, simple steps.

I thought back on all my successes in life, and I realized it was true.  My childhood, my education, my mind, my financial resources, my health, the care and support of my friends and family - these are all gifts that have been given to me by God, gifts that have enabled me to go to school, to write, to care for my family.  And yet, so often, I've thought that I've been responsible for my successes in these areas, that I have achieved by my own strength and determination.  In short, I've been proud.

But in His mercy, God is beginning to show me glimpses of what has always been true - that behind each little victory in my life, He has been there for a long time, pushing me along, carrying me through the difficult patches, and in His kindness, allowing me to taste the joys of the finish line.

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.

Even Without Quiettimes, God Speaks

Note:  For those unfamiliar with evangelical subculture, "quiettime" is a word used to describe the daily time a Christian spends with God in prayer, worship, Bible reading, etc.
I haven't had more than a handful of quiettimes these past few months.  Admitting this to the world makes me uncomfortable, and I want to spend the rest of this paragraph justifying my failures with a lengthy list of the resasons I've been too busy.  But the fact is I've managed to check Facebook, take a shower, and read People magazine regularly during this time period; if I'd really wanted to spend a few minutes with God each day, I could have made the time.

For as long as I can remember, I've considered quiettimes one of the essential disciplines of the Christian life.  As a child, I knew my pastor-father woke up before dawn every morning to retreat to his office, read his Bible, and pray.  At the urging of my parents, I started my own version of quiettimes as a pre-schooler.  While my brothers napped, I lined up my stuffed animals in front of my Bible and eventually, as I grew older, started reading the Bible myself, beginning with Genesis 1 and forging my way bravely ahead.  In college, I was part of a Navigators campus ministry where the practice of daily quiettimes was emphasized and expected.  If you were a good Christian, I came to believe, you had regular, preferably lengthy quiettimes which resulted in spiritual insights you could record in your journal and point to as a measure of God's presence and activity in your life.

For the record, I still think that quiettimes are a good and important practice, that reading Scripture and praying matter and can be used by God in powerful ways.  In fact, I think they matter so much that my husband and I recently came up with a plan to get ourselves back on track in this area, a plan that involves discipline and a schedule and waking up earlier and the whole bit.  
But I want to say too that I've learned something surprising these past few months in the midst of my undisciplined wandering:  even without quiettimes, God speaks.  It shouldn't be surprising really, probably isn't to many of you who understand grace a little bit better than I do.  But for me, it's been so freeing.
I've long been taught that God's activity in our lives isn't dependent on our performance, but as the consummate achiever, I find that hard to truly believe.  If it's indeed true that spending time with God is important to our Christian walk, I tend to think failure to do so will equal failed opportunities to hear God's voice and subsequent failure as a Christian.  
And I'm sure that these past months, I have missed opportunities to hear from God and to grow.  But the funny thing is I feel more aware of God's presence and activity in my life than I have in a long time.  I can't tell you particular verses that have been meaningful to me lately or a specific prayer God has answered this month, but I can tell you this:  I see God's hand all over my life, in places I haven't been able to see Him for a long time.  I have renewed confidence that He has a good plan for me and that even when neither He Himself or His plan can be seen in the darkness, He's there all the same.  
I still struggle with plenty of unanswered questions about those dark places, but the truth of God's presence in them is settled more deeply and firmly in my soul and, for me, that is real spiritual growth.  And the fact that this growth didn't happen through discipline or plans or my own successes tells me I've been learning something else about God too. 
He's bigger than me.  He doesn't need me and my neat little systems for relating to Him.  And He speaks, in spite of and even through my failures.

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #26: Church

Ok, it's getting ridiculous, I know.  I've stopped and started this series too many times!  But my husband keeps asking me to finish it, and I'd really like to...even though I'm now well into my thirties!  So here we go one more time...hopefully this will be the final run.

My current church, Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax.

Church, for me, has always been.  I wrote earlier about how I've been in school for twenty-five of my thirty years.  Well, I've been in church for thirty of my thirty years.

I am a pastor's daughter.  I remember dancing to worship music when I couldn't have been more than four years old.  I remember the children's classes I attended when I was too young to sit through the sermon, remember in particular that I once got my entire class to laugh by announcing how funny it would have been if my name were Gertrude.  I am pretty sure I learned many very important things in those classes, but that is what I remember.

I've written extensively about my relationship to church, an entire master's thesis, in fact, so the idea of crafting a blog post that describes how church has impacted the first thirty years of my life feels, well, daunting to say the least. 

If I had to sum it up in a sentences though, it would go something like this: 

Because of church, I've always known that life is meant to be lived in community, not only with your immediate family, but with a broader group of people who both know and love you. 

Because of church, I've known that as rich as this community can be, it is also tenuous and fragile.  I've known that, as with all things that offer great gain, there is also the potential for great loss.

Because of church, I've encountered the presence of a living God, known what it is like to feel holiness brush against my shoulder. 

Because of church, I've not been able to sustain any illusions about my own holiness or the holiness of Christians in general; real people rubbing real shoulders equals a real mess (and real, genuine good too).

Because of church, I met my husband.

Because of church, I don't expect to sleep in on Sundays.

Because of church, with all its warts and wrinkles, I know God more.

Eternal Productivity

Sometimes it is easier to make pumpkin chocolate chip muffins than to spend time with God.
Sometimes it is easier to spend half an hour arranging gourds, leaves, and little bouquets of mums than it is to spend half an hour praying.
Sometimes it is easier to catch up on e-mails than it is to write in my journal.
* * *
I’ve always had a hard time prioritizing time with God. In comparison with all of the many other things I can spend time doing, it seems so unproductive. At the end of a baking, decorating, or e-mail session, I have muffins, a centerpiece, or an empty e-mail box to point to as proof of time well spent. At the end of time with God, there is no tangible record of my efforts. I know it is important to feed my soul, but to be honest, sometimes, I feel like it’s more important to get something done.
Being a mom has only made this already existing tendency worse. My time is more limited than ever before, and I have more things to do than ever before. When Ellie goes down for a nap, I’m desperate to make a dent in the list of things I’ve been wanting to tackle all morning – shower, lunch, laundry, dinner preparation, cleaning dried-on spit-up off the hardwood floors. Anything can seem more appealing, more important than choosing to sit and quiet my heart before the Lord.

* * *
It is easy to deceive myself, to think that I am being a good mother by all of this busyness - making Ellie homemade baby food and reading her developmentally appropriate stories and ensuring she has bibs and headbands that match her outfits. And I hope that these things will benefit her, at least the food and books; I am pretty sure she could care less about the matching bibs.

But what Ellie needs most of all is a mother who loves Jesus, a mother who prays for her, a mother who seeks the Lord with her whole heart and soul.

The truth is that being that kind of mother is the hardest work possible. It means dying to myself and my pride and my persistent illusions that I can accomplish anything of real value. It is not tangible, but unlike muffins, seasonal decorations, and e-mails, it is eternal.

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.

The Arms of the Father

Yesterday, while CJ and I read and sipped mediocre coffee at a depressingly empty coffee shop, I looked out the window to see a father walking with his daughter in his arms. She was about two, fast asleep, head and chubby arms resting on his broad shoulders, face flushed pink and blond ringlets damp from the heat. She was completely, totally at rest, trusting herself to the arms of the man she loved best, a picture of perfect peace.

In a strange way, I envied her. I myself felt far from at rest, worn out from a summer semester that had begun as soon as the spring semester had ended, stressed about a new part-time job I'd taken on for the rest of the summer, tired of dealing with the sin and struggles that have seemed my constant companions these past few years. I was tired, and I needed a rest far deeper than any cup of coffee or quiet afternoon could provide.

A few minutes later, I opened up my Bible to the place I'd left off the day before and found myself reading the following verse: "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God" (I John 3:1a). I thought again of the little girl and her father, and a deep urge stirred inside of me to be carried, to be held, to stop trying so hard and to simply let my Father carry me safely through the heat while I rest.

My Choice

Choice 1

It is rainy today, dismal really. My students say we should be able to stay in bed on days like these; I tend to agree with them.

My house is in shambles, the floors on the entire main level and staircase taken down to the bare sub-flooring. Construction equipment litters the living and dining areas; in the kitchen, I find dust-covered countertops lined with stuff that once had a space to belong.

I am surrounded by papers to grade, 38 of them by Monday, and stacks of research to wade through, research that somehow needs to be shaped into a conference presentation by next weekend.

It is not dinner time yet, but it is already dark. Winter lurks, and I feel the slowing effects of its cold and dark grip.

Life spins out of control. I spin with it.

* * *

Choice 2

It is rainy today. For the first time all semester, I find a parking space in the faculty row. Shorter walk to class today. Time to grab a cup of coffee on my way.

In my living room lie boxes of glistening Brazilian teak wood, neatly stacked in rows. We have waited over a year for this, for the end to all our sanding and painting and electrical work. It's almost done.

Tonight is "down night" for CJ and I. We'll read or watch a movie or play a game. We'll just be, enjoying each other, pausing for a breath in the midst of these marathon weeks.

It is dark outside, and sometimes I feel the darkness in me. But I have a promise - the darkness is not dark to Him. He is with me.

All of creation spins under His control. I rest in Him.

* * *

The battle inside me rages.