A Modest Holiday Request

Dear Reader,

Hello! Happy December 1st. No matter where you are, this is likely the merriest month of the year. It is the time when we put up ridiculously lavish displays of lights and greenery. We bring a bush into our homes and string it with garlands and memories. We make the same recipes, the same sweets. We bestow on one another gifts and love.

Over the next few weeks, you may be invited to a gathering or two. If you are in someone’s home for a party in the next month, may I make I request of you?

Take a picture of the hostess.

I say “hostess,” because in my home I am the one heading up these efforts. But in all circumstances, there is someone heading up the food and the atmosphere at your party. He or she is the one who spent hours ahead of time, determining what you might eat when you arrive, making sure there’s room in the coat closet in the front hall, and wiping the bathroom sink one more time. He’s the one shuttling the empty trays back to the kitchen to refill. She’s the one taking the trash out — quietly, so nobody’s conversations get interrupted.

But I bet that host isn’t in many pictures. He might have taken a picture of you with your spouse; or a picture of everyone at the table together; and then he put the phone down to refill somebody’s coffee.

The hostess is present in the pictures, of course: in the flowers on the table, or the spread on the buffet, or the carefully chosen blankets on the back of the couch, so you could lay down for a nap if you wanted to. But where is her face?

Thanksgiving 2015

This feels like a self-indulgent request, and I won’t deny that it’s personal. Recently I was looking back at photos from our past Thanksgivings, and I found one of me, sitting in my usual spot at the foot of the table, smiling at a guest who had insisted upon taking my photo. I was struck by how rare a photo it was. I think I was about ready to leap up to get something I’d forgotten for the table, but my friend made me freeze for a moment so she could document that I was there, too.

As my children get older, I am beginning to realize how few pictures I am in. Dad, if Mom is the self-appointed documentarian of the family, make her get in a few photos. Don’t let her fuss at you about how she isn’t camera-ready. Tell her she is beautiful and click away.

It is a little thing, of course — and in an eternal sense, a photo doesn’t lend any significance to the service done. But in these days of ever-present cameras, let’s make an effort to temporally celebrate the one who is running behind the scenes. Give her a second to dry her hands off and take off the smudged apron, and then make sure she is remembered.

Happy Holidays!

Yours,

Kelly

Furrowed

Oh God, I am furrowed like the field

Torn open like the dirt

And I know that to be healed,

I must be broken first

Andrew Peterson, “The Sower’s Song”

My face is furrowed. It isn’t furrowed in the regular sense of the word — like my eyebrows are knit together. This year, my face became furrowed by a new scar.

A few months ago, I learned that I had a minor form of skin cancer just under my right eye. I had battled a small blemish for over a year, trying to get it to heal. It never did. After a biopsy, the spot was confirmed to be basal cell carcinoma. And so the date was set. After we returned from our whirlwind vacation overseas, on Easter Monday early in the morning, I would be numbed up and have a piece of my cheek carved away.

The procedure I underwent is called Mohs’ surgery, named for the doctor who created the process. I suggest doing an internet search on the term if you’d like to see some truly horrific pictures. The doctor takes away the cancerous cells to the best of his ability. He also takes what he considers to be sufficient “margin” — enough healthy cells to create a border between the location of the cancer and the healthy, unaffected skin nearest the site.

This process is mind-bending. While you lay on a reclining chair in one room, lab technicians down the hall look at a piece of your face to make sure they “got it all.” When the doctor is satisfied that you’re done, he uses a tiny torch to cauterize the site and help it heal. The smell of my own burning flesh is not one I will soon forget.

The first couple of weeks of healing were uneventful. The most traumatic part was the first glance at the stitches — seven of them, marching uniformly in vivid purple across my upper cheek. But once the stitches came out, I was optimistic about the healing of what would amount to an extra-deep laugh line underneath my right eye.

Then, two weeks later, some purple sprung up under the skin. Swelling began. Was it an infection? No. My body was in rebellion. A hematoma had arisen. It had to be lanced. More bandages. And now, some work.

Beneath the line that rests on the skin, there is an angrier area. My skin wants to harden up. Scar tissue is setting in, making my upper cheek a lumpy mess. It is in need of some work. “Your best friends,” the doctor said at my third post-op visit, “will be time and massage.”

Now, and for the foreseeable future, an alarm on my phone sounds every hour. Ten times a day, for one minute each time, I must massage the scar. But to say “massage” is too kind — I must push down hard, exerting pressure and breaking up the hardened tissue underneath the skin. I must keep at it. I must exert little bits of hard effort, a small amount at a time. I hope to win out over the hard scar tissue through time and consistency. However, I should not expect overnight results, and I should not expect to rest from the effort anytime soon.

The experience has served to remind me that little things we do every day often matter more than big things we do every once in a while. Consistent effort, little bits at a time, bear regular, bountiful fruit more than big, occasional efforts. Our flesh desires the big, showy payoff performances. But long-lasting fruit comes with little bits of faithful investment.

So please keep going to the gym a few times a week. Keep reminding your kids to put their dishes in the dishwasher. Keep texting that friend even though you haven’t seen her in awhile. Keep opening that Bible every morning. Keep showing up at church early to serve. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, how you spend your days is how you spend your life.

Also — how quickly can scar tissue set into our souls? We all know areas that the Holy Spirit wants us to press on. It causes us pain. It requires effort. Quite frankly, we don’t want to enter into it. The first cut hurts. Our natures make us want to become atrophied and give up for lack of observable results. After the initial sting, we may think the work is done. But the process of repentance is borne out over days, months, and years of dying little deaths and pressing forward into little resurrections.

It is meant for our good by a good and kind Father, and it will bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness in the end. (Hebrews 12:11)

His Heart Beats

IMG_20151009_151801664_HDRRecently I asked the kids to help with with one piece of school planning. We needed a signal for the start of school. We always begin the day around the dining room table at 8:30 in the morning, but I wanted to pick a song that would signal to the kids that it was time to gather. I thought this might be a better alternative to me shouting their names, sometimes nicely, sometimes no-so-nicely.

I gave them one restriction — the choice needed to be an Andrew Peterson song. Since I’ve been listening to him for twenty years, Andrew’s voice has an immediate calming effect on me, which is advantageous when we’re gathering for school, for both teacher and students. He is the mother/teacher whisperer.

Andrew’s most recent album came out over Easter weekend. It’s entitled Resurrection Letters, Volume I. It is a prequel to an album he released over a decade ago. This most recent offering is all about Jesus’ resurrection — the actual event. The opening song, “His Heart Beats,” could not be more literal. We hear about Jesus’ heart beginning to beat again, his lungs filling with air, and him rising up to walk again.

Here is where a sanctified imagination can serve us. Let’s sit with the fact of the resurrection for a moment. A person that was dead “a moment ago” is now alive again. His skin warmed up. His eyelids opened. He spoke for the first recorded time, to Mary. Maybe he had to clear his throat first — can you imagine?

No, really — can you?

“The blood that brought us peace with God is racing through his veins,” Andrew reminds us. That blood was sitting still and pooled just a moment ago. It’s moving again.

If you know me at all, you know that Resurrection Sunday is my favorite day of the year. It’s better than Christmas or my birthday or even a British Royal Wedding (!). Charlotte always shows off on that Sunday. The azaleas are usually in full bloom that week; the early bulbs have given way to the later ones, and the trees are flowering. I am one of those people who insists on greeting people with “He Is Risen!” (– this is our one special thing, Christians! Let’s use it!)  I usually make a few ridiculously decadent desserts. We jam our house full of people until it can’t hold anymore and they spill out onto the lawn. We eat and talk until we can’t do either anymore. My goodness, it’s wondrous. The reason we sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is still true all these centuries later, and if I have anything to do with it, we’re going to have a party to celebrate.

But also — if you know me at all, here we are in August, and I’m anxious about the beginning of the homeschool year. No matter how long I do this — I begin year thirteen tomorrow morning — I still get scared every single year. Perfectionism nips at my heels and tells me I can’t do it. The lists rise up endlessly, and for some reason I convince myself that I must have everything decided/finished/perfect by 8:30 tomorrow morning. It’s a lie, and I fall prey to it every year.

I found myself grieved Saturday night, sending out a few emergency texts to friends to ask for prayer. I am blessed with faithful friends who responded with encouragement and promises to pray. I am blessed with a faithful husband who doesn’t give credence to my fears, but instead holds me when I cry and put too much pressure on myself.

Back to our song choice. The kids told me earlier this week that they wanted Andrew’s “His Heart Beats” to be our gathering song. It wasn’t my first choice. I probably would have picked something about family, or enjoying God in nature, or something Hobbit-ish (he has a few of those). But as the week wore on, and I battled emotion, fear, vulnerability, and perfectionism, the truth of the Resurrection rang like a crystal bell in my mind.

As I was laid bare by the temptations to grasp for control, Jesus’ faithfulness rose up to meet it. He said he would raise the temple up in three days’ time, and He did it. He just does not do these things in the way we expect. Our marriage, our family, our parenting, our story, has not looked at all as we expected. And yet — He is still faithful. He will do it.

Jesus is still just as alive on a Saturday in the middle of August as He is on the moment of sunrise on Resurrection Sunday morning.

My sin is just as dead as it was then.

Death itself is just as dead as it was that first Sunday, “very early on the first day of the week.”

And that, friends, is wind in my sails. That is why I can get up tomorrow morning, embrace my failings, take a step forward in my God-enabled strengths, and pull these kids along with me. It will not be easy. There will be days, just like there are every year, when I’m tempted to run out into the street and flag down that big yellow bus just to get a moment’s peace. Jesus died for that impatience, as well.

Happy first day of our school to you, friends. And if you’re up for it, turn this song on at 8:30 tomorrow morning and whisper a prayer for us. Jesus is alive, and He’s listening.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. — I Cor. 15:26

 

Greatest Hits of 2017

If you’re not sick of reading year-end lists yet, here are some things I appreciated in 2017. In no particular order:

  1. Pen snob: 2017 was the year I indulged all my pen snobbery. I now have three faithful go-to pens for different purposes. A micron .03 for bullet journaling, a pilot disposable fountain pen for writing notes and checks (yes, I still do that occasionally), and in a pinch, this pen is a worthy replacement for either. Jen Wilkin made me aware that a disposable fountain pen was a thing in her first  interview on Only the Good Stuff. Fountain pens have long been favorites of mine, but the cost always made me shy away — I was afraid to lose one. Now I don’t have to worry about that. Also, if you have a kid with dysgraphia, or one who struggles with handwriting in general, give them a fountain pen. It really helps!
  2. Analog life: 2017 saw our family trying hard to become a bit more analog and a bit less digital. Try as they might, tech developers can never replace the mental exercise of writing something longhand; the weight, texture, and feel of an old book (or a new one, for that matter); or the joy of a note sent or received through the jolly old US Postal Service. David has once again returned to his longhand prayer journal, I began a bullet journal (more on that in a moment), and I read three times as many “real” books this year as I did last year — mostly because I was more disciplined about putting my phone down. I did this with the help of a paid app called Offtime. Apple users should look into one called Freedom.
  3. The Great British Baking Show: in our continuing unapologetically Anglophiliac british-bakingexistence, our family went whole hog into TGBBS this year. If you happened to be in our home while it was on TV, you might have thought we were watching a sporting event. Screams! Thrills! Tears! And the most delightful unexpected heroes. Please give this a try if you haven’t already. It streams on Netflix.
  4. Bullet Journaling: I received a lovely blank book for my birthday in June, and by the end of July — once I overcame my fears and stopped obsessing about making it perfect — I had it set up as a bullet journal. I have three sections: one principally for spiritual stuff (prayer, sermon notes, quotes, and the like); one for life-in-general stuff; and one for homeschool stuff. I also have a killer to-do page that uses post-it notes so I can clean it off and add to it as needed. I love having everything together in one place, and it’s lasted me a good six months. I might be beginning a new one in the next month or so. If you are at all interested in bullet journaling, please be careful out there on the world wide interwebs. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want everything to look perfect. Don’t do it! Ask yourself what you need that little book to do, and then use it for that. The end. No one is going to grade you on your bullet journal.
  5. Men. Ha, that’s a funny one. 2017, particularly the end of it, was a hard year on men. While the #metoo movement brought about some conversations that absolutely need to be had, I was shocked at the number of women — married women, even — who were saying casually what amounted to “men suck.” No, they don’t. I would hope you wouldn’t say that about your husband, married person. And you didn’t marry the only good one. My life is full of good men. I was raised by one, I am married to one, and I am trying to raise four of them. Helping me in the endeavor of raising those four young men are countless other good men, involved in their lives at school, at church, and in our neighborhood. The boys are thankful for them. Me too.
  6. 40. I can’t sign off on this year without acknowledging one more time that this was my year of turning 40! I ran a half marathon — a lifelong goal, and I ran it a full minute faster than I thought I could because of the help/friendly harassment of my husband. I went to NYC with sweet friends: we walked the Brooklyn Bridge, did drinks at the Four Seasons, and watched the sun go down from the deck of the Empire State Building! (did that really happen?!)

I am so thankful for the lessons and gifts of 2017. On to the next. Here’s to growing deeper in God’s grace, having patience with ourselves and others, and gratefully enjoying all His good gifts. Happy New Year, friends!

Rich Mullins, Twenty Years Alive

Today marks twenty years since Rich Mullins’ death. I still remember reading the news in a computer lab in the basement of Klein Hall at Messiah College. My friend David (who I would later marry) emailed me with the story. It took my breath.
 
From the opening notes of “The World As Best As I Can Remember It,” his music taught me that Christian worship and music could be better than what was being promoted on the radio. And when “A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band” came out, I found a top-ten lifetime album. Those of you who know him as the guy who wrote “Awesome God” — you don’t know his best music. It’s worth looking into.
I’m so grateful I got to see him play once. He performed in the chapel at Gordon College and I drove home from college for the weekend to attend the concert. A local duo named Harrod and Funck opened for him — I was a fan of theirs, too. I’m pretty sure the poster from that night is still up in my attic.
At the end of his concerts, Rich always had the audience stand and sing the doxology unaccompanied.  While the crowd was singing in harmony with eyes closed, he would slip off the stage. He wanted to be absent when the applause started.
In his song “Elijah,” Rich wrote
But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah 
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire 
And when I look back on the stars 
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park 
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye
The weekend that Rich passed away, David happened to be headed to Manhattan. He said he was going to light a candle in Central Park for Rich. When Rich said goodbye, it broke our hearts a little. But we knew it didn’t break his heart.
Rich+Mullins

The Life-Giving Home: March

IMG_20140531_072443Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-Giving Home has been on my radar for a couple years now. I decided it was time for a deep-dive read and blog series about it. I hope to read and journal (here on my blog) about each chapter as I go. The book is divided up by months in its chapter structure, which lends itself to a blog series rather nicely. I hope that regardless of your life stage and situation, you can glean something from the wisdom on the importance of home to a human heart.

The Life-Giving Home: March

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.  -John Muir

Idealism, at heart, is about hope. And so is seeing beauty. P. 84, The Life-Giving Home

This chapter of The Life-Giving Home is an excellent primer on a spiritual understanding of pursuing beauty. Sarah Clarkson unfolds for us a gentle theology on pursuing beauty in a Christian’s life and home life. For me, the chapter was a great reminder on why we as human beings crave order, peace, and beauty. We were created for life in a garden; the Fall broke this existence dramatically.  As Tolkien puts it, “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”

Beauty also points forward to the day when creation will be redeemed and fully restored by the return of the Lord Jesus. As Sarah says:

To cultivate beauty is to act in keeping with my faith in God’s goodness rather than my doubt. It means to fight tooth and nail, day by day, to keep alive my faith in a love that transforms the ordinary and, in that transformation, offers a glimpse of a one-day, ultimate redemption. (p. 83)

Now, if you’re like me, you read a chapter like this and immediately want to set about reinventing your life and that of your family from cellar to attic. Clear it out! Reorganize! make everything beautiful immediately! Quick! I’ve been doing this all wrong!

Not so fast, Sarah cautions us:

…beauty in home life — beauty on the level of the kitchen table, the child’s bedroom, the back porch — is something at which we often stumble. What we miss in these surface things is an understanding of beauty not as veneer we apply to the surface of our lives or an ideal only to be attained by the extraordinary, but as the tangible, daily outgrowth of the spiritual values  we hold most deeply. We miss, in other words, the reality of incarnation, the truth that God created the physical world to house and express the spiritual. (p.81-82)

Yes — the physical world should reflect the beauty of the spiritual. But that looks different for each family, each season, each person. It doesn’t mean we live in a museum. It means we value truth and genuineness over a false veneer of meaningless, flashy, fleeting ideas of what is attractive.

As I revisit what this looks like for our life here, I’ve found it helpful to think on another book I’m reading, Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. In his chapter entitled “The Horizons of the Possible,” Crouch supplies the reader with five questions for evaluating any cultural artifact and how it fits into the broader cultural context. Whether we are thinking on the interstate highway system, lasers, cornbread, smartphones, or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or the culture and cultural artifacts that exist within our home life, we can ask the following questions:

  1. What does this assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this make possible?
  4. What does this make impossible (or very difficult)?
  5. What new forms of culture are formed in response to this?

The first two questions are especially helpful to me when I think on time spent, habits, routines, art, music, and other factors in our everyday existence in our home. This doesn’t mean every piece of music in our home expresses the Gospel from beginning to end. In fact, it means that my husband points to a Peter Gabriel album as a better expression of the despair and brokenness of the Fall than most Christian music. Why? Because it expresses the truth of divorce and despair in all its ugliness. It fits into question #1 quite well — and even #2. At the same time, we don’t wish to stay there. Reminders in music of the hope of redemption, Christ’s return, and the current beauty that surrounds us even in Earth’s fallenness — these also feed the soul.

How do you think about culture in your home and how it expresses (1) where and who we are and (2) what we hope for? I’ve loved this reminder from Sarah Clarkson to continue to press on in my pursuit of beauty here at home — not a Pinterest-perfect existence, but living in the spiritual, physical realities that Christ has made true here and now, and in the time to come.

 

Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-Giving Home has been on my radar for a couple yearslghfeb now. I decided it was time for a deep-dive read and blog series about it. I hope to read and journal (here on my blog) about each chapter as I go. The book is divided up by months in its chapter structure, which lends itself to a blog series rather nicely. I hope that regardless of your life stage and situation, you can glean something from the wisdom on the importance of home to a human heart. You can read all the posts here.

“The Incarnation was, in its deepest sense, a restoration of what God originally intended for humankind. And that includes a physical place of belonging.” – Sarah, Ch. 2

February’s chapter, as you might have anticipated, is all about love; it is subtitled “A Culture of Love.” Sally explores the ways in which we’ve been loved by God, then opens up ways that her family has celebrated one another, whether it be birthday traditions or weekly times of “girl time” and “men’s night out.”

Love is indeed a choice, an obedience, a service and a sacrifice, an initiation. But love is also the most powerful source of joy. And it is the means through which God would have us extend His hands, His words, His redemption to our world, within the walls of our homes.

The thing that struck me about this chapter the most is the multitude of ways in which these little manners and ways paved the way for listening to one another. At the heart of every tradition or intentional act, there was a heart of service for communicating that the person was seen and known.

Last week I read a quote from David Augsburger, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” It struck me as so true! We are all so busy being efficient that we forego being fruitful in one another’s lives. Can we sit down and listen to our children? Can we pay attention to their little stumbles and joys? Can we recognize a friend’s triumph or discouragement?

I came away from this chapter with encouragement to stop and see people, whether they be my own children or a friend, neighbor, or stranger. Sally closes with an encouragement to entrust these interactions to the Lord:

And because He is the One who invented love in the first place, who surrounds us with love every day of our lives and inhabits every truly loving relationship, I can trust Him to transform all my efforts into the stuff of eternity.