Some questions on race

It’s true. I’m abandoning the blog. I’m not a blogger, at least not now and not full-time. I’m a fiction writer.

But before I go, I want to use this space to ask my friends to help me with some questions I have about race and racism. Please know that I’m asking these questions not to offend but to learn how to best love my neighbor.

Also, you should know that this has come to the forefront of my mind because of Americanah by Chimimanda Ngochi Adichie.

Without further ado, here are my questions about race (with preamble on some research on how to define terms):

Race, as defined by “Cultural Anthropology” by Ember and Ember: “in biology, race refers to a subpopulation or variety of species that differs somewhat in gene frequencies from other varieties of the species. All members of a species can interbreed and produce viable offspring. Many anthropologists do not think that the concept of race is usefully applied to humans because humans do not fall into geographical populations that can be easily distinguished in terms of different sets of biological or physical traits. Thus, race in humans is largely a culturally assigned category.” (So why do we use this term, and functionally, what do we mean by it? Even “culturally assigned category[ies]”, does this mean there’s only one “African-American” culture?)

Culture (defined by same authors): “the set of learned behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population”

Ethnicity (defined by same authors): “the process of defining ethnicity usually involves a group of people emphasizing common origins and language, shared history, and selected aspects of cultural difference such as a difference in religion.” (This seems more helpful than “race”, but I still don’t understand how it applies to “African-American” or “Asian-American” or “Hispanic” or “Latino/a.”)

So as I try to figure out what these terms mean (or what we mean by these terms)…

What does it mean to say someone is African-American or Asian-American, and how does this relate to race or culture? How does this apply to, say, friends of mine who came from South Africa and are now American citizens? By the way, they’re white. Why is it that I’m not called Euro-American or something like that? Does “African-American” actually say anything about who someone is? What if their ancestry has been in the United States longer than mine has been? And what about the fact that “African” or “Asian” is not really a good descriptor of race or culture or ethnicity because it’s so broad? Or what if their ancestry came, yes, from Africa but via, say Dominican Republic or England? What of the term “Hispanic” or “Latino/a”? What if someone comes from Mexico but has no Spanish ancestry? (And, pardon my ignorance, but does “Latino/a” mean having some sort of Latin ancestry? If that’s the case, aren’t I Latina?) Are any of these terms helpful? Why do we use them? Is there a better way? I don’t mean to say that we should all be colorblind or that color is not significant, but in what ways is it significant and in what ways is it not significant?

How do we prioritize what is meaningful to our identity (individual and shared): ancestry? shared history? And how far back do we go with shared history—my generation, three generations? What are the things that unite us and what are the things that divide us?

By the way, I don’t mean to say that even if we live on the same block we have the same experiences of the world. People treat us differently based on color. The sins of the fathers visit for generations, so just because Jim Crow laws don’t exist anymore doesn’t mean that we’re not still experiencing the ramifications of them in my day. But I’m trying to probe how we move forward, how we see each other, identify with each other, how we listen to each other and know one another. I want something easy, like, well, as I get to know individuals, I can listen to their stories, get to know them, and I think there’s something to that, but I don’t know that that’s enough, not when most of my church is white because most of the people in the suburb where my church is located are white. Not when most of my friends are white even though I live in a neighborhood with so many Indian and Middle-eastern immigrants (and second generations).

(Confession: I suck at meeting new people. So I go to story time at my library, where as a white person, I’m in the minority, and I want to meet others there, but I just suck at it—it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or whether or not your head is covered. I’m no good at going up to someone and striking up conversation.)

So there it is. Thoughts?

Because I read Americanah, and now I need to talk about it

I heart Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie (aside from the fact that she’s my age and clearly more talented and accomplished than I am, and so I’m also jealous, but because I love her so much, I’ll get over it). (Also, she’s the reason I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin a couple of years ago.)

I love that when I see Africa through her eyes, I don’t see a country with wide-eyed, starving children and Maasai jewelry and giraffes but a country with people who love and work and hurt and envy and learn and strive and struggle and triumph. I see people who have dignity and who fail.

I love that when I read her stories I don’t see people who are exactly like me. Most of the time, I can’t relate to the people. I haven’t lived in their situations. I don’t know what it’s like.

I love the textures of her writing–the images, the smells, the humor. So many of the places she writes about are foreign to me, and they are at once foreign, unrecognizable and intimate. And when she writes of a place I know, reading her words is like opening a family photo album.

I love that her stories stick to me like ice cream to my hips. I love that they make me think and see things in a new way.

Which brings me to Americanah, a story about Ifemelu, a Nigerian who moves to America for seventeen years before returning home. Her divergent experiences in Nigeria, first as a teenager then as a working woman, and in America, as a student and writer (blogger, actually) gives her a sense of acute observations but keeps her removed from a sense of truly belonging anywhere. And because of this, she is in some sense unknowable, mostly to herself. We could talk about Ifemula as a blogger (leans toward “self-righteous”, as Obinze says or “judgmental” as other friends criticize her of, but she says, “She felt subsumed by her blog. She had become her blog”) as a girlfriend (perhaps here also, she felt subsumed, she felt as if she became the person she was supposed to be with the man she was with, except for Obinze, of course; she says of Blaine, “Sometimes she felt like his apprentice”), as an African, as an American citizen (a non-American black living in America), as a woman, as a human. As Obinze said, “She was not easy to predict.” She is not familiar but familiar, complex but aren’t her desires to be loved and known common to us all? (“She had never had this before, to be listened to, to be truly heard, and so he became newly precious.”)

This story is about ideas, but just when I start to get exasperated about all the ideas (and is this just a way for Adichie to talk about her thoughts on the subject?), Ifemelu eats a non-fair trade chocolate bar as a form of rebellion when she and a boyfriend fight and draws me back to her as a character.

(And then there are those observations that make me laugh at myself: “I read a piece about this new movement among the American privileged classes. Where people want to drink milk straight from the cow,” because, yes, I drink raw milk.)

The story revolves around complexities in race and racism and belonging.

And so now I want to talk about these things. I want to talk about race and racism and belonging.

Two Saturdays ago, Chris and I went to Jeff Dunham’s show. It was fantastically funny and horribly offensive. As we left, I told Chris that comedians have a role in society of making papier-mâché piñatas of our rule books so that we can get past what we’re supposed to say and not supposed to say and talk about things in real ways.

I want to talk about things in real ways, meaning, I want to know how we can talk about these things in ways that cut through political correctness and in ways that help me understand the experience of those who know racism. I don’t have any delusions of fixing any problems. I just want a taste of understanding people who have had an entirely different experience of America (and the world) than I’ve had.

Obinze says of his wife, “He had never tried, because he knew that the questions he asked of life were entirely different from hers.” I don’t want this to be how I see people and relationships. I don’t want to settle for stereotypes. I want to know individuals.

Because though the story revolves around race and racism and belonging, it’s really about relationships and love (in all its forms).

Ifemelu distances herself from her world(s) in her blogs. She’s an observer. Maybe this is how she makes sense of not belonging. This is the nature–and danger–of blogging. We become observers who make witty (catty) comments, safely and distantly offering our expertise and experience and often offending fellow humans. We often write for unknown readers more than the people in our families and churches and neighborhoods whom we see every day.

I don’t want to be safe anymore.

I don’t yet know what this means, but over the next several blog posts, I’ll be talking about things inspired by Americanah, and I’m desperately hoping that friends, family, neighbors near and far will guide me through this experience.

Please stop telling me to spend more time with my children and other advice I don’t need

People love to give advice. Especially when you have children.

Why I should not let my children into our bed at night. Why I should not let them eat hot dogs. What activities they should and should not be enrolled in. What they should know by age three (how to read, algebra 2, and the Magna Carta if they’re to get a decent job as adults).

Why I should spend more time with my kids.

Chris and I take our responsibility of parenting very seriously. And when others heap well-meaning advice on us, the pressures squeeze us through a Play Doh spaghetti factory until we go to bed strung-out and dry. This last particular piece of advice–to spend more time with the kids–gets to me. Because there’s no possible way I can.

I realize it comes from a place of grace, to not worry about dust and appearances because the kids are more important. But it doesn’t come to me as grace.

It comes to me as one more thing I might get wrong and ruin my children forever.

(“And why did you feel the need to dismember all the cats in the neighborhood?” “Because my mother didn’t spend enough time with me when I was two.”)

Here’s the thing. I’m home with my kids all day every day. I love it. I love playing with them. I love Play Doh and finger paints and trucks and trains and tea parties and puzzles. And, let’s be honest–I’ve never been Emily Post, so letting go of an organized well-groomed house didn’t cause much stress in my life.

But occasionally, if we want clean clothes to wear, I need to do the laundry (I’m talking wash and dry here, not folding and putting away). And maybe I should scrub away the dirt in their bathtub from last week’s mudpies. And I should probably cook the chicken we’re going to eat tonight because, you know, salmonella. And when advice piles on to spend more time with my kids, I feel guilty for doing even these things. I should build another tower! Color another picture! Throw another ball!

Maybe I could prepare dinner when they nap instead of writing. Maybe I should separate the laundry after they go to bed at night instead of knitting.

But I’ve come to realize two things: (1) I need space to be me. I’m not talking Oprah fuzzy feel-good balance crap. Because life is not balanced right now, and that’s okay. It’s also not about me. It’s about loving the Lord your God and loving your neighbor, and part of the way I love God and neighbor is by writing, teaching, preaching and knitting and I may not do as much of it right now as I’d like, but doing these things is part of my humanity.

(2) My kids need to see me do the things that love God and others, and I need to catch them up in this world of how we love others. We cook and clean for each other. We make things for others. This is part of their humanity.

Plus, my kids need to learn how to play together without killing each other even if Mom doesn’t see it.

So here’s my plea: unless I specifically ask you how you handled a situation, please stop giving me advice. I love you. This is not personal. But I need some grace. I love this time of life, but it’s also crazy. My goals are two-fold: that my kids survive, and that they love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds. Even these two things I can’t control, but I will influence as best I can.

Here’s what we parents need: love and affirmation. We’ll figure out the parenting thing, no worries. I don’t think letting them cuddle with me at night will turn them into serial killers. I don’t think giving them hot dogs will fatally wound their chance at Harvard. And I don’t think letting them play on their own for a bit (or letting them help) while I scrub the bathtub will make them question my love for them. When people I love and respect tell me, “Good job,” or “I’m proud of you,” (and I do have people in my life who do this for me–like my parents) I feel God’s grace wrapping around me, healing me from the guilt of yelling at my kids or letting them watch TV or leaving Annie screaming in the gym childcare so I could go to a yoga class, and I know that I haven’t forever ruined my children because Jesus loves them, this I know.

In which I show some love for my fundie background

Warning: this post contains an inordinate amount of parenthesis, but who doesn’t love a good parenthetical remark?

We’ve had our fun. We’ve aired our grievances. We’ve made our statement.

We are not the evangelicals of our parents.

But here’s the thing: I cannot separate who I am today from how my fundamentalist parents and church formed me. Nor do I want to.

I grew up speaking Christianese. I asked Jesus into my heart. I wore T-shirts with Christian slogans. I knew all the words to “Jesus Freak.” I belted out Michael W. Smith songs on road trips (especially when someone had a momentary lapse of common sense and announced their need to “tinkle”, at which point, my family responded with, “Sittin’ in the rain/Water on your brain/Got a hole in your boat/Tryin’ to stay afloat/Has got you down” because we loved each other that much) (also, I still love Smitty, so don’t knock it). I held my Bible high with the spine facing down for sword drills, and I did choreography to the latest church musical.

We blame the fundies for trashing the environment (a particularly funny complaint to me since my mom taught me to garden, even entrusting me as a ten-year-old with my own patch, and my dad is the ultra conservationist in all things, well, in all things [we used paper plates at the occasional barbecue; we reused and shared paper napkins (when we weren't using cloth napkins); Dad had a sixth sense when we opened the fridge door and ever so gently reminded us to turn off lights when we left rooms]). We hold them responsible for talk about going to heaven (instead of when heaven comes to earth). We despise their political affiliations (unfortunately, it seems to me, not because we now affiliate ourselves more with Christ’s kingdom than political tribes but because we have different political ideals). We laugh at their ideas of purity.

I may have my differences (a.k.a. my egalitarian beliefs about women, preaching, church leadership and ordination, which, if you must know, developed precisely from the manner in which these fundies taught me to study Scripture–to look at authorial intent, original languages, the larger picture of all of Scripture–and when I did these things–and because my dad included me in all those theological debates when his seminary buddies came over–I emerged egalitarian, but you can read about that another time) (that sound you hear is my dad slapping his forehead). I may make different decisions than my parents and other church leaders did. I may evaluate art and popular culture with different criteria. I may indulge in a glass of wine (or a margarita) with dinner.

But I treasure my upbringing, and I will mimic much of it as we raise our kids (in fact, I dance around the house to the same Kids Praise and Music Machine records my parents danced around the house to with me).

Here’s the thing: my parents and church(es) taught me that Jesus loves me no matter what, and they taught me to love him. They taught me that God has a plan to redeem creation. They taught me to love Scripture because this is how God reveals himself and his sovereign, loving plan to us.

They taught me that true love waits, and they answered all our embarrassing questions about sex, and though somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that girls don’t struggle with lust, which fed a sense of shame when I did, they taught me that sex is good.

They taught me to listen to the messages of the world with a wary and discerning ear, and though this often ended up in weird categories of “religious” and “secular” music (and, yes, I remember thinking Amy Grant had sold out with “Heart in Motion,” an attitude of which I’ve since repented, and I heart Amy Grant), they taught me to understand beauty and dignity from God’s work of creation and redemption rather than from fallen perspectives.

They taught me to respect myself and others because we were created in the image of God. They taught me that I didn’t need the affirmation of the world or of a guy because I belonged to God, and that was enough.

They taught me to love and include everyone despite race, ethnicity, and background. They taught me to forgive radically because God forgives radically. I’ve seen these things lived out time and time again.

They taught me to pray because prayer matters, because it changes us and because it influences God’s actions. Because it makes us partners in his kingdom work.

They gave me a place of belonging, and they taught me about my responsibility as a Christian to share God’s love, and because of this, I had the privilege of witnessing to my best friend in high school and embracing her as she decided to follow Christ.

They taught me that the Church is universal. My youth leaders took me to Honduras to build a kitchen and love on kids at an orphanage, and we learned that Christ blesses irregardless of nationality and economics. A crazy percentage of those who went on that trip have adopted kids. They taught us that what happens in the world outside our neighborhood matters.

They taught me to love art, especially music, and though they sometimes subjugated art to utilitarian purposes (oddly, not music because I could play Bach fugues and Chopin etudes for Offertory music for the sake of beauty), they taught me that pursuing a career in music was as worthy as a career in ministry.

They taught me that Christ will return and my hope is in him.

They taught me that the thing is to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul and mind and to love my neighbor as myself.

In this way, they shaped who I am and what–and who–I care about and how I care about these things and people. These days my parents and I debate our differences and care for one another. My parents may not agree that I should preach, but my dad will loan me his commentaries and talk Greek with me and discuss the theology of my sermon, and my mom will come hear me preach when she’s in town (my dad has his own sermons to give on Sunday mornings) and kiss me and tell me, “Well done,” and they don’t agree that we should baptize our children, but they come and they take pictures because this is how the Body of Christ works. We disagree, and we’re different, but we love, and I love my fundamentalist background and my fundamentalist parents and the fundamentalist churches who raised me.

The peculiarity of writing

I read this post the other day, The Romance of Certain Old Books by D.G. Myers, and found myself wanting to underline phrases and sentences in his post, which, of course, I couldn’t.

He says, “I can’t be alone (can I?) in finding something romantic about the ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ books of the past.” (No, Dr. Myers, you’re not.)

And then he says, “Books could be time machines, but rarely are. They are sadly familiar to us, because they are canonical; that is, because we read them in the present, with the standards and expectations of the present, as towering figures of the present. To be borne into the past, boats beating against the current, the best books are those which are least familiar.”

I could spend the rest of the post quoting Mr. Myers, but it would be better if you read his post. If you still have time, come back and read this post to appease me.

It reminded me of some thoughts I’d once had (Going Small).

It also reminded me of this piece in The New Yorker, ”To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers about a woman’s life with a book, which, when she finds it, is relatively unknown. (I include this reference to prove that some times–or at least, at one time–I read intellectual pieces, and it makes me feel better.)

A tidbit of the story (which I must include because now that I’ve found it to give you the title and author, I ended up rereading it [and still loving it, though in a different way than my first few read-throughs, which is exactly what the story is about, so maybe there's something in that]; also, while digging through old journals to find this story, I discovered an unread journal with fiction in it by Larry Woiwode, so score):

The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt. The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding…A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist (emphasis mine).

And isn’t this exactly the best way to discover books, especially ones that become part of your life?

 

And then there’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is more along the lines of my reading material these days, when Morris “found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told. ‘Everyone’s story matters,’ said Morris.”

I think of days browsing my parents’ bookshelves as a teenager, finding books not assigned in school and unknown to my friends, books I fell in love with anyway. I think of the times I perused yard sales for a treasure. (This was before I had kids, which disallowed the act of perusing.) I think of the volumes passed down to me when my great aunt died, books all but forgotten to the rest of the world, books trapped by a certain time but finding a life and friends on my bookshelf.

(I think of the painting my great-grandfather painted, which hung above the hamper at the top of the steps at my grandparents’ house and which I loved, but which disappeared after my grandmother died and which is forever lost and neglected.)

I also think of my reading as of late–how I’ve fallen in love especially with international fiction, how I want to read something unfamiliar not because I want to escape my reality but because I want to broaden my reality. Because I want to give my imagination new realms.

Inevitably, this leads to a consideration of my own writing (because doesn’t everything lead back to me?). I look at this collection of short stories nesting on my computer. Who wants to read a story about a 68-year-old woman who learns how to play chess, I think, or an adopted teenaged girl who meets the ghost of her biological mother, or a woman who accidentally turns her boss into a frog during Hurricane Sandy?

These are not the types of stories populating Best American Short Stories. They are not the stories of the young and emerging. They’re not in L.A. or New York City. They’re not about dotcoms or ghettos.

I think about a novel I once wrote which almost went somewhere but then didn’t, and because I’m a different writer now than I was then, I no longer even want to publish this novel, but I can’t forget Marnie, the protagonist, and I wonder if she’ll be among the neglected and forgotten. (In my more hopeful moments, I imagine giving her a new story and setting her free, and I think, isn’t this a sort of redemption? But that’s a different thought for a different day. Really, it is. I should note it somewhere.)

I don’t mean this as a pity party. I only mean to say that perhaps, like some of the books in Morris Lessmore’s world, they are “lonely volumes whose tale was seldom told.” I mean to say that these are my stories, with all their peculiarity, and some days that’s enough, and maybe a little girl will happen upon them one day and see something, maybe familiar (if she once turned someone into a frog) or unfamiliar, and maybe for a moment, these characters who are so dear to me won’t be forgotten.

A theology of love

I love theology.

I love studying Scripture–looking at the Hebrew and Greek and poring over commentaries and reading theologians from the ages. I love fitting it all together, this great story of God’s interaction in history. I love those ah-ha moments.

I am that nerd.

The nerd who doesn’t understand this question, “Yes, but what does that have to do with my life?” The nerd who highlights and dog-ears pages in the Baker and Eerdmans and IVP catalogs. The nerd who still wears clothes from college but keeps up with the latest archaeological trends.

I love theology.

And because I love theology and figuring out things and because I think that what we believe matters (not just that we believe), I disdain what I perceive to be wrong theology.

I do.

Especially when, in my eyes, this wrong theology damages relationships or the hurting or the Church or the world. When we misunderstand (or misuse) what God was and is doing, yes, I think it’s harmful.

So I condescend these misunderstanding theologians, pastors, writers. How could any good come from such leaders?

Then one day, two people whom I love dearly found themselves in the church of a pastor I spoke about with outrage and indignation and exclamation marks, a man I consider to have poor exegesis and not just bad but offensive theology, and these two people whom I love dearly grew in Christ in a way I had not witnessed in them before.

And I shut my mouth.

You may not realize the enormity of that statement. Or you may. But I, who loves debates, who has an inherent belief in right and wrong, especially when it comes to theology, who has no issue sharing my thoughts on all things theological even when it offends others, buttoned my lips and smiled because God was working through this fallen, stubborn, wrong-theologied man.

I remember that story in the gospels where the disciples come back and reported to Jesus how they stopped a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name because this man did not number among Jesus’ chosen, intimate Twelve. And Jesus said, “Oh, you pompous idiots. What the heck is wrong with you? What makes you so special?” (or something to that affect).

I think of Priscilla and Aquila gently and privately pulling Apollos aside to train him instead of taking him down in witty tweets and facetious tumblrs because though he was a charismatic and powerful leader, he had gotten a couple of things wrong.

I meditate on Jesus’ prayer for us just before he died for us, that we–all believers everywhere–may be one, unified, and that his love for us may be in us.

I consider the walls Jesus tore down that we build back up to protect our own reputations as Christians, to distance ourselves from those not like us whether in theology or politics or lifestyles (or any other number of reasons), to perhaps elevate ourselves (look at our correct theology and our wit!). We say spiteful, degrading things, attacking not only the theology but the person (I saw one person tweet that he was cheering for the opposite team of a certain pastor).

And I mourn.

I mourn my conceit, and I mourn the disunity of the Body of Christ, those who at different times and places share communion, the body and blood of our Savior.

And I wonder why God chooses to use any of us–fallen, stubborn, misunderstanding men and women more caught up in ourselves than in the work he is doing.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have healthy, respectful, loving debate and discussions with each other. I still love the intricacies of theology. I still love figuring things out. I still think it honors God when we want to know him better. I still think it’s important to hold each other responsible for the things of God.

But I don’t think we honor him or know him better when we mock one another and–in public ways–seek to harm reputations.

As for me, I resolve to cheer when God uses others for his kingdom work–even those with bad theologies or the wrong credentials or worse! no credentials!–and to pray for a theology of love.

The shape of a mother’s meditation

Soap suds tickle my cracked, red hands as I scrape hardened cheese from a pot. I think of  little boy with leukemia, of the persecuted Christians in Syria, of a lost friend a few blocks away, of my impatience that day.

We will not fear though the earth gives way,
 though its waters roar and foam,

Giggles in the bathroom give way to the sound of an explosive splash and a cry, and weariness stains my husband’s voice.

  though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

I stack the last dish in the dishwasher and move to the laundry room. Warm towels balm my hands. Leaving them on the pool table (a.k.a. the puzzle/laundry table), I shift the wet sheets into the dryer, pulling and manipulating them like taffy.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God
the holy habitation of the Most High.

I eye a stack of books–A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, The Book of Common Prayer, a softened Bible, my black leather journal–the vestiges of a past meditative life.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
   He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

My husband sets free a newly diapered (and otherwise naked) toddler. She comes careening toward me, wide smile, mischievous eyes. Just before reaching my arms, she slips to the right, looks over her shoulder. Her older brother takes up the chase, and then we tackle and tickle, a last shooting star of energy before bed time.

“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”

All books read, all prayers said, all backs scratched, all kisses bestowed, we tuck children into bed, and I take up knitting as we decide what TV show to watch. I think of Mary, storing–and storying–these things in her heart, the poetry of Hannah and David, Miriam and Isaiah echoing in her mind as she repaired a torn garment, kissed a bloodied knee, covered a home with prayer.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Selah.

(Scripture taken from Psalm 46, ESV.)

Then I learned to mix Play-Doh colors

Chris calls me a rebel without a cause. Yes, I question. Everything. But in truth, I follow the rules.

As long as your rules aren’t stupid.

I color inside the lines (with the grain of the coloring going the same way and melding seamlessly). I sort the toys into the right bins. I clear away piles from the kitchen counter.

In high school, I once woke up in the middle of the night appalled that my bed had become so unmade. I smoothed out the sheets and comforter and slept on top of my bed (cold) for the remainder of the night.

I like the appearance of order. But don’t open my closets, inspect my filing cabinets (where all those piles on the kitchen counter end up willy-nilly in folders, sometimes marked), or try to find anything in my pantry. Don’t expect to locate a particular book on my shelf using any system based on genre, alphabetical order of author, or Dewey decimal. I shelve by instinct and love.

My existence flirts between the lines of order and disorder, tidiness and chaos.

Years ago at a conference, Jeremy Begbie introduced me to the term “non-order.” He called it “the jazz factor.” Something about this rang true, but I didn’t know what it meant to live it. I loved jazz music, but I couldn’t play it.

Then I had kids.

Before kids, I liked my scheduled days–writing in the mornings and early afternoon, reading during lunch, teaching music in late afternoons and early evenings. I didn’t watch TV until my tasks were completed. I maintained daily word quotas (in general, at least). The rhythms lent meaning in times of rejection. They fed my creativity.

My kids interrupted my rhythms.

My kids taught me to embrace untidiness, the unexpected, and hemiolas.* They taught me to enjoy laughter when dinner’s burning and I’ve missed a deadline and my ears are ringing from choruses of Five Little Monkeys sung with outside, mountain-top voices inside a three-foot fort.

They taught me how to riff.

We dance to coffee grinding, corn popping, and smoothies blending. We make a joyful noise unto the Lord with piano, drums, and kazoos. We don’t skirt puddles–we jump in them. As long as other kids aren’t zipping down the slides, I let my kids climb up the slides (which appalls a former teacher friend of mine). They regularly rearrange my Tupperware and pots and pans. And last week, I let them mix the Play-Doh colors.

Freedom washed over me.

Did you know you could do this? That you can mash the green with the orange? It didn’t launch the zombie apocalypse. Armies didn’t gather at Armageddon. Cylons didn’t attack.

When we tell people we’re expecting our third, it often inspires warnings of the coming chaos.

Bring it.

I’ve learned that life is not about balance. Some days I’m Wonder Woman. I can whip up a gourmet-ish dinner, edit a short story, and fold laundry. Other days, I survive until nap time when I crash and hope the rest will get me through until Chris gets home (either that or a special day of popcorn and Toy Story). I followed my new blogging rule of two posts a week for an entire week before missing a post, and I actually forgave myself.

God generates excess. Abundance. He created fasts and feasts.

I used to see parenting as a fast from the things of old–lazy Saturday mornings, last minute matinees, evenings at the symphony.

Now I understand that this is not an interruption of my regularly scheduled life. This is my normal, and it’s full, and it’s festive.

Sure, we still pick up the toys, and I’m pretty strict about bed time, but I don’t want my scheduled life anymore. I’ve learned to walk in both order and disorder, and I’ve grown addicted to the surprise of non-order. I now delight over unusual rocks, waste an afternoon when a certain little girl insists on napping only in my arms (still, at fifteen months), and don’t stress (too much) when flour goes flying because Keegan wants to help me make pancakes.

Heck, I may even learn to play jazz one day.

*Hemiolas happen when music is written in one meter but feels like it’s in another meter.

Coming to terms with failure

I sat down, depleted, after preaching on Sunday, promised myself a nap that afternoon after getting the kids down.

But it wasn’t just the exhaustion. My failure consumed me. How many points had I forgotten? Where had I glossed over something that should have been highlighted? Normally I don’t worry about these things, but this time, I felt fragmented, and some of those points and glosses meant something.

Here’s the thing: I had preached on failure. “The kingdom of God starts in unexpected, powerless places on the cusp of failure,” I had said. I talked about the hidden kingdom of God. I talked about the disciples confronted with the reality that instead of glory and power in their lifetime, Jesus asked them to go through hell on earth. I talked about a missionary, Maude Cary, who moved to Morocco in the early 1900s and faithfully served all her life despite personal and professional rejection, despite a lack of visible fruit.

I went home, and during a tickle fight, my son bit my daughter. Hard. Left teeth marks and a bruise and a mommy’s broken heart. This was a first.

Last minute, after taking the kids for ice cream for a special treat, I remembered a free piano concert with childcare at our old church, and we packed our sugar-laden kids into the car (because yes, I am that mom), rushed to the church and followed the lines of Mozart and Borodin and Bolcom, and on our way home, with Annie crying because it was late and she was tired, I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d had the guts to join the studio of the more challenging piano teacher when we moved to Texas. I wondered where my music would be. And I felt sad, toyed with ideas of regret.

Then we came home, and while getting ready for bed, Annie attacked Keegan to zerbert him, and he bit her again.

Later, my husband and I fought (so there it is–Chris and I love each other, we’re committed to each other, and we fight), and I went to bed and tried to read and cried instead because here, too, failure creeps in along the edges.

As you read this, I’m at the hospital with my mom as she’s getting her port placed and her second round of chemo, and isn’t this failure because if the time is fulfilled and the King has come, then where is this peace on earth and goodwill toward men? Why isn’t disease and death and pain eradicated?

I consider the obscurity and, yes, meaningless, of so much of my writing, this thing that I offer God again and again.

I realize that all of this sounds so small because Christians in Syria are being hunted down and killed and women in Dallas are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery and mobs lynch each other in Central African Republic, and in all these places, it appears that the kingdom of God has failed.

But I know that God is sovereign, that he delays because the world rejects Christ, and this is grace because when he comes in glory, he comes in justice, and are we ready to come to terms with that, with our own culpability?

And I know that in all these apparent failures, God is working, healing, redeeming, restoring, and he calls his people to do his kingdom work. He calls me and I offer everything, but the work is not mine. Even this sermon on Sunday is one sermon, and that is not the whole–or center piece–of the worship service. In this, I trust my sovereign God.

So I strain toward the day when God unleashes his power and heals cancer and frees the slaves and reigns in justice and peace and beauty, and meanwhile I take another step, just one, because I know that even in these small things, God’s grace is sufficient.

Accidental parenting

Sometimes good parenting happens accidentally.

Like at a trip to Target.

We had gone to buy toys for a nine-year-old boy with leukemia who had just started another round of chemo to prepare him for another bone marrow transplant. We don’t know this little boy. He’s the grandson of a member of our church. Since having kids, Chris wants to take care of every sick or hurting child. (For example, the kids who live behind us lost their father. Ever since, we’ve bought every Girl Scout cookie, candle, and raffle ticket they’ve sold. We even won an iPad in one of the raffles. Which my husband promptly gave back to the girl who delivered it and told her she could keep it. Sometimes I love-hate this generous man of mine.)

Anyway, when we heard about this little boy, Chris asked if we could send a care package. So I go to Target.

I should mention that because we would have to mail the package to Seattle, this would not be my normal M.O. Normally, I would get on Amazon and spend just enough to get the free shipping, all while watching Revolution. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to do that in this case, but it didn’t.

So there we are in Target, Keegan, Anne, and I, shopping for Legos because what else do you buy a nine-year-old boy who’s mostly confined to bed? And Keegan wants to know why we’re buying presents, and specifically, why we’re buying presents not for him.

“We’re buying them for a little boy who’s sick. Maybe getting presents will make him happy, and Jesus likes when we buy other people presents to make them happy.”

“Oh. Like Santa Claus.”

“Yes. We’re buying presents for someone because we love Jesus.”

Keegan holds the boxes ceremoniously (until he sees something of utter importance–”Look, Mama! Look! Look! A pirate!”–and drops them and steps on one in the cart), but for the most part, he handles them carefully because these boxes are special. He’s so caught up in this idea of buying presents for someone, he doesn’t ask for any toys or books for himself.

Then we head to the post office, and as I get both kids out of their car seats again, I remember why I use Amazon instead of the post office (that and it’s cheaper to use Amazon: do you know how much it costs these days to ship a couple of Lego kits and a paperback of The Hobbit?), and I get them into the stroller and try out four boxes before figuring out which one was the right fit then stand in line to pay for everything and mail it, all the while Anne’s getting tired of all this sitting, and Keegan wants to talk about Zach (the little boy with leukemia).

“I think he will like his presents, Mama.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“He will. Are we going to take them to him?”

“The presents have to fly on a plane because he lives far, far away.”

“Where’s the plane?”

And then we have a discussion about the truck that will take them to the plane, and Keegan informs me that the presents have to go up steps to get on the plane, and where’s the truck that will take them to the plane? Now not only have we bought toys for this little boy, but there are planes and trucks involved, and this might be the coolest thing ever.

That night, we pray for Zach, and Keegan tells Chris about buying Zach presents and about the plane and the truck that will take the presents to Zach (I’m pretty sure Keegan imagines the plane delivering the presents directly to Zach), and I think, this is why I didn’t use Amazon. Because if I’d used Amazon, he wouldn’t know that sometimes you do things like buy Legos and books for someone you don’t know because he’s hurting.

I pray for grace in parenting, that yelling at Keegan when he pushed his sister instead of calmly sending him to time-out won’t damage him for the rest of his life or that feeding them hot dogs every day for lunch won’t permanently harm their little bodies (at least these hot dogs are nitrate free, right?). But here was grace unrequested–a chance to talk about generosity in a way Keegan understands (a.k.a. toys and presents) because we love Jesus and it makes Jesus happy when we make others happy.

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