Confession of an Accidental Materialist: My Response to Laudato Si

Pope Francis recently released his second encyclical Laudato si’, on man’s relationship and responsibility to God’s earth.

Wondering just what is a papal encyclical? See my thoughts below.*

After reading through the majority of Pope Francis’s 183 page encyclical, Laudato si’, I empathized with the pontiff’s closing description of the “lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling.”  Isn’t that the Gospel altogether – wonderfully inspiring, yet revealing of something truly awful about ourselves?

Below is not a summary of Laudato si’rather a personal reflection.

It begins in England fifteen years ago…

 Toast Parties

Pope Francis on Christian Spirituality Alternative

I lived in England for several months when I was twenty, in a lovely Tudor building in the countryside of Nuneaton. The place had been a boys’ boarding school, now occupied by religious twenty-somethings from around the globe; there to find meaning, discuss theology over pints at the local pub, and make sense of who God was and what that meant for us. There is a great deal I miss about those days there – great friends, great conversation, hot tea on misty mornings, roasted lamb and potatoes with mint sauce, and a funny little thing that really was not British at all – the occasional, simple, yet very special…toast party.

Yes… “toast party.”

Our big beautiful school with original woodwork, and large drafty windows looking over the patchwork rolling hills, had outdated wiring, restricting the use of toasters in rooms and common areas. Consequently, we could have a piece of bread in the morning with butter and jam, but never toast. However, a few male students lived in a small building in the back that was updated, and could accommodate toasters. So from time to time, the boys would ask a few of us girls over and we would have “toast parties.” If we were lucky, there would be Nutella.

Now I am back on U.S. soil with my own personal oven, and microwave, and toaster, and daily access to not just bread, but sourdough, marbled rye, cinnamon raisin, spelt, gluten free, fat free, honey oat, and the cheap, nutrient-free white bread that is the quintessential choice for a bologna, cheese and mayonnaise sandwich. Yet, somehow I find myself pining after these so-called “toast parties” of my youth. What I miss, and this is important, is how I appreciated that toast. That toast, as difficult as it may seem to believe, was an anticipated experience, a luxury, it was special.

Now there is nothing special about toast.

Now toast is just toast.

Americans have been so inundated with excess and overloaded with choice, that our appetites have been dulled and we are neither grateful for luxuries nor essentials. Where the poor in developing countries work for clean water, one pair of decent shoes, and ration their meat to a few times a month, our American middle class complains when they have to wait six months longer than their neighbor to upgrade to the latest smart phone. And perhaps nothing has desensitized us more than all our stuff, our excess, our piles of perfectly functional but only used twice a year items.

Have I become materialistic and not realized it?

If so, what are the psychological, environmental and spiritual repercussions?

Pope Francis began his critique of the consumer centered life in the beautifully challenging Evangelii Gaudium, which was started by his successor Pope Benedict XVI. In the exhortation Francis warns,

… a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us…

He is absolutely right.

In my twenties, with little but a suitcase of belongings, my heart bled for the poor. My time and money reflected those feelings. Now my mind is consumed with mortgage and car payments, 401k’s, how to afford ballet lessons for my kids.

Are those things worthy?

I suppose.

But are they more worthy than the survival of a four-year-old Iraqi refugee?

No.

The answer is no.

Until we accept that truth…we are deadened to the call of Christ to serve the poor and deny ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.

Let us not deceive ourselves.

Being unable to afford Disneyland is not poverty.

Watching your child weakened by starvation is.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”  – 1 John 3:17&18 

Keith Urban, Faith and Millennial Spirituality

Keith Urban, Faith, and Millenial Spirituality

Keith Urban just released the very catchy “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Just so we’re clear it isn’t country, rather it is that ever prevalent mix of pop-rock dressed in redneck sentimentality and designer cowboy boots. Urban speaks the language of the average country music fan – nostalgically patriotic, harmlessly rebellious, and deeply fond of Jesus. It is a formula that works, and that isn’t meant to be a criticism.  I have been shamelessly listening to it on repeat all morning. Don’t judge.

Country music gets away with songs about God, church, and Jesus in a way that other secular music can’t.  Carrie Underwood may be able to ask Jesus to “take the wheel,” but other genres have an unspoken rule to be more subversive. Lady Gaga and Kanye West juxtapose Jesus with four letter expletives and sexual imagery. Meanwhile, U2 and Mumford and Sons use language that have spiritual tones, but sound ambiguous for the average listener. And therein lies a fundamental difference.  Our culture is accepting of spirituality, but skeptical of Christianity.

Many believers in Christ are faced with the reality that Christianity gets a bad wrap these days, especially online. Spirituality, however, is more palatable. One can believe in God and even Jesus, but there is something about the words “Christianity” and “religion” that rub people the wrong way. In my early twenties when people would ask if I was religious, I would say, “No, but God is the most important thing in my life.” People generally respected that answer. I considered it just to be an issue of semantics. However, time has turned those semantics into reality. Many have traded Christianity in for positive feelings towards Jesus, and an individually designed spirituality.

Does Christ meet us in individual ways? Absolutely.

Do we get to throw away Church? No. Even a deeply flawed Church.

In March of 2013, Rolling Stone published an article about Mumford and Sons, and highlighted the spiritual history of the band. Mumford, the son of the founders of the Vineyard church in the U.K. was asked if he “still consider(s) himself a Christian.”

Mumford replied:

“I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. … I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.”

Americans do a similar dance when traveling. The U.S. can get a bad wrap overseas; as a result I’ve witnessed a few American travelers pretend they are “Canadian” to avoid confrontation. I never played the “Canadian card” myself simply because the French thought I was Indian, Italians thought I was Greek, and Spaniards never bothered to ask. Strangers often complemented me on my excellent English speaking skills. At the end of the day, though, none of us ever considered trading in our citizenship simply because our passport wasn’t popular.  At the end of the day, we were still Americans and enjoyed the freedoms that citizenship afforded us. The same should be true for faith. We don’t get to deny our faith identity, no matter how unpopular Christianity might be these days.

Sometimes Christianity isn’t professed because it is illegal or disbelieved.

What a waste to abandon Christianity because it isn’t fashionable.

I understand presenting religious and spiritual ideas in a manner that others can understand.  Urban expresses his spirituality appropriately in context with his audience, he isn’t evangelizing. That isn’t the point.

But are we taking cues from artists who use ambiguous language and imagery, and applying that same method to our own faith? Are we trading words like “salvation” and “holiness” for “spiritual” and “good?” I use to think it was semantics, but realize it has become something else. This personal path has become its own religion, despite the fact that millennial Christians now seem to hate that word.

Let’s be honest, being a Christian isn’t exactly a selling point in our culture today, but I still consider myself one. I finally got over the whole label thing when I became Catholic. But that’s another conversation for another day…

As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read, and welcome your thoughts!

John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16

Written by Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne. Produced by Keith Urban and Dann Huff. Relased in June 2015 by Hit Red Records under license to Capitol Records Nashville.

I’m a 45 spinning on an old Victrola
I’m a two-strike swinger, I’m a Pepsi Cola
I’m a blue jean quarterback saying I love you to the prom queen
in a Chevy
I’m John Wayne, Superman, California
I’m a Kris Kristofferson, Sunday morning
I’m a mama and daddy singing along to Don McLean at the levy

Well, I’m a child of a backseat freedom
baptized by rock and roll
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden
Never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open on a boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from
John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16

I’m Mark Twain on the Mississippi
I’m Hemingway with a shot of whiskey
I’m a TV dinner on a tray trying to figure out the Wheel Of Fortune
I’m a Texaco star, I’m a Gibson guitar
Still a teenage kid trying to go too far
I’m a jukebox waiting in a neon bar for a quarter

Well, I’m a child of a backseat freedom
baptized by rock and roll
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden
Never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open on a boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from
John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16

I spent a lot of years running from believing
Looking for another way to save my soul
The longer I live the more I see it
There’s only one way home

I’m a child of a backseat freedom
baptized by rock and roll
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden
Never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open on a boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from
John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16

Yeah, I’m a child of a backseat freedom
baptized by rock and roll
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden
Never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open on a boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from
John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16

What I Learned Being on Reality TV

Renovation Realities for Pinterest

Last year my husband and I had the opportunity to take on a kitchen remodel on a little show called “Renovation Realities” on the DIY Network. When one of the producers called to let us know our audition tape was good enough to get us on the show, we were absolutely ecstatic. I immediately started scouring the internet for deals on white shaker cabinets, butcher block counter tops, and a farmhouse sink. My new best friends were IKEA, Craigslist and Habitat for Humanity.

I should have been looking up how to  disconnect a dishwasher and install that farmhouse sink, but those were details that could wait.

Jake and I learned a lot from the show – teamwork, communication, the importance of a reliable babysitter when you’re on national television (we learned that the hard way).

We also learned that while reality television is entertaining…it isn’t real.

Okay, go ahead and tell me you already know this.  For whatever reason, I didn’t.  While some shows are blatantly manipulated, I imagined a renovation show would be straight forward.

Not quite.

Our producer was quick to say, “This is the most ‘real’ reality show out there.” Alright, we were not dating twenty-five people simultaneously while being romanced over dinner in Irish castles and helicopter rides like the “Bachelorette.” Nor were traveling at warp speed from Moscow to Lisbon as contestants in the “The Amazing Race” seem to do; but even on a renovation show there can be some manipulation.

Manipulate Through Editing

What the viewer sees on television is a tiny fraction of what actually takes place.  Not only is there a great deal that takes place off camera, there is an unbelievable amount of footage that ends up on the cutting room floor.  Take our episode for example: we shot for over four days,but the show is only twenty minutes long. When taking into account breaks and interviews, the show represents less than 5% of what was shot.

The other thing that editing can do is manipulate context. This isn’t journalism, it is entertainment, and there is no ethical requirement to be true to context. Let me give you just one example.

My husband and I were removing our vintage 50’s stove top when we found yards of electrical tape wrapped around the wires. You should know that my husband and I had virtually no DIY renovation skills. I can paint and that’s about it. We had absolutely no business taking on a renovation show like this one. Had we known what we were doing, we would have cut the wires immediately. Instead we tried to unwrap yards of old, sticky tape. After several minutes we decided to take a break. The crew charged some batteries, Jake gave an interview, I gave an interview and an hour and half later we went back to filming. After a few more minutes of working on the tape, we decided to cut the wires.

When the show was edited together, there was a running clock on the screen showing what time it was when we started and what time it was when we finished. Looking something like this:

To the viewer at home it looked as though we were messing with this tape for over two hours.  Jake’s father was yelling at the television screen in disbelief.

Should we have cut the wires in the first 30 seconds? Sure.

Did it take us two hours to figure that out? No.

Manipulate Environment.

I use to watch people on reality television that would have meltdowns, and think to myself. “If this is how they act on television, than how do they act off camera?”

This is a completely unfair assessment. Now when I watch reality television and see a girl break down in tears on the side of the road or watch a guy storm off, throwing his mic on the concrete and refusing to do another interview, I have nothing but compassion.

Many reality shows are designed to create an extremely stressful environment to add drama.  Participants are often isolated from family and friends so there is no support system, there are usually unrealistic time restraints, and more often than not there is an incredibly challenging task that the participant is suppose to accomplish.

This alone would be incredibly stressful.

What I had not anticipated was the stress of being in front of a camera. Not only did I feel like every facial expression was under a microscope, but there is a strange psychological reaction that occurs when you are struggling or feeling helpless, and there is a crew standing by simply…watching.

No word of encouragement.

No offer to help.

Worse, there is an underlying sense that the more Jake and I messed up, the better television it made.  So when Jake and I inadvertently flood our basement (because I never did look up how to disconnect a dishwasher), there is a crew standing by and silently high-fiving each other as we have now handed them some great footage.

There is nothing natural about that dynamic, and I must admit I had my own little meltdown. Fortunately for me it was NOT caught on camera.

Manipulate Through Acting.

Finally, there are times when the producer of our show straight out asked us to act.

The majority of our interviews were authentic, but sometimes lines were fed to us. Ever think a reality show contestant is really funny, or really judgmental? They might just be repeating lines the producer gave them.

For most people, getting catchy lines from a producer might seem inconsequential, but for myself, I had a real issue with being unauthentic. Sure, it was just a line in a show. It wasn’t hurting anyone.

But it wasn’t ME. The poor producer really struggled to understand my reasoning, but she picked up quickly that I wasn’t gonna play.

In the end, I went along with having our family “act out” an ending.  Jake had four days to shoot before he had to go back to work. For the producers, going back to work wasn’t a very “visual” way to end the show, so they were looking for an alternative. Jake had seriously injured his back and I had been fighting a cold for two days, so we acted out a scene where both Jake and I professed that we were too sick to go on.  Our poor Sofia didn’t understand that Jake and I we were just acting for the show and she started crying because she didn’t want us to quit.  She was afraid we were never going to have a kitchen again and cried some real tears, poor thing.

Shortly after, the crew wrapped, flew back to Tennessee, while Jake and I went back to working on the kitchen…for the next two and half months. Over the next several weeks there were a lot of dishes washed in our bathroom sink and meals cooked in our microwave in the living room. We made plenty more mistakes, and Jake and I decided this was our last time living in a renovation, especially with four small children.

That being said, this show was an unbelievable experience that I am incredibly grateful for. We would have never remodeled our kitchen if we hadn’t been on “Renovation Realities;” and now Jake can install a dishwasher, move electrical wires and retrofit a $20 vintage dresser into an adorable sink vanity. We went from our cramped, retro kitchen to the farmhouse kitchen we ABSOLUTELY LOVE.

BEFORE

AFTER

Displaying IMG_22791.jpgBut of all the things I learned, the biggest lesson was not to judge anyone on reality television, even Omarosa from that second season of “The Apprentice.”

At the end of the day, reality television may be entertaining, but it isn’t real.

“Game of Thrones” a Modern Day Roman Colosseum

Game of Thrones Blog

This is a difficult post with tough subject matter. Out of desire to protect readers, I will not go into detail as I discuss scenes from Game of Thrones. However, links lead to further information that some may find disturbing. I wasn’t planning on going here, but some things need to be said.

The internet irrupted this week with outrage from fans of HBO’s medieval drama Game of Thrones. While the show is no stranger to violence and sexually explicit material, this last week was particularly painful for some viewers.  One of the show’s most sympathetic characters, Sansa Stark, was raped on her wedding night.

I should tell you that I didn’t watch the episode.

I have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, ever.

However, the online commentary was so overwhelming that I looked into the scene and the series in an attempt to create context for the outrage. In the process I found out more than I cared to about #GOT. Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted the following after Sunday’s episode:

Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones.Water Garden, stupid.Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.It was a rocky ride that just ended.

While some viewers empathized with Senator McCaskill’s incredulity, others called her a hypocrite, citing the dozens of other disturbing, horrific scenes that have been depicted throughout the series. If McCaskill was comfortable watching the other rapes, murders and tortures on previous episodes they reasoned, then her decision to raise a red flag was disingenuous.  People actually criticized Senator McCaskill for being offended at a gratuitous rape scene on television.

Was the Senator being inconsistent in her moral outrage? Perhaps.  Were there far more disturbing episodes of Games of Thrones? Possibly. But people were far too quick to discount the sincerity of McCaskill’s disgust.

I walked away from my computer and went outside to process what I had been reading. I stared at the miles of hay fields as though searching for an epiphany in the blades of grass.  I was longing for the purity of nature to somehow clean my mind from the most recent imagery that had become physically nauseating.

How did we get here? How did we go from separate beds for Ricky and Lucy sixty years ago to simulated castration and rape as a form of entertainment? Eight years ago I walked through the Colosseum in Rome and I remember staring at the stands where thousands of Roman citizens once stood.  What brought them there? What could these men and women have possibly told themselves to justify watching gladiators fight to the death, or witness Christian men and women be torn apart by wild beasts?  Was it blindly accepting a cultural norm? Was it the production value of the nautical battles and exotic animals? Was it the magnificence of the Colosseum itself? I naively, and wrongly believed the gladiator games were so barbaric that Christians would never have even dreamed of attending. To the contrary, they attended in droves. Around 200 A.D. Tertullian wrote a magnificent charge against Christians who attended the gladiator games, or “spectacles” as he called them.  In his letter of the same name, Tertullian pleads with Christians to recognize their flawed self-justification of attending the games under the guise of “culture”:

Learn, O you servants of God…recall what principle of faith…forbid…the pleasures of the spectacles, lest by ignorance or self-deception anyone fall into sin. For so strong is the appeal of pleasure that it can bring about a prolongation of ignorance with a resulting facility for sin, or a perversion of conscience leading to self-deception…

But this is precisely what we intend to prove: that these things are not compatible with true religion and true obedience to the true God…

..let us…treat the matter fully…for the benefit of those who delude themselves with the thought that such abstention is not expressly enjoined… For, just as there is a lust for money, a lust for high station in life, for gluttony, for sensual gratification, for fame, so there is a lust for pleasure. The spectacles, however are a sort of pleasure. In my opinion, under the general heading of lust…

For, even if a man enjoys spectacles modestly and soberly…he cannot go to them without his mind being roused and his soul being stirred by some unspoken agitation. No one…experiences this passion without its damaging effects.

On the other hand, if the passion ceases, there is no pleasure, and he who goes where he gains nothing is convicted of foolishness…

The success of Tertullian’s letter is unclear.  He certainly did not sway the powers that be to end the games. The “spectacles” were part of the Roman Empire for over six centuries, almost three times longer than the United States has been in existence.  It wasn’t until 404 A.D. that a monk brought the gladiator fights to a swift end. According to Fox’s Book of Matyrs, St. Telemachus came to Rome on a pilgrimage, and when he entered the Colosseum he was so disgusted at what he witnessed, he jumped down between two fighters pleading with them to stop. The defenseless monk was killed and the Emporer Honorius ended the games forever.

What was it about the martyrdom of Telemachus that soured the games for the emperor? The Coloseum had seen defenseless men and women martyred before.  What was so horrific about this particular death?

I suppose one could ask the same thing of Senator McCaskill. What was it about this specific scene that moved you to turn off Game of Thrones forever?

Have we, as a society, been desensitized to violence and gore on such a level that, as Tertullian put it, we have had “a perversion of conscience leading to self-deception?”  Are we blinded by this lack of conscience, and unknowingly creating a culture void of virtue and morality?

I am uncertain of the coordinates for that line of decency in regards to depicting life as art. But I can say with certainty that it has been crossed.

It sounds like Senator McCaskill agrees with me.

Should she have spoken up years ago? Sure. But she didn’t see it then. I don’t know who even sees it now.

A decade ago I would have likely watched Game of Thrones or Mad Max: Fury Road and been impressed with the writing, cinematography, and production quality.  I loved the craft of filmmaking and felt undefiled by stronger material.  “To the pure, all things are pure.” Titus 1:15.

I don’t think Paul was talking about simulated violence against women.

So what changed? I became a parent. While pregnant I avoided “adult only” music and movies out of a concern for the little lives inside my tummy.  I didn’t mean to become so sensitive again. It wasn’t intentional or out of personal conviction.  I attended a Christian film school where nothing seemed to be off limits. I question that decision now.  Creative license is a sad excuse for stripping society of its right to identify indecency.

I will continue to not watch Game of Thrones, along with dozens of other shows that have brilliance in the craft, but an insidious stench that has desensitized us. I am no Tertullian or Telemachus here. But I want to honor what they tried to achieve.

Would love to hear thoughts on this, especially from fans of the show. No judgement.

When Perfectionism Paralyzes You

If you look for perfection

I am a perfectionist.

But it is worse than that. I am a perfectionist that doesn’t have the time or patience for perfection.

Even worse still, I have a tragic fear of failure which is the perfect recipe for…nothing to happen.

My life has been a series of opportunities where if I don’t think I can hit it out of the park, I avoid getting up to bat.

A case in point: my junior year of high school, we were assigned a 25 page creative story project in my English class.  (This is one of those stories that teachers use as an example “what not to do” for the next 15 years). We were given an entire term to write the paper, only my story wasn’t very good. Don’t ask me the plot because I can’t remember a word of it for the life of me. I only remember that I hated it, so much so that I didn’t turn it in at the end of the year.  That gave me an Incomplete in a required high school course. On one hand, I saw no way to rework the paper into a Pulitzer Prize winning piece (which of course was the main motivator for any high school student); and on the other, the idea of scrapping 25 pages and starting all over made me sick.  It was a stalemate of epic proportions, and I did nothing with it for twelve months. It was exactly one year later, the day before my graduation, that I sheepishly dropped my paper in my English teacher’s box.  Not a single punctuation mark had been changed, but I got to walk down that aisle in my cap and gown.

Not my proudest moment.

Where does this drive for perfection come from?

In Art and Fear, author David Bayles shares the story of a teacher that created two separate grading criteria for his college pottery course.  Students were split into two groups – the first group would be graded by quality and the second group would be graded on quantity.  The quality group only needed to throw (mold/create) one perfect piece of pottery.  The quantity group, however, needed to throw 50 lbs of pottery to receive an “A”, 40 lbs to receive a “B” and so on.  By the end of the course students brought in their pottery to be graded, and the results may surprise you.  The quantity group had not only created more pottery, but they had created better pottery than the quality group that had spent so much time on perfecting one piece.

There is a great deal of learning in the doing, and one needs the freedom to learn imperfectly.

A fantastic lesson in this came last year when Jake and I were on a TV show called, “Renovation Realities” and we took on a DIY remodel of our kitchen. Not going to lie, it was a hot mess.  We knew nothing about construction and made plenty of mistakes.  We were stressed out, we corrected, we back tracked, we worked as a team, we made adjustments, we were exhausted, we sought help, and several months later we finished.  It was a messy imperfect journey, but the result was a lovely farmhouse kitchen that I always wanted. If you want to hear and see more about it, check back next week for my latest blog.

God has given us grace and mercy not as a safety net, but as part of the process – we are created to need Him.  We are not perfect.  We will never be perfect on this side of eternity. He is calling us to be perfected.  In order for that perfecting to take place, we must immerse ourselves fully in the process – take risks, fail, be vulnerable, be childlike, talk, share, cry, pray, ask for forgiveness, break, work, push yourself, rest, live.

Can I be honest for a moment?

I haven’t been a big fan of any of my articles on this blog. I started it as a school project and it didn’t look or read as well I had hoped.  But I found that I enjoyed the process.  I loved dedicating time to personal reflection.  However, I wan’t sure if I would be able to actually share my blog with people.

Then I made a mistake.

I wrote a comment to a blogger I admire.

To my prideful horror, she followed my link, visited my blog, and paid me a complement on her own website.  I should have been ecstatic, only I didn’t think my blog was ready; it wasn’t good enough to “go live” and suddenly I was getting readers I wasn’t prepared for.

Not sure what perfection was suppose to look like…maybe I just wanted to see my work without feelings of insecurity.

So just what happened when I started sharing my blog? People liked it.  I found encouragement. My dad sent me nice emails about grammar mistakes that I thanked him for. Ultimately, putting my blog out there wasn’t a big, huge, scary thing after all. It was just one step forward in a direction I have always wanted to go.

There is value in striving for excellence, and developing a craft, but sometimes you simply put together what you can, close your eyes, and pray that it is good enough.

Here’s to grace…and trusting the process…and courage to fail.

And here’s to Haley Stewart – thank you for launching my blog for me.

 

 

Motherhood a Vocation, not a Choice

Mother a Vocation not a Choice

My Aunt Dela was one of nine children.  Her family was very poor.  “There were some hard times,” she would say, “but oh we had some beautiful times.”  It was the wistful way she and her sister Mary would describe those beautiful times that inspired me, as though their humble little home was held together and made beautiful by the laughter and memories of a full life.

I always admired larger families, even the ones where the mother looked a little overwhelmed. These women were heroes to me, as inspiring as Amelia Earhart or Helen Keller.  Show me a reformer, a president, a saint, and I wanted to know their mother.  At a young age I decided if I were going to have children, I was going to try for at least four, maybe more if I was brave.  I always equated the number of children I would have with my willingness to be stretched, not with what I would “prefer.”

Apparently, that rose-colored view of larger families is not always shared by the rest of the world.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my third child that I began to learn just how undesirable big families have become.

Friends and family who were silent about my sub-par eating habits and boyfriend choices had a seemingly new found courage to speak their mind about my children.  Namely, several were weary of Jake and I having more than three of them.  More than once the words “unplanned” and “crazy” were used.  The words “irresponsible” and “burden” were implied.  I still remember my OB sighing and hanging her head when I declined to go on the pill.  She told me I would probably be happier and a better mother if I did.  I changed doctors after that.

With time, these conversations began to wear on my resolve. My motherhood vocabulary of “blessed” and “beautiful” began to morph into something less than ideal.  “Challenging” turned into “exhausting” and “calling” turned into “tedious,” and before I knew it, that euphoric joy of making little lives was turning into ash and slipping between my fingers.  It isn’t that these people didn’t want to have their own big family.  It is that they sincerely didn’t want me to have a big family either.  There was something about my choice that actually offended them.  And God forgive me I listened to them.

If I were running a marathon strangers would be cheering and handing me cups of water.

If I were running a billion dollar tech company I would be applauded for breaking that glass ceiling.

But have four children in four years…?

You made your crazy bed, go lie in it.

As my friends read this, I hope they have patience with my rant, because they have heard it before…a hundred times. The thing is, I couldn’t put my finger on why it so affected me.  Why can’t I just shake it off and not care? My conclusion, after years of wrestling, is this…

Motherhood has been reduced from a vocation to a choice.

Vocation is a matter of discernment and answering a calling; parenting should be seen as a cooperation with the will of God.

While choice is a PIECE of vocation, we are not to REPLACE vocation with choice.

Choice is weighing the foreseeable pros and cons and considering talents, means, desires and goals.  All of this is part of the path to discernment.  But there are generations of lives that hang in the balance that should not be left to man or woman’s mere choice.  Nor are we to give others the place of discerning our own vocation for us.  That is a sacred path that one must ultimately answer before God.

So here I have been struggling with doubts about my abilities and my human wisdom, because others weren’t seeing what I was seeing.  But at the end of the day, the vision, the calling, is uniquely mine.  Just as Noah had to withstand mocking as He built the ark, or the Israelites turned on Moses in the desert, or just as Christ had to take up His cross while His followers were dismayed that their Messiah was facing death, so we must stand boldly in our calling as mothers and not be shaken when those we love and trust doubt us.

If I were to stand before God and He asked, “Did I call you to this?”

My answer would be resoundingly “YES!”

And that is all I need to know.

Keep answering your call, in whatever form that is – the working mother of one, the stay at home mother of ten, the childless aunt that is a rock for her sisters and friends, the woman still waiting for marriage and a family, the adoptive mother, the grandmother of thirty, the single mother, the mother who miscarried a child, the mother who lost a child after birth, the woman who finds motherhood easy (can I follow you around for a week?!?), the woman who finds motherhood near impossible…to all of you stand firm in the path God has set you on.  Don’t let anyone rob you of the joy.  Don’t be discouraged when others don’t support you in your pain.  God sees your faithfulness and part of that faithfulness might require walking your journey alone.

But never consider the fact that you are alone as a referendum on your calling.  Many of the greatest saints were on a path separate from their peers.

The call is between you and God, and that is all you need to know.

10 Ways to Encourage Your Kids to Read the Bible

Kids Reading on the Floor with Text

I’ll be the first to admit that Catholics could stand to know their Bible better.

People of all denominations could do a better job with Bible study, but some denominations have done a better job of starting young and starting simple.  It goes a long way in instilling a love for God’s Word.

For all my Catholic (and Protestant) moms and catechists out there, here are some ways to get the ball rolling at a young age:

1. Read the Bible yourself.

Sounds simple, but this is a MUST.  Don’t bother reading the rest of this article unless you’re willing to read God’s Word yourself. Kids need to know that Bible reading is something that adults want to do, not just something that kids are made to do. Not only should you be setting an example, but you should be allowing the Word of God to nourish, edify and challenge you so that you are growing as the parent/ teacher you need to be.

2. Make Bible reading enjoyable.

Kids Reading on the Floor for blog

This is true of any reading in general. Find age appropriate material.  If you are reading with babies or toddlers, get picture Bible books and read them out loud snuggled on a couch.  If you have small children that can read on their own, have them grab pillows or blankets and spread out on the floor. My fourth grade teacher did this for reading time and I  absolutely loved it, so I started the practice with my kids and they love it too.  Consider playing classical music.

3. Tell Bible stories.

Jesus told stories. The Old Testament is full of compelling stories.  Christ came down and lived out the greatest love story of all time.  We understand and remember things through story on such a deeply rooted level. Make sure your children know all the stories – Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, Joseph, Esther, Christ in the Gospels.  These stories are no longer permeating our culture so it is easy to take for granted that our kids know them. You can share stories over dinner, on drives to school, or have your kids act them out in your living room. Our kids constantly put on shows for us, it would be very easy to help them act out the story of Jonah for example.

4. Memorize the books of the Bible.

Kids are sponges for memorization.  As a kid I memorized Genesis to Revelation without a song or trick. It took some time, but wasn’t any harder than memorizing times tables. There are a few songs online that could be helpful to teach your kids, either in class or at home.  I couldn’t find one that I love, so please share if you know of any other songs (there are more options for the Protestant Bible). Memorizing the books helps to find passages more easily and builds familiarity.

5. Memorize verses in the Bible.

Bible verses are building blocks of truth that children can draw on for the rest of their lives. There are plenty of great Bible verses that are simple for children to memorize.

  • Acts 16:31 – Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.
  • Philippians 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
  • 1 John 5:3 – This is love for God: to obey his commands.

Here are some other great options:

  • Joshua 1:8 – Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
  • Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
  • 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 – Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrong.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

6. Have kids read out of a Bible instead of a missal or textbook.

Missals help readings in Mass go smoothly, but it is important to gain a familiarity with the Bible on its own – know where the books are, have an idea of how long or short a book is, and get an idea for its place in history.  Maturity in Christ means having the confidence to go straight to the source.

7. Have kids make covers for their Bibles.

As a young adult I made a cover for my Bible when attending a Biblical Studies course in England.  It has become MY BIBLE for the next 15 years. The writings, highlights, notations – they are part of my spiritual journey. Personalizing the Bible meant something to me.  Have kids cut out pictures or drawings and paste onto the cover, then laminate with clear contact paper. You might be wondering if my Bible would have been a Protestant Bible 15 years ago?  While I was very much an Evangelical and studying with the non-denominational organization Youth With A Mission, there was a hiccup with the Bibles ordered for our class.  A few students were given Catholic Bibles instead of Protestant ones, and guess who was was given the originally canonized Bible?  God is the master weaver of our lives.

8. Read on your favorite e-device. 

Now I just told you to give your Bible a makeover, but using a smartphone or tablet can be a great tool for Bible study. There are plenty of apps out there.  You Version is widely popular and has easy access to both the Protestant and Catholic Bible. If you are looking for some Bible apps specifically for kids, there are plenty of those too.

9. Make a reading chart.

Watching your progress and having a plan can really help motivation.  While the reading plan found here is more designed for adults, you can come up with something simple for kids, perhaps focusing on the New Testament like the one above.

10. Play Bible verse look-up.

Grade school kids love this.  Have a group of kids, each with their own Bible and a list of verses.  For kids that are younger, or less familiar with the Bible, it is helpful to pick verses in recognizable books – think Genesis, the Gospels, or Revelation (it is an easier find once kids know it is the last book of the Bible).  It can also be helpful to start with “Chapter 1:1” to allow kids to gain confidence with how chapters and verses are laid out. You can also choose verses around a theme, such as virtues, peace, or forgiveness.  The first person to find the verse then raises their hand or stands up.  The teacher or parent calls on the student to read the verse aloud – if they are right they can get a point for their team, or themselves or a piece of candy, depending on the group and how you want to set up the game.  If they are wrong, they sit down and someone else gets the chance to earn the point.  Make sure you have the verses in front of you in order to verify that the passage being read is correct.   I did this both when I was young and lead it as an adult, and kids get really into it. I’ll probably play this with my own kids in a few years as a game night, because I’m kind of a nerd that way.

Please feel free to share your own ideas! What did you do as a kid, or as a parent with your own children?

Seeing Garth Brooks Live and Why “The Dance” is One of the Best Songs Ever Written

Garth Brooks Live and Why The Dance is One of the best songs ever

I’m not exactly a country music fan.

Don’t get me wrong, I like lots of country music – I know every word to “Rodeo” and saw Tim McGraw in concert back when he had a handlebar mustache. However, I’ve never purchased a country album, or poster, or cowboy boots, and I grew up in the Pacific Northwest…not exactly the heart of “country.” We happen to rent a house on a farm, but we don’t work the land ourselves – it is all rented out. I would like to think some of the farmer ethic is rubbing off on me, but I can’t be too sure.

This is all meant to be a disclaimer for my recent Garth Brooks concert experience.

My husband knows Garth’s albums like the back of his hand.

I know the words to “The Hits.”

Jake has been waiting to see Garth Brooks live since he was seven years old.

I thought the concert would be a fund date night.

Jake would rather see Garth Brooks live than go to Rome for the weekend.

I gotta go with Rome on this one.

That being said, this last Sunday we sat in Row 17 at the Moda Center for Garth Brooks’ Comeback Tour.  It was by far one of the best concerts I’ve ever gone to ( U2 in 2005 will likely forever top the list). Why so great? The man is crazy! His voice is nearly flawless after all these years. He sings all the old stuff.  He comes out full throttle and he doesn’t let up, seamlessly going from crowd-pleasers like “Baton Rouge” and “Rodeo” to the unforgettable ballads like “The River” and “Unanswered Prayers.” They are all fantastic, really. But there is one song that stands out above the rest  and not just among Garth Brooks songs – “The Dance” written by Tony Arata.

I didn’t like “The Dance” much when I was young.

I didn’t get it at all.

Every time I heard it I would roll my eyes.

For those who don’t know the lyrics:

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared ‘neath the stars alone
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you’d ever say goodbye

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance

Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I a king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have chanced it all

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance

Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance

I don’t care for it as a love story gone bad kind of song.  But there are loves that are lost, lives that are lost, and that is a different thing.  Garth Brooks had a great vision for his music video, using images of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr.  The video helped me to get it.  I am not a proponent of “chance,” at least not the way we currently understand it. I am a proponent of trusting the design, the weaver of life making sense of it all, both the good and the bad. One of my favorite books is “The Grand Weaver” by Ravi Zacharias, one of the greatest Christian apologetists of our time. In the book he writes:

“Only if you are willing to pray sincerely for God’s will to be done and are willing to live the life apportioned to you will you see the breathtaking view of God that he wants you to have, through the windows he has placed in your life. You cannot always live on the mountaintop, but when you walk through the valley, the memory of the view from the mountain will sustain you and give you the strength to carry you through.”

The greatest lesson of my adult life is to accept the life apportioned to me. Don’t fight it. Don’t wish it different. Don’t wallow in being wronged or afflicted. Instead of wishing the pain away, grieve it fully, forgive it fully, and find a new strength that could only be found through that specific refining. Swallow the pain whole and transform the wrong into greatness. Great compassion. Great mercy. Great reconciliation.

To love well requires risk. C.S. Lewis said it perfectly when he said,

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

In my quest for a softer heart, I recognize that I am opening myself up to more pain. But I am also opening myself up to life in all its glory. Here is to trusting God that this dance is worth dancing – fully, with abandon. Here is to trusting God when the dance is over.

The Pain and Ecstasy of Forgiveness

The Pain and Ecstasy of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a messy, messy business. It is the hardest piece of Christianity for me, yet the most essential. I struggle with forgiving friends, family, self.  If you ever have the privilege of truly falling in love with someone, the rest of your life will be an exercise in forgiveness.

What about forgiving the murderers and dictators of the world?

That is much easier.

I never interact with those people.  Maybe if Kim Jong-un forgot my birthday for the fifth time, or if Stalin had been my brother, daily berating and humiliating me, then I might have unforgiveness in my heart towards them.  These people have done unforgivable things…but not to me.  So while I can objectively put these far off figures in the “evil dictator” category, I’m not struggling day to day with bitterness towards them. God have mercy on those who have been terrorized by such evil.

Love and forgiveness is so much easier in the theoretical far off application.  It is the nitty-gritty daily grind that is hard. As Mother Teresa once said,

“It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”

When I was younger I use to look at hard and bitter adults with bewilderment.  Why were they so angry? Why so impatient?  I had little compassion for adults who were unkind.

Then life happened.

Life can be cruel. People can be cruel.

After years of hurt, betrayal, and thankless sacrifice, life can take its toll on the softest of hearts.

But Christianity at its core is about love and forgiveness.  With his dying breath Christ said of his killers, his taunters, his friends who abandoned him, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Oh that breaks my heart.  I can’t imagine watching the horrific torture of my child and then just before they die, hearing them say “Mommy, don’t hate them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”  Oh God, what tragic pain You endured watching Your Son die.

For Christ’s sacrifice I want to forgive.  For my relationship with God I want to forgive.  For my own happiness I want to forgive.  Then I remember the sting of a cruel memory and my resolve weakens.  This Easter season I am embracing the fullness of Christ’s sacrifice and embracing forgiveness – for myself, for my friends, for my family, for all.

Will it be easy? Doubt it.

Will it hurt? Probably.

But what if, what IF I could live bursting with love and forgiveness and not remember my scared childhood or another heartbreak with bitterness? What if God could soften my heart again to that vulnerable, tender heart I had as a child?

It will not be a passive choice, but an ongoing commitment to choose love, choose to forgive.

A few years ago I discovered Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday that follows Easter.  While we can find mercy every day, I believe in the value of seasons, celebrations and dedicated days.  If there is no value in them, then there is no point in celebrating them. I appreciate that there is a day and hour dedicated to the mercy of Christ. For a year straight I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet at the 3 o’clock hour.  It taught me a great deal about not taking the sacrifice of Christ lightly.  It helped build my faith in the power of God’s forgiveness.

In the days and weeks ahead, I am committed to speaking out forgiveness with the same dedication as I spent seeking it for myself.

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis.

Okay God.  Remind me of that tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Don’t leave me alone until I get it.

One Outfit. Forty Days

One Outfit. 40 Days.

This is my outfit for Lent.

Jeans, button-up shirt, and a pair of boots.

Forty days.

On Sundays I swap the jeans for a grey skirt.

The idea started a few years ago when I thought about wearing one outfit for a year as a kind of performance art piece. I imagined myself writing about the experience, publishing a book and being interviewed by Charlie Rose on the global implications of fashion consumerism.

But then I Googled the idea and saw that someone had already done it and started a movement called the Uniform Project. The woman, Sheena is her name, was much cooler than I would have been. Sheena does TED talks and has a hair cut like a French model. She’s inspired thousands of women to pair their wardrobe down to one dress for an entire year while raising funds for education in developing nations. Like I said, much cooler than myself.

But the idea of wearing just one outfit returned to me last fall when I began to examine my life as a consumer, and  questioned my accumulation of so much stuff. That was a slippery slope that lead me to tell my husband on several occasions that I wanted to sell every last thing we had and start over. Jake wisely talked me out of it. I’m sure I’ll bring it up again in three months.

But the idea of wearing one outfit stuck. That would be my own thing. So for Advent, or 28 days, I wore a grey skirt, black tights, a purple sweater and black boots. It was a positive experience, as is my experience wearing another outfit for all of Lent. Here is what I learned.

1. We have too many clothes.

Americans spend an average of 3.8% of their income on clothing.

This is about a 5th of what it was in the early 1900’s – a result of lowered production costs. But the number of items we purchase has actually doubled or quadrupled. The quality is significantly lower, fashion trends change every season, and it isn’t uncommon for individuals to purchase an item and only wear it once or twice before passing it on to their local Salvation Army. My mother said in the 50s she grew up wearing one outfit to school, one dress to church, and one outfit for play. She remembers the day she found out rich kids were starting to change their clothes daily, and then everyone wanted to fit in. Qartz has a great article on examining our current clothing industry, and makes a case for fewer, better quality items. Count me in!

2. Wearing one outfit is mentally liberating.

By nature or nurture I am an indecisive person.  I blame it on an analytical mind that follows every possible outcome down the rabbit whole and back before making a decision. Well, when you have 80 pieces of clothing… okay, maybe 120…ish, and you look at your closet every morning recalling every outfit you have worn in the last 10 days, the weather forecast, the 34,000 possible combinations, the day’s upcoming activities, and of course take into account whether you will be trying to impress a love interest or wanting comfy clothes because you’re feeling under the weather today, and, “Wait, isn’t my favorite shirt in the dryer?” Each morning’s trip to the closet is an exercise in wasted brain cells.

3. (Almost) no one cares.

I don’t make a big deal out of wearing one outfit. I tell close family and friends, and then kind of forget about it. After a few days, I forget that what I am doing is out of the norm. Initially I was concerned that my husband wouldn’t like seeing me in the same outfit everyday, but it really didn’t phase him. I wore an outfit that he liked, and that was really all that mattered. On Christmas Eve, after wearing the same skirt and sweater for 28 days, I finally broke my “fashion fast” and put on a pair of dark jeans and a red turtleneck. After three hours of walking around the house without a single comment from my husband, I finally blurted out, “Did you even notice that I’m wearing different clothes?” He stared at me, eyed me up and down and gave me a sheepish face. He hadn’t noticed. If my husband doesn’t notice, then I should be less concerned about what anyone else might think. Oh, there will always be people that judge a person by their clothing, but I don’t like those people very much. Yes, I like clothes that are flattering and beautiful, but I realize how often I dress for others and not myself.  That is going to change.

Takeaway – Daily wardrobe changes will go out of style. We are creatures of habit combined with blindly following the crowd. Okay, so most people change their clothes everyday. Really, it is an uneducated practice. Mother Theresa had no more than three saris when she died. I doubt Jesus Christ even that.  A hundred years from now, the average individual will not be rotating their sixty-five outfits on a daily basis. The negatives far outweigh the benefits.

Feel free to write up a list of benefits for me, because I couldn’t come up with a single one.