Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Year Round Advent

Sometimes I wish Advent was year round. The children get so excited. Right now it's all about the stickers on the calendar and who gets to blow out the candles after our meal. But someday I hope they will think about the traditions we have created and find their own excitement during the season.
Christmas day is always lovely, as is the full 12 days after Christmas right through to Epiphany. But once Epiphany has come and gone there is a lull in the calendar until Lent. And while Lent is critically important spiritually, it doesn't have the same panache as Advent. Easter is a beautiful, mysterious, wondrous renewal of faith. But again, once Easter tide has come and gone, it seems forever before Advent returns. I suppose my real searching if I get down to it is where can I find the desire to search and wait and wonder during the rest of the year that I find during Advent and to some extent Lent? Would I be watering down the joy and passion of these two seasons were I to find a way to recreate them year round?
My Companions group's final meeting is tomorrow. We are discussing our rule of life. In researching our rule of life we are to determine the spiritual practices that will provide the most comfort, direction, growth, and meaning in our lives and add them in proportionate doses to our current spiritual lives. Seems like a tall order and it is. However I find myself excited about the potential for a new spiritual practice to help with the breadth and depth of my journey. I have decided to not act quickly--following the advice of our study author, but instead use the rest of Advent to wait for God to show me the way. I'm not much on waiting, nor am I good at it. This in and of itself will be a practice! I hope by the end of Christmastide that an Epiphany will await me and I will find a new direction in which to grow.
A blessed Advent to all of you. Peace be with you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

O Christmas Tree

Sometimes I feel like a Victorian Christmas tree trapped in a Farside cartoon. I am the sentimental female in a house full of males who would rather use the garland for swinging from the ceiling fan than dress the Christmas tree. I am the one working on "a place for every ornament and every ornament in its place" long after the boys are in bed and my husband has moved on to drinking beer on the couch. I can't help myself. There are few things that say Christmas to me with pure unbridled joy and affection than my Christmas tree. As soon as we get the lights on, I turn all the other lights off so I can bathe in the glow of non-LED white and colored lights. I do keep a flashlight nearby in case I need to find a missing hook.
The main reason I love my Christmas tree? The ornaments. And it isn't that I have beautiful ornaments--I do, but it's the stories attached to the ornaments. I spend a couple of hours (yes truly) unwrapping each and every ornament. There are a few that don't make the cut, but I still look at them and remember the story attached to them. My Christmas tree and the memories I relive while decorating it, suspend me in a perfect moment of love and harmony and happiness that I don't experience at any other time through the year.

Here is a list of some of my favorites (if I get technology savvy maybe I can eventually add pictures).
1. My green thumbprint turtle from 1980 that I made in preschool. I don't actually remember making this one, but it has had a prominent place on every tree I've ever had since 1980 so it's worth listing.
2. My green bead wreath I made in primary Sunday School class with Bonnie Whitley.
3. My clothespin Rudolph I made at our first lake house on Badin Lake with my friends in Children's Hour from church. He's missing a google eye now, but otherwise Rudolph is in good health.
4. My Raggedy Anne ornament sewed by our neighbor Meredith in 1980 for me for Christmas.
5. My NC Zoo Ornament with a picture of the first gorilla ever born at the zoo.
6. "Merry Christmas Mar" ornament from my freshman college roommate Mo.
7. My "Christmas GSW 93" ornament made by my friend from Governor's School, Leslie.
8. My "First Christmas" ornament given to me by my sophomore college roommate, Catherine at my wedding.
9. The ornament my students made me from my first school in Chattanooga. Thanks Mrs. Hayes' class at East Side!
10. My SPCC ornament given to us during our inaugural season of the Southern Piedmont Children's Choir.

There are many, many more including the ornaments I have bought for my boys each year. Their baby's first ornaments were purchased with so much love and hope. Every time I watch the boys hang them I go back to that place when I carried them inside me and remember how precious that time was. My mother also finds beautiful ornaments to give them. Each year as we put them away, I pull out a sharpie and label them so there is no argument for the following year! I have ornaments from our vacations--Phoenix, Disney, Steamboat. I have all the ornaments from our first year (1999) as a married couple. Getting married the Saturday after Thanksgiving opens the door for many such gifts. I cherish every one of them too.
This year my boys were old enough to "help." They each have a box of their own ornaments and are allowed to hang them each year with help. This year they just kept going and helped me hang most of the ornaments. It was our first family tree affair, which is special in its own way. My boys kept going "oooooh" and "LOOK!" and "that's funny." But my favorite was, "mom, tell me about this one." I tried not to get choked up, because it was a time of joy and I didn't want to confuse the boys with my tears. My husband is also quite good at sending me off to the kitchen for something when I start getting too uptight about where the ornaments go and why the boys are trying to hang them without hooks and keep dropping them. "You can move them later," he reminds me. Good man.
I was just blowing off steam earlier today about not being in the Christmas spirit. Nothing like our Christmas tree to give me a right change of heart. Bring on the season, I'm ready now. My heart is full of gratefulness and grace. Thank you God for beautiful memories of good times and for my yearly Christmas tree. I have been to my special place and I'm ready to make space for the grace of the season. Peace be among you during the holidays and always.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The "Life-Brary"

My three year old son and I have been visiting the library lately. His older brother has started kindergarten and goes to the school library once a week. This weekly visit made a great impression on my younger son. He is enthralled with the library. He likes going up the big staircase (it's a lot dark and a little spooky) to the children's floor. He likes the child-sized computers with colored keyboards that link him to some very fun games (Sesame Street and the like). He likes finding new Curious George books to check out. He likes the dated displays in the glass cases. He likes climbing on the step stools in the adult section and jumping off of them. He likes taking the hard back books off the shelves he can reach just for fun. I don't know if I'm raising a reader or just a curious tornado of energy.
My favorite thing about the library is that he calls it, the "life-brary". I cannot get him to say library. However, upon reflection, I think the "life-brary" is quite appropriate. I've been going to the library all my life.
I remember with great nostalgia all the wonderful opportunities I had at the Asheboro/Randolph County Public Library growing up. My first piano recital was held there. The children's section was well stocked. The Randolph Room held interesting facts that I used for my fourth grade N.C. History project. I spent two years on the Battle of the Books team reading Newberry Medal Winners and participating in a quiz bowl type program (Incidentally, Farmer Elementary School wiped the floor with the city schools for several years. In fact, I'm not sure we ever lost before the program was cut, but we might have.) I remember going to the library with my mother and sister once a week checking out seven books at a time (the maximum), one for each day. I spent many hours learning to research at the public library back before computers when the magazines had to be checked out and the card catalog was more than a dusty row of boxed cards. How many 3x5 index cards did I go through researching information on great American and British authors for my research papers in middle and high school? After about two years in high school, I graduated to the Randolph Community College Library because they had other research materials I couldn't get at the public library.
Later in my college life, the library became even more than a pit stop for books. I spent many hours copying reserve reading to take elsewhere to read (ditto for graduate school). I spent many nights trolling the study carols for a cute guy from my political science class to ask a stupid yet relevant question in the hopes he might talk to me for five minutes. I learned how to use theInternet at the E.H. Little Library. I even walked to the Georgetown University library from my basement bedroom in a row house in Georgetown to check my email, because I didn't have a computer. It's amazing how many significant (and literary) opportunities I have had at the library.
And after college, the library remained a significant part of my life. I spent many Sunday afternoons and rainy days at the main library in Memphis (back when it was right off of Union behind the Walgreens before moving to its new and beautiful location on Poplar in East Memphis). Then when we moved to Iowa City, one of the first things I did was visit the library and get my library card. I spent many many mornings and afternoons and evenings rolling my older son in the stroller up and down the aisles of popular adult fiction and seven day check out looking for something to read. So of course when we settled in Chattanooga, I went to the library and got my library card right away.
I park in my husband's old office building lot and walk two blocks to Nirvana. Okay, Nirvana is a little strong--the library is unfortunately in serious need of refurbishing, but the book selection remains strong, and the people who work there are quite lovely and helpful. I have yet to leave the library empty handed. Today Wyatt and I left with H.A. Rey's Curious George Rides a Bike, Lois Ehlert's Growing Vegetable Soup, Phillipa Gregory's The Red Queen, Aldous Huxley's, Brave New World, and the first in the Magic Tree House series for big brother. Our front porch swing remains a favorite spot to read besides mommy's bed.
My boys love Barnes and Noble and Books a Million. So do I. And we spend quite a bit of time there too. After all they have a train table, new releases that don't require a hold or a long wait time, and a bakery. But the feeling just isn't the same. The library is an exercise in patience--waiting on that new release or popular author makes the book that much better. And if you don't like a book, you don't feel disappointed that you paid 27.95 for it. In fact, these days I go online and look up all the new releases and make myself a list. Then I go shopping--at the library. When they don't have it "in-stock" I ask to be put on the waiting list. If only everything were so simple.
The library is also an exercise in cherishing and taking care of intellectual property that doesn't belong to us. You start simple, "This isn't our book, you can't draw on the faces with purple crayon." Then you graduate to, "Turn in the book on time or you have to pay a fine (Even though it's only 25 cents a day, it adds up, believe me, I've been late often)." Learning to reference and cite works in your papers correctly is not only required for the assignment, it's the right thing to do. Finding the actual source of quoted information instead of quoting a quote is challenging and also good practice in checking your sources.
So thanks little Wyatt for your innocent insight into a wonderful tradition. The public library really is a "life-brary". I love sharing this special experience with you. I hope that our libraries never become obsolete. In light of the crunch for public funds and the pervasiveness of the Internet, I am going to investigate how to support our public library and start donating (beyond my late fees) because the library has been a part of my life that I have long taken for granted. It would be a real shame to let such a unique institution become extinct. Next time you're downtown, hug your librarian and go check out life at the "life-brary"!

Friday, August 6, 2010

New Beginnings

I can't believe I haven't posted since February. I suppose that shows me how busy my life has been. Either that or my creativity has dried up considerably. I still compose semi-monthly emails to friends and family, but alas I have become enamored of the 501 character posts on Facebook. Call it an exercise in pith--or perhaps an incredible waste of time considering I post sometimes 3 times a day.
So on to new beginnings. A new school year seems like as good a time as any to make new resolutions and goals. My calendar year has always started in August and ended in May. This year is no exception. I now have a kindergartener and a preschooler. Babes no more. Can I get a hallelujah? I haven't yet had that "oh" moment when I realize we're closing a chapter--the pre-3 years are forever gone. So far, I'm okay with that. My three year old (as of yesterday at 12:22pm) is still chubby cheeked and round like little ones are. My six year old still hugs and kisses me as if I've been gone a million years. So I suppose I haven't missed the hanging on and neediness I've grown accustomed to because it hasn't yet gone away. But I am beginning to notice that I've become more of a referee and less of a playmate.
I enjoy the newer types of play--reading real books and stories (chapter books, science books, books about something), playing real games (board games, bigger puzzles, jenga, etc), and watching various and sundry puppet shows, dance-offs, band jams, and the like. I don't enjoy getting playdough out of the carpet, stepping on legos, trying to wash marker out of the comforters on the beds, and stinky shoes.
I suppose there will be new beginnings for me this year too. Grade mom responsibilities, carpool etiquette, flag football mom (baseball mom was kinda scary--I had to pull myself off the dug out chain link fence a time or two), and homework supervisor (kindergarten? you ask--yes apparently there are spelling words, reading assignments, and some math, WOW).
There will be some reruns, but with a different cast. Preschool is old hat by now, but with a new main character. And the baby (which he isn't anymore) is a completely different child. It will be an interesting dynamic to watch. New teachers, new toys, new building, and new friends await us at the old preschool.
To entertain my readers, I've decided to list a few of the statements I've heard lately that remind me of my new phase in life. While I'm still in the trenches of child-rearing, I can no longer complain about baby stuff, because my three year old uses sentences longer than his body and my six year old's vocabulary scares me.
"I'm not a baby, I'm a big boy, look at my legs."
"I'm pretty sure moths are nocturnal creatures."
"Hey wait for me. Don't leave yet."
"Hey mommy, I'm going to take a break from this playing."
"Mom, don't you want to watch me read?"
"Mom, are we going the direction of Northwest or Northeast?"
"Hey I can read that sign."
"Don't you think I'll be big enough once I'm 7 or 8?"
"I not hold your hand. I walk beside you."
"Are you disgusted with me or just mad?"
"Mom, I'm gonna push your buttons."
"Mom, you're my best friend."

Watch out world! Here we come.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Doing the right thing is more than just doing the right thing

My small group began meeting again in January and this time we are reading, "Soul Feast" by Marjorie Thompson. It's a fabulous read--meaty, generous, and written with a gentle open-minded spirit. Last month our group was discussing one of the study questions and as often happens, a totally different question was raised for which I am still formulating an answer. Our group was talking about "good works" (community involvement, mission work, whatever you want to call it) and someone asked the question, "Where does the Christianity piece come in to doing good? Even Atheists do the right thing." And then someone asked, "does it really matter?" My gut reaction was "Christianity absolutely matters" but after some careful examination I couldn't support my gut reaction with any useful reasons. What a serious pause for my faith journey! Why on earth is it important to call myself a Christian and why is being a Christian important? If we're all doing the right thing and we're all following a similar moral order and we're all helping each other in the name of humanity is Christianity obsolete?

Then I thought about another idea we were kicking around in small group--the loss of the mystery of faith. The practice of Christianity was stripped down in the Reformation to the point where many of the rituals and traditions of faith were removed and have been almost lost. There are many saints and followers teachings and writings that have been marginalized or lost or ostracized. We have lost the ability to believe in the mystery and wonder of Christ in our age of reason, science, and post-enlightenment. I wonder if we have such difficulty with our beliefs because they cannot be easily explained and sound to us like some far-fetched fairy tale.

I write these first two paragraphs to set the context of my answer. This question of does it matter if I'm a Christian as long as I'm a good person, is a big deal to me. I'm raising two children in the Christian faith and I'm trying to live a life based on a belief system I think is worthy, and all of a sudden I'm being confronted by a crisis of faith. I haven't given up on Jesus, but if he can't be more than just a good guy, then for me the mystery and power of my faith is lost. I've known lots of good guys in my life. I've had many role models. I've even known some true believers who inspired me to make life better. But I have to tell you there are very few people out there who have emulated the truly sacrificial nature of what perfect love looks like.

We are all skeptics in this great big rational world of ours. Even I've looked pained when people begin sharing how God was speaking to them this morning. Many of us find the outspoken among the "born-again" to be tiresome. However, I must say the lukewarm feelings rarely shared by main-line Christians makes me wonder if we believe anything at all. To be blunt, people get really uncomfortable talking about "being saved." Well, I understand that. It's a hard thing to talk about. How on earth do you explain the moment you were touched by God? How do rationalize how you came to know and feel the presence of Jesus in your heart whether or not your mind understands it? It doesn't always happen all at once. For many of us (self included) it's a longer journey. A painful shying away of a call that just won't go away. Some of us grow up in a church, with Christians all around us and don't have a clue what salvation really means until one day, you just know.

Pondering how God is willing to include every single human ever created, because of his immense, all powerful love that obliterates every single moment of human suffering, wrong doing, unkindness (the list is endless) is overwhelming. The idea that God created an atonement so perfect and so complete that all wrongs are made right is more than I can wrap my judgmental heart around. There are simply no words to describe such a gift. There are often no words to explain how accepting this gift changes your life. Those changes may be so subtle that you won't even know it until you lived with it a while. The beauty of the mystery of faith is that it is a mystery. We try to put words and rules and belief systems around the mystery of a perfect incarnate God and call it faith and discipline and righteousness. We've been trying to describe the same mystery for centuries and we're no better at it now (and perhaps much worse) than we were then.

The closest thing that comes to describing the essence of Christianity is a true understanding of what it means to sacrifice for someone else. To lay down one's life for one's friends--notice I didn't say for something you believe in, or for war, or for an idea--but for another human being. There are many types of relationships that emulate this idea of self-sacrifice: parents and children, brothers and sisters, soldiers who share a foxhole, young love, soul mates, kindred spirits. There isn't a lack of stories about the nature of ultimate goodness that does exist in this world. What there is a serious lack of is day to day commitment to making all people matter. God's love extends to all people in all religions, in all walks of live, in every corner of this beautiful earth that we are so intent on destroying for our own purposes. Christianity is about sacrifice and love, and yes saving ourselves from the hells that we have created out of some misguided notion of "fill-in-the-blank." Our commitment to His kingdom has to include all people, because our claim on His love is no stronger than the love we have for all people.

So that's why I think when we're doing "good works" the Christianity part is important. When we're doing the good works, we're learning about the person we're helping. We learning about ourselves and how our own lives rely on the generosity and willingness of someone else. We're engaging in a relationship that may one day call on us to make a supreme sacrifice. It may not mean laying down our life, but it may mean challenging the social order. It may mean working for justice. It may mean standing up for something or someone unpopular. It may mean shutting up and listening so we can learn something. It may mean learning just how vain and self satisfied we are. It may mean following a call that we don't want to follow. When we offer our time to share with another person (whether helping, healing, or hoping with them), we are saying you are worth my time. You are equally as important to me as anything or anyone else I was going to engage with today. You have an equal claim to the kingdom of God. You have an equal portion of His love and His grace and His abundance in whatever way you wish to take it. Let's claim our portion together in the name of friendship so that when the day comes when we are to lay down our lives for one another we will do so with love and a willing spirit.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Gift of Giving

We've been discussing giving in Sunday School over the last several weeks. It's an interesting topic on many levels. Who and when and how much and for what are just the basic questions. The deeper questions behind giving involve the why.
I don't know when I decided to structure my giving around the membership pledge at church, but that's essentially my personal framework. When you join as a member of the United Methodist Church, you pledge to support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, (and recently added) your witness.
When I do sit down to ponder my relationship with God and giving, I find this framework mentioned above useful. I pray for my church. Sometimes it's for members, sometimes it's for the minister, sometimes it's for my Bible study group, sometimes it's for a current project (like upcoming VBS). I should commit to praying for my whole church, and the Christian church in general throughout the world everywhere every day. Note to self, do that.
I support the church through my presence. When we are in town, we go to church. Even if our kids are sick, we generally take turns. One of us goes with the well child and the other stays home with the sick one. We attempt to go to as many opportunities at church that appeal to us--Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, special services for Lent or Christmas, Wednesday night speakers that interest us, church committee meetings, and so forth.
I guess if I were to truly examine what presence means, it might look differently. Do I change my vacation schedule so that we can be back in church on Sunday morning? Do we attend services at other places when we are traveling? Do we visit other churches to give our children exposure to the many different types of worship there are in the world? I have a feeling supporting the church by our presence means more than just showing up on Sunday for the 11 o'clock service. But that's a good place to start.
We support the church through our gifts. Now most people would assume that "gifts" is a euphemism for money. I don't know why we don't just say, "by our tithe" but we don't. There are other forms of monetary giving that fall outside of tithing I suppose, so the church didn't want to miss out on those opportunities I guess. (I'm joking gently I hope.) We give towards camp scholarships, Christmas giving for the needy, sponsorships of families who need assistance, etc. In our house, this type of giving while through the church comes in addition to our attempts at tithing.
I also consider gifts in a more spiritual way. Sometimes gifts and service bleed into one another. Some people are gifted in teaching, so they give of their time teaching Sunday School. Some people are gifted with singing, so they sing in the choir every Sunday. This donation of time is more than just a service opportunity for the church. These people are sacrificially giving of their time to something greater than themselves. Sacrificial giving is really what God has in mind.
God meant for gifts to mean, whatever spiritual talents you have use them for the glory of God. Which is of course where service comes in. I think we're all fairly well acquainted with service. Remember all those dinners in the fellowship hall growing up? The church ladies back there warming up casseroles and pouring tea behind the long church tables? There are of course, a multitude of other ways to serve your church--hospital visitations, shut-in visitations, the alter guild, the parsonage committee. You name it, your church will have a committee for it. Just say yes to one thing, and your phone will ring off the hook for about three years. I'd say we have the service part down--as long as we're glorifying God, and not just our skills in multi-tasking.
Then there is that new component of witness. I'm not a shy person. I'm not particularly challenged in the sharing department in any way shape or form. I am however, terrible at evangelism. Upon further reflection, perhaps witness has multiple components? If we live our lives so that others will know Christ is active in our lives, do we not witness to others? Good deeds and good works that come from true believers are more likely to have positive witness results than all the street corner preaching in all the corners of the world. I'm rather Methodist in this regard. Our church missions tend to be oriented in the model of work first, share faith when asked. And I think that's how it should be. I think a true conversion experience will always have a component of, I saw how others lived and believed and wanted to know what that was like. Like I said, I'm a little uncomfortable in this area, so I tend to cherry pick my evangelism opportunities and pray to be enlightened as I go.
I happen to think these principles can be found in all organized religions. The Christian church doesn't expect us to be perfect at giving. The church says give because Christ gave to you. Religious-based or not, you can practice these five basic principles when giving to local charities, global charities, and other institutional giving (like your college or university). I've been inspired over the outpouring of love, concern, and giving to foundations and charities around the world that base their organizations on these five basic principles of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
You can also practice these five basic principles when giving to people in your life. Your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to them--and them to you is the foundation of lasting community and relationship in this world. The world would be a bleak and lonely place without the gift of giving. So I give. I give because it is the "right thing to do". I give because I want what I do to matter to someone. I give because I'm inspired by others making sacrifices in order to make the world better. I give because I yearn for relationship and community with people. I give, ultimately, because Christ gave to me.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Life and the Ski Slopes

Life is like the ski slopes. When you are starting out you ski the easy green slopes, beginner slopes they are called. These are usually very crowded, not very steep, and actually more dangerous than the more difficult slopes because of the number of people who have no idea what they're doing. Then as you get more confident with the way things are going you bump yourself up to the blue cruisers. Some places put mogels (snow bumps) on their blue slopes and still call them blues, so occasionally you get bumps in the road on the blue cruisers. These slopes, are not terribly difficult, but a slope you might not choose to do again. If you haven't yet guessed, I'm a blue cruiser. I prefer corduroy runs on sunny days with no wind. Yeah, how many of those do we really get in life, I mean, in a season?
Finally when you feel ready (and often when you aren't) you hit the black diamonds. There are degrees of black diamonds--the wide open really fast ones, the ones with bumps on purpose, the double black diamond chutes through the trees, and the narrow, bumpy, fast ones. I don't mind black diamond slopes, in fact I routinely do a couple when I ski just to make it interesting. Sometimes I get in over my head and I cuss, sing, or cry my way down. Sometimes I find out that I am having a good time even though the going is difficult. Once I realized I could never repeat my particular path because it would never be the same again. Isn't life alot like that?
For example, green slope: Every day routine chores, watching/listening to your children play well together, getting that coveted parking spot right in front of BiLo.
Normal Blue slope: Taking your kid to the doctor and learning it's just a virus, driving in a downpour, holding your babies during a thunderstorm.
Perfect weather, groomed blue slope: Nothing actually compares to that, so think of the best day you ever had.
Black slope: well, you know, bad stuff.
Anyway, I don't know where I was going with this post, except to say what you do with your life is like choosing how to get down the mountain. Some of us are more cautious, we make tight turns and always ski in control. Some of us just point the sticks downward and go. Others of us take the cat track down. I had just come very close to flying off a very fast, very fun black diamond--and I was smiling about it--when my brother-in-law gave me some sage advice (he's one of those point the sticks down and go guys). He said, "Marla, you spend your whole life living in control. It's okay to get out of control once in a while. Flying is fun."
So, here's to 2010, maybe I'll find myself letting loose once in a while, after all, those double black diamonds can sometimes be fun.