Review: Found

One of my first experiences with a dark night of the soul period happened shortly after my second child was born. I didn’t have post-partum depression. In many ways, I was energized by having two little ones under two. But I felt my spiritual life withering in the never-ending cycle of diapering, meal prep, and wrestling a baby and a toddler into burrito-like outfits all winter long just to go to the store to buy a gallon of milk. I’d been born again in an era of spiritual disciplines-by-the-numbers: mechanistic formulas for prayer and fill-in-the-blank Bible study shaped my understanding of how I could walk with Jesus. These tools were the training wheels I needed, but I didn’t think I was quite ready to ride without them at the time my kids were born. There was something comforting about being able to check a mental box because I’d completed yet another worksheet or logged some A-C-T-S prayer time.

When that sense of accomplishment was removed from me by a life with little ones that meant I was never going to finish much of anything anytime soon, a sad, wet, gray sense of disconnection from God moved in like a thick fog. And it stayed. Only much later did I realize that those tools had more to do with shining my brittle self-esteem (Look what I did! Boxes checked! Accomplishment!) than they did in teaching me to love as Jesus did. That tutorial came all day long in the form of poopy diapers and snowsuits and ear infections. I didn’t understand that at the time. What I did understand was that I didn’t know who I was any more, and I was scared that maybe I was losing something with God I wasn’t quite sure I ever really had.

How I wish someone could have pressed a book like Micha Boyett’s shimmering Found: A Story Of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer (Worthy 2014) into my sticky palms back then. I haunted the local Christian bookstore, and was well aware of what kinds of books were being published. Most of the “solutions” being offered to young moms like me had plenty to do with redoubling efforts than they did with honesty about the disorientation and reconfiguration that accompanies this life stage.

Boyett faced a double-whammy of transition in her life as she and her husband relocated to a new city with a baby in tow. Prior to the move, she’d made peace with the fill-in-the-blanks faith of her Texas childhood, and had been involved in both meaningful ministry and pursued advanced higher education as an adult. After the move, loneliness and boredom became the gateway to Boyett’s own awareness that her soul was perhaps on the edge of darkness.

Found follows Boyett’s efforts to form and live into a rule for her life that would overlay the rhythms of urban motherhood via classic contemplative spiritual disciplines. The book opens as she wrestles with her prayerlessness at a retreat. After her questions about her state were laid bare through the Ignatian examen, she shares them with the others at the retreat:

“What if those two people in my bed (her husband and son), those two gifts in my life, are not the people who keep me from prayer? What if they’re the actual prayers I’m praying?”

I cry when I say this. I always have a hard time processing things out loud. My tears are inevitably connected to my voice, even among these strangers from Pasadena.

Brother Michael is thrilled by my thought. He immediately chimes in. “Yes! Yes, Micha!” Then he compares me to the Virgin Mother. Shocked at his own insight, his voice rises as he realizes, ‘Christ was her prayer!”

It’s a lovely thought, that God’s grace might extend even into my own prayerlessness, that God might take my meager offering of child-rearing and turn it into prayer, despite my lack of spiritual discipline….I chastise myself for my own cynicism. If only he knew how unholy mothering feels.

I did. I remembered as I read Boyett’s honest and lyric writing. I remembered it all – the moments where I felt my children, my home, my relationship with my husband were the prayers I was praying. And I remembered what it was to be cut off from my habit of worksheets and attempts at hours of prayer that sustained me before the kids came along, not knowing who I was now. Mercifully, never does Boyett lean on the churchy cliches that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling and privilege. Instead, she works to understand her calling as a follower of Jesus (“…I hold a constant, gnawing guilt because I never went to live in Nairobi and work at the orphanage school. I hold the unknown faces of children who no one fed, no one rocked, no one read stories to them because I never showed up for them. Instead I studied poetry.”) and seeks to make meaning through both presence and service to family, friends and the One who was his mother’s prayer.

Descriptive, not prescriptive, this deeply introspective spiritual memoir is not for everyone. But for thoughtful mothers of young ones in the trenches, and for those of us may be friends or mentors to younger moms – we who can still conjure the scent of A + D Ointment by closing our eyes and breathing deeply – Boyett’s writing reminds us that the ordinary everyday is a liturgy if we will put ourselves, questions and all, in the way of Jesus as we shove a toddler’s flailing arms into that winter-weary snowsuit once again.

 

Note: Boyett’s publisher sent me an Advanced Reader’s Copy. The cost ($0.00) didn’t affect my opinion of the work.

When It’s Time To Dial 911

After my mom died in south Florida 6 years ago, I came home anxious to jump into my regularly-scheduled life. I was no stranger to loss and trauma. I thought I was prepared by those experiences as well as the excellent care I received from the hospice team during the final weeks of my mom’s life to walk through the proverbial valley of the shadow as I grieved her passing.

I thought wrong.

By December, I felt as though I was crawling through a room packed with heavy insulation every single day. I’d had blue days before. Blue weeks, even. But this was far more serious than a bad mood. Every day I woke up exhausted. I wished I could die. I cried all the time. I was drained by every social interaction – unusual for an extrovert. I tried to read my Bible and pray, but the words faded into my darkness.

I was clinically depressed. I’d never been especially close with my mom, so that room full of insulation waiting for me in the wake of her passing really surprised me. After weeks and weeks of downward spiral, I picked up the phone, which surely must have weighed a thousand pounds that day, and made an appointment to see a counselor.

Making that first call is so difficult. Will this person be able to help me? Do I really need to do this? Can I afford it? Will the counselor try to change me? What if I’m more messed up than I already know I am? I looked for a Christian counselor, but still wondered if he or she would respect my faith.

God used the counseling process to show me that I was grieving so much more than my mom’s death. I underestimated the cumulative, fragmenting effect of the losses I’d racked up in my life. Like many women, I focused on caring for the needs of others around me, but had little idea how to care for myself. In fact, when the counselor asked me in what ways I care for myself, I pointed at my eyelashes and said, “I put on mascara today.”

Yes, I really did say that.

Most of the time, the care, empathy and prayers of good friends can carry us through loss and trauma. But there are other times when professional help is the tool God chooses to use to reconnect the pieces of a person’s fractured soul. Counseling has been used by God in this way for me. 

This is Mental Illness Awareness Week. The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) offers resources and local connections if you or someone you love is dealing with the effects of mental illness, whether it is depression or any other form of mental illness. In addition, NAMI’s FaithNet initiative works with congregations and denominations. If you’re a church leader who is looking to find resources for your hurting members who present themselves to you with problems outside the scope of your pastoral counseling skills or peer support in your church, you may find their offerings of help to you. 

And if you’re waking up each day in a room packed with insulation, please…reach out to someone. Make the phone call. Tell someone you need help.

Praying for you.

My 3:30 AM Husband

True confession: I have a slight case of bigamy going.

Relax. I’ve never actually met my other “husband” in person. Though I have been married to the same man since 1979, I have logged quite a few hours over the years—usually between midnight and 5 a.m.—with my other “husband”, Peter Francis Geraci.

Mr. Geraci is a Midwestern bankruptcy lawyer who runs TV commercials in the long hours between midnight and dawn. Let’s be honest. Our one-way relationship (he talks and I listen) would never work in real life.

The people who buy cheap middle-of-the-night air time in order to shill Mr. Geraci’s law firm know that there are three groups of people awake at 3:30 a.m.: sleepless new moms and dads, midlife women, and his target audience, those being harried by creditors. Worry comes like a wildcat in the middle of the night, and Peter Francis Geraci, calm and wise, is there calmly offering to put the wildcat out of your misery.

I was first introduced to Mr. Geraci when I was a new mom, and visited with him over the years when anxiety over this or that shook me awake in the wee hours. At midlife, I am meeting up with Mr. Geraci once again. He hasn’t aged a bit, and he always says the same calming words every time I see him: “Do you feel trapped by credit cards? Twenty-five thousand on cards now means your minimum is a thousand dollars a month.”

Good to know, Mr. Geraci. But really, I just want a good night’s sleep.

One of the most common physical complaints of women at midlife is poor sleep quality. A recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that over half of all postmenopausal women report sleep woes. Some of us combat these woes by adding prescription hormones, hoping to balance our plummeting estrogen levels and convince our unsettled bodies to get some rest. Others battle middle-of-the-night wakefulness with Tylenol PM or prescription sleeping pills. (I’ll confess to resorting to this measure when I travel, but find the whole process unsatisfying because chemical anesthesia is not the same thing as natural, restorative sleep.) Most of us gut it out, which leads me to believe that Peter Francis Geraci probably has a whole harem of middle-aged virtual wives.

Inadequate sleep is a minx that creates havoc in our waking hours including an increased risk of accidents, an inability to deal with stress, an increased risk of chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease, poor concentration, and depression. I have one saintly friend who turns the other cheek on the cruel numbers on her digital clock because she is convinced that the middle of the night is the best time of her day to pray: “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” (Ps. 63:6) She intercedes for those on her prayer list, sings bits of psalms she’s committed to memory, and has determined make her nighttime wakefulness quality time in God’s presence.

I’ll confess I’m not like my saintly friend most nights. All I can think about is finding a way to asleep ASAP so I will not turn into a zombie at 2 o’clock the next afternoon. I creep out of bed where Bill is sleeping like a baby, and resign myself to watching the news (and catching up with my favorite bankruptcy lawyer) until I fall asleep for a couple of more hours, usually near dawn. A flickering T.V. in a darkened living room has too often been my drug of choice. Though my sleep-interrupted nights may well be a product of aging and fading hormones, I mark my restlessness as my body’s wordless plea for restoration and for nurture. Mr. Geraci, you seem like a nice guy, but you’re no match for a good night’s sleep.

If you awaken in the middle of the night, what do you do until you fall back asleep? 

 

Falling Upward, Chapter 11

I’m blogging through Father Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality Through The Two Halves Of Life. Even if you haven’t read the book, please stick around and join the conversation here if you’re facing a mid-life transition. Father Rohr offers us all some meaty food for thought.

Here are links to my previous posts in the series:  IntroChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5 Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8 Chapter 9Chapter 10

* * * * * * *

Be especially careful therefore of any idealized role or self-image, like that of minister, mother, doctor, nice person, professor, moral believer, or president of this or that. These are huge personas to live up to, and they trap many people in in lifelong delusion.

Chapter 10 was called “A Bright Sadness”. Chapter 11, entitled “The Shadowlands”, deals with darkness that contrasts brightness. Specifically, the darkness that is generated during our first adulthood – the creation of our shadow selves. An identity based in a job, role or other performance-based expression is a shadow. Father Rohr notes that this shadow persona “…is what most people want from you and reward you for, and what you choose to identify with, for some reason.” One way to tell if you’re interacting with someone else’s shadow? “Whenever ministers, or any true believers, are too anti-anything, you can be pretty sure there is some shadow material lurking somewhere nearby.” He says this shadow self shouldn’t be a permanent expression of who we are becoming. “Your self-image is not substantial or lasting; it is just created out of your own mind, desire and choice – and everybody else’s preferences for you!”

He notes that the final years of our lives give us an opportunity to either see and resolve this division or to dig in and cling to the image our shadow self has perfected. Those working with hospice patients have a front-row seat to see the fruits of both types of choices, and we are wired to recognize the difference by the arc in stories (heroes grow and change by facing their shadow, villains don’t).

Our shadow self makes us all into hypocrites on some level. Remember, hypocrite is a Greek word that simply means ‘actor’, someone playing a role rather than being ‘real’.

“Christians could have been done a great service if shadow had been distinguished from sin. Sin and shadow are not the same. We were so encouraged to avoid sin that many of us instead avoided facing our shadow, and then we ended up ‘sinning’ even worse – while unaware besides!” Rohr suggests that we pay attention to our overreactions or overdenials because we may just hear the crowing of a rooster at dawn if we listen closely enough. “Once you have faced your own hidden or denied self, there is not much to be anxious about anymore, because there is no fear of exposure – to yourself or to others. The game is over – and you are free.”

This freedom comes at a high cost. “Holy sadness, once called compunction, is the price your soul pays for opening to the new and the unknown in yourself and in the world, ” he writes. We have to go through it, and feel it for ourselves. Rohr observes that our competitive society makes it especially difficult for men, who often find it especially easy to push the sadness inside and end up with a very real and entrenched case of depression.

One of the great surprises is that humans come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing their own contradictions, and making friends with their own mistakes and failings.

The observations in this chapter are of great value, though they don’t break new ground in the book. I found myself pondering the importance of climbing into the ring in order to face Shadow Michelle for another round, and also wondered how I can be the kind of person who helps others to step into their own ring, too. Being honest about what I’m discovering about God and myself is the single thing I can offer to others.

I spent some time this week with someone who has spent hours training in the “soul gym” for years, but refuses to actually lace up her gloves and fight her own shadow. She knows she is stuck, and has been for the last several years, but the fear of losing all she’s accumulated in the first half of her life keeps her from moving forward. She’s had very wonderful first adulthood, and I can understand why she is trying to hold onto the past instead of moving into the future. It doesn’t appear she likes this “stuck” place; she talks about it endlessly. But stuck has its own kind of comfort to it, and a step into the ring is a leap of faith.

When you’ve been stuck, what sorts of things have helped you take that leap?

Review, sort of: Still

I read Katelyn Beaty’s excellent review of Lauren Winner’s new book Still: Notes On A Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne, 2012) when the book released, and it immediately shot to the top of my “must read” list. I’ve been a Winner fan since I read her wonderful Girl Meets God in 2002. Still is the story of what happens after the rosy first-love glow of new faith fades.

She writes, “In the American Church, we have a long tradition of telling spiritual stories that culminate in conversion, in the narrator’s joining the church, getting dunked in the waters of baptism, getting saved…the baptism, the conversion, is the just the beginning, and what follows is a middle, and the middle may be long, and it may have little to do with whatever it was that go you to the font. This is a book about entering the middle, about being in the middle of the spiritual life.”

Though I have spent a lot of time reading and writing about the midlife transition (and am praying I will be given the opportunity to turn that stew of information and experience and revelation into a book of my own), Still had a natural resonance with me. No, a spiritual middle is not exactly the same thing as the life shift that comes as we enter our second adulthood, but there is a great deal of overlap between the two.

Winner finds herself in a state of chronic spiritual malaise in the wake of two cataclysmic events: her divorce after six years of marriage and the death of her mother. The faith she counted on to sustain her through these losses instead seemed to flatline. She notes that it isn’t always trauma that brings us to the middle, but tedium. This middle state can carry elements of spiritual acedia or desolation and/or emotional depression. It can transform broken sinners into Pharisaical performers, saying and doing all the right things fueled by unprocessed anger that the abundant life they thought they had coming to them at the beginning of their journey has turned out to be a long, long plateau instead. The middle can also serve as an “eject” button on that journey, as discouragement and boredom create a fertile breeding ground for temptation.

“…I begin to notice that ‘middle’ rarely denotes something good. Middle school – when girls turn mean, and all kids turn miserable – is that ‘wasteland of our primary and secondary landscape,’ the ‘crack’ between grammar school and high school. And middles are often defined by what they are not: the space, the years inbetween that which is no longer what came before and that which is not yet what will come later.”

Winner chronicles the battle to recapture, then ultimately transcend, that first love in spare-yet-dense prose. The chapters are brief, like a series of blog posts – albeit stunningly well-crafted ones – that illuminate something of that driving-on-that-endless-stretch-of-I-80-through-Nebraska middle experience. She tries to escape her spiritual life, but finds that her habits of spiritual discipline and the hand of her hidden God are holding her. “Increasingly, I understand that I don’t get to go back (increasingly, I don’t want to). I am living in a place, a house, a room, and I begin to understand that something will show up in this room, and what shows up will be faith. I am less certain now than I was ten years ago, fifteen years ago; but I sense that this place is certain; it is sure.”

A faraway friend mentioned that she was also interested in reading Still, so we did an ad hoc book club via a couple of phone calls. Both of us reported some wonderful ah ha! moments as we read through the book. Winner’s restless spiritual wrestling, her power as a wordsmith and her breathtaking intelligence gave us language to talk about our own middles. The book is a personal description of one woman’s middle, yet the description is of value for all of us who want so much to return to the experience when we were first immersed in the love and life of God, and find ourselves unable to get there. Still reminds us that we can’t return to it in the same way we came, which is a very necessary lesson in terms of spiritual formation.

That said, the book felt a bit incomplete. I suppose when you’re talking about middles, not ends, that is to be expected. Still narrates the arc of a crisis of faith from the point of view of someone just barely on the other side of it. I found myself wishing throughout the book that her story had been given more time to ripen. Perhaps there’ll be a sequel (Son of Still?) five or ten years from now that burnishes some of the self-analysis of this book.

If she does, I’ll read it.

Christmas cookies on Thanksgiving

I’ve dragged myself into mid-December mode the last few weeks, buying gifts and addressing cards. I am a little out of sync because of my upcoming shoulder surgery; it hasn’t been easy to skip past Thanksgiving and Chanukah, and without passing go, head directly to Christmas. I feel a little clumsy about this. The rhythms of time and the habits of celebration imprint themselves on our lives, which is one reason that a gear shift is so hard for many of us. Just when we think we’ve settled into a holiday routine, life changes. A baby is born. A child marries. A parent dies. Someone moves away or returns after a long absence.
I’m glad that I get to shift those gears back to where they belong today. I’m focusing on Thanksgiving preparations right now. This year, we’re planning to spend time with our kids and grandkids throughout the day, and will also head over the river, through the woods, and onto I-88 to see some of our extended family. This isn’t always the way our holidays work, so I am really grateful to the Giver for this particular gift. 

I am also grateful for the way my warm house smells right now. I’ve made salted bittersweet chocolate brownies and sweet potato kugel to bring to my sister-in-law’s house, and I let a little bit of my December cookie-baking routine slip into the cooking frenzy today. I realized I’m not going to be able to make my trademark holiday cookie next month, so I decided to make my famous Cranberry-Chocolate Chip ribbon cookies today to share with my family when they begin arriving tomorrow. 
You can’t really tell from the picture, but that recipe card is stained and yellowed, a mark of both its age and its heavy usage. You also can’t tell that this recipe was a finalist in the Chicago Tribune Christmas cookie contest four or five years ago, but it was.
I’ve been making this recipe in December for probably a quarter-century now. Even cranberry haters like it, and one of the highest compliments I got was from a friend in MN who grabbed the recipe when I posted it a couple of years ago, and told me it is now becoming a part of her family’s yearly December traditions. 

The whole delicious point of a food tradition is to take us back and help us remember who we are and where we’ve been together. If that doesn’t create some thankfulness, then what will? 

Here’s the recipe, in case you want to add it to your own holiday repertoire: 
Cranberry-Chocolate Chip Ribbon Cookies
Cranberry sauce:
1-1/2 C cranberries
1/2 C sugar
3 T orange juice
1 t orange peel
Combine first three ingredients in 4 C glass bowl, then cover with plastic wrap. Nuke for 6 minutes, stirring once. Mix in peel and let cool slightly. 

Dough:
3/4 C softened butter
2/3 C sugar
1 t vanilla
1 egg
2 C flour
1/2 t baking powder
pinch of salt
1 C mini chocolate chips

Mix butter and sugar together until blended. Add vanilla and egg to mixture, beating by hand until combined. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt until dough leaves the sides of the bowl. Mix in chocolate chips. 

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Divide dough into four parts. Shape each portion into a log approx 12″ x 3/4″ and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Use your finger to press a depression the length of each log. Spoon cranberry filling into the depression. 

Bake 20-30 minutes, until lightly browned. While the bars are still warm, cut on the diagonal into 1″ strips.

Enjoy! 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Selling short the Gospel


“These troubling economic times are an unprecedented opportunity for the Gospel.”

This sentiment bugs me. And I think I have figured out why.

I have been hearing variations of these words for the last few months. It is true that as our culture’s false gods of materialism, greed and pride are being exposed as modern-era golden calves, many people are asking different questions about God and life than they may have asked before. The recession (which appears likely to be headed into a full-scale depression) in which we find ourselves means that need – of work, of financial help, of direction and hope – takes center stage in many lives. It is equal-opportunity need, in fact. No one is immune – both believers and those not yet following Christ are facing need in ways we never have before. And most of us know that we’re still in the early stages of this new reality.

It is an time of “opportunity”, for sure. It is an opportunity for the Bride to be the Bride, to love the world the way the Bridegroom loves it, and to display the alt-reality of His kingdom. It is true that some who say that this time is an unprecedented time of opportunity for the Gospel mean precisely that.

But I hear a lot of the ickier side of evangelicalism in the use of these words, too. In some of the contexts in which I’ve heard this idea being hawked, I hear these words being used to motivate a sales force in order to merchandise a commodity. It feels a little Dunder-Mifflin-ish, perhaps, or at least regional sales meeting-ish. “Get in there and push the product, people. Strike while the iron is hot!” The words have a triumphalistic edge to them, and it isn’t very attractive.

This time in our culture might be about evangelicals learning to embrace the victory that comes with discarding this triumphalistic way of shilling the Gospel-As-Commodity, and instead losing our lives and finding His. In this pursuit alone, we will become His beautiful Bride.

Has anyone else been cranked the wrong way by the way some have spoken about these times as an opportunity for the Gospel? Or (entirely possible) – am I just being contrarian here?

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