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and joy deep down inside


I don’t remember what he said, every night when he prayed for my sister and me in our double bed, except for one thing: Daddy’s prayers always ended with the same request.
“I pray that they would wake up in the morning,” he’d say, “with smiles on their faces, and songs in their hearts, and joy deep down inside.”
We weren’t a liturgical family.  We shied away from all that denominational mess in favor of The Bible.  My Sunday School teacher Miss Janie created her own curriculum, taking us through every story in the Book, even (and memorably) the one where Jael hammered a tent peg through Sisera and the one where Ehud’s sword was swallowed up by Eglon’s rolls of fat. On Sunday mornings we sang praise choruses and old Baptist hymns to the rhythm of acoustic guitar.  Once a month we passed around plates of oyster crackers and plastic cups of grape juice, and when it came time for baptism, Daddy did mine, out on the Frio River.
I loved God, and the church, and the stories I learned.  But as a teenager I began to yearn for tradition and liturgy...

the active stillness of Advent {guest post}

J.R. Goudeau is a blog-crush turned friend who regularly inspires me with her passion and humor. If this is your first introduction to her, check out Love Is What You Do, where she blogs about literature, motherhood, and her work with Burmese refugees in Austin. I'm grateful for the stories she's sharing here today.


The first time I remember really waiting for something, I found out a few weeks before my best friend that her father was leaving her family. I had to wait for her to find out. It’s a long story and the details are not mine to tell; I was 18. I was devastated. It was the first time I fasted and prayed because I meant it; it was the first time I hiccupped into my pillow late into the night begging God to get up, to move, to do something, dang it.


I went and spent a long day alone in a state park nearby. Armed with my huge study Bible, I sat under a tree and read and prayed all day. I watched an armadillo for more than an hour as it dug in the underbrush a few yards away. I left when it was too dark to see.


Nothing changed. He left their family. She was hysterical. I was bewildered.


***
Jonathan and I waited for four months to get to Brazil. We were 23, just married, armed with our Idealism and our Dreams, ready to change the world. We were supposed to leave on September 20, 2001 to be missionaries. On September 12, 2001, we heard from the Brazilian consulate that someone had stolen our passports.


Because it was the day after September 11, nothing was certain. We had to start over, new passports, new visas, new bureaucracy to hold us up. Every week we called and every week we got the same words: nothing.


For four months, we sat on my parents’ couch watching CNN, reading books, and eating. We had nothing to do. Again, I fasted and prayed. Again, it just took forever.


When we finally, finally, finally got word, got on the plane, got there, I looked around, ready to see the secret reason God had us wait so long.


To this day, there is no coincidental story, no glorious explanation, for the waiting.


The waiting itself was the point; it was not the means to the end in which I got some big surprise with a bow on the top. The discipline of waiting day in and day out was what I needed to learn. The trusting, the holding on, the making just to the end of the day--those habits became familiar, the rudimentary movements I would need to make it through my life.

***

Since then, it seems like every few months we have to wait: to get into graduate schools, to find a job, to get pregnant, to have a baby, to figure out what we are doing with our lives, where we will live, how things will be. In the last couple of years, I’ve waited with a friend to find out whether she had breast cancer. I waited with a dear friend for months as she watched her mother die of cancer. I have waited to hear whether marriages would make it or not. I have waited with friends who desperately wanted a viable pregnancy.



In the last five years, I have waited in the NICU or by my cell phone to hear about 11 different children with severe or extremely rare medical needs.


Some of those babies made it. Some of them did not. In all of those moments, the waiting completely changed me.


It is one thing to wait on something I want, a privilege I would like. It’s another to breathe prayer with every fiber of my being as I beg God for the life of a baby or a marriage or a friend. That is the kind of face-down, in-the-dirt waiting which has left me with scars. My heart has been carved in those periods of not-knowing and desperate hoping.


In my life, that waiting has ceased to be something passive and has become something active I do. It is familiar, even if I don’t always (or ever) like it. Simone Weil talks about the Greek word "hupomene," which she defines as “waiting in eager expectation.”


I hold myself still under the heaviness of the waiting. I try to be patient.


Weil says I should be eager.

***

In March 2009, I sat in front of a computer screen, heavily pregnant with my second baby girl. I had been having contractions every twenty minutes for hours. Past my due date, miserable, blimpish, I drank tea and clicked around the internet. I found a website about China Special Needs adoptions. I read almost all night, blogs and articles and chat rooms and forums.



I waited for a baby who would be born two days later, healthy and purple and squalling with life, but I began to pray again, eagerly, expectantly, for another one.

***

Now we are waiting again, this time for our third daughter who will be coming home from China hopefully sometime next year. The home study was in November. The dossier should be finished and sent off in a month or so.



Our case worker said we could be home with a baby in June at the earliest. And suddenly, six to nine months seems like a lifetime.


We’re researching doctors, preparing for surgeries, thinking through the options for whatever her special need ends up being.


There’s no baby yet—we’ll be matched when our dossier is logged into the system in China—but whoever she is, she already exists. It is likely she has already been born, already abandoned, already placed in the orphanage crib. She is going through a winter somewhere without me and I find myself waking up breathing out to God: please let someone hold her, love her, sing her lullabies, keep her safe, please...just…please.


When we hung up her stocking in our house this year, my little one said, “I sure really miss my new sister.” Our whole family waits and prepares and prays.

And we know, when she gets here, everything will be different and hard and good all at once.


I groan and hold still in the heaviness. With Mary, who waited for a baby and then waited for that baby to die, with the angels who quiver with waiting for the sons of God to be revealed, with all the mothers with empty arms who long with every fiber of their being for babies to come, I wait. I am reminded this week especially that not all waiting is good, that sometimes we wait for a grief that is more horrific than we can prepare for, and I am humbled by the weight of their incomprehensible waiting.


For those who wait in grief and those who wait in hope, I pray this season, as we wait together in all the active stillness of that holy word.



J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at Love Is What You Do.

I was born for Advent {guest post}

I've known Ramon Chaparro since high school, when he was the only Afro-Rican in the mega-churchy youth group we both attended, and for as long as I've known him, I've been impressed by his insights into the life of faith. He's been a faithful friend and encourager to me. I specifically asked him to share something for our advent series so that we could all be blessed by his words. Enjoy.

This time of year is always a little strange for me. I grew up in a pseudo-Christian sect (cult?) called the Worldwide Church of God that emphatically warned us against celebrating so-called Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, which we were told had irreversibly tainted pagan roots. In fact, I don’t really remember hearing stories about Jesus at all until I was a teenager. Throughout my childhood, both the Christian narrative and the commercial trappings of Christmas were mostly alien to me.  The Christmas season had the allure of the forbidden, but it was never very familiar.


As strange as Christmas has been to me, my relatively recent introduction to Advent is coming much more naturally. I still have not been initiated into rhythms of the liturgical calendar and had not heard of the Hanging of the Greens until attending my goddaughter’s dedication in Chicago last weekend. However, I feel a deep connection to the heart of the Advent season because I find I have an unexpected familiarity with the biblical narratives of exile and hope which Advent is attached.


In some ways, it is natural for me to identify with the longing of Israel for a Messiah, for the end of exile. My father’s parents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in search of better economic opportunity, an opportunity afforded them by legislation which gave Puerto Ricans access to U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless, to this day Puerto Rico is not free. Call it what you want – commonwealth, territory, colony. The plain fact is that though the people live in the land, the land does not belong to them. The island of Vieques, a popular tourist destination, was used as a naval bombing range throughout years of protest until it was finally shut down in 2003. Now, the U.S. Navy is balking on some of the cleanup efforts. The island has also suffered from the effects of a thriving drug trade which is said to have contributed to 70% of the 1,136 homicides in 2011 (an overall murder rate that is five times the U.S. national average). Increasingly, many of the pristine beaches are becoming accessible to tourists at the expense of locals, as resorts and expensive beach houses proliferate. During Advent, I am glad to hear talk about justice being born in the abandoned places of Empire, but I have not once heard Puerto Rico mentioned in that context. The remnants of my family that still live on the island know what it means to live in exile.

On the other side of the family tree, my mother is African-American, born and raised under the legacy of Jim Crow in Little Rock, Arkansas. On her second birthday, the Arkansas National Guard was deployed by the governor to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision for integration in Brown vs. The Board of Education (a defiance which was answered by the deployment of federal soldiers). 13 years later, my mother would briefly attend Central before finding the environment still inhospitable to black students and transferring.  
www.nps.gov

I know that she and my grandparents have numerous stories that they have never told me of what it was like to live in that place, in those times. Nonetheless, there is a palpable pain in their silence. There is also a lingering weariness from the long injustice of living as second-class citizens in their own home, a weariness that gave birth to tears for my grandparents when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States of America. They too know how it feels to live in exile.


As Amy mentioned in an earlier post, the music of Advent in the church is not familiar to me. I have instead found powerful expressions of the Advent narrative’s darkness before the light in the music of Nina Simone. Writing, singing, and performing throughout the Civil Rights Movement, she captures so well the raw emotions contained in the tension of despairing of hope in the face of oppression and violence, and yet longing for freedom with every fiber of one’s being. 




Three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Simone and her band performed a raw, newly written composition in his honor called, “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” at the Westbury Music Fair (it’s long, but please listen to it in its entirety). She sings:


He had seen the mountaintop and he knew he could not stop,
always living with the threat of death ahead.
Folks, you'd better stop and think because we're headed for the brink.
What will happen now that he is dead?

But, as is proper in any Advent song, her songs do not stop in the despair. My prayer for Advent - for the native lands of my family and the many others in the world suffering under oppression and violence – are the lyrics from Nina Simone’s performance of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”:

Oh I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say  ‘em loud, say ‘em clear
For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bonds that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
Then I’d sing ‘cause I know, I’d sing ‘cause I know
And I’d sing ‘cause I know, I’d know how it feels
I’d know how it feels to be free

waiting in the dark {guest post}

Today I'm guest posting at There Is A River, where Christie has been writing every day through Advent just like I have (some of my favorites from her series are here and here.)

This is something straight from my heart, and I hope you'll click over and read the whole thing. It starts like this:

Advent is a season of darkness, of waiting for the light; but I’m warier of darkness than I used to be.

When I was a teenager, I revelled in darkness.  I don’t mean that I loved bad things.  I loved complicated things, facing the realities of our broken world,  anything that seemed deeper and truer than the sparkly cliches I found on tv and in commercial christian products.  My teens were when I read Thomas Hardy and Pascal and Kierkegaard, when intellectual doubts were hitting me for the first time, when I first traveled to a third world country and recognized the excess of my own lifestyle. I was in my teens when Dad took me to see Good Will Hunting - despite the language - because of the redemptive themes, and I too wanted to recognize truth like a troubled genius or a holy rebel. I needed a faith that was honest about darkness.

Becoming a mother was what changed me.


Read the rest here.

the daily heroics of love {guest post}


I happened to sit next to Christie Purifoy at the Festival of Faith and Writing last spring, only to discover that we had attended the same college (Texas A&M), studied in the same department (English), and been active at the same church (Grace), just a few years apart from each other.  I've enjoyed getting to know her more through her posts at There Is A River, and am so happy she's sharing this with us today.


I know that Advent should include repentance. In fact, repentance is supposed to be an integral part of any advent observance. The idea, I think, is that we must prepare ourselves to receive Christ.

I’ve mostly avoided thinking about it.

I far prefer to meditate on ideas like wonder or anticipation.

If I think much about sin at all it’s to imagine the sin out there. For instance, the dark injustice of human trafficking or the world orphan crisis.

I’d rather not confront the darkness in my own heart.

Until the parents of twenty first-graders walked into a nightmare.

The day of the shooting I sent my own first-grader to school in tears. I yelled, “What is wrong with you?”

It was day eight of his dad’s business trip. I’d been up since 5:30 with the baby. He’d misplaced his shoes, and it seemed likely he would miss the bus. He has misplaced his shoes every single week since school began in August. We’ve taken to charging him a dollar if we find them first.

None of that matters.

On Friday, I realized that it wasn’t important if my son continues to lose his shoes every day of every year for the rest of his life.

All day I cried and prayed, “Thank you, thank you for giving me another chance.”

I might not have had that chance.

We like to describe our love for our children as the most natural, instinctual thing. I’ve never quite understood that.

Love feels much harder to me. Yes, I would run into a burning building for my child. That actually seems quite easy. The hard part? Biting my tongue when I haven’t had enough sleep. Being patient even when they make the same mistakes again and again.

And the biggie? Laying aside my book, getting up off the couch, and slicing the apple they’ve asked for instead of making them wash it themselves and eat it whole. Because even I know that an apple sliced paper-thin tastes so much better.

There are too many mothers wishing they could slice one more apple. Wipe one more runny nose. Search high and low for lost shoes.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner.

I told myself the darkness in my own heart was not that big of a deal. I was wrong. The good news is that I don't have to wait for a burning building to give my children the very best of my love for them. I can do it now and every day. I can do it in a thousand little ways.

Because the grandest, most beautiful kind of love is revealed in the smallest, most insignificant forms.

Like a baby. A baby born on the ragged edge of an empire in a room smelling of animals.

No heroics. No burning building.

Just love.

Christie Purifoy is a Jesus-follower, a writer, a wife, and a mother to four. Raised in Texas, she earned a PhD in English Literature from the University of Chicago and now lives in an old farmhouse in southeastern Pennsylvania. Christie blogs regularly at There is a River  where she finds poetry in the ordinary pain and joy of daily life.

Advent in the Abandoned Places {Guest Post}

D.L. Mayfield probably doesn't remember this, but back before we "knew" each other, she commented on one of my Her.meneutics articles, and added "also just wanted to say holla to a fellow ESL teacher!" I was pretty much pleased as punch to see the comment, because I'd been a fan of her column at McSweeney's Internet Tendency for a while.
On her blog, DL writes about life in the upside-down kingdom and her experiments in downward mobility.  You should follow her, for real.  Besides both being ESL teachers, she and I share a love of Sufjan, the Pacific Northwest, and preschool girls whose names begin with R. I'm thrilled to share her words with you today.
Old House_DSC4330
CC photo courtesy Brainedge on Flickr


Everything in our society teaches us to move away from suffering, to move out of neighborhoods where there is high crime, to move away from people who don’t look like us. But the gospel calls us to something altogether different. We are to laugh at fear, to lean into suffering, to open ourselves up to the stranger. Advent is the season when we remember Jesus put on flesh and moved into our neighborhood. God’s getting born in a barn reminds us that God shows up even in the forsaken corners of the earth.
From Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals



Several months ago, my husband, toddler and I all moved across the country in order to relocate ourselves in a new neighborhood. One with significantly higher crime, one with few people who looked or talked like us, one where the kingdom of God was coming.
Not everyone is called to this, it’s true; done poorly, incarnational living is merely an experiment in gentrification. But as Advent teaches us, Jesus chose to come and dwell in these abandoned places. And I can already testify, just several months in: he is here. He is moving, he is working, he is changing hearts that are willing. Including mine. For if there is anything to be gained from the reading of the Christmas story, it is this message: am I willing to seek and behold Jesus as he really is? Not some figment of my imagination, some ethno-centric, political, health and wealth figure. But am I willing to see him as somebody who came to free us all from what enslaves us? Am I willing to admit that to follow him might mean to hang out in stables myself, to experience the blessings of living in the places where he dwells?
The people who recognized his greatness and beauty all hailed from the margins, they were all in a place to see and recognize the truth. The kings and inn keepers were too busy to notice the stars, to receive the gift given. Like it or not we are empire people, those of us in the West. We have taken the story of Jesus and toned it down, made it into a story for children. We gaze fondly at the figures of animals and shepherds and wise men, never once dreaming that had this incarnation happened in our time, we would be too busy to notice, too consumed with the world.
But Christ is here; working far beyond the boundaries of church buildings and programs, right into the very corners of the most abandoned neighborhoods. Perhaps he is calling you to experience some of the miracle, to partner in making the word become flesh. Perhaps he is calling us to take a good long look at our segregated communities, our segregated lives. Perhaps advent, more than any other time, is a good place to consider following Jesus’ example, to willingly place yourself where few would seek to be born, or to live, or to die.
Because if we never hang out in the stables, we might miss out on the greatest gift of all: seeing Jesus, for who he really is, living in our most broken neighborhoods. He was someone who located himself in the abandoned places of the Empire; might he be calling you to do the same?

the conflict of advent {guest post}

A few months after I moved to the tiny town of Upland, Jody Fernando invited me to her book club, and in the intelligent, opinionated, warm-hearted discussion there, I felt for the first time like maybe this place could be home. Jody moved to California last summer, but I continue to learn from her. I'm so happy to share her words with you today.







Christmas songs are supposed to be happy. Jingle bells ringing, happy people singing, red noses shining, and bringing good tidings - that’s the epitome of the Christmas spirit - right?  

In many moments, I share this joyful sentiment.  I love the wonder and anticipation of the season and how Advent invites us to pause and reflect.  But sometimes, simple acts like reading news of war or chatting honestly with a broken friend leave me relieved that sentiments like Henry Longfellow’s make it into the season too:

And in despair, I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song,
of peace on earth, good will to men."

Written near the end of the civil war after the tragic death of his wife and serious injury of his son, I can only imagine the grief that shook Longfellow’s heart.  "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays," he wrote the Christmas after his wife’s death. "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."  Three years later, he penned the words to the beloved carol, I heard the bells on Christmas Day.

Silent.

Expectant.  

We might all be better for it if we walked through advent like this.  Certainly all of our hearts carry unmet longing and unresolved burdens, even through a seemingly joy-filled season. I fluctuate somewhere being parading my longings and burdens boldly before God and scrambling to cover them up so no one else can see my lack...

Perhaps Longfellow felt the same way that Christmas morning when he heard the bells ringing the old and familiar carols.  

...and wild and sweet, the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.

For even if the song of peace is sweet, it can still be wild, elusive, unpredictable and uncontrollable.  And even if good will to men runs wild, it can still hold an underlying sweetness, immeasurable pain interwoven with threads of hope and goodness. The sweetness of the season rings through warm moments, celebratory spirits, joy-filled children.  But the wildness is just as present, highlighting the very present conflict of unresolved tensions, global injustices, misplaced priorities, feelings of grief, and pressures of holiday obligations.  

These incongruous realities of advent prompt us to quiet our spirits and listen rather than to numb them with busyness, to seek hope through meaningful actions rather than chase happiness through meaningless objects. They beckon us to live quietly yet expectantly in a world of crashing noise. In the quietness, we can pray simple words like this:

May we return to the breath and the silence.
To the breath that gives us life,
To the silence where we hear God’s whispers.
May we weep for the brokenness of our souls,
And cry out against our distractedness.
May we return to the eternal God,
Whose love fills every fibre of our being.

Come, Lord Jesus.  We eagerly await your arrival, wild and sweet.




Jody Fernando sorts out the paradoxes of life on her blog, Between Worlds. She lives in Southern California where she enjoys walking her children to school, eating ethnic food with her husband, and teaching English to international students.

weaving baskets {my guest post for mama monk}


I've been reading the blogs of my friends and family for a solid decade now, but I've only been following the blogs of strangers for a few years.  (It used to strike me as kind of creepy.) At first I just followed Smitten Kitchen, the Pioneer Woman, and Simple Mom; but over the last year or two I've started reading so many faith blogs that I can't keep count.

Of those, Mama Monk was the first to stand out to me. Micha Boyett consistently writes beautiful pieces (like this one, or this) that make me go, "You too? I thought I was the only one." I met her ever so briefly at the Festival of Faith and Writing last April, and I'm so honored that she asked me to guest post for her {This Sacred Everyday} series.




Basket-Weaving
At this point, I’m pretty sure there’s not a safe seat left.  Every easy chair, couch cushion, and carpet has been peed on at one point or another. Despite my eco-friendly cleaning regimen of white vinegar & tea-tree oil, the scent of urine lingers – or I imagine it does –  wafting up each time I settle into the blue cushion of our second hand sofa.
Tonight I load the laundry in again, acrid undies and leggings and rags, remnants of potty training tried and failed.  If I don’t do the wash, she won’t have any pants to wear tomorrow. I measure the detergent, close the door, and sigh with self-pity.
The desert fathers sought out these kinds of menial tasks as a way of spiritual formation.  I know this.  I know they wove reeds into baskets, unwove them, wove them again.  An object lesson. A reminder that the heart behind the work is more important than the task itself. I get that.
But when my husband is sweeping up glass and glitter from the shattered snow globe, and I am blotting the fishy smell out of a throw pillow, and the toddler is screaming, “please!” and the preschooler is crying because of the newly sewn stitches across her forehead, my introverted brain thinks the desert fathers were lucky; at least they got to practice their menial tasks in solitude.