Living with a veneer of glamour

DSC_0796 (Large)

The chandeliers in the apartment we stayed at for the first month reminded me (by way of trying to appear more beautiful than they actually are) of a piece I wrote a while back that I’ve meant to put up here on the blog and never got around to doing. It’s directed at church-goers, but is applicable to all of life. It was also published in the November issue of our New Zealand Reformed Churches’ denominational magazine, Faith in Focus.

Dearly Loved

Looking around at my fellow pew-sitters on a Sunday morning, I see our kids are nicely dressed and the way our families are sitting in neat rows makes it look like we have it all together. But we don’t. We each have a story of the hard road the Lord is walking with us — this hurting bunch of people with nicely brushed hair. We might look ‘all together’, but we are learning about grace, deep and difficult grace. We are learning that the only way of being put together means being broken first. Whatever amount of ‘having it all together’ is grace. And grace is not to be worn as a badge you earned. It is a gift.

It is easy to forget that we are one body, that we are closely connected to each other through Jesus. But do you really know these people in the pews around you? The ones you have grown tired of? The ones who are called your brothers and sisters? Look around the pews with me and be reminded. You might just recognize yourself too.

Many of us know the joys of marriage, and yet, among us are those
who still long for a marriage partner,
who have forgotten they are married to a person and not a job,
who have had many years together but have forgotten how to talk,
who have violated intimacy and trust,
who ache with that empty spot in bed beside them, because death swallowed up their love’s warmth.

We love children here at our church, and yet even in the blessing of children there can be much pain. Some of us know the pain of
childlessness,
of burying children,
of good children turned rebels,
of children having children before the time is right,
of children and parents who have forgotten how to laugh because they’ve built walls around their hearts.

We have illness here in many forms:
the physical kind that eats away strength,
the cancerous kind that steals beautiful people,
the mental kind that leaves you doubting the truth,
the spiritual kind that fills aching voids with darkness,
the weakening of a body that some flippantly call ‘old age’.

Most of us are in happy employment, yet we are no strangers
to losing a job,
to working hours that are long and wearisome,
to dealing with painful politics,
to being the object of ridicule for the sake of our love for Christ,
to feeling some days that it’s all just an empty chasing after wind.

We are all intimately acquainted with sin that flows from a heart that’s only in love with myself, and so
we justify the white lie,
we are pumped up with pride,
we are experts at hiding filth we think is secret,
we get angry, we gossip, we condemn,
we leave no sin unexplored — we hate it and yet it sticks to us.

Many of us weren’t born here. We have come here with different stories:
some with only a suitcase in hand,
some fleeing war and persecution,
some fleeing dictators and famine,
some simply hoping for a better future,
all leaving behind family and friends and all that is familiar,
all knowing the meaning of the word lonely.

We sit in these pews every Sunday, with hearts that believe and yet
we’ve wondered at times if it isn’t all a big lie (does God even exist?),
we’ve been disillusioned with church as an establishment,
we’ve listened to a sermon and taken none of it in,
we’ve sat through a service while last night still pulses through our veins,
we’ve come for selfish gain and not to see what we can give.

We’re experts at causing hurt, and holding onto hurts —
sometimes we have prideful tongues that cut deep,
sometimes we are ignorant about tact or sensitivity,
sometimes we’re superficial and avoid topics that matter,
we struggle to forget words or treatment going back many years,
some of us have toes that have grown so long they are constantly stepped on.

Is there hope for us? For this broken wound in its Sunday best? In God’s ancient wisdom there is medicine with which we can bring healing and with which we can actively bind up each other’s wounds:

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:12-14)

What miracles would happen if we were to start taking off our masks, our pretences of having it all together, our attitude of pride? If we actually chose compassion instead of “they should have known better”? If we chose kindness instead of finding fault? If we chose humility instead of looking to attribute bad motives? If we chose gentleness instead of speaking words that hurt for years? If we chose patience instead of wanting “change right now or else we leave”?

What if we let go of bitterness, if we started forgiving one another with a generous forgiveness that has no strings attached? Can we just stop for a moment and remember how we are forgiven all? ALL. Could we stop nurturing our bitterness like a baby and start forgiving as the Lord forgives us?

Can we just remember for a moment that we were chosen? For healing, rescued out of the muck, to be truly put together, to learn the deep meaning of grace. The kind of grace that turns brokenness into a spotless bride.

Remember that you are holy and dearly loved. Yes, you. And also that family in the pew in front of you whose kids cannot sit still. And the guy who reads Rick Warren. And that girl whose skirt is too short. And the man who criticized you. And the person who was offended when you didn’t do things the way they’ve always been done. Forgiven, and therefore holy. Dearly loved. Not just a love of duty. Dearly, dearly loved.

We are dearly loved, and therefore we are to love dearly. It’s sacrificial. It’s hard. It’s not natural. But it will bring healing to us all, we who are brothers and sisters. It starts with me. And it starts with you. Loving each other is a choice (sometimes a hard one) but the result is a taste of heaven on earth — a joyous perfect unity.

The 3-step guide for mothers who want to Do It All

Yes, you too can Do It All! Small children? A big workload? Stack of dishes in the sink? Pile of bills to pay? No problem! Just follow my easy 3-step program and soon you too could be one of those special people who can Do It All!

1. Marry a millionaire.

2. Hire a nanny, cook, housekeeper and gardener.

3. Put yourself, your dreams and ambitions before anything or anyone else.

I was asked recently to give a talk at a women’s Bible study about “something I’ve learned from life as a Christian woman/wife/mother with the other women”. I thought they got the wrong number. Uh, I’m not sure I’m the right person for this… I tried to get out of it, but as I prayerfully considered it, I thought there might be something I’ve learned. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I’m currently learning this lesson: How Not to Do It All.  Since giving the talk a couple of weeks ago, I’ve thought of all sorts of edits to make and ways to say it better, but I’m in the thick of getting ready to pack my life in the US up into 4 suitcases, so it’ll just have to do as it is. Below is the written version of what I talked about.

So often we think or even ask the question of someone else: “How do you do it all?” It’s a perplexing question, but I think I’ve come up with 3 answers to it:

1. Nobody does.

2. At different times in life, and by working hard.

3. With good planning.

I’ll come back to those things soon, but first I have to deal with the question itself. More often than not when we ask (or think) such questions, it is because we’re looking at Exhibit A’s mothering/cooking/sewing/housekeeping/job/everything skills and feeling like we don’t measure up.  We women are far too good at comparing ourselves to others, and we do it far too frequently. The problem with comparing yourself to someone else is that it seldom turns out well. Most of the time you either:

a) inwardly cower in shame because you think you don’t measure up and you’re left wallowing in a cesspool of misguided guilt, or

b) you feel just a little too pleased with yourself because you’re not struggling like her. At least your kids don’t behave as badly as her kids. Pure unadulterated, stinking pride.

So, why do we have this strange idea that there are real superwomen out there? The kind of woman who has done her Bible study and run a few miles before her kids are even up, who cooks everything from scratch and always has an empty laundry basket, who is nicely groomed and is always entertaining visitors, whose children love her and obey her and never embarrass her in public… the list goes on. (In that vein, here’s a funny poem I read recently. It’s written in a Mormon context, so some of the references are a bit foreign, but I definitely think that on the whole this is something many Christian women can identify with.)

To come back to my answer to that strange, strange question: “How do you do it all?”:

First off, no woman “does it all”, and if she’s making it look that way, she’s either faking it or has some serious help.

Maybe we have this idea in our heads that such a thing is possible because we take all the great qualities we know of all the women we know and think we should channel all those qualities. Or perhaps it’s the Perfect Proverbs 31 Woman who makes us look at ourselves and cringe. (I’ll talk more about that Proverbs 31 Woman soon.) Or maybe we are concerned with this because at some root level we are desperate that our lives here on earth be meaningful and not wasted, and for our lives not to be wasted we have to do everything and do it well? Or maybe it has subtly become a great big idol taking over your life.

Here’s a little exercise: think of someone you actually know (not someone you only know through her writing) and of one or two qualities you really admire about her. Let’s say, for example, that you think she’s a really good cook, because the one time you’ve eaten at her house the food was fantastic. Now you have this idea in your head that this is the way she always cooks for her family and that eggs on toast for dinner or a hot dog slapped in a bun with some ketchup and mustard hastily squeezed on would never appear on the menu at her house. Guess what — 5 o’clock melt-downs quite likely happen at her house too. You’re not the only mother in the world who has served a hasty dinner on occasion that had no vegetables in sight. Now, if this happens frequently, you have some work to do, but don’t beat yourself up and compare your hot dog meal with that woman’s 3-course special meal that she planned 3 weeks in advance.

To be realistic, there are some things that you’ll do more naturally and some things need to work at a fair bit. But do just that — work at it, don’t mope because you can’t do it the first time you try.

Some women love to knit and crochet. Yes, this is a great thing, but it’s not for me. I’ve tried. I’ll probably keep trying when I have some more time, but that time is not now. I once tried making a quilt. It looked like an 8-year-old made it, but Marica still loved it. I think quilting is something I’d enjoy when life has mellowed me a bit and I have a bit more patience. :-) I love to cook and I love to spend time with people, so our family puts a lot of emphasis on hospitality. Just because you aren’t a good cook isn’t a good reason not to be hospitable, but don’t feel like you have to put on a feast.

In other words, look at yourself realistically, and know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Look at your situation in life realistically and decide where you should spend your time and energy. Pray about it, and get your husband’s useful input — men can sometimes see these things more clearly.

Secondly,

As you go through life, your workload will have some ebb and flow. You’ll always have work to do in, around and outside your home. Do it cheerfully and well.  The work you do when your kids are little is going to look different from the work you do when they are teenagers, or when your nest is empty (that day looks unimaginably far away to me, but people keep telling me it comes quickly!). Life brings different chapters, and in each chapter of life you’ll have different challenges and different things you are really on top of. Be realistic — know what chapter of life you and your family are in at the moment and think about what your main priorities are. Focus on doing those well, and anything extra is a bonus. If you’re saying yes to being on committees at church or your kids’ school because you think you’re supposed to, but it frazzles you out and it means you snap at your kids and you don’t get your laundry done, then scrap it.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself constantly busy, and working hard. This is a good thing. You should work hard, but your workload should be manageable.

Have you got a house full of little ones? Then know that your time and energies are needed and wanted at home, and that all you’re pouring into them is so, so valuable. You don’t need some sort of ministry or special calling outside the home — your ministry and calling is right there in the high chair and it has squishy cheeks and needs a clean diaper. When you’re out of this busy phase of having little ones, you might look into working part-time, or volunteering somewhere or joining committee X.

If you have a look at the Proverbs 31 woman, you’ll notice that she works very, very hard. Yet it would seem impossible for one woman to take care of her household and still do all those things, even with servants. People have suggested that she’s an ‘idealized’ woman, making up good qualities from many different women. Or it could be that she does all those things, but at different times in her life. While it is very valuable to look at what she does and try to do the same, perhaps you’re not the kind of person who’s going to start making stuff out of flax. I think it’s more valuable to look at how she works: she works with eager hands, she does it vigorously. She’s described always doing: she gets up, she considers, she makes, she speaks, she watches. Use your time wisely, and work hard, be a blessing to your husband and children; all to the glory of God.

My kids know that they should obey straight away, all the way, and with a happy heart. Think of yourself in relation to the work you need to get done in the same way. If you don’t have a good work ethic, read good books to help you cultivate it, or talk to someone who can help, encourage and even mentor you on that front.

Thirdly, plan! I just mentioned using your time wisely –you can not expect to be very productive if you spend a few hours every day checking out Pinterest, Facebook, the news, twitter, or even really valuable blogs and articles out there. Spend not only quality time with your children, but quantity time. Your kids are more important than “getting things done”. (Boy am I preaching to myself here!) If you have thought about what your priorities are, then how you spend your time should reflect this. Now, life happens and if you don’t actively plan for your priorities to happen, they might well fall by the wayside because let’s face it, when you’re tired it’s easy to slip in to time-waste mode, and mothers are often tired!

Here are some things I find helpful:

Plan to read the Bible and pray. You might do this while nursing the baby, or if things are desperate, lock yourself in the bathroom for 5 minutes. Take time to look around you and be thankful for where God has chosen to place you. If you’re in the thick of mothering, you might not be at a stage in life where you’re spending an hour on Bible study every day, and that’s fine. But don’t let it slip completely.

Do not neglect your relationship with your husband. Fiercely guard your time together to talk and reconnect. Plan to have date nights regularly, even if you have to make them in-house date nights where you put the kids to bed and then order in some take-out just for the two of you.

Plan to sleep. If getting to bed at a decent hour is not a priority that you fight for, then chances are you won’t get to bed at a decent hour! I find that I function badly without sleep and am a lot more prone to sinning when I’m tired, so I need lots of sleep, sometimes even an afternoon nap.

Plan to carve out time for things that rejuvenate you as well — little pockets of precious time of figuratively (and sometimes literally!) taking a deep, cleansing breath to get you ready to jump back in with a happy heart. Exercise. Sing. Skip down the road with your kids, or splash in the puddles with them. I try to meet up with a couple of good friends at The Chocolate Room (a dessert place where everything’s chocolate) about once a month. We talk our heads off and come out feeling heavy in the stomach and light in the heart.

Use a diary! Anyone who can operate without a wall planner and/or diary is either amazing or highly disorganised. A diary is your friend. Plan things out, even housekeeping chores that should happen on a weekly basis (though it’s a good idea to plan for more thorough cleans every few months too). If you’re really in the thick of life, then writing down things like ‘sweep the floor’ and ‘clean the bathroom’ every week in your diary is a totally acceptable. Recently it took me an entire morning to strip and remake the 3 beds in our house, because I was being interrupted the whole time with little people and little problems, many of which involved bodily fluids. This is normal if you’re in the stage of life where you’re living with little ones, though there are days it can feel discouraging to get to the end of your day and wonder what on earth you did all day — you know you were busy the whole time, but what were some actual things you did? If you can then go to your to-do list and tick off ‘fold laundry’ and ‘read to kids’, there is a sense of satisfaction, as silly as it seems.

Plan your weekly menu, and shop accordingly. Not only will it save you time and money, it’s good for your sanity because you don’t have to get to 5 o’clock and wonder what on earth you’ll feed people tonight.

Read literature that will challenge you, but also encourage you. Read books that will help you and encourage you in your marriage, in mothering, or other areas of life. Read some fun fiction too in between or about other things you’re interested in!  I’m not in a stage of life where hours of sweet quiet reading time is available to me, so I’ve taken to reading short stories, or books with short sections that I can read just a little bit at a time.

I could go on, but you get the idea. To wrap things up, remember that God created you with your own unique set of talents and abilities and situation in life, so don’t try to compare yourself to other women. Work hard at things that are a priority in your life, plan your time and use it wisely, and work cheerfully.

Some helpful articles, if you want to read more on the topic that people much wiser than me have written:

Preschoolers and Peace: Drowning in Home Management Part One and Part Two. (And plenty of other articles on that blog.)

Femina (you should just read the whole thing, and everything in the archives (I’m not kidding), but here are a few recent ones that I found very helpful): The Littleness of Motherhood, Domestic Kindness, You make me feel so guilty!, and False Comfort.

Clover Lane: I don’t know how she does it all.

The Power of Moms: Your children want YOU!

Night

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Ps 43:5

That’s what this sculpture by Aristide Maillol brought to mind when I saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The artist did an amazing job — it was as if everything about her just felt so sad.

But there is always hope.

The rest of Psalm 43:5 says “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

The night I met Daniel

I don’t usually share particularly personal experiences here on the blog, but this is a bit of an exception as I thought some of you might find it strangely encouraging too.

In the last few weeks, I have had a profound sense of the weight and enormity of my sin and selfishness. I have grown to hate it more, and I felt so incredibly bound and weighed down by it, so bogged down by it that my days seemed almost like a thick cloud that I had to fight my way through. Yes, I knew that my sins were forgiven, I knew that I didn’t have to carry this load by myself, but for some reason I felt like I was trapped in the same sins every day.

What it comes down to is that I was finding it particularly difficult to die to self. My whole world seemed to revolve around “I”s: I don’t want to, I want to, I think this, I don’t like… It was ugly, and I didn’t want to let it go. In some weird way, it was like I was grieving for the putting off of the old self, longingly looking back at my selfish little cocoon like Lot’s wife. As if putting on the new self was somehow going to short-change me.

Anyway, one Monday recently, I was struggling with all this and my head and heart felt like it was going to explode. When Ben came home and I left for my first choir practice of the new academic year, I was glad for the half hour walk in the cool evening air. Getting out alone in the fresh air, getting some exercise, and “talking God’s ear off” felt good. I pleaded with Him to lift this burden.

My mind felt cleared and lighter, but my heart was still heavy by the time I got to choir. And then I got my music. What a delight! We’re singing Purcell’s Hear my Prayer Oh Lord, Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, and Vivaldi’s Gloria. (The links take you to online recordings, though the Vivaldi is too fast!) Could I have asked for any better music?

We were only in the beginning stages of learning, but it was already sounding pretty good. Then we turned to the lyrics of Jesu Meine Freude, with the translation printed alongside, and I fought back the tears — if I were a better writer, I could have written those lyrics myself.

O Jesus, my joy,
My heart’s pasture,
Jesus, my adornment,
Oh how long, how long
Has my heart been anxious
And longed for you.
Lamb of God, my bridegroom,
On earth never will there be
Anything dearer to me than you.

Now there is no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus,
who walk not according to the flesh,
but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1)

Beneath your shelter
I am free from the storms
Of all foes.
Let Satan storm,
Let the Foe rage,
Jesus stands by me.
Though thunder crack as lightning flashes
Though sin and hell spread terror,
Jesus will shelter me.

For the law of the Spirit
which gives life in Christ Jesus
has set me free from the law
of sin and death. (Rom 8:2)

I defy the old Dragon!
I defy the jaws of Death!
I defy fear as well!
Rage, world, and spring to attack:
Here I stand and sing
In securest repose.
God’s might watches out for me.
Earth and Abyss must fall silent,
However much they keep growling.

But you live not by the flesh
but by the Spirit,
if indeed God’s Spirit dwells in you.
But anyone who does not have
the Spirit of Christ
does not belong to him. (Rom 8:9)

Away with all treasures!
You are my delight,
Jesus, my pleasure!
Away, you empty honors,
I won’t to listen to you.
Remain unknown to me!
Misery, adversity, cross,
Disgrace, and death
Will not, however much I suffer,
Separate me from Jesus.

But if Christ is in you,
the body is indeed dead
for the sake of sin;
but the Spirit is life
for the sake of justification. (Rom 8:10)

Good night,
O ways of the world —
You do not please me.
Good night, sins,
Stay way back,
Come no more into the light.
Good night, pomp and pride!
Once and for all, you life of iniquity,
I bid you good night!

If now the Spirit of him
who raised Jesus
from the dead
dwells in you, then the same one
who raised Christ
from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies
because his Spirit
life in you. (Rom 8:11)

Yield, mournful spirits,
For my master of joy,
Jesus, steps in.
To those who love God,
Even their afflictions
Must be pure joy.
Though here I endure scorn and ridicule,
Still, even in suffering, you, Jesus,
Remain my joy.*

I read those lyrics when I could during rehearsal, I read them at the bus stop, I read them on the bus on the way home, and when I got off that bus, my heart felt light again. And so incredibly thankful. I walked home quickly so I could tell Ben.

But God wasn’t done with me yet.

On our block just before turning the corner onto our street I saw the homeless black man who hangs around this area. He has no legs and is in a wheelchair. Most of the time I see him, he is stoned. As I walked past him, I smiled at him, and perhaps taking my smile as a good sign, he started to ask me something. I instantly started declining, but then stopped. I said, “Look, I’ll buy you food, but I’m not giving you money.”

He seemed elated despite his lethargic half-stoned state. “Thank God,” I heard him mutter. So we walked to the Chinese take-out shop and I asked him what he wanted. “Half chicken with fries and ketchup and barbecue sauce all over.” I couldn’t help but smile. I ordered his food and waited for what seemed like an eternity. I’d look out the window at him periodically — sometimes he swayed and rocked, other times he looked like he had gone to sleep, doubled up in his wheelchair. I wondered if he was cold.

While I waited, I thought of what I should say to him. I am no Jesus or Peter who can tell him to get up and walk, however much I might want to. But I wanted to leave him with hope and not just some fried chicken.

When the food was finally finished, I went outside and asked, “What is your name?” He mumbled something back. “Pardon?” This time he spoke more clearly, despite the gaps where he was missing teeth. “Daniel,” he said. I leaned forward as I handed him the food and said, “Daniel, I can only feed you for one meal, but Jesus can feed your soul.” I felt trite saying that, and added a “God bless you” as I straightened and got ready to leave.

But then, before I could go, he straightened too, sitting up in his wheelchair, and with unexpected confidence looked me straight in the eyes and with rasping voice spoke up. Without any hesitation he said, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans eight, thirty-eight and thirty-nine.”

I blinked away the tears enough to whisper a “Yes!” and a quick “God bless you,” and then turned and walked home, tears streaming unashamedly down my face. Crying because, once again, God had humbled and blessed me. I thought I was doing the blessing, and God turned it all upside down and let a dirty half-stoned homeless man with no legs minister to me, the nice clean sober Christian girl, convicting me by quoting to me the Scripture I needed to hear. A piece of Scripture I should have memorised, but don’t. A piece of Scripture I know, but often live as if I don’t believe it.

That was the night I met Daniel.

* Translation of Jesu Meine Freude copyright San Francisco Bach Choir. Used with permission.

Ten years on

This week, and especially today, New Yorkers remember the day on which Muslim terrorists hijacked planes and flew into the World Trade Center towers, killing almost 3000 civilians. I’m not going to delve into the politics and debates surrounding it, but rather give you my perspective on what it’s like living here at a time like this.

For the most part, life goes on and you don’t notice anything drastic. But then you stop and think, and you realise that the helicopters have been noisier than usual as they patrol the sky. You see in the news that there have been some new threats, but you try to brush them off, because we can’t live in constant fear — that’s exactly what those people want.

You walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and see the progress of the new One World Trade Center building, and wonder if the two cranes on top are symbolic in the way they are raised.

(Wow, looking at this photo, you can tell that our banner above is quite out of date by now!)

You walk on Wall Street and you see guys with big guns.

You take the Staten Island Ferry and you notice that the boat is being escorted by the coast guard.

You walk near Ground Zero and you see the many tributes from people who pledge “We will not forget.”

You see news crews, local and foreign. (Though this was probably some sort of financial news seeing that it was on Wall Street.)

This French reporter was definitely doing a thing on 9/11, though.

You see the Tribute in Light.

For the most part, we have avoided Ground Zero because of the crowds this weekend, except for walking past Saint Paul’s on Friday and going to church today. Church is about 5 blocks from Ground Zero, so we’ve been keeping up with the progress of the tower since we came to New York. Ben, Margaret and Marica are at church today, I’m home with a tummy-sick Esther. When Ben’s home, I’ll let him write a bit below about what he saw.

We wandered near to Ground Zero after church. There were tons of people, and cops and other uniformed people were everywhere (firemen, police from Canada, etc). They’d closed off the area right near the site of the towers for a memorial ceremony for the families of the victims. Apparently the memorial will be open to the general public starting tomorrow.

It seems that it helps people cope telling their stories. There are so many stories, but if you’re interested, here are a few:

Some people’s retelling of what life was like shortly after the attacks.

The theme of people’s last words.

The pilot who should have been flying flight 11 tells his moving story.

The story of a volunteer.

A New York Times map of where people were and how they felt.

This is all cause for thought. It is good to remember, but it is also good to forgive, and move on. It’s good to learn from these things and to remember that God is ultimately in control. It’s a reminder that we are like the flowers of the field — here today, gone tomorrow — and that we should live meaningful lives, lives that make a positive difference to others, lives that shine the love of Jesus. Remember to love.