Monthly Archives: February 2010

Let’s talk hospitality.

Friends, I know you’re out there. At least, I hope you’re out there. I was thinking today might be a good chance for us to get to know each other a bit since we’re just starting out together.

Also, I’m really interested in your opinion. Hospitality has been a word on my mind a lot lately. As I’m reading up on the Benedictines, I’m learning that the most obvious distinction between them and other monastic orders, is their emphasis on hospitality as a way of life.  Benedict is clear in his Rule that no one who arrives as a guest is ever to be turned away, but is to be accepted as Christ (RB, Chapter 53).

This has led me to begin thinking that stay at home moms have an opportunity to value and practice hospitality in our lives in a radical way. And no, I don’t just mean that we need to be Betty Crocker, hosting the ladies of the Junior League. In fact, “hosting” is not what I’m referring to at all. If any one fails on the Betty Crocker-ometer, it’s me.

My friend Lia recently introduced me to a book by Henri Nouwen called Lifesigns. I’m only one chapter in, but so far Nouwen is talking about hospitality as the act of creating “home,” which he defines as a space where a person is welcomed and where that person is free to be his or herself, without fear. Obviously that space is not necessarily physical, not necessarily our kitchen. What I’m struggling with is how to see our lives, our world, as a home to invite people into. To offer those around us a sense of being “welcomed” wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. To see the value in the people we pass on the street or shop beside in the grocery store.

Honestly, I don’t really know what that means in my life. There are the general struggles I have about hospitality: On the streets near my home we pass plenty of strangers who are hungry but also clinically insane. As a mother, how do I care for and protect August, not risking his safety, but also work to “welcome” those in need around me? What does it mean to offer hospitality to my next-door neighbor who avoids eye contact at all costs? What does hospitality mean when the weather keeps me stuck inside all day with my son and we don’t interact with anyone?

Here’s where you come in. I’d really like to know what you think about hospitality. Is it something you think about, something you have any insight on? What are your questions? What are your convictions?  Please teach me, mamas!


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“I will watch for you before dawn, that I may see your strength, O Lord.”

This is among today’s prayers in The Benedictine Handbook, a prayer specifically for the Lenten season. And a prayer that’s very “Benedictine,” since the monks are always watching for God before dawn. Benedict set down his Rule for the monastic order in the 6th century, he called for a prayer time, ahhh, you know, halfway through their night of sleep (midnight, to be exact…the 6th century occurred before any studies on the importance of the REM cycle). Thankfully for modern day monks, Benedict was pretty flexible about when services should take place so, for the most part, morning Vigils occur around 5:30 or 6 am these days. So, unless you’re superhuman like my mother, who has been rising at 5 every morning for the past 30 years (in order to accomplish what it takes me half a day to do before she gets to work), 5:30 or 6 is still pretty early for a daily prayer time.

In my attempt to “follow” Benedict’s Rule as a stay at home mom that means I’m attempting to wake at 6. This morning it was 6:15 after a week of hearing my alarm at 6:05 and sleeping until 6:30. (I have a problem.)

And, you see, I can’t stay in bed all cozy and snuggled up to my hunk of a husband, without hearing my new friend Benedict in my head, pleading in all earnestness: “All should be prepared to rise immediately without any delay as soon as the signal to get up is given; then they should hurry to see who can get first to the oratory for the work of God” (RB, Chapter 22).

Benedict is a really sweet guy. And he’s so sure that I can actually rise without delay. I’ve committed myself to applying his monk rules to my life for one year and I’m kind of annoyed that this is the advice that’s hardest for me to follow. So, last night, I did what monks since the sixth century have been doing: I set the alarm on my phone in addition to the one playing music near my head and I placed that phone across the room.

Last night, while brushing our teeth and discussing my new two-alarm strategy, my husband said, “I need your help.” He said this a little gurgly through a barrier of toothpaste foam, but I understood him. “At 6:30, will you turn on the light, come over to my side of the bed, pull the covers off me and force me to sit up?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what Benedict says the younger brothers should do for the seniors in the morning!” I confess I pointed and shook my toothbrush at him while making this exclamation. I’m thankful that at this point, a few months into my new monk habits, my husband is not completely freaked out by my small Benedictine obsession.

Benedict doesn’t exactly say that a brother should pull the covers off his still snoozing elder. Technically he’s hoping said brother will “quietly give encouragement.” And, technically, Chris is not my elder. I’m proud to be a grade smarter than the man. But the quiet encouragement thing is something I could learn. Usually, I’m sitting across the room drinking coffee, barking, “Are you still not up yet?” every five minutes.

So, here I am, one hour later, having made it through two cups of espresso (are monks allowed strong coffee during vigils?), celebrating the fact that it’s 7:19 and my son has not woken up yet and thankful that my new discipline is allowing me time to participate in what Benedict calls “the work of God,” because, let’s face it, prayer is work. It’s hard to sit alone and set your mind on Christ. It’s difficult to let the first words out your mouth be: “O Lord open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”

So, I’m writing on my couch, still robed in my pjs, thankful for the chance to watch for God before dawn. Thankful that I’m entering this day having been reminded that God’s strength is worth looking for.


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Post Mom’s Group Confession

I’m usually annoyed by people who confess their “sin of pride.” I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but I have rarely encountered what I felt was an earnest confession from someone dealing with pride. Maybe it’s because I’ve been around angst-ridden college students for the past decade in a lot of large group Bible studies. So it seems to me that pride is the sin you admit to “struggling with” when you have to share your sins with a group. Here’s why:

  1. You sound like you’re doing so well at morality. When people hear that your current struggle is “pride,” they immediately believe that you’ve got the sex thing under control, that the alcohol/party thing is no issue, that greed has nothing on you. Yep, it’s just pride in your heart. That means you’re one step away from holiness!
  2. It’s so emo. You can tear yourself apart for thoughts you have! You can let people know there’s sin in you that they can’t see! You’re so deep.
  3. It’s an easy sin to admit to and not have to deal with.

Why do I feel this way about pride confessors? Because I am one. Or I was one before vowing that I wouldn’t be one anymore. Then of course I became prideful about how I am always annoyed by confessions of pride.

So confusing.

What I’m trying to say is this: Pride is a monster who lives in my brain. He takes over all my most genuine moments and tells me I’m the coolest person in the room. And because the monster lives in me, I can never really talk about him with complete purity. No matter what, there are always motives underneath my most meaningful confessions. I do want you to think I’m deep. I do want you to think he’s the only monster, when in fact, he’s just the one who shows up most often.

This morning in Mom’s Group when a woman brought up Lent and asked us about our current Lenten practices and I jumped in like I own the whole “contemplative” world and yakked about the Examination of Conscience and how I love the liturgical calendar, I wish I had spoken of those things in sincerity, with kindness, without showing how vain I am–even when it comes to prayer. I didn’t. There’s a fine line between genuine excitement over an idea and egotism. It feels like I walk in an out of that line all day long.

So, driving home from Mom’s Group with August in the back seat, in between singing his favorite song (with the motions) in my usual Wednesday attempt to keep him from falling asleep in the car before lunch, I had that sudden moment of clarity, that feeling of yuck. I saw myself as I really am. I saw the monster winning.

Friends, I think this blog is going to be a really great thing. But I’m just putting this out there: I’m vain. And if you read it and hear the monster yakking, I hope you’ll give me grace.

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Thank you, Elizabeth Bishop.

So, I’ve been memorizing Elizabeth Bishop’s Sonnet. And I hope that there’s possibly someone out there in the virtual world who’s memorizing it with me. (I salute you, fellow memorizer!) I’ve been surprised how it really doesn’t hurt that bad to stick words in your brain. It’s been a long time since I purposefully set words down in an order in my mind and it may be the first time I’ve done it when it wasn’t a competition (Bible Drill!) or worthy of a sticker (Sunday School) or simply, a requirement (grad school).

The words to the poem are written out and taped onto the window in front of the kitchen sink where my gloved hands are usually wrist deep. The only view from my sink is the blue paneled building next to mine. So Elizabeth’s voice has been a new friend.

My biggest help has been the 20 month old eating granola and yogurt in the high chair 10 feet away. I’ve been surprised how much he likes the process of my repeating words over and over. I want August to be exposed to poetry and so far he has not been interested in the books I have for him. I’m a fan of nursery rhymes and he’s okay with them, though he doesn’t like it when Humpty falls off the wall (August, buddy, we understand). Otherwise, the children’s poetry books I have are not interesting to him. I usually start them and  halfway through the poem, he’s saying “no no no no no no,” bored. For the most part I agree.

But, with this poem, he’s interested. He hears the words I’m saying, he nods his head to the rhythm. And he waits for the words he knows. “Water!” he yells after I’ve recited it.

When I say, “August, what’s the next line?” He scrunches his eyes into thinking posture, says, “hmmmmm.” He smiles when I remember.

I believe that good poetry is important, that we are predisposed to be drawn into rhythm and depth and original language, simply because those things are beautiful and God created us to recognize beauty. Our culture has, for the most part, abandoned poetry and found music to be a close enough cousin to meet that need. But even the most lyrical song is still doing something different than poetry is doing. It seems like August, in his blissful baby ignorance, can tell the difference.

I assure you that August is not a baby poetic genius. I think he loves it for the same reason he loves to be sung to sleep. It’s in his God-designed nature. This past weekend at a retreat with our church, Chris and I shared a room with August, who refused to cooperate with the whole sleeping thing. It’s really inevitable, taking your toddler for two days to a strange room shared with his mom and dad is never a recipe for happy sleep habits. So, sometime around 4 o’clock Sunday morning, I found myself having outworn every lullaby I know, and that tired boy could not be consoled.

Then I heard myself quoting Elizabeth Bishop, the words collapsing out of my mouth from my mid-night mush brain. After an hour of begging him to go to sleep, it was her words, spoken, that did it.

So, Ms Bishop, thank you for describing the pool as “moon-green” because I love that image and because August loves the word, “moon.” And thank you for ending the poem with sleep. Because, after all, that is exactly what most of us need.


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Lent and the Donkey

I’m an old lady about my dark chocolate. I eat the same kind every night at the same time.

My husband has tried in the past few years to give me special dark chocolate treats, stopping by the chocolate boutique for a few three dollar pieces as a romantic surprise, in search of the most holy of the chocolate tastes. And every one of those chocolates I have savored, I promise. But, I’m being honest here, I can’t get over Trader Joe’s Organic Super Dark chocolate bars (the purple wrapper!). Nothing is as good to me. Look, I appreciate dessert, but I’ve spent most of my life not needing it. Before I found dark chocolate (and in my single days, of course),  I was a girl who only bought ice cream when boys rejected my flirtation.

I changed. For the past three years, since discovering the joy of that purple wrapper, I’ve followed the same dessert routine every night at nine o’clock. I walk in my sweats to the kitchen, hear the click click click of the gas stove against my tea pot. And wait for what is always the same delicious treat: a cup of Decaf Irish Breakfast tea with milk and two squares of my favorite dark chocolate. Once I discovered my passionate love for the dc, there was no reason to go back. I will happily eat this dessert every night for the rest of my life.

This is why I’ve chosen to give up my beloved dark chocolate for Lent. I don’t really need to give up “sweets” for Lent. Sweets have never really mattered to me. What matters is the chocolate, friends. And I’m realizing how very much that chocolate matters.

What I love about Lent is that makes me really consider why I feel I need things in my life. It makes me question if I think I somehow deserve the extra lovlies I experience every day. I’ll be the first proponent of enjoying the beautiful things God has given us, especially when it comes to taste. God made me an eater. I love all food, the weirder the better: the stinkiest cheese, the slimiest raw sea thing, the savoriest meat. I love wine because when it’s relished it’s a drink that makes everything taste even more beautiful. And I love how God is part of that. I love the joy of fellowship around a table with friends. I love the sweetness of appreciating something God has provided and the purity of that sort of worship. But I’m taking away the chocolate for 40 days because I’m learning that when I think I need something that to most of the world is a rare and novel treat, I am believing in the allusion of our culture, that somehow it can satisfy me. I’m believing that if I just have more and more of something that God made good, that I will feel secure, complete. It never works.

We just came back from a fantastic retreat with our new church, where we heard from Dr. Mark Labberton, a thinker, theologian, and former pastor of First Presbyterian in Berkeley. His teaching was powerful and challenging. And I can’t stop thinking about a story he told about his son when he was four years old. They’d been reading a children’s storybook together about Palm Sunday, where Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. After finishing the story, his son sat thinking for a while, stroking the felt picture on the front cover of Jesus and the donkey. His son said: “I know where Jesus lives.”

Labberton said, “Where does he live?”

“In my heart,” his son said.

“That’s wonderful, buddy,” Labberton said. “I’m so happy you know that Jesus lives in your heart.”

His little boy still sat deep in thought for a while. “But Dad,” he said, “where does the donkey live?”

“Buddy, the donkey lives in your heart too. That’s the problem.”

Of course the donkey lives in us too. Sometimes the donkey is pretty tame and Jesus is the one in charge. Sometimes the donkey takes over. Sometimes it’s all donkey.

I’m giving up dark chocolate for Lent, and in it’s place at night practicing a Review of Conscience as a spiritual discipline. I’m not doing it because chocolate is sinful or because chocolate is the donkey. I’m doing it because our culture makes it so easy to feed the donkey part of me by providing every easy thing. Sometimes, I can’t see the donkey because I have everything I could ever want. Evenings without my chocolate for this season is a rare chance to notice how much of my life is actually ruled by the donkey and not the one I call Master.

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Ash Wednesday

Keep the reality of death always before your eyes… -The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 4

I love Ash Wednesday, mostly because I love the symbolic. On this night, a pastor wipes my forehead in the mark of the cross, and in that physical touch, that dirt spread, I can, at once, feel the depth my own ruin and still believe that I have been pulled out. In the midst of the ashes reminding me that I am from dust, and to dust I will return, I can, implausibly, believe that I have been reclaimed, restored, made again.

In this one mark on my head lies the reality of my brokenness and the profound goodness of what Christ has done for me in his sacrifice: the shape of the thumb brought down mid forehead, then dragged across. The cross is where I am found as I was really meant to be.

Tonight, as I sang hymns of my own sin, my own love and need for Jesus, my mind stretched back into the memory of my child’s baptism. I replayed our pastor’s voice: “August, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I watched the memory of his hand marking my boy’s head in the same shape that sits on mine tonight.

I’m fascinated by Benedict’s charge to his monastic order that in the dailyness of serving God, we are to remember that our own death is coming, that it could be today. That’s what I kept dwelling on tonight, ashes on my face, in my seat while the congregation snaked forward for their own ashes. My husband was working in Atlanta tonight. My son was downstairs with his nursery buddies. I was alone in a church I hardly know, among people who are as new to me as this city.

What does it mean, I thought, to know that I am ashes, to hold death up to my face each day like I would a mirror?

I didn’t walk away from the service tonight with an answer, only a sense that there is some jewel in that, some strength or humility or power waiting for me in that question. Perhaps every time I walk into the bathroom—before I cringe at the age lines suddenly appearing under my eyes, before I check my face for remnants of August’s cottage cheese, or reapply lip gloss—perhaps I could see that cross formed of ashes, a reminder that I am dying, maybe slowly, maybe quickly. A reminder that I am being remade by Christ, moment by moment, into the woman God has always intended that I be.

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Peace and Amen

It’s not a new thing that kids like to say “Amen.” Churched babies since the origin of the Church have probably been yelling “Amen!” excitedly whenever their families sat down to eat. It’s a word that feels good on the tongue, which is really all that matters for the 1 ½ year old who is all about the business of ordering sounds into meaning.

So, I’m not surprised that our sweet son yells “Amen!” whenever he sees some steaming tomato soup or roasted chicken or bean burritos floating effortlessly toward his high chair. Really, “Amen” is great way to express joy. And it makes a lot of sense to say, “let it be so!” when you see roasted chicken, right? I just can’t get over it lately, as if there’s some secret spiritual truth waiting for me in his uninhibited bliss.

I’ve started reading The Sacrament of the Present Moment, a short book written by a French Jesuit in the 18th century named Jean-Pierre De Caussade. It’s a book I’ve discovered on my so-far short journey into monastic motherhood and in my quest for recognizing and worshipping God in the ordinariness that is my life.

De Caussade’s basic premise is that no moment is insignificant; no moment is more holy than another. He believes that Christ is coming to us in a fresh way every moment, every day. He believes we can be freed from our separate views of the secular and the sacred, because Christ is alive in all of it.

“Precious moment,” De Caussade says, “how small in the eyes of my head and how great in those of my heart, the means whereby I receive small things from the Father who reigns in heaven! Everything that falls from there is very excellent, everything bears the mark of its maker.”

And so, as August lies in his bed at naptime, dried tomato soup on his sleeves and sand from the park still hiding out in his cuffed pants, I pray with him, and, as usual, make the mark of the cross on his forehead, repeat the blessing from Deuteronomy that my mother taught me: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

And before “peace” falls from my lips, I pause a moment, in time for August to shout “peace!” with me. Man, I think, as I wind the mobile to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and leave him awake but cozy in his crib, if I could holler “Peace!” as my last word before sleep, and mean it.


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