From this point on, I’ll only be updating the blog over there.
Thanks and Love,
You might be shocked to hear that Thankful Tuesday did not begin as a somewhat piously disguised platform through which to list my kids’ accomplishments. (“Brooksie loves to sign ‘Thank you!’ August understands the theory of gravity!” *Insert eye-roll here.* Though, yeah, it’s a good way to talk about them and I can’t seem to stop, can I?) Also, Thankful Tuesday didn’t begin simply because it is cool to be grateful in the Christian women blogging community. (And, by the way, I’m totally okay with gratitude’s trendiness.)
Thankful Tuesday actually began in January of 1998 in the Behren’s Dormitory second floor (I lived on the second floor, I think?) hallway at my sweet little Baptist college. There, I met with Jamie and Michele every morning at 7 am for prayer. We made a plan. Every day except for Tuesdays we would pray through lists of requests or whatever (seriously, we probably said “or whatever”) but on Tuesdays we would only be Thankful! Why, you might be thinking did we choose Tuesdays for this task? Why not choose Thursdays and have some alliteration up in here? Because, friends, we were much too ironic for that, even as earnest 18-year-olds. Choosing Tuesday over Thursday made us laugh. So we chose Tuesday and I think God was really happy about that as well. We also decided it would be super funny and awesome of us to wish people a “Happy Thankful Tuesday!” every where we went on Tuesdays and insist that our friends tell us why they were thankful.
It’s Mother’s Day morning and last night was one of those up and down kinds of sleeps. Chris and I are at the stage where we go to bed in the unknowing: will the boys sleep all night? Will they wake four times? Last night August had to pee, then he couldn’t go back to sleep. Then he still couldn’t go back to sleep. And, then he really couldn’t go back to sleep. Each trip to his room, I found myself accidentally kicking my leg against something: a laundry basket, a couch.
By 5:45 when Brooksie was crying, I was so fuzzy and frantic (my usually style of mid-night waking) that I literally ran into the doorframe in our room. I slammed my cheekbone loud enough that Chris jumped up and I moaned and fell back on the bed. (He went to check on Brooksie.)
So, sleeping in on Mother’s Day morning is not only called for, it’s fitting. I’m sort of a mess this morning, what with my bruised cheekbone and puffy eyes (I accidentally got cucumber juice in them while cooking Friday night and they don’t take kindly to cucumbers. Remind me to tell you a great story about that sometime.)
I’ve been reading in bed with coffee by my side, brought to me by Christopher in my favorite bright red mug. And my boys are in and out. Brooksie loves to waddle in and gaze flirtatious and mischievous at me. He raises his eyebrows, makes a serious face, then smiles and almost laughs and waddles away. So far during my reading time, he has come in to find a waded up receipt (which he played with for five minutes, carrying it back and forth from my room to the kitchen), a green pen (from which he couldn’t remove the cap, thankfully. He used it to “comb” Ezra the Super Cat, who will take any form of attention he can get, even when it involves a green pen in the hands of a one-year-old.). Now, Brooksie is back in the room bare-handed. He walks to the side table, shakes the lamp a few times while I remind him how that’s not a good idea. And then he’s pinching his pointer and thumb together and touching the table. He’s amazed with this development, that his fingers can gather and make a cone of sorts, that he can push them against the table and experience some sort of finger-sensation. He looks at me and smiles. Then he opens his hand and looks inside at his palm. He does some assessments. He’s happy with what he sees. His palm is good, he decides. Then he’s out of the room again. Off to something new.
Soon, Chris calls me to the kitchen where my favorite meals is being served: Eggs Benedict (and I promise my love for the creamy sauce has nothing to do with my love for the saint). Chris makes it for me every Mother’s Day, every birthday. Homemade hollandaise stirred perfectly over boiling water. Today, though, the lemon is moldy and there is nothing Chris can do to replace it. The sauce doesn’t congeal and it doesn’t help that August is crying on the couch. (His morning show on Netflix has been buffering for ages.)
So I enter the kitchen in my pjs, hair in a pile on my head, cheek beaten by the doorframe, eyes puffy from the Cucumber Incident. August is crying about the lack of “Busytown Mysteries” and my husband hands me a mimosa, because that’s just the sort of thing he does. And I think how all of it is perfect: the uncongealed hollandaise, the frustrated three-year-old, the baby astounded by his own hands.
We sit at the table to pray and just before we bow our heads, August whispers to Chris across the table: “Should we get Mama’s flowers?”
“Let’s pray first,” my husband says. And they do, thankful for me.
Then they slip away and return with orchids in a vase. August choose them, he says: yellow, my favorite color.
And on the card: A list of questions Chris asked the boys (of course only one of them could answer):
Also this morning, during the lazy coffee drinking in bed, I read words about sweetness in Lauren Winner’s book Still. They’re the words of a twelfth-century Cistercian named Baldwin of Forde. He says:
“Jesus is sweet…He is sweet in prayer, sweet in speech, sweet in reading, sweet in contemplation, sweet in compunction, and in the jubilation of the heart. He is sweet in the mouth, sweet in the heart, sweet in love; he is the love of sweetness and the sweetness of love…Those who have tasted of him grow hungry, and those who are hungry will be satisfied and the sated will cry out the memory of his abundant sweetness.”
And I think: Is there a better word for this moment, this time in my life while these babies learn to be themselves and my husband loves me better and better, while all at once I feel so young and still so rich with age? Sweetness.
Oh, Jesus, we cry at the memory of your abundant sweetness.
This week I started Lauren F. Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. I love Lauren Winner. Girl Meets God was one of the first books that gave me hope that I could write about Jesus and actually be a good writer at the same time. Every time I see her name on an article in Books and Culture, I open to it first. She’s my girl.
That’s why it’s taken me far too long to get my hands on her new book (which was released in January). I finally got my act together and it arrived in the mail this week. Every slow moment since I’ve been giddily sneaking peaks at its pages.
I’ve never read much of W.S. Merwin’s poetry and I don’t know why. I guess I’ve just never yet made my way to his work. But in one of her first chapters, Winner quotes this poem and it gives me goose bumps and is just the poem about gratefulness that I’ve been seeking out for a long time. So, on my next library trip, I’m snatching some Merwin. And today, I’m giving you this little taste of grateful:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Oh. My. That poem. I can’t read it enough. It needs to be framed in every room and framed in my brain. And I want to say it all day long so I don’t forget that sometimes saying thank you is the gift.
Today, because I spent last night exhausted and grumpy–it was one of those loooong days of mothering–I’m reposting what I wrote for Mother’s Day last year. As I reread this post, I was surprised that I had been thinking about earnestness vs “snarky emotionlessness” even then. Happy Mother’s Day to the mamas out there. Eat some chocolate and go to bed early, okay?
* * *
Sunday is Mother’s Day. Chris’ step-mom just sent me a Mother’s Day letter her grandfather had written to his mother from a foxhole in World War I. It was so gentle hearted and earnest. He even told his “Mother dear” that come morning he would “steal out from my little dugout and take some fresh flowers with dew and I’ll wear them all day long and each time these little bells tinkle over my heart they will be chiming my love for you.”
Of course, our culture cringes at earnestness. I’m convinced that our ironic snarky emotionlessness is our greatest fault as a generation. I’m just as guilty as anyone in sarcastic love-showing. I’m much more comfortable telling a friend I love them and then adding in a little snide joke just so the love doesn’t get too uncomfortable.
But, there’s something in a mother’s heart that longs for her grown son, away at war in a foxhole, to pick some flowers (sprinkled with dew if possible) and wear them all day in her honor. Doesn’t that just choke your heart up a little?
A couple of months ago I had a conversation with a friend who was sharing a little about the suicide of a close friend of his. It had been almost a year since his friend had died and he was contemplating calling the man’s mother. My friend said, “Micha, she must have such a feeling of rejection. To lose a child that way, even a grown one–must feel like all you gave was for nothing.”
That caught me off guard. I’d never gone farther in my mind than the immediate suffering of that kind of loss. I’d never considered how a mother might feel as though every thing she had provided for that child (his very life!) was not only unappreciated but rejected.
I looked at my friend and considered the process I was in (still am in) of teaching August to use the potty. I thought of the hours and days spent coaxing and convincing, of cleaning poop out of his underwear, the stories read and told on the potty, the stickers—all for what? To make him a man who can thrive in this world. To grow him up.
Of course, we don’t keep count of what we do for our children. It’s ridiculous and rarely even something we consider (except on really bad days!). But that thought hasn’t left me.
I don’t need my kids to thank me. What I long for is for them to take what I’ve given them and multiply it: I want them to give themselves away in service. I long for them to use the minds I’ve whispered the ABC’s into. I hope the hours we spend pretending will build them into men who create beautiful things. I’m teaching August to be kind to friends, to share, to introduce himself to someone new. My hope is that he’ll love people, hold tight to dear friendships, and forgive with sincerity.
And I hope that the moments I wait for him in the park while he picks and picks and picks flowers, off in some unknown toddler world, will result in the kind of grown son who picks early morning dew coated flowers in my honor on Mother’s Day, wherever he is: foxhole or not.
“It is easy to recognize the bitter spirit of wickedness which creates a barrier to God’s grace and opens the way to the evil of hell. But equally there is a good spirit which frees us from evil ways and brings us closer to God and eternal life. It is this latter spirit that all who follow the monastic way of life should strive to cultivate, spurred on by fervent love. By following this path they try to be first to show respect to one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weaknesses of body or character. They should even be ready to outdo each other in mutual obedience so that no one in the monastery aims at personal advantage but is rather concerned for the good of others. Thus the pure love of one another as of one family should be their ideal. As for God they should have a profound and loving reverence for him. They should love their abbot or abbess with sincere and unassuming affection. They should value nothing whatever above Christ himself and may he bring us all together to eternal life.”
–The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72 (emphasis mine)
“It is easy to recognize the bitter spirit” because it always creates barriers. It creates barriers between me and my kids when I’m too busy to listen, when I’m too impatient to notice their needs. It creates barriers between me and the cashier when I’m too harried, too frustrated, too distracted to recognize that she needs a stranger to simply look her in the eye, recognize her value. It creates barriers between me and my husband because I forget he had a day of demands and excitement and frustration and wasn’t just away frolicking in grown-up land.
Mostly, the bitter spirit creates barriers between me and God because he is always in the work of giving and I am only able to notice when the walls are down between us. If I build up the barrier of bitterness, I can’t see anything. That’s when I miss the joy, that’s when I’m stuck in my own head and forget to notice that the world around me is on fire with goodness.
So, how do I fight the bitter spirit? What is St. Benedict saying to his monks about what it means to “cultivate” the “good spirit” that frees us from evil, that brings us to God? I love the image of cultivating. It’s so simple, so agrarian.
To cultivate, we break up the soil. We prepare our souls for God’s presence. I used to think that in order to prepare myself for God I had to confess every indiscretion I had possibly committed. I used to think there was no room in my messed up soul for God until I had worked hard to remove every fallacy. Then, I realized my sin was much deeper and more complicated than I ever could have understood. My bad motives were all mixed up with the good, my conscience was braided into my guilt. I couldn’t work hard enough to fix myself to make room for God. I needed grace.
So, if making space for God doesn’t mean doing surgery on my own sin, what does it mean? What does it mean to see myself as I really am and let grace work itself out in me?
I think maybe Benedict works backward here. It might be helpful for me to turn this around for us. Think of this as a cycle:
Valuing “nothing whatever above Christ himself” leads to having the “good spirit.” The good spirit leads to the possibility of “outdo[ing] each other in mutual obedience.” That leads patience in tolerating each other’s weaknesses, which leads to fervent love. Fervent love leads to “sincere and unassuming affection” for the one in authority over us. That sincerity and affection is a sign of the good spirit, a sign that Christ is valued above all else. And it goes around and around in a cycle.
Cultivating isn’t just breaking up the ground, making space. It’s offering attention to the plant. It’s weeding out the things that want to take over the ground, bring destruction. It’s removing the pests who plan to eat from the fruit before it’s ready. It’s watering daily, pruning, waiting on the plant to absorb the sun’s good nutrition.
If we are to cultivate the “good spirit” in our lives. We cannot sit idly. We must make space. We must weed. We must battle it out with the pests. We must accept water, wait on the sunshine. All of that cultivation is work; but it is not lifeless striving. There is a difference between working to shape our souls into people who value nothing above Christ and living with great guilt over our failures, beating ourselves up and missing out on the joy of letting the sun soak in and change us.
The way of grace begins with Love. The way of guilt begins with shame.
How do we value nothing above Christ himself? We recognize daily in greater and greater amounts the dearnesss of Christ’s love for us. That love is our motivation to the hard work of weeding out what’s broken within us. That love is the motivation that allows us to tolerate first our own weaknesses and (once we have seen them and know how desperate we are for grace) tolerate the weaknesses of others in our lives. Then we can love fervently. Then we can care for the ones in authority over us. And then the cycle starts again.
We only have one more chapter of Benedict’s Rule to cover next week. For eight months we’ve been working our way through this centuries old manual for communal living and life-giving faith. And I feel like this is the question it comes down to: What are you cultivating? (What are you giving your time to? What are you making space for? What are you loving?)
God is calling us to cultivate: We make space for God through prayer, through intentionally paying attention to God at work around us. We allow God to show us our weaknesses and remove the brokenness from our lives. And we sit under God’s instruction in the scripture, in the mundane, in the community of people we’ve been given. We learn the sweetness of time and patience as God’s work plays itself out—as we grow into Christ: “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith…abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 1:7).
That’s when the “good spirit” begins to hover in our heads. That’s when we live more and more deeply into The Great Commandment. We love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength and out of that overflow; we love each other fervently, with sincerity, with affection.
Maybe someday I’ll arrive in that sweet spot of faith. And if you beat me there, will you be sure to show me the “greatest patience”?