The Ministry of a Mini-Van

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My husband sat in the driver’s seat and popped his head out of the window, saying, “Say goodbye, this might be the last time you see your car!” I touched the side of the sliding door and said, “Goodbye, faithful friend.” I tried to summon tears, but really, that’s a bit dramatic, even for me, and he drove away. He was right, he came home from the dealership without the mini-van, without the car stuffed full of a decade of goldfish crumbs and half-eaten lollipops. He came home without the car that carried my three walking hearts for the last ten years, the one that drove us endless miles across America, that captured every argument, every sweaty post-game crowd of kids, every morning goodbye.

My son recently told me when he thinks of his childhood, it’s colored with memories of Splash Mountain, eating at Cracker Barrel, and the smell of despair (his own) from too many hours spent at the mall. When I think of my kids’ childhood, I think of the mini-van. It sat at the heart of everything. I was a mini-van mom, a role I rejected and complained about initially, but one I grew into. I expanded with each deep conversation and each extra carpool kid and each trip to a new, unexplored location.

There is nothing like the ministry of a mini-van to our kids and our community.

We have entered a new season, with two teens and a tween. One kid is months away from driving. The five of us are rarely together in one place, but I still spend most of my time on the road, shuttling each one to their own activities. The mini-van served us well, but we have put that season behind us, before I feel ready. Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re in a new season before you’re knee-deep in the muck and mud of it. We have entered a new season of parenting, with our oldest only one year away from flying from our nest.

It is strange to think I’m no longer the mom wrangling three littles, or shuttling kids to elementary school. I’m no longer the mom who cuts out paper hearts or buys teacher’s gifts or takes photographs at the Daddy/Daughter dance. I’m the mom who cheers from the sidelines of their lives, while they run and run and run towards their future.

This is the goal, isn’t it? To work oneself out of a job. To move from season to season and let ourselves and our children expand into them, and grow with them, rather than fight the change.

The mini-van is an impermanent thing which gave us permanent memories. The lacrosse sticks, school books, and dirty clothes strewn around my house will not litter the floor forever. But the memories are the scent that rises, the one that brings us back to times of love and frustration and growth, this sweet smell is a fragrance we never forget. It smells like sacrifice and permanence and chocolate cake.

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Wishing all of you who love a child, and love them well, a very Happy Mother’s Day. DNA isn’t required for making a difference in the life of a child, and you dear auntie, teacher, mentor, friend, you are. So thank you for mothering our children! I’m sending many blessings and roses and virtual naps to you.

 

Start with Kind Words: Giving Ourselves Permission

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To celebrate my birthday last week, I gave myself an entire day of permission. I gave myself permission to do whatever pleases me, and to refuse anything that does not. This means I spent the better part of my birthday ignoring the dishes calling me from the sink and the silent washing machine begging to be put to use. Their voices shout, loud and demanding, so I filled the empty space with other people’s voices from the pages of a book.

I gave myself permission to read for an entire day while the kids were at school. In a manner befitting Marie Antoinette, a manner of utter indulgence, I drove to my local library and gave myself browsing rights with no time limit. I gathered an armful (eight, to be exact) of books I want to read and I brought them all home. One is a large, coffee table book of an artist’s rendering of the green pastures and white-capped mountains Switzerland. The thought of browsing through it page by page, allowing it to spark vivid memories of our time living there, gives me pleasure.

More than giving myself permission to enjoy the gift of time on my terms, I promised I would only say good things about myself all day. This played out in the battle field of my own head. I decided to reject every negative thought about my own shortcomings, every ugly thought about how frustrated I am with my meager accomplishments, every bitter word I speak about my own self. Not only did I reject these thoughts, I forced myself to replace them with a kind word, a gentle internal gesture of gratitude for the person I’ve become.

It was nearly impossible.

It felt more indulgent than anything else I experienced that day. Even the Lent-breaking slice of carrot cake, thick with whipped cream cheese icing was easier to place in my mouth than a kind word about my own self. I hadn’t realized how ingrained the negative thought patterns have become. Why is it so hard to simply like one’s self and celebrate her? It feels undeserving somehow, and yet I am made in God’s image. I am known and loved by Him, and by family and friends too. Yet, it’s difficult to extend myself this same love, difficult to say “I am loved. I belong here. I have good and important work to do.”

I gave myself one day of permission to simply be me, to enjoy the things I love, to look in the mirror and call this creation good. It was such a small thing, but it shifted something hard and cold inside of me. Today, I want you to give yourself permission too. It may not look like an armful of books, or Swiss art, or carrot cake. But it should certainly begin with kind words of love for your self. Begin to cut new paths of good, gentle, joy-filled words about the inner person you know yourself to be. Become a raconteur of your life’s story. You’re the only one who can really tell it.

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What else might you give yourself permission to do today if there were no consequences like calories or little people wanting clean underwear?

 

 

When You Want Less Cynicism and More Child-like Wonder and Delight

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He sits next to me in the car on another mild-December day. We’ve abandoned coats for light jackets, but I wear a scarf in protest. It’s December in New Jersey after all. Christmas music, the traditional station my kids think sounds too much like big-band jazz, plays in the background. The music is the reason my car battery died in the lacrosse parking lot ten minutes earlier, while I sat waiting for my son. When the music stopped abruptly, I looked around and saw one other car with its lights on. I walked across the parking lot, and I asked a guy sitting in a Tesla for a jump. He hid a smile when he told me his car is electric, and I shuffled back to my mini-van a little amused and a little embarrassed. I found a good Samaritan sitting in a Mercedes, and asked him to help me.

After the jump, we drive home through neighborhoods lit with colored trees, garland strung in loops across picket fences, and one home outlined in white lights like a gingerbread house from a fairytale. My son turns the air conditioning on, and he tells me, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas this year, Mom.” He’s just not feeling it. I suggest it’s the weather. The busy schedule. The full days of school leading straight up to Christmas day. He shakes his head.

Earlier in the day, we decorated gingerbread houses. My husband baked cookies. We played the music, lit the tree, burned the Christmas scented candle. In spite of the busyness, we’ve created the usual holiday atmosphere at home. What can it be, I ask him? He doesn’t know, he grasps for the words to describe his feeling, but finds nothing there.

I look at his man-sized feet taking up space next to me, and I ask him if maybe he’s outgrowing the magic. As I listen to his voice crack while we talk about his thirteenth Christmas holiday, I remember the long season of adolescence when the wonder and delight of childhood stalls and turns over. When you need someone to bring the child inside you back to life, when you need something other than sarcasm and peer pressure to fuel your sense of astonishment and wonder. When presents bring a short spark of happiness, but you’re doubtful about the promise of Emmanuel offering everlasting peace, love, joy.

As I think on these things, with the man-child in the seat next to me, I realize I’m the one who typically feels drained of life this time of year, worrying about presents over presence. Celebrating Advent in my own mixed-up, hodgepodge way has brought my sense of amazement and joy in this season back to life. It has saved Christmas from being consumed by commercialism and my own heart from becoming jaded and false. Advent has brought reverence and true joy back into my celebration.

I look at the kid. I see the way his eyes smile at the sight of the homes lit up in fairy lights, but I also see the cynicism growing underneath. Later, as we sit around the dining room table, I read aloud Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. I read of angels and promises and wombs filled by the power of the Holy Spirit. He pretends not to listen, but when I question him, he repeats the story back to me verbatim. And somewhere deep inside that adolescent heart of his, I see something catch a spark of life, I see a flicker.

How to Celebrate Advent with Little Time, Effort, or Know-how

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In our family, life revolves on it’s own little axis around Time. Just as the sun sets the seasons for the earth, Time sets the season of life for us as a family. The years do their work and we adjust our expectations and our decisions accordingly. We may find ourselves in a season of rest or growth or pruning, but as we spin through the seasons, I find myself keeping certain rhythms throughout the year. Rhythms help Time and I keep track of one another. They give me point on which to focus, so I don’t spin out of control.

Growing up in a non-denominational church, I was unaware that the Christian church celebrates its own version of the seasons. My idea of a church calendar looked very much like your average Gregorian calendar with a few extra prayer meetings and pot-lucks thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned people observed seasons of Lent and Advent. Well into adulthood, I discovered I have lived my entire life spinning in Ordinary Time.

I have so much to learn about the Liturgical year, and so much to gain from it too. I see it as a set of rhythms rather than a set of rules, on which to build my spiritual life throughout the year. But, Time can be a cruel master, and I don’t have the hours to dedicate to studying the church calendar and understanding with as deep a commitment as I’d like. So, for now, I have built a bridge to Advent, one that is helping me stay focused on this season with little time, effort, or know-how.

I offer you Advent for Beginners:

Look for the Light

I find myself rising early to light the candles in the still-dark rooms below. I sit in the candle light, adding the glow of the twinkle lights on the Christmas tree, and I wait for the sun to rise above the giant oak in the garden. The sun cuts through the morning fog, and for a few moments, its rays split the tree in two. No matter how dark the night, I know the light will come. And with it, a longing for peace, a growing hope, and joy in knowing that the Light of the world has already brought the cosmos into our chaos.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” ~John 1:5

Invite Poetry

After the lighting of the candles, I start the day with prayer and poetry. There is a time for storybooks and simplicity, but Advent reveals itself to me as a poem. It is rhythm and metaphor and song. It is the most potent truth revealed through a single Word.  It is impossible to understand in one reading, yet the longer I sit with it in the growing light, the longer I roll the words in my mouth, the longer I allow the truth to illuminate my spirit, the more I grow in understanding.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men..” ~John 1:1,4

Embrace Anticipation

Apart from the quiet mornings, there is much work to do in this busy season–so very much to accomplish. However, I am trying to see with eyes of anticipation rather than dread. As I participate in the usual rhythms of this season, I remind myself that the building excitement I see in my children should foster a sense of anticipation and excitement in me too. The Greatest Gift has come, and He will return again. Advent focuses my thoughts on the coming Kingdom, and helps me to live in anticipation of the day when all will be set right, when we will see his glory once again, full of grace and truth.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ~John 1:14

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One lovely book I have found invaluable for helping me to center on this season is a compilation by Sarah Arthur called Light Upon Light. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Also, Luci Shaw’s Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.

 

 

On Feasting and Thanksgiving

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As we celebrate a season traditionally marked by harvest and abundance, and we gather around the table to feast, may I encourage you to look past the turkey and the stuffing? Past the pumpkin pie and the whipped cream and the way your waistband doesn’t expand as easily as your belly?

Look past the fullness of the table and see, perhaps for the first time, the abundance of people sitting in the chairs pulled up to it. See the feast of family or friends set before you, whether there are two or twenty pairs of eyes returning your gaze.

Allow the feast of memories you’ve gathered throughout the years join you in celebration. Above all, remember. Remember the fruit of your hard work, your persistence, your love. Remember when the hands and hearts around the table carried you. How they held your grief or your joy with equal willingness.

Take notice, with clear eyes, the feast of this year. Of days stacked upon days in which God proved Himself present and faithful. Do not wait for gratitude to arrive, but seek it. Stir it up. Let it take residence in your soul.

Remember the feasts of the past. Enjoy the feast of the present. Open it like a gift. Hold onto hope for the coming feast, the celebration in which all things–you, me, and the heaving, heartbroken world–will be made new.

This year, may you feast on it all. May you find yourself nourished: body, soul, and spirit. May your table be filled with the extravagance of gratitude and hope. And may you be wise enough to recognize it when it comes in imperfect and awkwardly  wrapped packages.