Death and Taxes

After a mild February and March, typical spring weather hit – just in time for spring break. For our week off, we had drizzly mornings, warmer afternoons, and hard-to-predict forecasts which made playdates a bit difficult. But, our grass is green and our trees are blossoming.

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Clyfford Still, PH-235 Image credit: Clyfford Still Museum

When asked to describe the significance of black in his paintings, Clyfford Still said,

“Black was never a color of death or terror for me.  I think of it as warm – and generative.”

This has forever changed the way I look at black in art, in books, in life. Is there an element of death in it? Yes. (At least, from a Western perspective.) But, in order to experience life, death must be part of the equation.

Frank and I are planning our garden and deciding which veggies to plant, which perennials to try in bare areas, and which boxes should be reserved for digging play and which should be off-limits. When we dig into the soil, our hands come up black. As we watch the rain soak the earth, I see the color vibrant against the gray skies.

Easter and the end of tax season coincide this year. Sadly, this means that the last big push before the deadline will happen over Easter weekend. (No rest for the weary, or accountants…) Over the next two weeks, the little we see of Frank will become even less. Life gets harder when the end is in sight.

Not to compare dying on the cross for all of humanity’s sins to the annual tax deadline, but I wonder if this is how Jesus felt in these last weeks leading to his death. He knew what was coming; the hardest days are ahead.

There is darkness ahead and yet, against the gray there is vibrant light and hope. There is despair and an anticipation of something coming – the crowds are getting violent and yet, Jesus still makes a blind man see; still raises Lazarus from the dead.

In order for the soil to be generative, it must be black. Light brown dirt needs to be watered to dark richness. In order to see the light, we must live in the darkness.

In many ways, I’m glad that Lent falls during tax season. For our family, this season of fasting is also one of living without an integral part of our house. Whether we like it or not, our family lives in a sense of loss during this season.

Which makes Easter all the more joyful. It reminds us that life is restored, that our family will eat dinner together again, and that black soil brings new life.

How do you view the color black? In what ways do you prepare when the end is in sight?

Creating Space for Wonder

The other night, after putting the girls to bed, cleaning the kitchen, and shoving the stray toys into the playroom, I settled onto the couch to breathe and relax. Before I even finished my exhale, I heard a rustling upstairs.

IMG_3910Upon investigation, I found Bea peaking through the railings. I thought I heard a door open. I had been praying that God would tell daddy that his little girl misses him. I guess he can’t hear through the ceiling.

Bea, being Bea, seemed more disappointed in our ceiling than in God. She embodies that childlike faith that I have long forgotten – stopping to pray for anything or anyone without hesitation, believing fully that God is waiting to listen to her.

I’m on a planning team at church filled with people who have Advanced Degrees in Theology and Knowing God. We gather every couple months around a table, brainstorming, talking, and wondering about upcoming sermon topics. It’s an invigorating evening and I always leave learning something new. But I also leave wondering why I’m at that table. I’m definitely more on Bea’s end of the spectrum, as far as What I Know About God goes, and I often wonder how my own experience compares at all to those who actually know what the Bible means.

But that’s not why I’m on this team. I’m there because there is a place for me at the table. Because my experiences, though not as profound or as well-researched, still matter. And because our pastors place high value on the voices of our congregation, regardless of Biblical knowledge.

Bea asks a lot of questions about life, about God, about the way the world works. Even Elle’s favorite question right now is, Why??? It can be so tempting to try to find the answers. And there are some easy answers, but most are not.

Even if I do know the answer, I’m learning to respond to the questions with, I wonder.

I wonder if God can hear you through the ceiling?

I wonder why the moon is still visible during the day?

I wonder why that man is asking for money and food?

Sometimes we go home and look up the answer to our questions or after we wonder, I can help supply an answer. But I like starting out with I wonder. It keeps the discovery fresh and alive. It reminds us that our world is full of wonder.

I’m learning that I need to keep that as part of my own faith journey. If, instead of reading the Bible for answers or looking to figure out why God operates a certain way, I’m learning to wonder. Instead of wishing for (or demanding) answers, I’m learning to live in the space of wonder, of discovery, and of grappling with the unknown.

How do you balance answers with wonder? Even if you know the answer, how do you create space for discovery?

Spring is Saving My Life

After the winter that barely was, spring is here. Trees are blossoming with bees buzzing around; our backyard fountain is running again and birds are splashing and drinking; our hyacinths have bloomed and our other bulbs are pushing out of the ground. The windows are open. At first, just in the afternoon but now for longer and longer stretches.

SpringI know that we very well could get a blizzard or two in April and even into May, but after such a mild winter, I wonder. For now, I’m enjoying this spring weather. As Leo Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “Spring is the time of plans and projects.”

While there is nothing like cleaning the house with all the windows open, I’m more energized by the seasonal projects we look forward to. It’s still too early to actually plant anything in the garden, but we start to dream as we sip gin and tonics outside during nap time. We start to plan our camping trips and what Life After Tax Season will entail.

I love this idea of spring cleaning and planning and projecting. Dreaming about our next literal season as the warm weather and longer days are tangible is an important part of soul care, I think. Taking time to connect our bodies to the seasons, to remember that we are part of nature and in that, recognizing the need to shift our spirits with the seasons.

That’s what I love most about Lent and Eater aligning with springtime and new life. It seems natural to pause and take stock of where I am spiritually as I’m tidying and reorganizing my physical environment.

Just as I find the practice of stopping to take account for what’s saving my life midwinter, I love the practice of remembering that in spring, everything is saving my life. This is a time when I live out all my winter mantras and ideals. This is when life is blooming and I’m excited about our next season – both in decisions our family is making as well as the actual next season of March-June springtime.

So, as ice melts in my glass and I savor an afternoon of dreaming and list-making with Frank, I’m grateful for these spring moments of cleansing and renewal. Of a glimpse into what is to come, even if we do have another blizzard or two waiting.

Has spring come to your part of the world? Do you take time for soul spring cleaning? (And are you an actual spring cleaner?)

Recalibrating Expectations

One of Bea’s favorite books is Good Night, Philadelphia. It’s part of that series of board books that focuses on a city and greets the famous landmarks: Good morning, Museum of Art. Good afternoon, Betsy Ross House and Old Glory. Hello, Reading Terminal Market and cheesesteaks. For a solid year, we read it multiple times per day. Even now that the love has ebbed a bit, I still have it memorized. One of the benefits of knowing it so well is that when we visit Philly, Bea has an idea of what she wants to do on the day we go into the city.

IMG_8964A couple years ago, she really wanted to see The Liberty Bell. We took the train from the suburbs into Reading Terminal Market and walked toward Independence Hall. We walked through modern glass doorways of Independence National Park and through the crowds of middle school students toward the Liberty Bell.

When Bea saw it, she started to cry. It could be that she saw an older boy put in “time out” by one of the park rangers for messing around. Or that she had expectations of ringing it herself. Whatever the reason, we walked around this large, old bell, roped off from small hands and then we were done. Besides the museum and history videos, there wasn’t much else to do with a 3-year-old.

We quickly remedied the problem with a carriage ride around Independence Square and back to Reading Terminal Market for cheesesteaks and ice cream.

I had seen Bea’s type of reaction before, most notably by da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. Tourists would flock to this portrait expecting a gigantic painting, only to be disappointed by its small scale. I often remind people that few of us have larger-than-life-sized paintings of ourselves in our homes. Why would this be any different?

I think about times when I’ve built up an experience or event to the point that any reality will be disappointing. Whenever I envision the perfect date night or an incredible dinner or even a clean house for more than a minute, I am quickly reminded that I live with other humans and our reality is sweet but far from perfect.

This week’s Lenten theme is expectation and I have been thinking about this tendency in relation to these weeks leading up to Easter. What am I hoping from this Lenten practice? Are my expectations realistic?

And, more importantly, are my expectations within this practice drawing me closer to the redemption of Easter? Because, Lent isn’t about giving something up for the sake of fasting for 40 days. It’s about remembering the celebration; about being mindful that we actually don’t have to earn this grace.

I’ve been learning a lot these past two weeks and yet, I’ve been trying to keep my expectations tempered. I’m remembering that this practice isn’t to change my mind or anyone else’s about politics and those elected. It’s about loving my neighbor and remembering to pray for our government. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details of the exercise, forgetting the ultimate purpose.

So, with another month to go and 30 more politicians to pray for, I’m remembering my own expectations and realigning them with a much larger purpose than any 40 day practice will produce.

How do you keep your expectations realistic? Have you ever been disappointed by something famous?

Balancing Solitude with Engagement

When Frank and I were first married, we went on a weekend backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Never Summer Range. One of the most amazing things about this western side of the park is that there are far fewer tourists and hikers. During our entire excursion, we saw one other couple descending into the parking lot just as we started out on the trail.

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One of the scariest parts about this side of the park is that there are far fewer hikers. When we set up camp, we were extra cautious in placing our bear canister far from our campsite. The only noises we heard were those of our hidden forest neighbors.

I had been backpacking before, but always to locations where we were near other hikers. It was rare to step out of my tent without seeing another camper close by. Even after hiking miles into the mountains, I found comfort in knowing I had neighbors.

This time, I was thankful I had Frank and wondered at the appeal of spending time all alone in the wilderness. While I love solitude and appreciate those moments alone in nature, I also desire the safety of proximity to others. Frank, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine a more wonderful way to spend his time than being completely alone in the woods. Even hiking and camping with others pales to a solo trip. (Something he hasn’t had in years…)

This first week of Lent focuses on Jesus’s time in the wilderness, where he spent 40 days fasting and praying before he started teaching. His 40 days alone in the wilderness is mirrored in these 40 days of Lenten observation.

Forty days in the Middle Eastern wilderness looks a lot different than a weekend of camping in the Colorado Rockies. We know very little about what happened during that time. Of course, the biggest event is when, after Jesus has already been gone long enough to be quite hungry, the Devil tempts him to the point that Angels need to care for him in the aftermath (Matthew 4:1-11). But what happened after? When I read the text, it seems unclear when this temptation happened. Does Jesus go back alone and spend another 15 days in the wilderness?

What this reminds me of is that, while I need to be intentional about taking time for myself in quiet and solitude, I am stronger when I am with others. The accountability of reading the Bible, of a book club, of mothering groups and texts from friends remind me that no matter what activity I’m doing or phase of life I’m in, I need others to help me along the way.

I think about Jesus in his weakened state being tempted by Satan. I want to know more. How would this have looked different if he had support around him? Would he have been as prepared to start walking and teaching without this solitude? It is a reminder of this balancing act between taking time alone with God and depending on the community that God has given me.

As I continue with my own Lenten practice of praying through President Trump’s new cabinet, I’m reminded that, while I may be taking time to research and pray for these men and women alone, I need to engage my community with what I’m learning. What is the point of these 40 days of prayer if it is only for myself? As I work through this practice, I am keeping the So What? part of Lent at the forefront of my thoughts. Where will this lead? How will I engage?

How do you combine time in the wilderness with the necessity of community? How do you intentionally engage your quiet spiritual practices with something bigger?

Why Bother With Lent?

On Wednesday, we leave the Epiphany and Ordinary Time in the church calendar and move into Lent, that period that prepares us for Easter. Lent is a 40 day practice (excluding Sundays) that encourages fasting, preparation, and mindfulness as Christians consider the celebration and importance of Easter.

img_3829I’ve come to look forward to this time of the year. Not so much because it gives me structure for removing myself from distractions, but because it really has helped me to pause and understand the joyful celebration of Easter. In the past, I’ve written notes to women, taken social media off my phone, and given up something in order to use those resources to give to something else. All those were good and (surprisingly) sustaining practices. But does Jesus really care if I give up wine in order to give a Kiva loan? Does it make Easter any more meaningful when I don’t scroll through Instagram for the weeks leading up to that Sunday?

Honestly, not really. And, shouldn’t I practicing these better ways of living regardless of the season? Twitter isn’t exactly life-giving in June, either. I can send a note to a friend regardless of the season.

For me, the reason Lent has become a season to anticipate is that I know I need structure. I need guidelines and a timeframe to create good habits. Just like I knew that processed food isn’t great for my body, I needed the structure and timeframe of Whole30 to help me reset to habits I knew were good but lacked the self-discipline to simply change on my own.

Similarly, I look toward Lent as a time to reflect on ways in which I could better reflect Jesus and his mission. What are areas in which I could live out this radical message better? How can I use this structure and timeframe to help me better understand and form habits that reflect my values?

I’ve found that I need to not only fast from something but I need to add to something in its place. When Frank & I gave up wine, we added donations to Kiva. When I gave up social media, I added the Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals to my day. Without the addition of something valuable, I think giving up loses some of its power.

This year, I’ve again taken social media off my phone. I debated this decision because it is a way I get my news and information and I don’t want to be uninformed. But, on my phone, it’s easy to get lost to the world of rabbit trails. So, I’m committing to checking the news daily from my computer, to staying informed, but also staying present in my real life activities.

I’m adding a prayer list. I’ve written down President Trump’s cabinet and appointments – both those already confirmed and those up for nomination. I’ve committed to learning more about each of the members of this new cabinet. I want to know their background and policies. And then, I’m going to pray for them. Not that they’ll conform to my own ideology (after all, I’m not the one nominated for these positions) but that they’ll take this job seriously. That they’ll seek wisdom and guidance from a variety of sources and backgrounds. That they’ll consider what is best for all of the population, not just a group of constituents.

I’m also praying that, as I learn about these cabinet members, I’ll learn through a lens of grace and sympathy. That I’ll look for the best, not the worst. And that my perspective will shift. I may not agree with them at the end of these 40 days, but I want a new perspective. Not one of frustration or fear but one of empowerment and resolve. And that this practice creates a new way in how I pray for our government and our leaders.

Do you observe Lent? How do you find it most helpful?

Slowing Down to Enjoy the Journey

For my birthday, friends gave me a gift card to a local bookstore with instructions to enjoy an afternoon browsing – either online or in person. I thought about this invitation to simply look at books and so I invited my friend along. We both have young kids so time spent together in a bookstore seemed amazing.

We spent the morning wandering the store, talking about life, meandering in our conversation. There was no agenda and it was lovely getting to simply catch up. I even decided not to buy a book from my to-read pile and let a title jump out.

It was such a reminder of the need to be intentional with friends. This woman and I see each other fairly regularly, but rarely one-on-one. I was tempted to spend a morning alone but knew that I would rush through the store, buy something quickly, and return home to relieve Frank of errands. Having a friend with me helped me slow down and enjoy myself a bit more.

Last week we were in California visiting family. One evening, after the girls had gone to bed, my aunt was working on her Bible study and I was reading. She invited me over to talk through the lesson with her and we spent the next hour discussing and combing through a verse in Nehemiah I most likely would have skimmed over on my own. In the midst of reading about those involved in rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, we talked about current events, our own views of qualification, and how God uses us in unexpected ways. My daily quiet time is alone, but this was a reminder of the importance of sitting side by side and talking.

img_3240I’ve been thinking about modeling a lot when it comes to my life and my girls. It’s faster and easier to do things without them. Dinner prep is way less frustrating and a lot safer without my two sous-chefs. Reading my morning devotional is a lot more pleasant when I can focus on the words. And yet, that’s not reality. So, I pull out extra carrots at dinner and let Bea chop them. I brush my teeth while reading Spurgeon and letting Elle climb around the bathroom. I include and model what my own day looks like.

Just now, I’ve struck a deal with Bea to help me clean the playroom. She originally suggested I do it while she was at school and in some ways, it would take a lot less time and be a lot less stressful if I did just do it myself. But it’s not my playroom or my mess. So we agreed that we’d do it together.

Time alone to rejuvenate is something that is essential to most of us, in varying degrees. But I’m reminded more and more that life is done together. It may not be easier but when we choose to sit side by side, the journey seems richer.

How do you intentionally slow down? What are some ways you stop to enjoy this journey?