faith

Signs of Life

Saturday morning I begged Brooklyn to eat her yogurt faster, resigned myself to braiding her hair (“Anna braids, mommy”) at the breakfast table, and packed snacks in the monkey backpack while sucking down iced coffee. Tyson and I hustled everyone into the car, buckled a crying Nolan into his carseat (“But I want to get in the car from the other door!”) and left at 7:52 to make the six-minute drive to the ballpark so the twins could play the first game of the day.

Their games are usually on Wednesdays, but this Saturday was Player Appreciation Day so every team had a game. It felt like a parenting level-up to be up and out of the house for an 8:15 ball game on a Saturday. Saturday morning sports definitely seem like big-kid territory. Except our kids are still small enough they chased balls around the field (three or four of them after the same one) and practiced holding their back elbows up when it was their turn to bat. I chatted with a grandma behind me in the stands (“I’m so jealous you have twins!”) and she told me stories from when her kids were young; how happy she was to see so many kids out playing ball in our town.

Later I took my volunteer shift in the concession stand. I collected crumpled dollar bills from dirty fingers and heard a whispered order from a girl whose curly head barely reached the counter. I passed out Big League Chew to boys with freckles across their faces who weren’t much older than Caden and Brooklyn. I mixed slushies and wrapped hot dogs in foil and fished ice cream Snickers bars from the freezer.

After my shift ended we made our way to the “big” field so the kids could line up to be announced for Player Appreciation Day. I looked at all the kids gathered on the field, noted that the t-ball kids were just versions of the teenage little leaguers in miniature. The coaches each called their own players names and gave out high-fives as they ran across home plate.

Caden, Brooklyn, and Nolan sat and ate candy afterwards in the shade of a tree: their reward for a long morning (and consolation prize for being given some warmed-over root beer floats). I looked around and wondered how many of our memories might take place here at this very ballpark over the next decade or so. Boys and girls ran around in their MLB logo-ed jerseys, backpacks slung over shoulders, chasing each other with water bottles and tennis balls and freezees.

And I was saddened by the thought that Rachel Held Evans will never get to see her children run the bases in oversized batting helmets and brightly-colored jerseys on a bright, blue, cloudless summer day.

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Her funeral took place later that day. I hoped to get home from the ballpark in time to watch the livestream online.

We did make it home with a few minutes to spare. The twins threw batting helmets and gloves on the floor of the mud room and raced off to the backyard while I went upstairs to my room, to watch a funeral on my computer, which seemed like a strange thing to do on a beautiful Saturday afternoon but there we were through the miracle of technology.

I couldn’t sit still. I was fidgety, the computer was too hot to set on my legs comfortably. I set it down to paint my nails (“Orchid-ing Aside”). I briefly wondered if this was this an appropriate thing to do while watching a real, live, actual funeral. I knew Rachel would forgive any heresy in my actions.

The sun streamed in through the wood blinds in my room. I kind of hate them; they’re always dusty, though they look nice if you don’t peer too closely. The light is almost always perfect in our master bedroom, no matter the time of day. I thought of what a perfect day it was and yet somewhere in Chattanooga a husband was having one of the absolute worst days of his life. (Along with two small children, too small to even know it was supposed to be one of the worst days of their lives.)

I answered a quick email and deleted a few others. I noted the Post-it note on my laptop that’s been reminding me for a month that I need to find a nightstand for Caden and Brooklyn’s room. My mind wandered to thoughts of what to make for dinner and things I needed from the store. I put the clothes away that somehow always end up in a pile on the floor in front of the dresser.

I sat and folded Nolan’s laundry as I listened to Sarah Bessey tear up while she gave the most beautiful reading of Mary Magdalene and the disciples arriving at Jesus’ tomb. I smoothed out plaid shorts and wondered why half of Caden’s underwear ended up in Nolan’s laundry basket while Nadia Bolz-Weber trembled in her patterned glasses and salt-and-pepper curls. She spoke of the male disciples who looked in the tomb only to see a pile of folded laundry inside, where Mary Magdalene saw angels.

The doorbell rang and I ran downstairs to find a neighbor girl looking for the kids to play. I chatted with her and her dad for a minute as she told me about her own softball game that morning, how she saw Caden and Brooklyn on the field. I also discovered a package I had ordered on the steps. New sandals (brown with thick straps and a heel); brought them upstairs to try on (keepers).

I mentally planned my outfit for church the next day (to incorporate the new sandals, of course) while adding my own silent “amen”s to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s benediction blessing the preschoolers who cut in line at communion and the closeted and those who can’t fall apart because they needed to keep it together for everyone else.

As the funeral ended (“It is well, it is well with my soul”) I fielded a phone call from my mom. We talked about the progress on the playset my dad is building for the kids. We talked about future plans, weighed the pros and cons of dates and timing. We said good-bye.

The livestream ended and I clicked the tab closed, somewhat hesitantly, as though putting death aside were a thing that could be done so easily.

And I went back out to rejoin my own bright, living world.

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My Own Search for Sunday

The last day at our old church, not one month ago, I left the group of volunteers I led with these words from Rachel Held Evans’ blog:

“When writing about her troubled marriage, author Glennon Melton wisely avoids telling other women what to do, and instead puts the choice this way:

‘Does a Love Warrior Go? YES. If that’s what her deepest wisdom tells her to do. Does a Love Warrior Stay? YES. If that’s what her deepest wisdom tells her to do. Both roads are hard. And both roads can lead to redemption.’

The same is true for church. There is no single road to redemption.  And there is certainly not a straight one. As novelist Marilynne Robinson has said, ‘grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.’”

As excited as I was to find our new church, this volunteer position - these volunteers - were the reason I stayed for so long. I spoke these words with a slight catch in my voice as I told everyone I was leaving, that we had found a new church. These words helped reassure me, helped give me the strength to leave.

Just five days later, I learned that Rachel Held Evans was admitted to the hospital and had been put in a medically-induced coma.

This past Saturday, my social media feeds became plastered with her image after she passed away.

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At our “old” (read: just two months ago) church, I was in charge of the 30 or so volunteers in the birth-Kindergarten children’s ministry area. I filled snack cups, checked nametags, paged parents, sent out reminder emails, and led huddle for our group, filling them in on announcements and coming up with some sort of inspiration for the hour.

The night before my last day, I sat with my laptop and a notebook, searching for the words to tell my group I was leaving. How did I tell them we’d found a different church? How did I tell them I just couldn’t stay here anymore? It didn’t take long for me to search Rachel Held Evans’ blog, to scroll through the archives and find the one titled “Life After Evangelicalism”. It was there I found her (and Glennon’s, and Marilynne’s) words to sum up my decision.

It was Rachel’s words I so often turned to when I couldn’t find words of my own. When my own brain was in tumult, she projected clarity. She was a writers’ writer and a thinker’s thinker; someone who could harness into words what felt trapped in my own head.

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I’d read Searching for Sunday a couple years ago, about her own journey through and with and out of the evangelical church. Of course she had the words to sum up my decision to leave.

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Maybe I should back up to the whole “we left our church and found a new one” part. It’s a decision that may seem sudden to those on the outside. To me, it’s a long-overdue change. It’s a decision I’ve been wrestling with for at least two years, if not longer. To say it has consumed my thoughts is an understatement.

It was a whole host of factors; far more than I can go into detail with here. It was the lack of acceptance of the LGBTQ community. It was not seeing women in the highest positions of leadership, or even quoted from the stage. Along those lines, it was the realization that the faith leaders I turned to (Glennon Doyle, Anne Lamott, Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker, Richard Rohr) were never mentioned; it was always men (James Dobson, Henry Cloud, John Piper). It was never discussing social justice, or really anything out in the great, wide world outside the church walls. (Refugees? Immigrants? Hurricane victims? Anything? Nothing.) It was the fact that the messages had gotten so repetitive - literally the same exact stories repeated two, three, four times, so often I knew the punchlines and could repeat them myself - that I got virtually nothing out of going to church. And by the way, do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? (Yes. Next. Can we talk about something else, please?)

Then there was the 2016 election. To learn that over 80% of white, evangelical Christians in this country had deemed Donald Trump worthy of the presidency felt like the ultimate betrayal. To go to church and feel like a stranger. To feel like the church had completely abandoned everything I thought it stood for. To wonder where all the people were who felt the way I did - surely they were out there, weren’t they?

I talked it over with Tyson for more hours than either he or I can count. Bless him for listening to my constant dialogue of “do we stay or do we go”. I’d thought about and written out pros and cons lists over and over and over again.

I became hostile to church. Volunteering was the only thing I enjoyed anymore. More often we sat towards the back, me with my arms crossed, eyes narrowed, ready to pounce and critique anything and everything the pastor said.

I knew enough to realize this was an extremely unhealthy posture towards a church I tithed to, a church where I led other volunteers, a place I had called my own.

In March of this year, finally, I decided it was time.

“We have nothing going on this weekend. Let’s check out this other church,” I told Tyson. He was game, along for my existential faith-crisis journey. He was probably relieved.

So we did.

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To walk into a new church (a UCC denomination) that first Sunday was a little like stepping into my past. It was much smaller, sure, but the pews, the hymnals, the altar were all familiar from my Catholic upbringing. I was hopeful but guarded, running through the checklist of requirements in my head.

The pastor kicked off with an announcement about helping the flood victims in Nebraska and Iowa. (Acknowledging the world outside this church: check.) He talked about caring for refugees and our broken immigration system in his sermon. (Social justice: check.) The Lord’s Prayer, printed in the bulletin, allowed us to call God a name of our own choosing, whether Father, Mother, or God. (LGBTQ/allowing for other genders: check.) The choir sang “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen. (Broadway music: BONUS!)

Tyson turned to me with a smile on his face when the service was over, “They couldn’t have put together a church service that would have resonated with you more.”

And just like that, we’d found our new church home.

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This church change is now tangled up with Rachel Held Evans’ death in my head. Her death lends a sadness to this time, a time where I’ve been feeling alive again, energized (maybe like never before) by the church. I needed her words to transition me out of the evangelical church world. I needed her encouragement - her own “searching for Sunday” journey to help me along in my own.

(Of note: the pastor at my new church acknowledged her death this past weekend. I’m certain our old church did not.)

Rachel Held Evans ended her post, “Life After Evangelicalism”, with these words:

“You are not alone.

There is life after this. There is faith after this.

Hold on.”

That seems as good a way as any to close out my tangled emotions on her death and our own church change.

There is life after this. There is faith after this. Amen.

The Advent That Wasn't

Advent was a big part of my church tradition growing up. Lighting the candles in the Advent wreath each week to celebrate one of the shortest seasons of the liturgical year, the pinks and the purples of the candles and the priest’s robes a funny contrast to the Christmas-y reds and greens everywhere else.

Advent disappeared as I grew into my high school and college years, as I left that traditional church setting for a different one. Nobody talked about Advent anymore. I realized that no one talked much about Lent or the days in Holy Week either. The liturgical vocabulary more or less disappeared from my life.

Until I had children.

A couple years ago, I was listening to a podcast where the hosts discussed their plans to celebrate Advent with their small children that year. They had all sorts of plans, from daily Bible studies to activity books to baking treats to tie right in with the Advent season. It caught me off-guard.

Because it was October.

Yeesh, I thought, Am I supposed to be thinking about this already? Do I need to start an Advent tradition with my two two-year olds and baby? Am I already failing?

That year came and went. We didn’t do anything for Advent. Same with last year. And, admittedly, this one as well.

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I’m doing an Advent study with some friends this year. I’ve missed more days than I’ve kept up with. Still, it feels like a step forward. Most years it gets to the second week of December before I realize it’s Advent and I probably should have started on something a solid week and a half ago.

It’s not for a lack of caring about the season. The Christmastime is one of my favorite parts of the year, for the magic of twinkling lights, snow, and Santa just as much as the miracle in a manger we are all waiting for. And I can’t say it’s because I’m too busy in this season to stop and think about Advent. Outside the chaos of life with three small children, that is. Truly, I don’t feel we’re over-booked with Christmas activities or events, my gift list is usually under control by the beginning of December.

No, I think it’s because Advent often feels like just one more thing to DO, in a season where I would love to just sit back and BE.

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I read a post on the other day along these same lines, about the trendiness of Advent these days. It was comforting and spoke so strongly to my own heart.

Because the most important thing this Advent isn’t that we do a daily Advent-related activity.

It’s that the kids have been playing with their Nativity set and we’ve talked over and over the familiar story with them. (Playful embellishments encouraged.)

It’s that we’ve baked more than our fair share of Christmas cookies. It’s that we’ve delivered them to our neighbors.

It’s that we set up the tree and I let them hang ornaments wherever they dang well pleased. (Even if I re-arranged it all later so there were ornaments ABOVE the four-foot line.)

It’s that we’ve spent time watching Christmas shows together, all piled on the couch with blankets and snuggles.

It’s that they add a new sticker ornament first thing every morning to the paper Christmas trees taped to their doors to help them count the days until Jesus is born. And, yes, also the days until Santa comes.

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There’s another tug in my brain, (as happens with other traditions or the lack of), that says, It’s too late! You didn’t start an Advent tradition from their very first Christmas so you missed it! It’s too late!

That thought is, of course, utter bullshit.

The truth is I still have very young children, who, for the most part, won’t remember these early Christmases. The truth is I don’t remember most of my early Christmases, outside of a few moments here and there. The truth is it’s not now or never. We wake each morning to new mercies, new chances. And each year and every season as well.

There’s always next year. Or the year after that. Or maybe, never at all. Maybe we’ll just work on baking more cookies and sitting back to be still in this season of magic and waiting.

Good Girl

“Why are you so quiet over there?” a relative asked in my general direction at a family gathering. I was around 10 or 12 years old and lost in thought.

An older relative fully snapped me out of my reverie when she replied, “Shannon’s a good girl. She’s always quiet.”

This relative didn’t intend anything malicious by what she said. It was meant as a compliment. She said it fondly, lovingly, with a caring smile as she looked at me. I’m sure it came from the way she had been raised, in the era of “children should be seen and not heard” and that sort of thing.

I grew even quieter. Her comment had given me more to think about.

It’s true, I was a quiet girl. Not out of a sense of shyness or because I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand in school and I wasn’t scared to speak when spoken to. I was just in my own head a lot. As a girl who spent many of her days and even nights with her nose in a book, there was a lot going on in my head.

Was I a “good girl” because I was quiet? I had always identified with the good girl strain of things. Typical firstborn, straight A’s, type A, honors classes, perfectionist, always followed the rules. Was this another thing I was or needed to be? Were good girls quiet, too?

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My quiet continued throughout young adulthood. I was a good girl. Whatever I may have thought in my head, I didn’t express it out loud.

I was quiet in the days and years following September 11th, as people around me vilified Muslims and anyone who wore a turban. That a few terrorists had come to define an entire world religion, an entire people, was disturbing to me. I was young, newly absorbed in high school, and I didn’t know how to use my voice to combat the terrible parodies and ignorant language I heard around me.

I was quiet when my confirmation teacher told us to blindly adhere to the tenets of Catholicism. “For example, you can’t get married as a Catholic if you know you can’t have children,” she told my group of 9th graders, “It’s hard for even me to understand, but because I’m Catholic, I believe it.” That sounded absurd to me — both the rule (if it actually existed) and her blind adherence to it. My mind swirled with thoughts, questions, and opinions for the rest of class, but I swallowed them and got confirmed a year later anyway.

I was quiet during the first presidential election I was able to participate in after turning 18. I silently, resentfully voted for John McCain because I felt the entire Christian culture pushing me to do so, despite the fact that I was intrigued by the youthful, eloquent, hope-filled Barack Obama. Truth be told, I had a strong feeling that Obama would win after eight years of the Bush administration. It helped me feel slightly less guilty about my own vote, but the fact that I didn’t vote the way I wanted still bothers me.

I was quiet as my church small group discussed homosexuality and gay marriage. Though people in the group came from all sides and opinions on the topic, my own brain was in turmoil. I wasn’t quite sure what I believed. I’d heard a lot of things from the church on this issue. Lots of “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of talk. That didn’t sit quite right with me — so we were supposed to welcome them through the door with open arms and then later tell them to change? It all sounded like the very opposite of “God is love.” This was a much more difficult belief to swallow. I had been hearing these ideas from the church for so long now, how did I even stand up for gay rights? My brain swirled as a I attempted to harness a multitude of thoughts and express them well. Maybe I had been quiet for too long at this point. It haunted me that I didn’t know how to form the right words to stand up for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

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As I’ve grown older, I’ve been practicing how to use my voice. The 16-year-old girl who wanted to be liked and seen as “good” doesn’t really care about other people’s opinions now that she’s a 31-year-old woman. To be quite frank, she has no more fucks left to give.

(My teenage ears are earmuffing themselves out of duty. Now it’s a regular part of my vocabulary.)

There are too many abuses going on in our country, in our world, now, for me to remain quiet. Immigration, border walls, LGBTQ rights, sexism, institutional racism, the rights of children, the rights of mothers, slavery, climate change, the importance of journalism, politics, and that damn President of ours. Just to name a few.

I’m using my voice to say:

Not today.

Not on my watch.

This is not okay.

I cannot stay silent.

Really, I think I’m growing into who I’ve always been.

(Read the rest over on the Feminine Collective.)


The Feminist Housewife

It can be hard to reconcile my outward image with my inner turmoil these days. I sigh and cry out, weeping and gnashing my teeth as I read the news. My heart is heavy over it all. Everything from the lack of paid family leave to the fact that climate change is an actual thing.  The explicit racism that seems to be taking over. The recent rash of natural disasters, the failure of our justice system, and the lack of laws for reasonable gun control. And at the head of it, most frustrating of all, that man in the White House (He Who Shall Not Be Named).

I cheer on our female leaders, soak up their theology, buy their books, laugh at the late-night shows, subscribe to the New York Times. I want to raise my young kids to know of the injustice in the world, to work for change, to talk and ask questions and be anything they want to be. I write and I read and I discuss and I work to understand the things I don't.

And I’m a housewife.

It may be a phrase reminiscent of the ’50s, but it’s true. Call it what you will: homemaker (yeesh, even more of a relic), stay-at-home mom, SAHM for us millennials. I cook, clean, fold laundry, match socks, and put away toys. I even enjoy some of these things. (Gasp!) I bake my own bread, cloth diaper those little bottoms, and host neighborhood playdates.

There’s a tension inside of me lately. If you peek in from the outside, everything about my life screams basic stay-at-home mom. One income, a house in the suburbs, three kids, a minivan; a woman who spends her days at playdates, running errands, cleaning house, and with our neighbors. Surrounded by people who, due to circumstance, mostly live and look just like us. This stands in stark contrast to my inner feminist, the one who devours the news and analyzes it each night with my husband or over (local, craft) beers on the weekend with my cousin.

Though maybe not such a stark contrast. I am the same person, both feminist and housewife, after all. These things are not mutually exclusive. They only seem like opposing views because society tends to box us in that way. As though I can’t be a feminist just because I am also a housewife.

My beer-loving cousin is a teacher—middle school social studies— and politically active. He's white, straight, and male. He told me that for the first time in his 15-year teaching career he let his students know who he was voting for before the last presidential election. As a teacher in a large metro area, his classes are a mixed bag of backgrounds and socioeconomic status. Many are Somali immigrants, mostly Muslim, possibly illegal. It was unthinkable to him that his students could think for a second that he supported a man who ran on a platform of kicking their families out of the country. Just because of who my cousin is, what he looks like, what could possibly be wrongly perceived from the outside.

So much grates on me for the very same reason. White, middle class, privileged. It feels that so much of me could be perceived one way when in fact I feel exactly the opposite.

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If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find hints of rebellion in me. I’ve never owned an iron, for one. (Such a rebel.) Neither the kids nor I possess any clothing that requires ironing. Tyson works a flexible schedule from home, mostly in sweatpants, no traditional suit-and-tie 9-5 job here. (And the dry cleaner takes over those pesky ironing duties the few times a year he does wear a dress shirt.) While I handle most of the child and household-related tasks due to the fact that I do stay home, he is quick to take over everything from dishes to diaper duty on the evenings and weekends. This summer we attended our local Pride festival, joining in the fun of the family-friendly area, where my children played games and colored pictures and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary besides the fact that everyone was wearing so many bright colors. My e-reader is filled with book titles that educate with humor or scream for change (or both): Jesus Feminist, Of Mess and Moxie, Hillbilly Elegy, The Unwinding, Love Warrior, Just Mercy.

I’m an iced-coffee drinking, JCrew wearing, Target shopping, fall-loving basic girl who also has a heart that screams for change. Who has wild thoughts in her head of running for office (I would hate it), writing a book (maybe), and taking her kids to protest marches (much more plausible).

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I don’t know what to do with this tension, except sit in it. The best I can do right now is educate myself, to read about my own privilege and the abounding injustice in this world, raise my kids, and work on living a life based on love and understanding. I continue to work on teaching and practicing empathy, compassion, discernment. Each afternoon, snack time finds me at the kitchen table with all three kids, reading aloud from our storybook Bible, answering their questions and talking it through, about the radical Savior who stood up to the leaders, sat with the sinners, and came along in love just in time to rescue us all.

I cringe sometimes, thinking how we must look from the outside, this neat and tidy “perfect” little family in our cheerful blue suburban home. I often feel like anything but. Still, my traditional stay-at-home mom life doesn’t confine me to one neat little box. I don’t want to be boxed in, but turning around and boxing up someone else is just as bad. And I am so guilty of that this time around. Writing off anyone who checked a different box on that ballot as "the other". I am working so hard to fix that.

In the end, this life as a housewife — the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry — really is the backbeat of our lives. Tyson and I show our children how our household runs, with love and respect and cooperation. There is an importance to these things, mundane though they may be. They keep our household running, functioning, ensuring that we are clothed and fed and happy so that we can go out and change the world. Or just get to preschool on time.

Besides, my inner rebel may be emerging a bit, if you happen to see me in that preschool drop-off line. I recently added purple streaks to my hair and a “Nasty Woman” pin to the diaper bag. Take that, stereotypes.