I still remember the empty ache the first Christmas we spent without my grandpa, “Papa,” we called him. His recliner stood in the corner like a memorial. Laughter felt forced. I kept waiting for him to appear in all of his jovial grandfatherly-Father-Christmas fun. He loved to wear his new clothes with the tags still on them, as a way of being silly and funny. He would read the story of Christ’s birth from Luke’s account in his booming, Southern Baptist voice. He had a larger-than-life personality, yet a down-to-earth way about him. I learned only after his death how well known of a politician he had been. For me, he was always a grandfather who paid attention; who loved me; who was the life and heart of every gathering. And his absence was glaring that first Christmas after his death.
It’s been over 25 years, and I can still grow sentimental and sad to think of Christmas “before” and Christmas “after.”
I think about others I’ve lost since then, and there is always that grief that gives Christmas a blue tinge, as Elvis crooned so well. Like Beverlee, who hosted grand holiday parties with her beloved Collier for church members and neighbors in their suburban Philadelphia home. And childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Kristen, who died long before we had the chance to have joy-filled Christmas holiday reunions like we’d always thought we would. I remember close friends and family members who are grieving afresh this Christmas – a sister who died, a father who passed away, a mom whose death came too soon, miscarriages and lost hopes and loves.
And in the grief – both mine and the grief I feel with friends – I can find myself fearful of who may not be around the table next year. That grief steals the joy of the present. Yet Christmas and grief can co-exist, can’t they?
For you, and for me, who are the grieving at Christmas … I write to say you aren’t alone. I write to remind myself that I’m not alone either. Sadness is part of living. But I write to say that I don’t want it to take the joy of Life away this Christmas. I write to say that grief can be deeply comforted by the Truth of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us. I don’t mean this to be trite … it is a truth I am fighting for every day in my own heart. Take comfort in the words of this melancholy, yet hopeful hymn:
It’s been awhile since I last shared an “on my bookshelf,” so with summer officially here, and my bookshelf overflowing with new books, it’s time for a new post in this series. In no particular order, here they are:
Single-Column Journaling Bible (ESV) – A publication of Crossway (yes, I’m biased to promote books from my publisher!), I enjoy that this Bible has the feel of a book and has space in the margins for note-taking.
“Parenting with Words of Grace” by William P. Smith – This is a new release, and the title itself draws me into what I hope God is helping me to become as a parent – one who has words of grace for my children. In addition, the author – better known as “Bill Smith” to my fellow early 2000’s graduates of Westminster Theological Seminary – was my professor who also mentored and supervised me in my first few years of counseling. We worked closely together to establish a counseling center at a local church. I observed his words of grace towards his own children many times over during those years of working together.
“I Can’t Believe You Just Said That!” by Ginger Hubbard (formerly “Ginger Plowman”) – As a follow-up to her bestselling, “Don’t Make Me Count to Three!”, I look forward to practical instruction and gospel-centered encouragement as a mom seeking to guide my children into different ways of speaking to one another. And I don’t want to settle for simple behavior modification – where they change what they say just to please me – but I want to help them develop hearts from which overflow kind and gracious speech towards one another, us as their parents, and those around them.
“Toys, Tears, and Shepherd’s Pie” by John S. Eberly, Sr., M.D. – This title drew me in when I saw it featured on the shelves of our local bookstore as a book by a local author. The subtitle, “A Father’s Thoughts on Parenting,” is also intriguing because I haven’t read a lot of parenting books from a father’s perspective, plus he is also a pediatrician. It’s organized by stages of your child’s life, and so far I’m finding it practical and encouraging.
“Anxious for Nothing” by Max Lucado – A gift from my mom who knows how I struggle with anxiety from time to time, I am finding Lucado’s gentle, poetic words to be just what my heart needs. His style itself is soothing and the truth he points to is real – an anchor for my heart and mind.
“Run” by Ann Patchett – This is my current novel of choice, mainly because I loved Ann Patchett’s nonfiction, and because it was available at our library and had a good cover. Ha … yes, you can choose a book by its cover …! I’m only a few pages in, but I’m enjoying this story so far.
More updates throughout the summer as I read and enjoy these books. And what’s on your bookshelf right now?
[Disclosure: The links above are affiliate links to Amazon, meaning that if you decide to purchase these books through the link, I will get a very small percentage of your purchase as a sort of “commission.”]
On June 7, 2019, I turned the page onto a new decade. I chose to mark it by a long weekend at my favorite beach with our family of four. Despite predictions of rain for the whole weekend, the sun broke through, and we had glorious weather for the better part of our beach days. I never tire of the rhythm of waves crashing on the shore, soothing and powerful and constant. I love looking into the horizon of ocean meeting sky and feeling wondrously small. In all my doubts about God and faith and goodness and struggle and suffering, the presence of the ocean is a reassuring reminder that I am a created being, and that I have a Creator. The world is not up to me to run, nor can I alone solve its problems or complexities. In the face of the vast expanse of the sea, I get to be a part of the creation whose primary job is simply to worship. (I am not saying worship is simple. Far from it. It can be quite costly, actually, and quite powerful, and worship is always transformative.)
In our time away, I found space to reflect on this past decade. It’s easily been – to quote Dickens – “the best of times and the worst of times.” Shortly after my last big birthday in 2009, we moved from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, for Seth’s first job as an assistant pastor. Later that same year, I launched a counseling practice at our church. God blessed us with the gift of our twins in 2010. Our daughters began preschool in 2013, and they started kindergarten in 2016. Seth and I celebrated our first decade of marriage, and I published my first book that same year (2016). Then we uprooted our family from Virginia and moved to South Carolina in 2017 to live closer to extended family while Seth pursued his Ph.D. I went to Italy to visit my dear friend, Maria, in 2018. I began working on a second small writing project in 2019 (due to be released this fall). And – I lose track of all of the years – I became an aunt to 7 additional nephews and nieces this decade as well (through a combination of births and foster care).
Those are a few of the major milestones in the category of “the best of times.” The “worst of times” – well, I would rather not dwell on them in detail. But I have blogged through some of them in this space. I have written about others. Other stories have yet to be told. To summarize, they follow the themes of my personal struggle with depression and anxiety, striving to live and write “Unashamed” while being more aware than ever before of the ways shame has had a hold on my life, grappling with deep communal tragedy, fighting my own stubborn sins of pride and entitlement and anger and fear, navigating how to be a wife and a mom and a writer and a counselor without losing sight of my primary identity as God’s beloved daughter, striving to live out the truth of my own writing and teaching, and learning my story and how to share it. There have been mentors and counselors and friends and family members who are witnesses to these dark moments and who have carried me – and our family – through them. There have been authors whose words I have clung to to make sense of the apparently senseless and meaningless, and who have served as guides to me along the journey of both the highs and the lows of this decade.
And that brings me to the second part of today’s post. One of those foundational guides and spiritual fathers died on my milestone birthday. David Powlison, professor and counselor at CCEF, passed into glory on June 7, 2019. I expect there will be many who will eulogize him – as well they should – and many who will remember the impact he had on their lives. I am one of them. I was first introduced to David Powlison in the fall of 2004 as I embarked on my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was my professor in the foundational course of the semester called Dynamics of Biblical Change, and I shared an auditorium with a hundred or so eager students. His instruction changed the way I viewed the process of personal change/sanctification. He taught a few other courses that were part of my degree in Biblical Counseling. Each time, he offered creative counseling insights into the human heart, and he exuded a deep compassion for people that was contagious.
David Powlison carried with him a sense of wonder at God’s Word and God’s work in the world. Whether it was a class or a conference, I cannot remember, nor do I recall the context – but I distinctly remember the way he highlighted the wonder of “a goldfinch in flight.” To this day, I don’t notice a goldfinch without thinking about what he said. I had never noticed goldfinches before, but now I can’t miss them. And I can’t help but to notice the beauty of their wings in flight. And I worship.
That was his larger point – it always was – to draw us to worship the God he himself delighted in. In worshiping, we change. We are conformed to whatever we love most. That is challenging, convincing, and hopeful all at the same time. I’ll end this post with a favorite quote from him, as I join a vast community that grieves his passing – with the hope he testified to – that we will meet again perfectly sanctified, in perfect communion with God and one another.
I haven’t written in this space in awhile. In fact, it’s been almost six months since my last post. I’ve asked myself a few times why I’m not writing as much. The simplest answer is that I feel like I don’t have much to write about. Yet this space is supposed to be “finding beauty + grace in the ordinary + imperfect.” So for me to think that life just seems too ordinary to write about is exactly missing the point – that the reason I began blogging in the first place was to record the wonder of the every day. To force myself to focus on the daily glory and grace that are flooding in, if only I have eyes to notice.
So in neglecting writing, I have kept myself from reflecting on life. Without further ado, here is a snapshot of what feels ordinary and certainly imperfect … but I record it in order to help myself (and you as well?) find the beauty and grace in it.
I work a traditional “9-to-5” as a litigation paralegal in my dad’s medical malpractice law firm. This constitutes the majority of my waking hours and it’s my weekday normal. Working for my dad and his partners in this field of medical malpractice (MedMal for short) has been like learning a new language. I am not medically trained at all, and yet a majority of my job has been reviewing, organizing, and making sense of medical records. Add to that the legal world of motions and hearings and objections and stipulated evidence – and it really has been a whole new world for me.
My husband is a full-time Ph.D. student, studying long-distance to get his doctorate in Christian Education from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) outside of Chicago. He is also the major home support – greets our daughters after school each day and keeps our home running (laundry, dishes, bills, etc.).
Our twin daughters are now in second grade. They have homework every day, and they’re reading up a storm. They love their school and their friends and their books. We enjoy playing games as a family and riding bikes and going on hikes.
We are members of a sweet church-plant in downtown Greenville that loves the arts, the addicted, the poor, the adopted, and best of all, the gospel of grace. It has been a good season for us to simply be involved in a church as a family instead of leading a church.
Challenges that I wrestle with in this season include: how to slow down time because it really seems like our daughters are growing up way too quickly; how to encourage our daughters to love one another with kindness instead of sibling squabbles; how to make the most of the limited time (nights + weekends) I have with family and friends; setting different expectations in this season of full-time work/husband in full-time school; finding time for reflection (and writing!).
I think part of the reason I haven’t written in awhile is that this season of life has been so very different for all of us. I haven’t known how to talk about my job as a litigation paralegal when my identity/platform/calling was previously as a counselor in the local church (for a decade). So much of my writings were a combination of insights/reflections from life as a counselor who was also a pastor’s wife and a part-time stay-at-home-mama of twin preschoolers. My life and roles now are just quite different. I’m the full-time working parent in our home currently; I’m the wife of a Ph.D. student; I’m the mama of elementary age girls who are increasingly independent (as it should be). They don’t even have to rely on me to read to them anymore – what a change that is!
And then the other reason is this stubborn, persistent struggle with burnout and depression over the past few years. I’m not sure I’ll ever write all about that in as public a space as this blog – yet I am willing to share more if it would help others. I’ve been through places of darkness that I did not know were possible to come out of, and yet God has brought me out through the Light of His grace as it shone through His people and His word. After years of pedal-to-the-medal going-going-going in every direction (home, church, career, writing) – I just couldn’t go any further. And I stopped. Fairly abruptly. And for much longer than I would have chosen. Depression was a source of the burnout as much as it was a consequence of the burnout.
Yet in all of the ups and downs of the past few years … and in all the very ordinariness of our current day-to-day … this verse is one I cherish. And I end tonight’s post with this, making it my prayer for you to know this, too, wherever your day-to-day life finds you these days:
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:6)
I could start by noting that it’s been TWO YEARS since part 7 of my 10-part series on shame was written. Just picking up the proverbial pen and paper after such a long absence triggers all of my performance shame. Why didn’t you finish this before now? What’s the point of continuing the stories of shame so long after the last part? Why write at all?
But I want to speak against the performance shame that would keep me from creating new words and writing new ideas by starting.
My daughters are in second grade now, and while there is much that I love about this age, I’ll admit that I’m inwardly a little sad because they start getting grades. For the first time in their lives, they’re going to be given “A’s” or “B’s” or “C’s” or any combination thereof. And the message will begin to creep in that their worth is tied to their grades. And the shame may start when she compares her work to her sister’s and finds that hers doesn’t quite measure up. What makes me sad is that I see this process still at work in my own life. I don’t get graded on my performance – not in letter grades at least – but there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways that I’m told how good my performance is.
Like money. Let’s talk about that taboo subject. Don’t all of us inherently assume that the more money someone makes, the better he or she is? The more worthy they are of our adulation? And no one wants to get a pay cut – not simply because of having less money for spending but also of the inevitable struggle with self-worth that will follow. We are trained to equate our financial worth with our value as people. It becomes the adult grading system of how “good” someone is and how much they’ve “arrived.” Yet the problem isn’t with money itself, nor it is wrong to have a job that pays well. The problem is that performance shame teaches us to measure ourselves against one another, and to do so via our output (performance). In other words, we compare. And in comparison, I will always come up short or superior. Neither is a place where we are to dwell.
How does Jesus break into our performance shame cycles? He does the disarming thing of saying, “It is finished,” at His lowest, most shameful moment of his life – death on the cross. It looks like utter defeat and total failure (what performance shame most fears). But what is finished? All of our striving – all of the ways we try to prove we are worthy to others and ultimately worthy of our Creator God. He flips the definition of shame on its head and completes what will always be unfinished in my half-hearted efforts. He trades my imperfection for His perfection – giving me not only His clean record, but His righteous living. In the Spirit, I am free to live out of Christ’s life. And His is perfect. There’s no room for comparison here, no waiting to see if I’ve “made the grade.” It’s already been accomplished, and it’s perfect.
How does that change my life – my work? It means that I am free to push past shame’s lies of not-worthy and not-good-enough and don’t-try. I look at Jesus’ perfection on my behalf, and I freely engage in the work and life He has given me to live. I can rest before my work is done. I can appreciate another’s work and art without jealousy. I can make mistakes because my salvation and God’s love for me doesn’t rest on my efforts but on Christ’s finished work. And then joy begins to take root in place of shame as I find myself in a community of fellow ones who are free.
Five Minute Friday. Free-writing for five minutes on a given topic. Community link-up here – join us!
She texted me, “No rush!” And something inside me breathed again. How many times do I rush, rush, rush? Do I hurry, hurry, hurry? And I hurry making myself harried. I rush and become rash.
Instead, slow. What would slow look like in the midst of a rushing world? I think it feels like a wide open blue sky space when you’ve been walking through a torrential downpour. It’s like a quiet pond with a comfortable bench so you could perch and rest awhile. It gives time for soul work.
It’s Sabbath every week. It’s sabbatical when needed – or maybe, before it’s needed. It’s vacation that is restful. It’s time away from the demands of your busy life. It’s daily moments to pause, to ponder, to stop.
Just to stop. To stop rushing even when the world around me tells me I must. It’s counter-cultural, and our communities are craving it. Someone, somewhere, to say and really mean it: “No rush.” Just breathe. And pay attention to your life – your one beautiful, wondrous life – and the lives around you.
To stop rushing is to start wondering. And to stop wonder-ing is to start rushing.
I’ve been thinking about “home” a lot lately. Obsessing over it might be a more accurate description. My family doesn’t have a home of our own right now. And after 11+ years of dwelling in our own home, it’s different. We originally thought it would just be a few weeks, maybe two months tops, while were in transition from Virginia to South Carolina and waiting for our home to sell. But this stopgap arrangement has become nine months of living. It will be a full school year by the time this season comes to a completion.
So how do we make “home” for a family of four while sharing my parents’ home? How do they expand their “home” to fit the demands, noise, delights, etc, of a family-of-four-with-two-7-year-olds? I could write a how-to article, co-authored with my parents, on all the ways to make it work or things to avoid. But that would miss the more important way God’s been teaching me about “home” while living in this unique season — like what it means in this time of home-of-our-own absence to know the Lord as my true dwelling place.
I am learning that “home” is many places and that I can choose to make whatever current living space my “home” (even if it’s not entirely or even partially mine). This current transitional season began last fall when our family moved from Norfolk, Virginia, to Greenville, South Carolina, for my husband to pursue full-time doctoral work. Greenville is my hometown — it’s where I was raised from the time I was two-years-old and it’s where I returned to live my first few years out of college. Yet returning to my hometown with my own family in tow hasn’t been as much like returning to “true home” as it once was.
My husband and I have made “home” in two places at this point in our 11+ years of marriage—Philadelphia and Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk’s the only home our 7-year-old twin daughters have ever known. So coming back to South Carolina— while certainly familiar for me and wonderful in the aspect of being close to my family again— is not yet our home as a family. That’s because the process of a place becoming home takes time. We can’t speed it up, no matter how much we try or how many people we start off knowing or how familiar a geographical location is. …
Five Minute Friday is a writing community I link up with most Fridays. It’s a five-minute free write on a given topic. Learn more about it here.
When I think of surrender, what first comes to mind is “raising the white flag.” Like surrender as a last resort in a battle when you realize it’s over and you can’t win. You declare that you give in and give up. So it’s no wonder that “surrender” isn’t something high on my list of favorite topics. I don’t want to give up anything to anyone. Not control, not time, not money … surrender seems to imply I’m giving over what I’d rather keep. But I know that in the Christian life, one of the central themes is surrender. The gospel hymn “I Surrender All” comes to mind. We sing about it sweetly in church, yet I think it’s more like the last act of a battle in reality. I would rather not have to surrender to God. But I do. And what changes this action from grit-your-teeth-and-open-your-hands to willing is when I look at God’s surrender for me. In a word, His love. I don’t surrender first. God surrendered all – His one and only perfect Son – in the battle for my soul and yours against an evil to the core Enemy. Jesus opened wide his arms in surrender at the cross. It was bloody and messy and awful, I imagine. But He did that so that I could be welcomed into God’s love. Surrendering to love is sweet and drives out fear. This surrender is less white flag and more like a lover’s embrace after a long time apart. Finally, you’re here, and I’m here, and we’re together at last. I think that’s true Christian surrender.
It’s been awhile since I took up pen and ink to write. (And still, you might say, I’m taking a shortcut by returning to screen and keyboard.) But – anyway – what I mean to say is that I am starting (again) to write. And you have to start somewhere when you’ve neglected a space and a place for a season.
I’ve been thinking about “home” a lot lately. Obsessing over it might be a more accurate description. Because my family doesn’t have a home of our own right now. And after 11+ years of dwelling-in-our-own-home, it’s different. We originally thought it would just be a few weeks, maybe two months, tops while were in transition from Virginia to South Carolina and waiting for our home to sell. But this stopgap arrangement is now approaching half-a-year total – and we are still waiting.
So how do you make “home” for a family of four while sharing your parents’ home? How do they expand their “home” to fit the demands, noise, delights, etc, of a family-of-four-with-two-7-year-olds?
I could do a few how-to blogs for sure, co-authored with my parents, on all the ways to make it work or things to avoid. But y’all know I’d rather not get too detailed in this space. I like to reflect on the ideas (or ideals?) and parallels and lessons and meaning found behind – above – around – among the details. And what strikes me are two things: (1) “home” is many places and (2) you can always make your space your “home” (even if it’s not entirely-or even partially-yours).
Returning to my hometown hasn’t been as much like coming to “true home” as it once was. Like when I visited home that first Christmas break during college, or when I moved back after college graduation, or even when I came back to get married. My husband and I have made “home” in two places at this point in our 11+ years of marriage – Philadelphia and Norfolk, Virginia. We were in Philadelphia for 5 years total (two of them married); and Norfolk for 8 years. Norfolk’s the only home our twin daughters have ever known. So coming back to South Carolina – while certainly familiar for me and wonderful in the aspect of being close to my family again – is not our homeas a family. It will become that.
But that’s the key – the process of a place becoming home takes time. You can’t speed it up, no matter how much you try or how many people you start off knowing or how familiar a geographical location is.
So what do you do in the meantime? You have a lot of “first conversations.” You know what I mean – the basic get-to-know-you-and-your-story-and-your-job-and-your-family kind of conversations. And you have many similar conversations with many different people. Co-workers, friends at church, neighbors, parents at the soccer field, moms in the classroom, etc. It’s essentially the same conversations over and over again. And of course it gets old after awhile. But there are no shortcuts to relationships or community. You keep remembering that all of your tried-and-true friendships (the people you miss in the other homes you’ve had) started the same way. And over time, similarities emerged. And/or difficulties brought you together. And there will be shared tears and laughter that births true community.
While you’re doing this, you’re also trying to establish a physical “home” that resembles the one you left. Which is extra-challenging when, for example, you don’t actually have your own place yet. But we do have two bedrooms and bathrooms and a hallway-turned-office, and a few weeks ago I hung up twine and paper-clipped our Christmas cards to the hall bannister and pretended it was like our fireplace mantle. And something small like that made this space we’re sharing feel a little more like our own. I try to focus on cultivating gratefulness, which isn’t hard to do most days because of my parents’ generosity and love, and the fact that I have a God in Heaven who arranges even details of my address in order to help me seek and worship him. But there are those days when I obsessively view homes on Zillow that I’d like to live in. And days I just wish I could look at our pictures and eat on our dishes and have a whole roof to call our own. For those days, I’ve written these words so that I can return and remember and gain perspective.
For all of you who are in those in-between-home days, too, I hope these words help you know you’re not alone in the ups and downs of the process. And I’d love to hear from you. What has helped you when you’ve been in a similar place? How do you find home wherever you are?
I’m joining in with Five Minute Friday – a five-minute free write weekly exercise. Find out more here.
Maybe there are fresh flowers on the dresser. A tray of goodies to welcome us. But it can be simpler than that – a warm embrace; plans made for our stay; a place for us to sleep; meals prepared. When we visit another friend or family member, it’s a treat to be with them. It’s about the company. Not the accommodations, per se. It’s a chance to have a break from our routine and join in another’s day-to-day life.
There are limits to phone calls, FaceTime, that make a face-to-face visit necessary. Precious. And harder to fit in now that we have to work around a school schedule.
A visit is an opportunity to be on the receiving end of hospitality. We leave with our spirits refreshed and our hearts full. Ready to return the favor sometime soon.