Pentecost 2023

Stirred by “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in God’s presence,” I am here to witness: I have been shown mercy by Jesus. I have been healed from fear. I have received freedom from shame. I have been given a new heart, and a new spirit has been put within me. And it is the truth that has set me free.

The truth is that in Christ we are loved with the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. The truth is that we are not left as orphans, but that the Holy Spirit has come to us. The truth is that Jesus came to earth not only to heal what was broken but to breathe peace on us before he returned to his Father. And the truth is that Jesus’ breath was a new creation: out of chaos, the ordering of all things. The order is love. You, beloved. Me, beloved.

So I am standing by the baptismal font in the courage and the power of God, and I am renouncing the works of evil which defy God. I renounce the chaos of shame and control and oppression. I renounce the abuse of power and privilege that renders any of God’s precious children disgraced, or perhaps worse: invisible. I renounce the lie that I am not good enough to be welcomed by God, not important enough to be rescued by God, not blessed enough to be in community with you.

Filled by the Spirit, we are sent to be the embodiment of Jesus to each other, to enact the peace we have received. This is the Church: the people of God “quickened, strengthened, and absolved,” sent to preach that in the love of Jesus the captives are to be freed and the broken may be made whole; sent to preach the truth which sets us free from fear and shame and evil, free for peace between us. Sent to preach the Good News of the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, which alone can be the defining features of God’s true kingdom. These are the gifts Jesus asked his Father for, and these we are commissioned to make visible to every person we encounter, to make real in every relationship we are given.

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world. Let our hearts be joyful. Alleluia!

Ashes and Mercy

Lovely Maya Love,

You’ve been with me now just as long in my arms as in my womb.

This morning as I shuffled forward to receive the sign of ashes on my head for the first time as a Catholic, I noticed it was also the first time in a decade to make that pilgrimage alone without my kids. I remember Joshua’s first ashen cross six years ago and the stark and painful reality I allowed my maternal mind to submit to: this tiny babe too—dust, and to dust we shall return. This morning I am consoling myself with the beauty that daddy gets to carry you to the altar today even though I’m not there. There is goodness in my occasional separation from motherhood, and I am thankful for God’s leading me into my vocation these past few years. But I miss you. I feel a sense of horror at being separate from you as your forehead is first marked with ashes. I feel a sense of horror at allowing again the reality that we are so fragile. My heart is wrestling.

The whole world is wrestling. Russia invaded Ukraine last week and all our weariness as the pandemic wanes is braced yet longer for whatever comes of this. At home, I cook three meals a day from dried grains and legumes, doing my best to stretch our grocery budget as inflation presses on us even before we’ve recovered from last year’s house-buying. It’s a tired time to be alive and it’s a tired time to be a Powell.

There’s more than tired and wrestling though. I want to claim more, believe more, practice more. You are our more—our Ebenezer: magic is real too, and love. You’ve brought us there, and not just to magic but to redemption specifically. I slipped Zoë’s ring onto my right middle finger this morning before I left home, and as I drove to work I thought how the gift of Zoë made the soil of our hearts fertile to receive you, to receive the love God wants for us. The winter of death we experienced in that loss is somehow bearing fruit in the spring you’ve brought.

But today the change of seasons feels like mud, like stubborn ice, like tender shoots so susceptible to being crushed. I remember when we were given Zoë my meditations were full of the wonder of life’s fierceness: resurrection and resilience. Grass sprouting through concrete sidewalks. Lately I think of life’s tenderness: dust to dust.

Maybe Lent is just what I’ve been waiting for as I ache for a respite from the wrestling. Our family’s happiness feels rusted over and for the life of me I can’t restore it. We’re stressed and weary and short tempered, all of us. It’s been this way for so many months that it’s years now. It was only a couple nights ago that you heard me lose my temper (again) and scream ugly words at precious, disobedient children. Again. Your sweet new ears, already exposed to this dark world. It crushes me every time. I’ve brooded in my more anxious moments that the reason you love Daddy so much is that you don’t feel safe with me. Ridiculous, I realize. For one thing, he’s not all sunshine either.

We ache over our dark parts, cowering sometimes in the full view of what ruin we humans are capable of. And yet we are promised not only life but redemption. Reconciliation. We come broken and Christ heals us. Ruin gives way to restoration. Often it’s such a powerful phenomenon that we shudder to realize we wouldn’t have wanted it another way in retrospect.

So here I am today at the outset Lent—our first Lent since its practices have become a matter of corporate submission for us instead of only private choice. I’ve been feeling desperate week after week and month after month for our brokenness to be cast and mended while at the same time feeling conflicted and uncomfortable with the grace of confession, so tangled in the web of toxic and abusive spirituality that I want to leave behind. I don’t know how to confess. Or what.

Home is a reflection for a later date, but it is a factor here too, or actually the whole solution. So here’s a preface. We’ve been meditating on John O’Donohue’s Blessing for a New Home this winter: “May it be a house of welcome for the broken and diminished.” That final line resonates most with me right now, making room for me to embrace the rest of the poem, too, in hopefulness and faith.

As the Mass ends we have sung “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” In the line “Oh for the wonderful love he has promised” I recall the sacred moment of sight I had two weeks ago in Chicago. A choir of inner city youth sang a composite anthem that gave my soul words. “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.” “Put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.” “I’ve Got a Robe.” I realized so viscerally and with such newness that it felt like a birth: I belong. Immediately, my mind is brought back to the present moment, here with ashes on my head, as I sing the second line of this old gospel tune. “Though we have sinned he has mercy upon us, mercy for you and for me.”

“Oh sinner, come home.”

It took us months to move from Bloomington to Indianapolis and we’re all still feeling stunned and drained. I’ve tried time after time to create space and open our hearts for the life we want, the way of being in the world that is love. But all my intentions and attempts feel too ambitious, premature. Always I am left just more aware that we are broken and diminished.

I enter this season of Lent mostly cynical and incredibly tired of wrestling. This morning I find I’m curious, too, even hopeful. Perhaps these Lenten disciplines could be a path of restoration for us. Mostly, I’m grateful for the invitation to come home. To mark dust on my brow and yours. To enter this liminal time between winter and spring—the tender, fragile, messy time when life awakens. To take the penitential path. To let redemption do its work. To receive mercy.

Perhaps next time I write to you you’ll be turning one and we’ll have come to Easter. Come through penitence, confessing our nature, confessing our brokenness, to find mercy. Mercy for you and for me. Mercy, yes, but belonging too. Home for us sinners.

Emmanuel (Here Comes the Sun)

My Dear Children,

What a year we have had. Wave upon wave of nothing but highs and lows. A year ago we surprised you with plane tickets to the beach. Every day for a week we plunged into the surf and battled the ocean with nothing but joy. I’d leave you in bed sleeping each morning to go watch the sunrise in stillness, finding the place I needed for cleansing tears over old griefs. The year just passed had brought me face to face with demons, and I was grasping for hope that I could ever be made whole. I was finding it, too: finding it in you, in the life growing in my womb, finding it in the beauty of the sand and the sky and the power of the water. “Here comes the sun” became my mantra as I practiced hope. (It is a practice and a skill.)

A year later and it occurs to me that those wild waves we danced in during the first days of this year were a good image for every day that has followed. Wild, wild, wild. Now as I sit by the window of our new house listening to Lessons & Carols from Kings, I’m meditating on the stable and the manger; on Mary’s surprise pregnancy and horribly-timed travel plans. This was the setting for the coming of the Sun. I’m thinking about our Christmas this year, upended by everything — from the ear infection that has wrecked my hearing this first year of directing a live choir, to the last-minute travel plans that have split the six of us in half for the week so Daddy can help his sister’s family make it through Cancer Christmas. We finally finished moving in the day before I lost my hearing. And now Maya is crawling and needing avocado and sweet potato forever wiped out of her chubby fingers. What a year.

This week we are looking ahead to 2022: an empty calendar reserved for us to simply breathe. Maybe our luck will turn in the weeks ahead. Lumber prices and water heaters and pandemic policies could lie behind us, and ahead of us our new city, the cozy home we’ve made, work we love, freedom to “school” you however it suits us day by day for one last term, our fleet of bicycles, the prospect of new friendships.

There aren’t a lot of tangible gifts under our Christmas tree this year, and your stockings hang thin and light. Tomorrow I’ll fill them with vouchers for time and attention and connection and exploration, because it’s all we can afford after the year we’ve had. I bought myself a print of Mary & Eve, but otherwise I’m cataloging my Christmas presents as already accrued: a diploma recital that still makes me shudder with the memory of the happiness; Sweet Little Maya Caroline; my very own home and even the 10,000 pounds of construction trash hauled off the postage stamp backyard last week; the day this summer when we received the sacraments together surrounded by family-of-choice at St. John’s; the best jogger/bike-trailer money can buy, found used and funded by wedding gigs.

There was also our day three weeks ago at Notre Dame when Patrick’s choir premiered the anthem they commissioned from me at the Basilica during the Vigil Mass. As we drove north that morning listening to Advent tunes I’ve been singing along to for twenty years, I was astonished by the love and the happiness of the scene: The six of us living exactly the life we want to live. It feels rather impossible to have a life this happy and whole – too good to be true. We’ve arrived here via a steep and winding road. The climb has been exhausting at best, harrowing often. We’ll tell you that story as you get older.

The last few years as I’ve tackled grad school, and the pandemic has up-ended our vocations, we’ve barely had bandwidth for merry-making when the holidays have come around. And now here I am, wrestling with the complicated and exhausting landscape of Maya’s first Christmas. We’ll celebrate next week when we’re together. But I find the ice over my heart thawing these last couple weeks as I encounter the season’s texts for the 35th time. Thawing despite the professional pressure they hold for me this year. Thawing as if to finish the work I began by the ocean a year ago. “It’s alright.”

The truth is, we’ve dragged ourselves to this finish line bruised and deflated. We hardly possess the spirit for celebration. And this is the heart of my meditations on the Christmas story today. If ever there was a Christmas for our family, this is the one. This was an entire Year of Christmas – the year of Emmanuel: from New Years’ Day sunrise to Maya’s Mother’s Day arrival; from each simple moment of love we’ve managed to grasp amidst the parade of chaos and calamities, to December 27 when we will wake up together in our own beds with nowhere to be but here. Our gifts have been many and God has been with us.

Christ, my dear sister Laura reminds me, was born to a genuine mess: a barn of all places, with animals and the mess animals make. O Magnum Mysterium. What better year than this one for the six of us to know Christ born in our hearts again? Christ born to traveling parents at the worst moment. Christ bringing love. Love and hope and peace and light to us and to the whole cosmos. Heaven come to earth for real and forever.

So Merry Christmas, my loves. We are here, and Christ is with us. That is everything.

“Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly,

fill you with peace and goodwill,

and make you partakers of the divine nature;

and the blessing of God Almighty,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

be amongst you and remain with you always.


“Children and Art”

August 30, 2021

My Dear Ones,

Now we are six. And what a six! Maya has burst onto our scene in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a move. She’s changed the game for sure. It’s your first day of school for the fall (and I expect it’s our last first day of homeschool for several years) and I’ve arrived in a state of complete disarray. I want to feel excited. I want to care enough to make it magical. But I have no energy left.

Energy is something I’ve got in spades, isn’t it? Energy and grit and capacity and good ideas. Behind us are ten years as a family full-to-bursting of beauty and growth. They’re full of folly too, and when I came here to write I found the Christmas letter from 2017. It’s the same tale I was coming to tell you here: I love you, I want to lay it all down, I can’t make it all perfect, Please forgive me for trying.

These four years have been worse than puppet theaters, vespers recitals, and generational anxiety. Sweet babies, these four years have made me crave those simpler challenges. It’s all been quite literally too much. But this is the mercy I’ve needed, because I can no longer haul my way through current demands to arrive at moments of crafted happiness with you. The current demands aren’t going away. They haven’t, no matter how I’ve tried to shoulder them, to lift them off of us like a boulder.

Instead it’s time to choose to stop. To sit. To rest. To love. This is what I’m learning in the school of sheer exhaustion. As I’m coming to understand Seurat’s problem as my own–“Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat”–coming to recognize that I’m balancing “Children & Art” even though They advise against it–I’m beginning to see the visionary strengths I possess are in tension with love. They are even a danger to it.

I do not love the ideals of you. I do not love the images in my head of us homeschooling. I do not love the dreams I have of being with you. I will not love these: I will love you. Mary has patterned submission for us; I was learning that four years ago. But the submission she has patterned is a submission to love, and this is what I’m learning now. I’m learning it through Maya, because never has there been such a bumper-crop of love amongst us. The way you dote on her is stupifying. I just never knew there could be so much love. The way I feel as I lay her back in bed after a fifth night waking is stupifying. She’s my hard baby. Her needs and demands are unpredictable and frustrating, and I’m exhausted. But I never knew there could be so much love. And there was nothing else in the world our family needed to welcome amongst us but love.

Today as we begin, I pray love for us. I pray you feel my love in my presence. I pray you feel my love in acquiescence and acceptance. In my leaving the goals. In the unhung prayer wall artwork. In the way I accept this unfinished house we are still trying to fit ourselves into. I pray you find love, too: love for your work and love for yourselves. I see you needing both those things and I hope to keep my eyes on those objectives rather than becoming distracted by the scenes from my imagination which I feel an urge to conjure. Conjuring my imagination: this is a good description for how I live, and for how I’ve made the world for you. I’m proud of this, truly, and the proof has been in your delight. But the dark side of that moon is your stress and mine. And now at the end of two years of adrenaline, I cannot subject us to stress any longer. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot.

So I am choosing to stop. To be present to moments of utterly uncomplicated reality–to books and lessons and smiles and struggles however we encounter them. I am so desperate to be in your company and to be at rest. For me, this fall, love is shutting my ears every day to the song of the hat. Sure, I am forever an artist, and I will make beauty this fall. But I will not make myself or you wait for love while the beauty is unfinished.

I love you.



(The literary references are to Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George” and that beloved-if-overly-optimistic little piece of children’s literature called “The Little Engine That Could.”)

Please Don’t Ruin America

I am psychologically exhausted from the position I stand in. I have close and deep connections to Americans on both edges of the political spectrum in our country. As with any spectrum, it’s likely that most people are near the middle. I know plenty of those, but because of my roots in extremely conservative Christianity, my college years spent at an institution that is part of a far-left Christian denomination, and my professional sphere of the arts, I’ve got mostly extremes in my personal collection of people I know and hear and love. And y’all are wearing me out.

What I want to say to all of you (and my mom) is that none of you are as evil as the other side has decided you are. So, whether you read National Review or The New Yorker, please breathe. And please make a friend on the opposite end of the spectrum–and I don’t mean someone just down the line from you; I mean someone you think is politically (maybe also theologically) INSANE. And please read Brené Brown’s 2017 book “Braving the Wilderness.” In fact, please read it with your insane friend and please talk to each other. Please talk knowing that you will passionately and permanently disagree but knowing that we are all seeking basic human flourishing.

Basic human flourishing is something we can seek together if we can be respectful. However, what I’m hearing (and I’ve heard it since eating childhood lunches with Rush Limbaugh on the boom box) is degrading, disrespectful, and frankly absurd. If you live exclusively in one niche, you might not realize that all the vitriol your tribe uses to refer to “the others” is the same vitriol they’re using to describe you. So it’s clear you have at least that in common.

I do not think the Republicans want to ruin America. I do not think the Democrats want to ruin America. Furthermore, I do not think the Republicans are capable of ruining America, and I do not think the Democrats can pull it off either. I do think that a polarized concept of each other and a willingness to engage in ridicule absolutely can ruin a whole lot more than America.

I’ll be in my hammock with my reading list. It would probably horrify you if you saw what it includes.

Empathy & Forgiveness: Quarantine Edition

One of the first stories in this week’s New Yorker magazine follows the experiences of married couples faced with quarantine. “Perhaps global pandemic and marital strife go together,” muses the author. This isn’t the first prediction I’ve seen this week that divorce rates are going to spike when quarantines are lifted. But I’m wondering along with this author: “Does every quarantine scenario have to resemble Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’?” He quotes a psychoanalyst who says what you’ll need in this case is empathy.

For what it’s worth, here’s a personal anecdote from the recent history of my rather complicated marriage. (I acknowledge there is no other kind.) Laying aside specifics, here’s the general landscape. You can supply your own specifics if the landscape looks familiar.

We had hit another point in our cycle where we didn’t know how to make each other happy. Attempting any conversation usually meant inviting frustration, and probably also a fight. In a stroke of what I’ll call luck for the moment, we each stumbled simultaneously into our own lines of new thought as we processed, in our own ways, our shared experience of this familiar mess. The result was an apocalyptic and unplanned kitchen counter conversation that lasted (give-or-take) six hours, not factoring in the pauses involved in parenting three kids late on a Saturday. The conversation spawned a dozen more conversations over the next few days, and this is what I’d like to report:

We both made a daring decision to step into empathy, creating a space for our partner to share their own experience. We set aside our usual mode of processing these things because it just wasn’t delivering the results we were looking for. I am a firm believer in statements like “But I did my best” and “I couldn’t have done that differently.” I think it’s essential to the healing of wounded relationships and wounded selves for us to understand and honor the basic needs that drive us and how they cause us to respond to life. But a few years of practicing these rubrics of self-awareness and boundary-setting (“I’m sorry you are upset, but this is as much as I’m willing and able to give.” “I realize you don’t agree with me, but this is what I believe I have to do.”) had helped us grow and brought us to a place of mutual respect…and distance. In so many ways I have my life and he has his. We have “our” life, too, because we’re lucky to share a lot in common: kids, community, general conception of the world, taste in TV shows, appreciation for life’s simple joys, even vocation/career path. But we were each feeling alone most of the time, and not in a good way.

So instead of the familiar “But I did my best” routine, we tried something risky: Forgiveness. Round after round, we listened to each other’s personal accounts of this marriage – all ten chaotic years of it. (Cross-country move, multiple churches, multiple jobs, years of graduate work, self-employment, home renovations, three children and a miscarriage, just to catalog the big things.) We met every story with empathy and compassion. It went something like this:

“I experienced that.”

“I see you. I hear you. I remember. That must’ve been hard. I would’ve hated being in your shoes.”

“You weren’t what I needed in that moment. That happened to me because of you.”

“Oh. I hadn’t looked at it that way yet….”

And then would come the hard part, and it felt positively formulaic:

“…but I’m looking at it that way now. And I’m sorry.”

And then, the even harder part – part of the formula but feeling remarkably less formulaic:

“I forgive you.”

Over and over and over, constantly swapping roles, we took off our armor, laid down our weapons, and talked to each other about the marriage we’ve had. The ground rules: Empathy and forgiveness.

We’re not finished, but we’re getting good at the formula, and we feel safer with each other than we have in years. Our ten-year anniversary celebration was scheduled for last weekend and we had to swap out our travel plans for a cheeseboard on the living room rug. It was absurdly simple but incredibly beautiful to share a bottle of wine with this person who’s stuck with me for ten years of almost-constant drama, and to know that we are actually together: known, understood, accepted, safe, chosen. Loved.

Life is a genuine sh*t-storm, often. If you’re married to someone who loves you, it’s probably safer than you expect to acknowledge that you’re not perfect; to acknowledge that your finitude, your boundaries, your mistakes, your choices, your preferences, do in fact cost the people you love dearly. It’s safe to be curious about their experiences and to be the empathetic listener they need, even if they’re talking about you. It’s safe to agree with someone who is saying “You hurt me” if you’ve already agreed that the protocol in place is: “I’m sorry / I forgive you.”

I have shuddered a few times in the last week to wonder what our experience of this quarantine would’ve been if we hadn’t stumbled into that conversation when we did. So I’m telling our story, placing it among the myriad of “You may as well try this at home” offerings the almighty Internet is presenting us with as we sit alone wondering how to make it through this quarantine.

I Am a Musician

I recall mornings helping with breakfast dishes as a child, as Karl Haas’s voice would greet me over the radio station (“Hello everyone”) to the sounds of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. There’s no good way to describe the smile I felt inside. Later, still listening to the Classical station over my math pages, my heart would race just a little when I heard anything from the Baroque period, especially if it was orchestral. There were cassettes of Jean Pierre Rampal playing Telemann, of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s playing Bach’s exquisite Concerto for Oboe d’Amore. I’d sit with them for hours in the afternoons. I know every note still. My father’s college students would come over for Sunday afternoons sometimes and once they brought Handel scores and sang along to the Messiah, an assignment for their music history class. I was smitten. My strongest early memories are musical ones, and they are invariably memories of joy so strong it was bodily.

My strongest memories from my teens are musical too, but they are memories of doubt and confusion, eclipsed by a confidence I should not have possessed. I was steeping in a tradition that had grown up as a distortion of Christianity — a concept of gender roles that insisted that women were destined not even just ideally, but exclusively, for marriage and motherhood. To set those two ideals before a child — any child — is a gift; hopes and dreams of a family are deeply human and beautiful.

But the voices speaking to me in my adolescence were confining voices. One woman handed my a Xerox of a magazine article when I was fifteen. The thesis of this article was that Christians should not send their daughters to college because to do so suggests to these young women that their calling could be other than marriage and motherhood. The article was entitled “Teaching Our Daughters to Blaspheme God.”

Another authoritative voice in my adolescent world heard my first whispers of realization. I was sixteen and had just participated in my church’s adult choir concert. Everything about the experience was compelling. I adored the choir director for a dozen reasons. “I want to be a choir director someday,” I confided. And in a moment that I reflect on now as pure (though unwitting) evil, this grown-up I loved and trusted replied “Maybe you could lead a children’s choir since it would be unbiblical for a woman to be a choir director because then she would have authority over men.”

By that point in my life I had responded to the shaping voices around me with a vibrant and submissive imagination. Without a second thought I shifted my dreams. Again. I became comfortable with the idea of children’s choir and found many opportunities to grow the gifts I possessed toward that mission. I had a large roster of private piano students. I devoted myself to helping my mother care for our family. But the sparks of extreme joy from my childhood never happened in those contexts, and I nearly forgot about them until, in my late teens, I had the good fortune to study with a private instrumental teacher again, something that was only an occasional part of my childhood in a homeschooling family of seven children living on a shoestring.

It was Bach’s trio sonatas and Schubler chorales that triggered those smiles again, along with the small handful of times I was lucky enough to sing in ad hoc choral ensembles. By then, though, I knew one truth without a doubt: I would never make this kind of world class collaborative music myself, because I was a woman. I would be a wife. I would be a mom. I would be a musician here and there and now and then, but to say it was my calling would be unbiblical. To imagine that I could ever lead it, or that I could ever devote time and attention to world class opportunities, was impossible because it was incongruent with my settled understanding of my gender and what it proscribed.

Tonight I’ll be at the console of the world class organ in Auer Hall at the Jacobs School of Music, where I am a graduate student. It will not necessarily be a world class performance, but I will have a solo minute at the close of the concert, inviting the combined choirs into a performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. I will be that Baroque orchestra that stirred my childhood heart. I will replicate, to the best of my current abilities, the sounds I heard Jean Pierre Rampal and Alison Balsom make–the sounds that I categorized as “not available to me.”

Earlier in the program, the rendition we will offer of Abbie Betinis’s incredible “From Behind the Caravan” will absolutely be world class, involving a percussionist who was recently a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by a professor only two years older than I, who has an international career in choral music. I’ve studied both conducting and composition with him this year and I am singing in his choir – singing music by Abbie Betinis, a fellow alumna of my alma mater, a composer whose voice resonates with me, whose skills I aspire to. These songs are of burning courage, and I?… I understand them.

I will be singing them with burning courage, and my heart will be racing again for sure. My husband and children will be in the audience to see me take my first bow on the world’s stage. What I know now is that my calling involves at least these three things: marriage, motherhood, and music. I am like a child again these days — the one with the smile at the kitchen sink, not the one with the settled understanding. I come home each night bone tired and invariably, no matter how demanding or even demoralizing the day’s work was, I grin and say to my husband with a sense of relief, “I just can’t believe I get to go back again tomorrow.”

My compass, to quote a poet, had been broken. Tonight it is not, and I am at the outset of a surprising journey down a road beyond home that is deeply beautiful and immensely good.




Transformed by Love

This post was originally given as a speech for the annual gala event of a local chapter of Safe Families for Children. 

There are plenty of voices telling us why we do the work that we do to care for our community–to reach out with hope and compassion to those in crisis. But I would like to reflect with you about how we do it.

Whether or not you have stories of your own yet, I’d like to paint a picture for you so you can imagine yourself in these scenarios, and then I’m going to have the audacity to suggest that I have a magic formula for making it work.

Imagine you agree to host a sweet six year old and then you trip on the stairs and break your foot the first night. Imagine you are keeping a one year old with full-time daycare but then the daycare is unexpectedly closed two Mondays in a row. Your daughter throws up. Your heater stops working. You wind up in bed with the flu. The basement toilet quits. Oh, and the back door handle is broken.

My point is that Safe Families is ordinary, and it happens in the middle of our ordinary lives. Sometimes our ordinary lives feel really, really messy.

I wasn’t the mom with the broken foot, but all the rest of that was my life last month. I had just finished a major grad school audition to boot. After months of exhausting preparations, I just wanted to relax.

But we’d said yes to a few weeks with a precious little guy who needed shelter during a short-term crisis. It was a Sunday morning and he was fussing on a changing table in my guest room as I slathered his eczema with cream. I was bleary-eyed and grumpy and didn’t really want to help. I was basically The Grinch.

I’m telling you this because I want to make a point that not only does ordinary life get messy, but our hearts are sinful and bent towards selfishness.

Years ago I nannied a child who I did not love. I’m not proud of this. I’m here to tell you from experience that simple tasks are a drag when you don’t want to do them. If you don’t know what I mean, ask your kid to clean her room when she had plans to play. Being the caretaker for a child I resented was hard. Making lunch and wiping noses was joyless and annoying and draining without love.

Exhausted as I was on that Sunday morning last month, I thought back to those nannying memories. I had enough experience under my belt to realize that I could not afford to be the Grinch. Sharing our life with this baby would be way too hard unless I loved him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love over the past year. How the love of God shapes what we do. How we’re designed for love because we’re designed by God. How we’re designed for connection and for attachment, to God and to each other.

I’ve been thinking about how I’m made to be with Jesus and to love Jesus.

Why is it that it’s valuable for a child to attach to you even for a few weeks if that’s all you have? Why will you look into his eyes and tell him he’s beautiful? Tell her you’re glad she’s here? Why will you care about her if you won’t ever see her again after this month? I think it’s because we’re designed to be connected, and when you give a child the gift of connection you are giving her the gift of her inherent design and dignity. You are giving him the chance to Be With. To know that he’s not alone.

All of us need that. We crave connection with those we love. I think most of all that’s because we crave connection with Jesus.

So here’s my magic formula. I looked down at that little guy on the changing table and I thought of that verse we like to quote, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” We get a lot of mileage out of the “least of these” phrase in our circles of mission and service work. But what jumped out at me that morning was the other half.

“You did it to me.”

For just a moment I saw Jesus covered with sores. If Jesus were covered with sores wouldn’t you want your name to be on that list of caretakers? Wouldn’t that be the opportunity of a lifetime? And wouldn’t it be embarrassing to show up grumpy for that assignment?

Loving that little boy was an opportunity to love Jesus. That is what we are doing when we love each other. When you bring a pizza to a host family you are feeding Jesus. When you spend your Saturday at the park with a six-year-old you didn’t know last week, you are spending your Saturday with Jesus.

You can see it another way if you’re not careful. I know this from experience. You can see the cost and the mess, because it is costly and messy and really exhausting. But if we look carefully we can see Jesus in each other and all this work can become an opportunity to be with him and to love him.

This is what we’re designed for: to be with Jesus and to love Jesus.

I want to encourage you to look beyond the broken foot and the broken door handle and open your heart to the friends of Jesus.

I believe when we do that our work is transformed into joy, and that joy will transform you. You won’t see another task added to your load. You’ll see Jesus, and you’ll see people he loves being loved by him (through you!), and you’ll see yourself caught up in his love as your heart opens and grows and you add to your family one more time: one more person: one more pizza: one Grinchy heart-size bigger than you were before.

That is my prayer for each of us as we give generously from our own lives in our various ways, as we bring hope and love to our community. Let’s be a team of eager love-bringers. Let’s connect to each other and connect to those we serve. Let’s see Jesus in each other and be transformed by love.


Third Culture Kid

Several weeks ago on a Saturday I retreated with a friend of mine to one of her favorite places, a Catholic community deep in the rural farmland of southern Indiana. I cried and wrestled with my own unfolding and confusing and frustrating journey as I sat in a smoky Latin mass surrounded by those who belonged there, filing forward to cross my Protestant arms over my chest while others received the sacrament.

Then I came home to join my husband in the chaos of caring for a toddler who doesn’t belong to us, whose severe eczema was bleeding in places. We occasionally join hands with an organization called Safe Families for Children. It’s predominantly made up of conservative evangelical upper-middle-class white Americans. I’d like to say, as a sometimes-card-carrying member of this demographic, that these folks drive me crazy.

Less than 24 hours after the rural Latin mass, I dropped my children off for their Sunday school classes at our current place of worship–a progressive, liberal congregation of the ELCA. With the one-year-old in my care for the morning, I had to forego my quiet hour of reading and writing, opting for a neighborhood walk with the stroller. I listened to the birds, appreciating the sunshine and the crisp fresh air and the headspace.

I was thinking about a friend’s suggestion that I’m a Third Culture Kid. A couple days earlier as we lifted weights together at the gym, she’d remarked that I’m good at making anyone and everyone feel at home, but that I don’t seem to ever feel at home anywhere myself. Her perception of me resonated. I don’t feel that I belong in any of these three places despite the fact that I exist in them day in and day out. I don’t belong in them, but I understand them.

The perspective of the modestly-dressed, dour-faced women chanting Hail Marys makes sense to me. Their shrine for the unborn children murdered by abortion makes sense to me. The perspective of the conservative Protestants concerned with their best understanding of historic, orthodox Christian theology makes sense to me. Their determination to broaden their “pro-life” politics, putting their money where their mouth is, being tangible hands and feet of Jesus makes sense to me. The perspective of the progressive liberal Protestants with their wide-open arms and their sociologically-driven concept of religion makes sense to me. Their shape-shifting, contextual theology makes sense to me.

Yes, I feel like a Third Culture Kid. Nowhere feels comfortable, but all of it makes sense to me. And while I love being able to understand and appreciate so many different perspectives, the hard part is that I’m tired almost all the time. It’s exhausting to live without a firm grasp on home.

As I reflect on all this, I have two emerging thoughts I want to explore. First, how do I take care of this Third Culture Kid? How do I stay healthy? How do I find rest? How do I keep my head in the game? Second, how do I be myself? How do I find the courage to be honest about who I am? How do I tell the Safe Families crowd that I’m becoming Catholic? How do I tell the Catholics that joining them is going to be the greatest loss I ever accrue? How do I tell the progressive liberals that I believe gender is binary, even though I applaud their approach to the surrounding issues, even though I’ve learned so much from them about the dignity of humanity and the difficulty of it all?

I have very little by way of answers to all of this, except a suspicion that the answers to the first set of questions are probably found in the second set. This, and another thing, given to me this week by a wise pastor: Spiritual maturity is coming to a place where your immutable belovedness is a filter that protects you from everything. Anything anyone says is only an opportunity to listen to who they are. It can’t hurt you: you are immutably beloved.

This is one more thing Jesus knew when he said “Come to me all of you who are weary and I will give you rest.”

Baptismal Identity

There are times when my human inclinations and my Christian identity come into conflict with each other. All my spirituality cannot carry me unscathed through the fires of hurt or anger, disappointment or discomfort, loss or loneliness.

Yet a Christian is one who has been marked with the cross of Christ, gathered into his identity as the beloved Son of God. With this identity comes a mission, and it is a simple one: love, grace, peace – words that are so ubiquitous as to be easily overlooked. But hidden underneath their surface is an inexhaustible treasury of the very nature of God. It is this treasury that I am called into; that I am literally immersed in as I go through the waters of baptism.

Christ’s prophetic call to those who would follow him that they must die makes sense to me this winter. It has been a season of tears. I am faced with a task that is so opposed to my human nature that it feels like dying to confront it. It is, in fact, a death of sorts: a death of ego and a death (at least for a time) of some of my deepest desires. But it is a situation outside my control. As in all things, my approach to it is determined by my Christian identity, a reality that I believe supremely transcends all things.

I bring myself to worship each week because I am never immersed enough in this identity. Sunday after Sunday I mark myself with the baptismal water. Sunday after Sunday I hear the proclamation of forgiveness and the call of discipleship; I revel in the unity of all the saints near and far who gather to receive Christ’s body and blood; I open my hands to receive a divine blessing: to re-claim my identity: to remember that God dwells in me. When all has been said and done I am sent out. I enter into the Church’s mission again of living out of the treasury of God’s love, grace, and peace.

Today is observed as “The Baptism of Our Lord” for many Christian traditions. This morning our preacher asked us to catalog for ourselves all our different hats: the roles we fill from one day to another. The imagery was beautiful, made vivid for me as I had just shown my three-year-old son the picture on the cover of the bulletin of a dove descending on Jesus’ head at his baptism. The reality of the Christian gospel is this: that Dove is the hat over all hats. Unlike the roles I move in and out of, my baptism into Christ is an unalterable identity.

I came to worship this morning feeling the weight of my humanity. I came because I needed to hear the story again. Here and nowhere else I knew I would find the strength to approach my mission, which my grandpa articulated for me so many times when I was a kid: “Susan,” he would say, affection lighting up his eyes, “Always let God’s love flow through you to others.”

As we gathered around the Table the most familiar words struck me in a new way. “On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread.” What could be a fiercer fire of humanity than the experience of betrayal? With what strength did Christ’s humanity wrestle in that moment against his mission to bring divine love to the world? And yet he stayed. I wonder if he thought of that Dove again – rehearsed for his human self his true identity. I wonder if he felt what I’ve been feeling: the relief of centering myself here.

This morning I don’t know how to better characterize the life I’m participating in than to say it is a relief. It is certainly hard, too. Hard because my human inclinations are in conflict with it. A relief because the gospel is just that: gospel. Good news! I am a beloved child of God. I am, and so are you. Nothing could be better. Nothing could be truer.

While I am wrestling through my human experience and even doing my best to honor it (It is I, after all, and not some ethereal abstraction, who am a beloved child of God), I am taking up my mission with courage and joy, charting my course according to the very nature of God, strengthened with the knowledge that it is not my love, but God’s love flowing through me, as my grandpa said; comforted with the recognition that what my baptism brings me, along with a share in Christ’s death, is a share in his Spirit of power, peace, freedom, wholeness, and joy.

Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make;
this very day invade us, and every bondage break.
Come, give our lives direction, the gift we covet most:
to share the resurrection that leads to Pentecost.
–Fred Pratt Green, 1903-2000

Baptize us with your Spirit, Lord; your cross on us be signed,
that likewise in God’s service we may perfect freedom find.
–F. Bland Tucker, 1895-1984

“Go, my children, with my blessing, never alone.
Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing, you are my own.

Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.
Here you learned how much I love you, what I can cure.
Here you heard my dear Son’s story, here you touched him, saw his glory.
Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.

“Go, my children, fed and nourished, closer to me.
Grow in love and love by serving, joyful and free.
Here my Spirit’s power filled you, here my tender comfort stilled you.
Go, my children, fed and nourished, joyful and free.”
    –Jaroslav J. Vajda, b. 1919