the blog book tour: day 7. fumbling toward grace

All good things must come to an end.

So here we are at the last stop of the Everyday Sacrament book tour.

EverydaySacrament_quote4To say that this virtual gathering of bloggers and friends has been a joy would be an understatement. Each one of them has inspired and encouraged me, and I hope they have affirmed the ordinary holiness of your own life, too.

November and December have been a stressful season chez nous. We’ve had big work deadlines, no child care, international trips, sick kids, broken appliances – you name it, and it feels like we’re floundering.

And in the midst of this already crazy chaos, here came this beautiful little gift of a book showing up on our doorstep. All at once I felt humbled and honored – and overwhelmed, to be honest – by the prospect of sharing this slice of my heart with the wider world.

So when all these kindred spirits, each of them mother-writers in their own right, agreed to help me share the news of this book, I was reminded again what a gift this community of bloggers has become in my life. I’m grateful that each of them let Everyday Sacrament into their homes and hearts. And I hope that through their words, you discovered some new kindred spirits, too.

Today Sarah from Fumbling Toward Grace offers a prophetic reflection on parenting, baptism, racism, and justice. 

I’m always inspired by Sarah’s honesty and heart for Catholic social teaching, and today’s post is a shining example of her committed, courageous faith. If you never dreamed that baptism had anything to do with Ferguson, click here to remember the prophetic roots of this sacrament.

And if you missed any of the earlier stops in the tour, check out the full list of reflections, reviews, and giveaways!

Day 1: Ginny from Random Acts of Momness
Day 2: Abbey from Surviving Our Blessings
Day 3: Lydia from Small Town Simplicity
Day 4: Nell from Whole Parenting Family
Day 5: Peg from Sense of the Faithful
Day 6: Molly from Molly Makes Do
Day 7: Sarah from Fumbling Toward Grace

[AND NOW, gentle reader, I PROMISE THAT I AM GOING TO BLOG ABOUT STUFF OTHER THAN SACRAMENTS AND THIS BOOK!]

When I find time again.

Which will likely be in 2015.

(Because let’s be honest.)

Love & light to you & yours this Advent-tide!

how does God do it?

He crouches down next to the crib in the dim room lit only by nightlight. Slowly he bends forward until his forehead brushes the wooden slats where our son’s head rests, a dark tangle of damp curls.

They blur together in the dark, father to son.

I watch from the doorway. The broadness of his back, the curve of his calves, the grip of his fingers resting on the tops of his knees – all poised to act. I wonder how he can keep so still, all his attention focused like a laser beam on the sleeping boy in the bed.

We both search for some sign of distress, beyond the bandaids that wrap round our baby’s arm where the wasps stung. All the first-aid guides I’d dug out of the bathroom cupboard while he was screaming in my ear just a few hours ago warned that an allergic reaction could still arrive hours after the attack.

We’ve never had a child stung before, so here we are thrown back onto the shores of brand-new-parenthood, sputtering and bewildered at how little we know. Are we supposed to wake him to make sure he’s not swelling up? Would we be able to hear on the baby monitor if he went into shock? Should we have stocked an Epi-pen at the ready for emergencies like a bedtime bee sting? Are we needlessly anxious?

We have no clue.

So he squats, crouched by the crib, staring into darkness, waiting for what seems like an agonizing stretch of time. As minutes drag past, my mind starts to wander. Back to the newspaper lying on the kitchen table downstairs, the latest article on Syria that I’d half read and flung aside in frustration: too much. Back to our loss, still cycling through my mind in regular sad rhythms: too soon.

And I start to wonder, as I keep watching from the doorway, my own breath held, how on earth God holds it all in tension.

How the divine power which set the universe spinning could ever be concerned with my heartache. How the force of love incarnate could let such evil massacre babies with warfare. How all of our wants and wounds could ever be gathered under the gaze of One.

But as I keep staring at the strong back bent low to peek through the slats of the crib, I wonder if I see some glimpse of how God might watch each of us, the wasp-stung and the war-torn. How such love could laser in on smallest needs in weakest hours and embrace all of us, too, even in the violence we never cease to wreak upon each other.

Because the world has always been this big and this small. Heated debates over bombing and nervous jitters over back-to-school. Thousands screaming over blood stains in the city square and two crying behind a hospital room’s closed doors. And somehow we who dare or dream or deign to keep believing, believe there is a God who is Good all the time.

I cannot – will not – ever fathom how this works.

But finally he turns to me, smiling in the shadows. “All clear,” he mouths in a half-whisper. We sneak back out of the room.

And all week, as I keep brooding over Syria and grieving the small moments that still catch in my throat, I carry with me this image of a night watch. How the strongest can bend low to care about the smallest. How a father’s attention can focus in an instant when his child’s face is salt-streaked with tears.

Maybe the divine is never so distant as our fears would spin us to believe. Maybe God is always this close, right on the other side of where we rest, watching each one, holding a whole world in love’s heart.

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to retrain my instincts

I will never be a first responder.

My knees go weak at the mention of blood, let alone the sight. I have been known to get woozy over a bad paper cut.

So whenever I see photos of police officers running into smoky scenes, racing in when the rest of us are rushing out, I marvel.

At their courage, of course. At their selflessness. But above all at the proof of their training that rewires their instincts to trump our natural fears.

They do what I would be too terrified to do.

Here we go again, I cry to Boston. Another average Monday blown apart by bombs, another everyday event forever redefined by evil’s horror and violence.

I watch the footage and the photos and the Facebook feeds, and deep inside my stomach knots to one gnarled instinct: run. Grab your kids and go off the grid and head into the hills far, far away from this horrid world where children are blown apart at finish lines.

Would it be so hard to leave comfort and convenience behind if I could simply assure we’d be safe?

But I look at those men and women operating under instincts that are not my own, their knee-jerk reactions that run toward rather than away, their hands that reach out to help rather than cover their heads. And I remember that I, too, have to retrain my instincts towards selfishness and self-protection.

Because this way of Christ runs right toward pain and suffering and fear. It runs toward the blood and the brokenness. It runs toward the fear and the evil and the worst of what we humans can inflict upon each other in hate.

This was never a call to flee the world and run away, but a call to rush in where peace and prayer are needed most.

To remember that at every ground zero of human evil, God is somehow there, too – among the cries and the suffering and the death itself.

And I cannot run from that.

on surprises: lenten and papal

For over a week, half a post for Ash Wednesday sat waiting for me to finish it. And it started like this:

Anyone else feel like the gentle green of Ordinary Time just got yanked out from under their feet, and now they’re sitting plop in the purple of Lent, scratching their head and wondering how we got here so fast?

Is it even allowed to be Mardi Gras before Valentine’s Day?

Or am I the only anxious one who still has Christmas thank-yous on her to-do list?

From whence it wandered into ramblings about how maybe the fact that the dates for Easter and Lent change every year keeps us on our toes, on edge even, makes us more mindful or less likely to lull into complacency.

Which bumped into Scriptural allusions about how you know neither the day nor the hour.

(Which was apparently going to wrap back round to parenting or family life or something else that this blog claims to be about.)

But then we all woke up to the papal game-changer of the century (or rather, six centuries) and the looming start of Lent seemed even more surprising as we all sat around puzzling and pontificating (ha) about how we could possibly have a new pontiff by the time these forty days finished.

So now what are we supposed to do, I wondered. I thought about scrapping this post completely. But then it struck me that if this news is the Hayley’s Comet of ex cathedra announcements, I better scrape together two words about an all-points-bulletin Catholic news story that will surely never come again in my lifetime.

And that was precisely when it hit me:

Perhaps the early Ash Wednesday and the unexpected announcement from Benedict aren’t so far apart after all.

Both remind us of mortality, a sobering reminder that we are all dust and to dust we shall return.

Both mark the beginning of a time of great change, a season of renewal.

Both capture the popular imagination in surprising ways.

Ever try to find a parking spot at an Ash Wednesday service five minutes before it starts? Good luck. Catholic churches are crammed on this unofficial holy day. Every year I notice more and more people packed into the pews. Something about this simple penitential practice, this smear of ash on foreheads, touches us deeply.

Ditto Benedict’s decision. Sure, yesterday was full of ignorant chatter and conspiracy theories and snarky Catholic jokes. But it was also full of surprising resonance, of reporters and religion professors and regular church-goers agreeing that resignation could be wise, that retirement could be well-deserved, that respect was due to a powerful leader who knew when to step down, when to take leave of a calling that was ending.

It’s the eve of ashes, and it all feels surprising. But it’s always jarring when death interrupts life, isn’t it? When reminders of mortality upend our neatly planned calendars of The Way Things Are Supposed to Go?

Weren’t we were just waving our palms to welcome him in? Are they really so quickly burned to ash again?

o come, be born in us

Yesterday the O-antiphons of Advent began.

But mine started early, driving home last Friday on a snowy freeway, catching the afternoon news after a day of meetings.

Oh God, no. Oh God, not again. Oh God, not children.

So many words have been spilled since Friday, and yet I keep struggling to voice how deeply this news wounds. As a mother, of course. But deeper, as a person of faith who tries to make sense of God’s ways, who wonders how we can respond in turn.

It was the familiarity of Sandy Hook that shook me up. The day before the shooting, a school was bombed in Syria, killing sixteen, half of whom were women and children. But that tragedy was a mere blip on the evening news, the daily digest of the continued slaughter of the innocents. My husband mentioned it over dinner and I shook my head. “I can’t handle Syria anymore. Too much. I can’t handle it.”

But now, school heaped upon school, bodies heaped upon bodies, babies heaped upon babies, I keep thinking of Sandy Hook and I keep thinking of Syria. As I finish my Christmas shopping, as I wrap presents, as I write cards. Everything seems surreal in the sight of parents sobbing over tiny coffins. Every year I wrestle with the consumerism of the holiday, feeling lonelier and lonelier as I whisper this is not what Christmas means. But this year, the contrast feels starker than ever.

. . .

Today was the first day I dropped my boy off at school since last Friday. As I rounded the car to open his door and unbuckle his car seat, I suddenly felt my heart leap into my throat. How was I going to leave him here? His safe little preschool, in the small town clap-board church, loomed large in a darker world where everything seems dangerous now.

I halted, hand on the handle, wanting to dash back around to the driver’s side, slam the door shut and squeal out of the snowy parking lot. Flee back home where everything felt safe.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

So I breathed in cold, crisp December air. I opened the door, bent down and smiled. “Let’s go, my love! Time for school!” False cheer in my voice, fake grin on my face.

I pulled his hood up over his small head, tucked his mittens into his coat sleeves, trying not to cry as I thought about parents doing the same routine on last Friday’s morning drop-off.

“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked as he smiled up at me. “I do,” his quiet response.

“And do you remember who’s always with you, in your heart, so you don’t have to be sad or afraid?” “Jesus,” he whispered.

“That’s right. God is always with you.” I hugged him extra tight.

Why did I need to remind him today? Did I need some small sense of protection, some meager assurance that if a murderer burst through the doors of his preschool, he might remember love in the midst of fear? So sick, the ways our minds spin right now, scared and wounded in the face of unimaginable suffering.

But still I walked him across the icy parking lot, swung wide the door and swept him inside. His lovely teacher greeted him with a warm smile as she welcomed him downstairs. And against every fiber in my being, I turned and pushed the door open wide to leave.

I started to tear up as I left the parking lot, memories rushing back of the first day I left him there, the first time I left him with a sitter to go to work, the first time I realized he was no longer snuggled up safe inside me.

How can I do it, over and over again, I wondered as I drove away. How do I keep pushing my babies out into the world?

And the answer came clear and quiet: I have to do it the same way I first birthed them.

Through my own inner strength. Surrounded by the support of others. Leaning into the grace of God.

This is the only way I know how to parent. Maybe it’s the only way I know how to live in this world. It’s surely the only way I know how to celebrate Emmanuel this year.

Remembering that Christmas is not something I do, but something that was done by God, for all of us. IMG_4973

Remembering that in so many corners of the world Advent is always held in this tension: a small light flicking amid death and violence and fear.

Remembering that the Nativity story starts with one scared mother, birthing her baby into a painful world, bearing light into utter darkness.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

the impossibility of advent

Ready for the least surprising summary of spiritual good intentions?

I was going to have an amazing Advent. It’s my favorite season of the church calendar, and I was going to live it. I had plans, I had prayers, I had promises. I would reflect deeply and write profusely and enter mindfully into the mystery of Christmas.

And then. (Always and-then.)

Life interrupted. Everyone got sick.

Work interrupted. I got busy.

Evil interrupted. Joy got sucked straight out of the season.

By the end of this weekend, when we were supposed to be lighting the pink candle and singing of joy, I felt drained and discouraged. Grumpy and Grinch-like, I stomped downstairs with a bucket and a rag to scrub the basement floor in preparation for our Christmas guests.

Kneeling down and washing dirty to clean felt like the only halfway holy thing I could do.

And as I scrubbed, I tried to pray. I tried to pray for peace. For patience. For forgiveness. I tried to pray for mindfulness. For generosity. For simplicity.

But every prayer felt impossible. I was too selfish or stubborn, or the world was too broken and evil. Nothing could budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed, how much soapy water I slopped on the dingy tile.

Until I realized: it’s supposed to feel impossible. Advent is nothing but.

Prepare for the inbreaking of the divine? Good luck with that one. Wrap your head around the mystery of incarnation and virgin birth and angelic messengers? Inconceivable. Wrestle your sinful soul into a place of readiness to meet your Creator? Laughable prospect.

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Advent is supposed to feel impossible. It’s the humility of our humanness when brought to our knees before the gift of grace. It’s the overwhelming weight of our darkness when faced with the brilliance of true light. It’s the lifting up of lowly and the bending down of divine and the upending of all our expectations. It’s the constant, humming, throbbing beat of love’s heart pulsing out life into the cold universe.

All of which feels impossible. And when faced with impossibility, all I can do is lift up my arms to the God of Advent, a tired shrug as much as a prayerful plea, and say Come, please, come. 

Come, Child of Peace. Come, Emmanuel. Come, God-With-Us.

Keep coming. We’ll keep trying.

Impossible as it all seems.

the sheer aliveness of tonight

My children seemed even smaller today, even more fragile and fleeting.

The whole day shifted, slanted towards helpless with the news. Everything felt ugly and overwhelming and exhausting, like being punched in the chest, the core of my heart.

What to say or do or think in the face of horror, of violence wrenched upon a corner of the world, so much like our quiet own, ripped inside out and left bleeding and broken and raw beyond recognition?

The second I got home, I gathered my boys in my arms, smothered their hair with my kisses. Tried to breathe in the simple fact of their existence before they squirmed away. Before they went back to laughing, playing, whining, reading. Being.

For the rest of the day I watched them with other eyes.

I watched them from the corner of the kitchen over dinner. From the bedroom doorway during bathtime. From the top of the stairs while they giggled under the Christmas tree.

I lingered on the normalcy of our night, the ordinary peace of our day. And with every regular breath I felt behind it the weight of families in nightmares, the wail of parents plunged into the deepest loss, the darkness I cannot close my eyes to name.

. . .

Both boys’ skin seemed translucent today. The palest flesh on such small bones, warm blood racing through thin veins just below the surface. At any moment, it seemed, their heart could stop and mine would, too. Any ordinary day. A day of school or church or the mall or the movies – nothing feels safe, nothing feels sacred anymore.

After I cuddled the smallest to sleep, I paused for a moment by our front door. The strong steel door, the door with the lock and deadbolt, the door that blocks the world outside. The thought of opening it tomorrow, of grasping their small mittened hands and leading them out into the cold, choked me with overwhelming.

Taking a single step outside seems an act of faith after a day darkened by so much death. It’s an exhausting prospect, this vulnerable living, this throwing ourselves back out into the world, day after day, never knowing how or when the end will come for those we love, whether that end will be sudden or violent or terrifying or tragic. We never know; we can only keep going. And trying and helping and loving along the way. The simplest acts of living, of chosing to go on, become a daring defiance of violence and hatred and evil and horror.

. . .

This afternoon, my oldest, oblivious to the news I’d flipped off, asked with a grin if we could to do some baking. I figured there was nothing else to do but to do something.

We pulled out flour and eggs, peanut butter and chocolate chips. He snuck extra licks from the spoon as we stirred. I figured life’s too short to care about a few germs.

His baby brother grabbed the sugar canister and stuck his chubby fists inside, spilling out handfuls on the floor. I figured why not add some sweetness to the day.

So we baked. We sang. We played piano. We danced in spinning circles before bedtime, once more, always once more, once more extra on a broken, bittersweet, too-much night like tonight.

In short, we lived. And tomorrow, I pray we will get up and do the same.

Tonight my babies are tucked safe and sleeping in bed. But tonight I think of all the beds that go empty, all the places on the globe where violence and murder and fear are all-too-familiar. I think about God’s head bowing low, bearing the weight of all this pain, grieving the world so far from its created beauty.

I wonder how we go on. But I know that we go on. I am left with nothing but the sheer aliveness of the ones I love, the stubborn fact that we are still here.

That we still have to face the test of tomorrow.