Mad Lib Theology

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Today, I visit my blog to talk about this girl:

Julianna ladybug

Wednesday nights, Julianna goes to “church school” (because it’s easier for little kids to say than “religious ed”) while we’re having choir practice. Usually, in the chaos of grabbing boys from the nursery, cleaning up octavos and books, and getting an overtired family of six out to the van 45 minutes past bedtime, we don’t even catch a glimpse of whatever work she did at school.

So this week, when we gave the choir a week off after Easter, I took Julianna to church school by herself, and in fact I did get a good look at the work she did. Are you ready for this?

Julianna theology

1. I am the Lord your 9: you shall be have mom gods before me. 2. You do not take the chalice of the Lord your God in mercy. 3. Bread to keep three the great Day.

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Once I got done giggling–I mean, it’s like a mad lib!–I realized I was staring at concrete proof of something I already knew: she’s really never going to “get it” from a class. Religious formation is one of the most conceptual things a child can possibly be asked to learn, and Julianna does not do “conceptual.” There’s value in having her in religious ed classes because going week after week teaches her that the faith is central to life. And she’s obviously picked up a couple of key words. 🙂

But with that paper in mind, the lesson I learned on Holy Saturday really gelled. We had gotten Julianna tickets to Disney on Ice at an 11 a.m. show in Kansas City. It was a two-hour drive, and we spent the time listening to the compilation of downloaded Christian music I made her for Christmas a couple years ago. (All legally purchased!) I chose these songs with the idea of having simple, hooky music that still had substantive messages, in order to teach her lessons about the faith. Because music is what Julianna does.

It was an incredibly uplifting drive, singing this music, with Julianna in the back seat decked out in her Miraculous Ladybug getup and dancing. She sang every word, and she danced as best she could while buckled into a seatbelt.

(That girl has jazz hands down.)

And I had this moment of inspiration: to take the essential Scriptures and write simple but hooky songs for kids like her–theologically sound, hopefully theologically dense–but still, simple? Methinks such a thing would be of use to a whole lot wider demographic than musically-gifted 11-year-olds with Down syndrome.

Which also brings up the question I want to ask of anyone reading today:

What songs already out there fit this bill for you?

In case you’re wondering, here’s the playlist we sang on Saturday.

 

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The Multiplication of Rage

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fire-orange-emergency-burning.jpgYou know how muscles get stronger, right? It’s by being broken down. Stressing muscles causes micro-tears that allow for growth.

This seems a very appropriate analogy for life right now. I am going through a time of great spiritual…let’s call it development. “Reorientation” and “upheaval” both sound good, but they aren’t really accurate. Basically, I feel like I’m looking at a stressful situation (my life) and beginning to consider not just how to handle it but whether I’m making it worse by my own spiritual-emotional habits.

I meet weekly with a wonderful pair of women for faith sharing. We’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. It’s been a weekly occasion for mind-blowing, in beautiful but sometimes very challenging ways.

“How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace would multiply as long as there are people to receive it?”

The thing is, what Nouwen says of love, forgiveness, joy and peace is equally true of judgment, resentment, anger and intolerance. And when I say intolerance, I’m not referring to the common topics associated with that word these days, although it applies there, too. No, what I’m talking about is tolerance for irritation. For having our convenience thwarted. You know. The car that’s driving too slowly in front of you. The school district’s decisions about scheduled days off and weather days. The incompetent cashier or the inconveniently-timed software update.

Every January and every Lent, I spend a fair amount of time discerning how best to grow as a human being in these fresh seasons. Yet nearly every year, I get a few weeks in and discover that I’m off-course, or at least, not digging deep enough.

pexels-photo.jpgI’m angry these days. So very angry, all the time. Angry about big things, but finding that it gushes down into far too many of the little ones, too. Eroding my capacity for tolerance for hassles, for kindness to people who inconvenience me. Even my capacity to love.
I’m hardly alone. This essay came through my Facebook feed last week; the resonance of it left me speechless. The first few “top comments” prove the author’s point.

And I realized that I had to turn off the radio in the car again—not just for a few days, but for the duration of Lent. There’s no silence, no peace in my heart; I feel this frantic, well, franticness (to materialize a word) to fill every moment of blank mental space with stimulus, with information. We are desperate in the modern world, and we don’t even know what it is we’re desperate for.

I think it’s rest. A rest we can never find, because we’re strung so tight, the slightest little whisper of a breeze makes us vibrate. Silence feels like a threat, like walking on eggshells through a room where a very colicky baby has just fallen asleep after hours of constant screaming. We’re longing for rest, and also authentic connection. I mean, what else is the draw of talk radio, podcasts, and social media if not to feel like someone is talking to us? Accompanying us in our minor pilgrimages across town?

Yet the only way to get to a place of rest is to sit down, shut up, and shut down, and we have to go through silence to get there.

I’ve had the radio off for two weeks now. Not just off news radio, but off. And still, it’s hard. I thought it would get easier after a week’s withdrawal, but it hasn’t. I feel the pressure in my chest, in my brain, begging for relief.

We all know when we’re strung tight, we can’t roll with the punches; we have no give in our strings. We just snap. It’s no wonder I’m angry. Sure, there are plenty of things, legitimate outrages. But I can see how easy it would be to let anger and negativity crowd out every good thing about my life. Anger feeds on itself and grows bigger, more all-encompassing. As Nouwen said, they multiply as long as there are people to receive them.

I’d rather take his solution and multiply kindness and forgiveness.

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But dang, it’s hard to make that shift. We’re wound so tight toward rage, the force is nearly impossible to resist. You try to turn toward the light and the dark pulls you right back.

But we didn’t get here all at once. It’s been coming a long time, and we’ve encouraged it. I know I have. So I have to commit to seeking the light, again and again and again and again, until it at last feels like my home territory.

I’m writing stream-of-consciousness late at night, following choir practice when my brain is revved up and won’t shut down so I can sleep. (Ironic, given the topic, I know.) The danger in opening myself up like this is that people will judge and/or try to tell me exactly what I SHOULD do, which is not at all useful. (In case you missed the hint: please don’t! I don’t need more negativity in my world, and neither do you.) I’m not putting these reflections out as a cry for help or an invitation for judgment—quite the opposite. I think I’m expressing something that is a universal wound of modern life, in the hope that it will resonate, and help others to set sail on their own, desperately-needed journeys of the spirit.

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On the Need For Retreat

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I am sitting in the dark this morning. Despite my hopes, I woke up a little before five, but instead of the usual mad scramble to figure out how to make use of the time, I laid in bed and allowed myself to drift in my sleepiness, listening to the sounds of the retreat center, praying and thinking and trying to find that quiet mental place that seems so elusive these days, the place where God speaks.

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Image via Pixabay

This week, for a few days, I am at the Liturgical Composers Forum, a week that serves as my retreat: a time to pray twice a day in community, a time not to fill every spare moment with productivity, but instead to be still. Or anyway, as still as I can.

It’s always so shocking when the kids come home after school these days–the level of noise and splintering of attention. It shouldn’t be shocking; this is my normal. But the middle of my days, when I’m not running around, is spent inside my head. I don’t play music because I couldn’t concentrate if I did. I don’t talk on the phone. Sometimes I play my flute, but really my days are spent inside my head. And then the kids come home and everyone wants a piece. Julianna’s little “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” So patient when I am sidetracked, which is pretty much always. Then there’s the quintessential example. We went out for custard a few nights ago, and we were all sitting in a single booth at Freddy’s, and while I’m listening to Christian talk, my two youngest are reaching across the table to poke me, over and over, trying to get my attention. OVER-STIMULATION.

I totally lost my you-know-what last week. Wednesday. It was hormonal, but that’s no excuse. The night before had been one of those days: I had to run kids to piano and then come home and make dinner, then get a kid to basketball and make it back in time to teach a flute lesson. All of this with a bad, bad headache. So Alex was assigned to supervise Michael loading the dishwasher. The bad day began when I discovered, Wednesday morning, a dishwasher full of crusted, un-rinsed bowls of chicken pot pie. The job that had been given to kids, that should have been well within their capability to help ease the burden on the parents, had instead become more work for Mom than it would have been in the first place. That was where it started. It went downhill from there.

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Kinda like this. (Image via Pixabay.)

Once the kids left for school, I spent five minutes walking around the main floor and throwing everything the kids had left lying around into a big pile on the living room carpet, to make a point. And then I calmed down, and after school I approached the topic without histrionics and we got started cleaning. Deep cleaning that they would have been paid for if they hadn’t shown such consistent and blatant disregard for the amount of work their parents put in already.

And then I discovered that a week earlier after “cleaning,” Julianna had thrown the toilet bowl cleaner into the cabinet under the sink open AND SIDEWAYS. Well, you can probably imagine I did not keep my cool.

I could see the effect my histrionics were having on Nicholas, in particular. And felt horribly guilty. As if he doesn’t have enough anxiety without Mom turning into a shrieking banshee. And I thought, “I am so ready to be in St. Louis on retreat next week, where I DON’T HAVE TO DEAL WITH ANY OF THIS.”

You would think that one would approach a retreat week with higher motives. But maybe the truth is, the time we most need retreat is not when we are in a good place and seeking to grow closer to God. Maybe it’s when we don’t have our you-know-what together that we most need the time.

This post went in a completely different direction than I meant for it to go when I opened my computer this morning. Well, I’ll save that for tomorrow, I guess.

Humanity at its best

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DonationAt yesterday’s flute recital, I skipped a line in the first movement of the hardest piece we were playing and nearly freaked out both myself and my flute duo partner. Um, never mind the “nearly.” Luckily, it was the kind of piece that no one but the composer and ourselves could distinguish any trouble, and we were able to get back together. We had a good turnout, and took up a collection for Catholic Relief Services’ disaster relief. In this envelope, preparing to wing its way to Maryland, is $850. The generosity shown by the people who attended yesterday blows me away. The news this morning is filled with lives wrecked by gunfire and leaders apparently trying to taunt each other into world annihilation, but the contents of that envelope are a reminder that humanity is made for goodness.

If You’re Not Outraged…

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Photo by Samovaari, via Flickr

We’ve been angry a lot this calendar year. Last calendar year, too, truth be told. The world seems made for making us angry right now.

But it came to a head in the last week, and in one of those convergences that can only be a sign of the Holy Spirit at work, for three days every single thing that happened served to put a neon flashing light on the message: THIS IS NOT OKAY. Even the weekend’s Scriptures.

It’s not that there isn’t reason to be angry. And as many people note, even Jesus got angry, knocking over tables in the Temple when he saw it being misused.

The trouble is, at some point, we start clinging to anger—we start looking for reasons to be angry, to the point that we become unable to accept with grace any thwarting of our own convenience, any deviation from our own vision of how things should be. And let’s be honest: there’s a whole heck of a lot about the world that is Not How It Should Be.

The convergence of messaging challenges me…my whole family, really…to figure out how to confront the Things That Aren’t How They Ought To Be without making anger an idol enshrined in our hearts.

I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s the start of a new journey.

A White Christian Wrestles With Race

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In my Catholic elementary school, there were three minorities, all Hispanic.

I lived in the country, and my neighbors were white. All of them.

My teachers emphasized repeatedly and strongly that skin color was irrelevant in the eyes of God. I remember singing “What Color is God’s Skin?” (this version) in music class. But as I’ve said before, it’s a different thing to believe something in the abstract than it is to put it into practice. I always believed in equality. But for a long time, I failed to admit that inequality is still a real thing.

This summer while I was in Cincinnati for the pastoral music convention, my roommate and I took a couple hours off to walk down to the riverfront and visit the National Underground Railroad museum. What I hadn’t realized before that trip was that when you’re on the riverbank in Cincinnati, you are standing in free country looking at slave country. It gave an entirely new significance to those beautiful old homes across the river.

I said in that last post that I have been wrestling with race my entire adolescence and especially in adulthood. What does that mean, exactly? It means wrestling with unacknowledged attitudes, the essential segregation of my life, the knowledge that I should be trying to bridge those barriers, the introvert’s dread of doing so, the assumptions I don’t even know I’ve made, the “here’s how the world works” factors I take for granted that I assume must be the same for everyone, and especially, the slowly-dawning, horrifying realization that that last is not true at all.

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This structure is the center of the museum. It’s a building where slaves were held between legs of their journey or before sale. We were watching videos and reading signs alongside an African American family, and both my friend and I felt the same need to apologize. We didn’t do it. But we felt the compulsion. I know many people don’t buy into the “reparations” idea, but it’s hard not to feel the weight of your own privileged skin color, hard not to wonder if you would have had the courage to stand up for justice, when you’re face to face with this building.

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In the past few years I have had the incredible privilege of getting to know a handful of families who immigrated from Africa. I love these people. They constantly amaze me with the strength of their faith and their community, their generosity and openness. They have enriched my life and opened my heart in so many ways.

And all the questions of race, profiling, neo-Nazis, violence, police brutality–everything in the news seems so much more frightening to me now that I have entered into relationship with people who are really impacted by these issues.

Because let’s face it: it’s not going to impact me or my kids. Not directly, anyway. And it would be all too easy to sit back and say, “It’s sad, but what am I supposed to do about it? I don’t support neo-Nazis, so none of this is really my problem.”

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This painting, representing lives lost on the crossing from Africa to America, still brings tears to my eyes.

But it is our problem. Because even those of us who don’t want to believe or admit it have spent our entire lives benefiting from being white in a white-controlled world. None of us like to be challenged to examine our assumptions and the biases we don’t even recognize in our attitudes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

And if there are still enough white supremacists in our midst to populate a rally that can turn violent, then we as whites have failed in our responsibility as Christian parents to form our children. We have settled into our mostly-segregated, comfortable worlds and not forged relationships across racial lines for ourselves and our children. We have turned a blind eye to Christ in the face of people whose skin color is different than our own—not for any malicious reason, but because it’s awkward and hard.

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Smart phone camera. What can I say? But I didn’t delete the photo, and I include it here because even for me, a white woman, walking into the room and facing this costume felt like a sucker punch. It’s not okay for us to pretend we have no role and no responsibility in improving the world. Too much evil has been done in the name of preserving “white supremacy.” If we don’t stand up against what is being done in our name, we’re enabling the problem.

But wrestling with things that are awkward and hard is the way of the Cross. It’s the only way we become better—as individuals, as a Church, as a world. Pretending racism doesn’t exist—in the world, yes, but even in ourselves—is simply unacceptable. This is part of our duty as Christian disciples. And frankly, given the state of our country, I think it ought to be considered among the most important duties we have right now.

Staying Home vs. Working Mom

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Last week, we watched the movie Suffragette. I hope many of you have watched it, so I don’t have to explain that it was…sad. Sad beyond expression. But one thing that really struck me in that movie was the fact that Maud worked full time—more than full time—outside the home. She sent her kid off to somebody else to take care of.

For a lot of people, the stay-at-home/working mom debate probably feels tiresomely passé, but I still see the barbs popping up on both sides. I’ve heard the pain expressed by working and stay-at-home moms alike, who feel beleaguered. Judged. Too often by each other.

I always planned to be a stay-at-home mom. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life cocooned in a community that sees it not just as a valid choice but as THE RIGHT choice.

The thing is, I was less than a year into stay-at-home motherhood when I started working. I remember the moment I received my first acceptance, for the octavo Go In Peace from WLP. I was in the basement of our old house, nursing Alex while working on the computer with a repairman in the next room, and I scared both of them by screaming in excitement.

For twelve years I’ve been wrestling with the balance between work and motherhood/wifehood. There’s no question that my presence at home is a huge value to the family. It would cost $7-9K a year per kid for day care in my area, and these days, the cost would be transitioning into money to pay a nanny/chauffeur. The fact that I can do the grocery shopping and cooking while Christian’s at work means we have more time to spend as a family. That’s a value you can’t quantify. And of course, I’ve been able to shape my kids’ world view without worrying about what they’re exposed to or taught in the brief intervals they were away from me as small children.

And yet. I am more than a mother and wife. The gifts that were given to me as a human being who happens to be female were given for a reason. If I suppress them until my kids get old enough, I’m burying my coins. I was given the passion and gift for writing for a reason. I’m supposed to do something with it.

I consider myself unfathomably blessed, because the work I feel called to do can be done from home. It’s stressful and requires a lot of self-discipline, but I actually do get to “have it all.”

But what about women for whom their calling, the talent that they can offer the world, can’t be done from home? Do their gifts not matter?

Even I, working from home, have been tormented by messaging like “You’ll have decades left to have a career; your kids are only little once.” How much worse must it be for women who work outside the home? Those words may be true, but the reality is that if you drop out of the work force for three or five or ten years to raise a family and then try to come back, you’ll spend the rest of your life fighting a losing battle for equity.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize this SAHM mom ideal is really a pretty new construct. Even this book on Our Lady of Fatima that my mother gave me to read to the kids talks about how Lucia was the go-to child care provider for the entire village. Even in a peasant village in the 19-teens, a lot of “at home” moms were sending their kids out to be tended by someone else.

Which brings us back to Maude, from Suffragette. Yes, she is a fictional character, but I get the sense that she was an amalgam of many of the experiences of women involved in the suffragette movement in England. You could argue that it was different for poor women; that families of more means did, indeed, have mothers who stayed home with their kids. Except those kids had nannies and governesses.

Then, too, wrestling with all this has made me realize that without women in the work force, and a lot of them, issues of just compensation and so on would be shunted aside even more than they already are. That might not impact those who choose to stay home, but it sure as heck would impact single moms, who have no choice.

And now that I have a son on the cusp of adolescence—a son who watched Suffragette with us and who stopped the movie more than once to ask questions about what it means to be a woman in this day and age—the importance of this question is becoming ever clearer. I am a Catholic mother. My #1 job is to form my children in the faith. Not some warped version of it that picks the simplest parts to explain and ignores the real challenges the Gospel poses to people living in a real world, where there are no straightforward, cut-and-dry answers, because when you yank on one thread several dozen others move, too.

Mothers who work outside the home aren’t less-worthy mothers. One woman who’s close to me says, “I am always a mom first, even when I’m at work.”

I’m not belittling staying home. Quite the opposite. For all the hair-pulling moments I’ve experienced the last twelve years of being entirely or almost entirely at home with my kids, I can’t imagine going back and choosing any other path. It has been exactly what I was called to do.

But nor will I stand for a world view that belittles those who do choose to work outside the home. We all have to discern our lives and our vocations based on our individual circumstances, the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of all the family members. And above all, we have to stop minding everyone else’s business.