Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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The Scent of Lent – Reflection on Ministry and John 12

 This year my experience of the Lenten season (the 40 days + Sundays period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) has been unlike any other. It has felt less somber, and more energizing. I feel a simmering sense of anticipation that will not let me stop in the stillness of reflection on my need for God’s grace. That grace already feels too present, too alive, to even be able to contemplate what life would be like without it. I don’t know if I am really experiencing Lent as I am supposed to, although I can’t really complain.

An important element of this difference has been the recent development in my own life. After a long (very long) process of discernment, I have taken the first steps toward pursing ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church. These steps have had a more profound impact on my faith than I had expected. My relationship with Jesus has always been central to my identity, and I have always seen my professional life as an expression of my vocational calling, so I suppose I expected the most recent movement to be just another stage of the journey. In some ways it is, but it is also profoundly different.

Growing up evangelical, my faith was first and foremost personal, even when it pushed me to action on behalf of justice and care for others. Suddenly I have this whole new perspective on my faith as being For Others. When I interact with a given text or encounter a new theological perspective I can’t just wonder what this means for my faith. I feel both a responsibility and an opportunity to move past the question of “how does this speak to me?” and into the much less certain query of “how can I make space for others to hear what speaks to them (even if it is different than what I hear)?”

For a woman who still often craves certainly, this new perspective on my task can feel unfamiliar and destabilizing, but I think it is also an essential part of the grace-filled way that I am experiencing Lent this year. There is space for so many experiences of Jesus. It is frustrating but also beautiful, and I get to be part of opening up those spaces, rather than defining and controlling them.

That is what happened when I sat down to write a reflection on the story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet in John 12 for my church’s Wednesday service last week. I found space.

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John 12:1-8 [Translation: Common English Bible]

“Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.  You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”

Can you smell the heavy scent of nard? Inhabiting the air with a call to pay attention. A scent that will not be ignored. Evocative. Pungent. Compelling. Can you feel it swirling around you like a clinging veil? Can you close your eyes and let your mind melt into the mist of memory?

They say that scent, more than any of the other senses, is tied to memory. An ephemeral hint in the air – a familiar spice, a food, a flower… a perfume – they all can pull us with tremendous power. They can transport us back into a different time and place that captures our attention because it is important to us. Whether that association binds us in irrational fear, or explodes inside us with unconstrained joy, the scent is what moves us, pulls us, brings us back into a moment that lives forever in our sense memory, because of its importance.

But what makes the moment important, what that memory means? The scent alone does not tell us that. We bring the meaning with us.

So, when the strong scent of nard invades our memories, what meaning does it bring?

To some this is a scent of Waste.

If I had only offered my tribute in a reasonable proportion,then it could have been acceptable. After all, I had much for which to thank the teacher. He was the one who had restored my brother to life after days in the grave. It was quite natural for me to seek some way to demonstrate my gratitude. We were a family of some means, and so some small extravagance was understandable.

But three-quarters of a pound of pure nard? – poured out with no limit, no consideration of the other uses to which it could be put. A year’s wages in value. Just think what could be done with such a resource. There are real needs – the pressing kinds of needs that should take priority over sentiment and extravagant demonstrations. In the face of real, practical uses for such wealth… to spill it out in such a profligate way is shocking.

Yes – to many, focused on the scarcity of resources, this pouring out of scent smells like a waste.

To others, this is a scent of Shame.

This may be the version of my story most familiar to you. Luke told the story this way, and for some reason it seems to fire the imaginations of many gospel readers of later generations.

The sinful woman. The woman so weighed down with the shame of her life that she could no longer hold it in. The rules and social niceties meant little to her anyhow, so she laid them aside as she had long ago forsaken any claim to moral living. Abandoning discretion, she poured out her perfume as she poured out her tears. Nothing else mattered. The pain of her sin broke all constraints and her shame spilled out – an uncomfortable display to scandalize the watching judges.

Yes, to many, focused on the binding up of sin, this pouring out of scent smells just like shame.

But to others, this is a scent of intimacy.

This scent means stunning closeness. For in scent, which must be near to be perceived, which never can be shared at the safe distance of the heavenly throne, we find a whole new meaning of Emmanuel: a God so truly with me I can touch him. I can pour my precious offering not just at his feet, but on them. A can let down my hair, a private, vulnerable act and touch him in the tenderest anointing. A touch that speaks of total trust, assurance that my God will welcome me just as I am.

And so, to those who long for closeness with their Lord, this pouring out of scent smells sweetly of intimacy.

And yet to others, One at least, this is a scent of death.

As I sat near, the nard still clinging to my hands, He named my act. “This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”

It was an affirmation of my right, a declaration that I’d not transgressed, but rather done the prophet’s and the mourner’s work in one. And yet, how hard that was to hear. I wanted to anoint my Jesus as my prophet, priest, and king. I wanted to pour out my extravagant offering as a pure witness to his unlimited worth. A worth that could NOT die.

But, perhaps I knew. Perhaps I had understood somewhere below my conscious thought what was to come. Perhaps the Spirit worked in me to recognize the frailty of this body I could touch – the painful, wrenching consequence of incarnation. Perhaps, my soul did know my act for what it was. As I slowly rubbed the burial balm into his skin, perhaps I knew the grace of offering this small comfort to my Lord.

Hard as it was to hear, I understand.

To the One who knew all of the roles for which he was anointed, this pouring out of scent smelled strongly of death.

But I too can smell the nard, can feel it dripping from my hair, can see it shining on his skin. I close my eyes and breath and am transported back into a golden, shining moment of pure love.

For Love is what the scent of nard communicates to me. The meaning of that powerful scent memory takes me back into a moment where I knew the heart of love.

Love that is unrationed

Love that is unashamed

Love that is uninhibited

Love that is oh, so very alive.

That is the Love I felt beneath my fingertips, and dried with my hair. That is the Love at whose feet I sat to learn, and the Love whom I followed to the cross. That is the Love who stared his own death in the face, and still smiled at me as I poured out my offering of nard.

Can you smell it? I know that I will never forget.

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Philosophy of Posting: Day 6 of the April Poetry Challenge

This weekend I went reading around the writings of some fellow obscure bloggers – folks who have done me the honor of liking a post or following my blog. It was very encouraging and inspiring to see the work of this broad community who feel the same way I do – that words have power and that this power is most meaningful when shared.

Two things especially struck me. One is the tag line of Faith Unlocked, which includes the phrase “if (poetry, quotes, and thoughts) mean something to one other person, they are worth sharing.” The other was a dialogue in a comments stream between two bloggers about the frustration of no one reading their posts.

It struck me that these are the two poles of the obscure blogger experience. On the one hand, we keep doing what we do, with little or no concrete encouragement, because we have this hope that just one person might find meaning in what we have written. And even one comment, or like, or word from a friend about last week’s post can be all the encouragement we need to keep going. On the other hand the experience of putting our words out there and getting no response can be incredibly disheartening – as though we have exposed a part of our soul to the world and it hasn’t been worthy of any notice.

Then, my son made a comment about the proverbial tree falling in the forest (he saw a silly commercial in which the tree says “Ow!”) and it clicked with this train of thought.

So, in honor of all my fellow obscure bloggers out there: here’s my poem for the day.


Philosophy of Posting

 

If a poem posts on the internet

and there is no one who chooses to

“like” it…

“pin” it…

comment on it…

or reblog it…

Does it touch a soul?

 

Yes, even if only your own.

 

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Good Enough VS. Good Guilt

In a recent post I shared about my not-so-innocent addiction to the little source of electronic distraction and entertainment that spends its days nestled in either my palm or my back pocket(see https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/my-innocent-addiction/). A dear friend of mine responded on Facebook. One response was indirect –  a link to a Pure Derry article farcically linking childhood weight loss to motherly obsession with my phone game of choice: “Candy Crush Saga” (CANDY TO BLAME FOR DRAMATIC WEIGHT LOSS); the other was a personal note to me gently suggesting that I am a bit too hard on myself.

I certainly enjoyed the entertainment offered by the article (I laughed so hard I cried when I read the allusion to a printscreen as an enticement to marital union). I also deeply appreciated the encouragement offered by her personal comment, and for several days it would return to me when I was feeling frustrated by my own failure to live up to the mothering and partnering standards to which I aspire. She’s right I would say to myself, my children are doing fine. They love me and they know they are loved. I can’t be perfect 100% of the time so I shouldn’t beat myself up when I hide in the bathroom just to get away for 2 minutes. The determination to rid myself of my addiction and to strive to be a more engaged and responsive mother and wife slowly settled back into the reassuring philosophy of “good enough” parenting. My cold-turkey detox from Candy Crush relapsed, and my husband kindly beat level 29 for me so that I could interact with the game in a less obsessive mode (the fact that I am currently engaged in a fruitless struggle to earn 3 stars on level 32 is beside the point). Everything was good. I had confessed my failing, exposed my dirty laundry, and instead of retribution and shame I got to laugh and feel reassured that at least my children weren’t being nutritionally deprived. I could stop worrying so much…except for this nagging feeling that I had lost an opportunity.

I mentioned in my “addiction” post that its appearance in the world of the web had actually been long-delayed by my secret fear that publicly sharing my struggles with electronic distraction would require me to do something about it. The old adage “the first step is admitting you have a problem” suggests that such an admission gets you stepping, moving, along the path to change. And it did get me moving for about a week. Then, I started to reassure myself with the “don’t be too hard on yourself” messages, and very soon my steps reversed themselves. As long as you don’t play when the kids are home it’s fine…never mind that your peripheral vision occasionally throbs with shadowy enticements of “stripy” candies next to “cupcakes.” The next step in the mental anesthesia progressed to, they are busy playing in the other room, I can check my Facebook feed… if the sound of John Stewart draws their curious attention to a video clip that might not really be that appropriate, I can forgive myself for that one little exposure, right?

I really love the idea of the “good enough” parenting philosophy — the perspective that getting too up-tight about all the little stuff actually detracts from the parent-child bond and disrespects the child’s need to learn about and make their own decisions in the imperfection of reality. The problem for me with this philosophy is that, in daily practice, it plays upon my tendencies toward laziness and self-justification. However well-intentioned they might be, encouragements to stop judging myself are not really what I need. What I need are encouragements to keep working to achieve the good that I want for myself and my family; encouragements that the effort and ‘sacrifice’ required to achieve this good are worth it.

This realization really came home to me in a discussion with the ladies in my Thursday morning Bible study group. Through a rather circuitous route that I can no longer remember we arrived at a discussion of the role of guilt in our lives, and whether guilt could be a good thing. As I listened to the sharing of these lovely, thoughtful women, I found my own voice articulating the reason for my discomfort with “going easy” on myself. Comparative morality doesn’t move me toward growth. There is always someone I can point to who is far more guilty that me in any particular area, and (often) despite this failing they are still doing alright by common social standards. If my bar for adequacy is doing better than most, then I can usually meet that standard in the areas I really care about, so there is no incentive to try harder. But “better” is not really the best that I want for myself or my family. In contrast, guilt (or conviction, as my friend Dawn clarified) can actually be a gift. Good guilt can focus my attention on the truth that there really is something in my life that is hurting me or someone I care about, however comparatively insignificant the hurt. Good guilt can motivate me to keep striving to live the life for which my renewed soul longs, and not to collapse into the numbed stupor for which my tired body, or spent emotions, or overwhelmed mind temporarily years.

The other clarification I have been coming to in my own spiritual journey is that I need to attend to the source of motivation in such efforts at self-betterment. The appeal of “good enough” parenting is that it rejects the false mission to earn my personal value or self-esteem from being a perfect parent. Such effort at proving my own worth is not only doomed to fail, it is in many ways arrogant idolatry! Of course I will never be the perfect parent, and trying to be one will make me crazy, so it feels logical that the better path is to relax and just try to be “good enough.” But this philosophy assumes that the motivation for parental striving is the achievement of perfection, and implicitly the consequent proving of my own worth as a parent.

But, in my opinion, that’s the wrong approach to parenting. My personal worth is not determined by whether or not I am a good mother. Rather, parenting is an awesome opportunity to pour into the lives of two little people I love intensely in a way that can potentially help them to grow into better people than they would otherwise be. My own worth is completely unrelated to that task. The payoff for my striving has nothing to do with my value, it has to do with the intrinsic joy of giving good things to my children. Thus, the more successful my striving, the more joy I have. It is the same principle that has transformed my personal life of faith. I want to live a holy and blameless life. I know I will never completely succeed, and that’s OK. My standing with God has nothing to do with my personal morality because Jesus took care of that for me already. But I still want to life a good life. My freedom is in the fact that such living does not earn me anything, and thus I can pursue it just because it is actually the best way to live. It honors the God who gave me everything I have and it makes me happy in the process. Sometimes that means decisions that feel like sacrifices in the moment (just as parenting sometimes requires ‘sacrifices’ like listening to the slowest reading ever of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rather than checking my Facebook feed), but ultimately it makes me less self-involved, which makes me happier.

This is a lesson that I want to teach to my kids in both my words and my deeds.  I want them to make good decisions not in order to prove that they are good people, but because the decisions themselves are actually good. This is so important because the reality is that they will screw up sometimes. It’s just reality. Those failures do not have to be a catastrophe unless their success or failure in reaching whatever standards they have set for themselves determine their personal value. A real danger of our self-esteem obsessed culture is that failure is interpreted just this way. By never wanting to tell our children that they failed, we set them up to be devastated by failure when it inevitably occurs. Of course, it is important to give our kids positive messages about their self-worth. I want my kids to love themselves and see themselves as intrinsically valuable… but not as perfect. As much as I love them – I know they do lots of things wrong! And if I didn’t tell them that I would turn them into either spoiled brats or psychopaths!. They need to know that they make mistakes and that these mistakes give them a chance to learn and grow and do better next time. This growing can be a joyful (if sometimes painful) process as long as their performance is not the source of their ultimate value. That value comes from their identity as children of a loving God, just as mine does.

So what does this mean for me, in both my personal development and my parenting? Well, I have realized that there are times when “good enough” is an important message. For example, Princess Imagination loves to sing despite the unfortunate reality that she struggles a bit to carry a tune. A friend who was playing at our house pointed this out to her, and we had a good discussion about how she can enjoy singing even if some people don’t think she sings very well. As long as she enjoys singing, it is “good enough” and she doesn’t need to worry about reaching an external standard of perfection.

BUT, I don’t think the “good enough” consolation is appropriate when I, or my children, or perhaps you recognize a flaw in our behavior or our character that makes us unhappy. That is the time to strive. We will certainly fail repeatedly in that striving. But when we do, the kind of encouragement we need is the kind that says – it’s still a good goal. Get up and try again. And if a little guilt about the failure gives us the kick in the pants that we need. Then I say that guilt can be good.


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Christmas Kenosis

For many good and right reasons one hears a lot in the annual lead-up to December 25 about “the true meaning of Christmas.” “Christmas is about giving and not receiving.” “Christmas is about putting aside differences and appreciating our families.” “Christmas is about remembering those who are less fortunate.” “Christmas is about love, and joy, and togetherness.” And so on.

All of these sentiments are good, and important, and worthy of reflection and application not only at Christmas time but throughout the year. It is a wonderful thing that this season encourages all of us to collectively focus attention on socially-equalizing and peace-loving values, and to do so in affirmative ways that are too often missing from our communal dialogue. I must take issue with all of them, however, as characterizations of the “true meaning of Christmas.”

The word Christmas is the slightly abbreviated combination of two words: Christ and mass. Christ, obviously, is one of the most universally recognized names for the second person of the Christian trinity, also known as Jesus. Mass, although now primarily associated with the Roman Catholic church, can in this usage be understood more generally as a term for the full Christian service of worship. If, then, what we are truly wanting to understand is Christ-mass, the sacred celebration of the person of God who came into the world, then the true meaning of Christmas must be an encounter with the incarnation.

While not the most traditional Christmas text, the most beautiful description of the incarnation, in my humble opinion, comes from the New Testament letter to the Philippians (chapter 2, verses 3 through 8).

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.

This is the real meaning of Christmas. That God — who exists so far outside the human condition that to take on the form and likeness of humanity was to voluntarily enter into slavery — did just that. And, that once this humiliation was embraced it was further eclipsed by the denigration of a criminal execution. This biblical poem uses the term kenosis in the original language, which means emptying. Christ “emptied himself” on the very first Christmas night.

Now, emptiness is not a term that we often apply to Christmas. Christmas is much more associated with fullness. Full stomachs as we gorge on feasts that take hours of loving labor and mountains of ingredients to prepare. Full eyes and ears as our senses are washed over by tidal waves of sparkling lights, colorful decorations, radio jingles, and Christmas carols. Full schedules as we struggle to find the time to address Christmas cards, complete shopping and wrapping, and participate in all the extra social activities of the season. Full spaces as we wonder how to find places for all the new clothes, toys, and other gifts that add to our accumulation of possessions. Full hearts as we look at the glowing faces of our children, or are transported into nostalgic memories of our own childhoods, or simply appreciate the precious moments to be with those we love.

The Christmas season fills us up in so many ways, and many of those ways are wonderful. This is not an harangue against the blessed fullness that we, as modern, Western, 21st Century people receive from the celebration of Christmas. What I hope it is, is a reminder that fullness is not the meaning of Christmas. Appreciation of all the gifts in our lives – those under the tree, and those we see more clearly in the late days of December – is important. It is something I am trying to teach my children about Christmas. When I recently asked Princess Imagination why we give gifts on Christmas she answered beautifully that it is to remind us that Jesus is God’s gift to us. That’s true.

But we need to also remember that this gift was and is kenosis, self-emptying. In that birth in a stable, Jesus released the honor, and authority, and perfection, and privilege, and power that is imbued in being God. There could not be a more complete or dramatic gift, and this selflessness is the real meaning of Christmas.

I had gotten so far in composing this post two days ago. Then it was time to get myself and the kiddos ready for Christmas Eve service. In the course of that activity my trick back decided that the action of bending at the waist to pick-up the Gigglemonster’s shoes was a sin punishable by severe pain of the shooting-down-my-legs-and-up-my-spine-and-continuing-for-hours-at-a-time variety. That would have been bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that the Gigglemonster was so wound up in anticipation of the first Christmas where he could understand the upcoming barrage of presents that he only napped for about 40 minutes (as opposed to his usual 2 hours). As a result, the monster side of his personality was definitely dominant heading into the 4:30 service at my in-laws’ church. When he decided that it had to be Mommy who held him every time the congregation stood to sing a carol (I lost track at 5, but it may have been more times than that), and when my back declared that holding a 37 lb. boy while standing was a physical impossibility, things got ugly! I spent the majority of the service trying to shush him, and bribe him, and otherwise prevent a screaming tantrum, and the remainder taking him out to go to the bathroom and them experiencing the full force of the tantrum in the ladies room when I suggested that he did not actually have to strip naked to go pee.

Needless to say, Christmas Eve service was not a terribly worshipful experience for me this year. Nor was it an easy context in which I could put into practice my preceding reflections about self-emptying. I am unfortunately NOT one of those people who stoically copes with pain. Quite to the contrary, pain brings out every selfish and petulant inclination in my personality. My children’s whining, coincidentally, does the same. And so, fresh from my soulful contemplation of Christ’s self-emptying, I was confronted by the broken reality of just how full of myself I am. Full of my needs; full of my expectations; full of my own plans for how things should go. While I cannot even comprehend the power and perfection that Jesus voluntarily released, I am forced to confess that I grasp for such things. I try with all my effort to achieve them, and when circumstances, or back pain, or tired children interfere with these efforts I get annoyed or worse.

And so, I have these contrasting reflections to offer you all on what is now the day after Christmas. On the one hand, the Christmas example of self-emptying, on the other hand the fullness-seeking inclinations of my own heart. The contrast is all the more poignant to me because Jesus’ action of self-emptying subjected him to just the kinds of negative stimuli that make self-emptying so difficult to me. The kenosis meant taking on a body that was subject to physical pain, just like mine. The kenosis meant being in relationship with other people who would consider their own needs first, if not exclusively. The kenosis meant encountering personally and directly all of the things that I use as excuses for why I cannot really follow Christ’s example.

And that’s why I have to take seriously the call to have the same mind in myself that is in Christ Jesus. It’s not that Jesus just doesn’t understand or isn’t subject to the stresses I face. Jesus volunteered to face those stresses – that’s the whole point of Christmas. And so, in the 364 days until the next Christmas, I want to keep trying to empty myself. I know that in the moments I do, I will be more full than I am at any other time. For, I will be full of Christ and full of the true meaning of Christmas.