Sunday, November 30, 2014


~Barbara Taylor Brown, Leaving Church   

It is hard not to come back to this place in my journey, over and over again. Like a well-worn footpath leading to some beloved sight in the woods, I have walked Memory Lane more times than I can count, arriving again at the season in my life when church stopped being a building, when Christians met the rest of humanity in their ability to disappoint and wound and completely abandon. Back to the season when stepping foot inside the sanctuary that had once brought me such life and belonging and hope, now brought me deep pain and aloneness and an overwhelming sense of all things lost. Back to the day I realized that all the answers I had worked so hard to learn, all the verses I had memorized and all the prayers I had prayed, held no weight against the mysteries and injustices of the world.

Before that season I scoffed with the best of them at church members that did not seem to offer enough of their heart or time to church activities, judged those with dissenting views and dared to vow that I would never be a “backslider” myself. My life revolved around being the best Christian I could be by fitting as neatly inside the tiny box that image had created. All I could think of was doom, disaster, deep sin that would keep someone out of the light and righteousness of our church community. It never crossed my mind that one day I would count it a great blessing to be standing outside amongst them.

As well-worn as the footpath to memories of the months that marked my walking away from the traditional church are, equally abstract and faint are the footprints walking back out of that place. I have tried to pinpoint before exactly what decision it was I made, when and how and why I knew to start walking. But the reality is that in that season of life, I was lead almost subconsciously by the stirrings in my soul. I had no clear intention, no decisive goal, just an undeniable pull within me saying “this way.” And this way was away. Away from the building, away from the rules, away from the people and the comfort and the decades of certain answers and a well-defined Deity.

 ~Barbara Taylor Brown, Leaving Church

It would be years between the walking away and the opening of hands in my case. Perhaps because the decision was so reactionary, so survival-oriented, I could not think about opening up and growing again. I could not comprehend wholeness outside of the church, peace and joy without all the certainties. I sensed for a season that my spirit was dead, if it were ever alive at all. I struggled with dark thoughts and sadness, some days yearning for the comfort of what was, knowing it could never be again. It would be years of closing down, letting the dying things die, before my soul could fathom of flowering again.

And then, years after walking away, I found myself loosening my grip and letting the crumbled parts start to fall. I found myself waking up and seeing life as if for the first time, finally able to articulate some of those soul urgings from years past and owning the blessing of the new place they lead me to. I found in that place wells of hope and joy and wholeness that I had never, even in those days of constant church attendance and such certainties, ever experienced before.

I found – and am finding - a Deity big enough for all the questions and all the mysteries. I found the thrill of the finding, the unfolding, the questions dwelling in a beautiful place of unknowing. I found the seed of the divine inside myself, parched from all those years of guilt and shame, of rules and answers, of right ways and exhausting effort, finally flourishing in freedom. Returning to that true place of goodness and creativity and love. In walking away, I found life. 

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Life in the middle.

For the longest time, I thought only in labels.
Boy. Girl.
Black. White.
Smart. Dumb.
Fat. Skinny.

Like a toddler sorting blocks, I defined the world into neat compartments.
One of two extremes; opposing opposites with no middle ground.
Beautiful. Ugly.
Happy. Sad.
Organized. Messy.
Calm. Anxious.

Life was a world of stark contrasts, conveniently ordered and comfortably separated.
I thrived in the labeling, the ordering, the marking of one to this side, one to that.
Leader. Follower.
Christian. Seeker.
Devout. Backslidden.
Whole. Broken.

I understand the benefits of these labels. The organization and camaraderie.
The sense of self and community and stability.
I empathize with the need to order our lives. To order ourselves.
The need to belong and to be and to be known.

But then there came a time in life when the labels became muddled, 
the clear compartments lost their neat lines.
Life got too complicated, too real, too raw and broken open for "one or the other."

It took losing my son to realize labels are incomplete.
Happy? Sad? Yes.
Whole? Broken? Yes.

It took the death of a lifelong dream to realize labels do not suffice.
Calm? Anxious? Yes.
Organized? Messy? Yes.

It took death and grief and disillusionment to realize opposite extremes oppose reality.
Leader? Follower? Yes.
Christian? Seeker? Yes.

Three decades into life, and now I see, much of life is shades of grey.
Much of life is messy mixtures of purposeful planning and hopeful wandering.
Of asking and answering, rinse and repeat.
Always a teacher, always a student.
Full of faith, full of doubt.
Life in the middle.
Labels removed.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I see goodness.

For the longest time, I would have told you my truest essence, the most indisputable fact about me - and all other humans for that matter - is my sin: my dirty hands, my wayward heart, my wandering ways. I would have said that the essence of humanity is imperfection and brokenness, these core features tying us all together in one miserable, exhausted lump of mess. That we are hopeless and helpless, without divine intervention. 

If an impoverished Hindu man slumped over his rickshaw in India had anything undeniably in common with me, it was his tainted heart, his “sin nature”. If the acne-spocked girl across the bus from me or the overweight woman serving my meal at Applebee’s bore any resemblance to one another, it was because of this tainted lineage, forever stringing humanity together in what seemed to be an inescapable plummet toward sin, toward death. For years, even as I loved, even as I served, even as I traveled around the world and back, this truth resided just below the surface, a foundation for my beliefs and actions: We are all sin. We are all flawed. We are all tainted at our core.

At some point, I finally started questioning those beliefs. Not the reality that we are, in fact, clearly flawed. Clearly imperfect. Clearly capable of unspeakable atrocities. No, such things could not be disputed without sticking our heads in the sand or burying our hearts in a deep freezer. Evil exists. In me. But what if evil and sin and the ability to harm are not my truest nature? What if brokenness is not the core essence of my being? 

Slowly, I started to wonder what it would mean to embrace myself - and the world - as inherently good. At first the thought of “inherent goodness” struck me as blasphemy, as overly-spiritual, modern relativism scheming to merely improve my self-confidence. Then, I began to wonder if there was a place for inherent goodness within Christianity? I wondered if such a belief would lead to the sort of licentious living I had always been warned to avoid - to fear as the inevitable outcome from such escapades with self-love - or if, instead, it would lead to wholeness and peace and courage. If, looking within and loving myself, honoring myself, esteeming myself as good, would wreak any of the havoc so many early spiritual teachers had warned me of. 

Or had they? Had that been their warning? Had I somehow self-filtered all those teachings and created my own belief system as a sort of protection against the scarier task of loving myself? Had I misheard, all those years; missed something core? And, either way, what would it mean for me to embrace this belief, now at thirty-one, that my essence is not sin? 

Serendipitously, like so many times before, books began to fall into my lap. Like raindrops of light, beaming truth and hope into my wary questioning, I read from mainstream Christian author, Dr. David Brenner, "Love is our identity and our calling, for we are children of Love. I read from an Eastern monk named Maximos, "All of us as human beings are icons of God. I read from Glennon Doyle Melton, an addict in recovery, a mom writing to her son, "When you were born, I put a piece of myself in you. Like an indestructible, brilliant diamond, I placed a part of me inside of you. That part of you - the very essence of you, in fact - is me; it is Love, it is perfect, and it is untouchable. No one can take it and you can’t give it away. It is the deepest, truest part of you, that will someday return to me. You are Love.”  

Then I start to remember Scriptures, verses I had not read in years, like this from Psalm 8, “Yet you made man only a little lower than the angels (some versions say “only a little lower than God") and crowned them with glory and honor.” And then this staple from the Creation story in Genesis flashes through my mind, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And I wonder, is this the space? Is this the place where inherent goodness has existed all along?

I am not a theologian, although certainly there was a season when I thought I had an awful lot of life figured out. I am not a Bible teacher or a philosopher or a spiritualist of any repute. No, truly, I’m not even close to any of those things, nor do I have any aim at becoming so. 

What I do own, though, is my life - my stories and my experiences and my soul. I have friends, too, and a wonderful family. And when I look within or when I observe my kids, when I talk to a close friend or meet a new mom at the park, I do not see sin. I do not see inherent flaws and impossible pathways to death. I do not see dirty hands and tainted souls. 

I see beauty. 

I see courage. 

I see sacrifice and concern. 

I see hope and creativity. 

I see a deep, undeniable essence of love. 

I see inherent goodness. 

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014


What does it mean to be true to our hearts? Is it the same things as being aware of how we feel, and integrating that knowledge into our actions and our speech? And what does it mean to honor our emotions? To feel our feels and call it good, courageous?  Is there a place of esteem for our emotions to sit, where mind and heart and body can dwell peacefully together? Where we can be whole, feelings and all?

This month, I have been stirred by such questions, urged by my own continued encounters of separating my heart from my days. Wanting to live in a place of wholeness and oneness, where thoughts and feelings and limbs are all respected and openly presented as me. And so, I have been re-reading Matthew Elliot's book, Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart. I was originally given this book by the first counselor Daniel and I saw after returning from Thailand several years ago. I was one big mountain of messy emotions at the time, layer upon layer of grief and shame and confusion and loneliness and fear, fused together by confused beliefs and an addiction to please. After months of floundering around and suffocating in that mountain of mess, we were sent by our church to a weekend counseling session. Unfortunately, the session itself proved more traumatic than helpful. But, as soon as I read the introduction of Elliot's book, I knew I had found something true - and something I deeply needed to embrace.

That Fall, I began reading through Feel with a friend, and was struck page after page by the novelty of someone suggesting that we honor our emotions, that we not only integrate, but actually esteem how we feel. For years, decades - maybe even my whole life? - I had lived by the law that emotions are dangerous and weak. That expressing our feelings is unacceptable, inappropriate, immature. I grew up knowing that what I felt was largely to be kept a close secret, my own personal possession. That - whether joy or sorrow, excitement or fear - all should be tamed, tended, kept tidy and quiet.

As a young Christian, I learned, too, that our feelings tend to lead us astray, and should never act as a guide, if even a factor at all, in choosing the course of our days. I drank deeply of the motto that, "Where your mind leads, your heart will follow," the message clearly being that reason should reign supreme. But, "Listen to my heart? Honor how I feel?" These notions seemed absurd, if not blasphemous. In all my years as a devout, conservative Christian, I had heard many teachings about how to check my emotions and choose God's truth over how I felt. I learned to believe that my feelings were often, if not always, at odds with God's Word. That true love is not a feeling, but an action and a decision. But, never, never, did I learn that my emotions could be noble. That my heart had something to say, something maybe even worth listening to.

I think Elliot summarizes it well when he writes in his book, "For years we've been taught by our culture and in our churches that emotions are not to be trusted; that reason and knowledge and logic are the firm foundations on which to build our faith and our spiritual lives; that it's our attitudes and actions that matter, not how we feel about things." He goes on to say, "Many peoples' spiritual lives are actually killing them. They are living by duty, by rote, by fulfilling their responsibilities to church and family. Their goal is to get all their ducks in a row, to believe all the right things and know why they believe it, and to act according to God's commands. But eventually they find that it doesn't matter how well they can do "all the right things." They still find themselves dry, cold, and empty." That has definitely been my experience.

But as is too often the case, even after reading Elliot's book four Falls ago, even after awakening to a new possibility for honoring my emotions, I didn't have the capacity to digest the extent of what he was saying. My belief framework was so stiff and so opposite from much of his suggestions that, although I received the book as a breath of fresh air, I could not breath it in completely. It felt like tiny spurts of inhalation, shallow and rapid winds trying to make their way into my being, but only going so far.

Three Falls later, I found myself in another counselor's office (the only other counselor I've ever seen), finally trying to process that mountain of messy emotions I'd abandoned or buried or ignored years before. Soon, I heard my counselor asking me to do things like, "Listen to your heart. If your soul feels up to it, go ahead. Honor where you are." I was truly baffled by her words, confused what it could possibly even mean to know, in any given moment in time, how my soul felt. Do people live like that?, I marveled. I had only ever been encouraged to hide or disregard my emotions at best, or be wary of them at worst. To disconnect my mind from my heart. And so now, this command: Listen and honor and step-in-time with your heart. Could such a thing be done?!

I confessed this to my counselor. I told her, with wide-eyes and gaping mouth, that I couldn't even fathom making a decision from the place she'd just described. It went against everything I knew, every way I'd been taught to think and act. And, wasn't she a Christian anyways? Didn't the Bible teach us not to get caught up in our emotions or follow their whims, but, instead, to stick to the clear path of Biblical truth?

I spoke this second-half in more of a devil's advocate sort of way, pushing and probing and finding, yet again, that not all Christians were the same. That not all who called Jesus, Lord, had been raised as I, or believed as I once did, or felt constricted as I once had. And I should not have been surprised by this realization either, for this was the Fall when voices honoring mystery, honoring truth in every form, honoring middle places and dark nights and grey in every shade came flooding into my life, awakening my soul finally. Telling me life was still to be had, even without that notebook of neat answers in hand.

I wrestled then and I wrestle now with what it means to be true to my heart. I struggle, still, to engage with my mind and my heart at the same time. To integrate emotion into the natural expressions of my every day. Just today, the kids eagerly packed their bags and got themselves buckled in the car, for the long-awaited day of their first swim lessons had finally arrived. We'd counted down days and then hours and now, finally, it was time! At the pool, I helped my son strip off his jacket and tennis shoes and watched him fidget on the bench until finally his age group was called into the water. He hopped up and hopped in and then, with tears welling in his eyes, found out that mama had drove us to the pool on the wrong day. He'd missed his lesson two days earlier.

I, too, wanted to cry. And maybe I should have and maybe I shouldn't have. But the only reason why I didn't initially, was because those old voices told me it wasn't acceptable. That I needed to be stronger, sturdier, headier than such whims. That maybe it looked immature or that maybe it showed the wrong values. And that ultimately, these were just my emotions, so what did they know anyways?

But, looking at my son's earnest disappointment, I let the tears well and I didn't choke them back. I let his tender tears fall on my shoulder, while we hugged and cried and honored the sadness of a hope deferred. I let my emotions speak - I let them lead - and there was much beauty and life in doing so. I learned my emotions do have something to say, and that, perhaps, they point to the greatest truths of all.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014


"Mama, why did God make us?"

This, my three year old's bedtime musings last night. In the dark room, cuddled up on the floor beside his toddler bed, I paused for a moment in silence, considering. Part of me wanted to hush him to sleep, to get back to our nightly ritual of songs and soft kisses and a hundred "nigh-nights".  Part of me felt so unprepared, so over-tired, so frazzled from the list of responsibilities waiting for me once he fell asleep, that I was desperate to just leave. But another part of me perked up, sat still and tried to meet him in his curiosity. 

"Well, buddy, I think a lot of people have asked that question and I think a lot of people have come up with all different answers. I don't know the answer for sure.....but, Mama thinks God made us because He loves us and He thought it was such a good idea."

I stumbled on my words, faltering in my own uncertainty and fatigue. When again there was silence, I wondered to myself if I truly believed what I had just spoken. Was that my best, truest answer? At least I had admitted to the journey, to the searching and asking and not quite arriving. But maybe if I had searched more - longer, harder, further - I would have a better answer. Was there a better answer? Before I had a moment more to descend into these depths of guilt and responsibility and what-ifs, my son continued.

"Mama, what do you think we should give God since He made us?"

I was stunned by his little heart's insight and interest, in awe of where and how that question came to be. His only religious or spiritual influence to-date had been grandparents'  mealtime prayers and my own limited, feeble attempts at instilling a sense of wonder and respect for all creation. Never had we spoken of any direct obligation or connection toward God, unsure ourselves of what it means to personally relate to the Divine. But it seemed, to his growing soul, only natural that we would give something of thanks to the One whom created us. And I marveled at how natural, indeed, it is. 

"Wow, buddy, that's a really good question! I think....well, I guess since God made each one of us and put a little piece of Himself in each one of us, the best thing we could give to Him is to love each other and to love ourselves. When we love anything that God made - big or small, beautiful or ugly, strong or weak - it's like we are loving Him, and I think that would be the greatest gift to give to Him."

I spoke on the fly, never having needed to construct answers to such questions in my post-fundamentalist, much-is-mystery days. Where before I would have had memorized lines, religious responses passed down from elders and pastors and others that surely had more direct access to spiritual knowledge than me, life had now become both much more grey and much more whole. Although there was so much more uncertainty, there was infinitely more authenticity, infinitely more peace, infinitely more grace and love and truth. 

I stroked my little guys hair, only able to make out the outline of his features in the dim moonlight. I thanked God, incessantly, for this precious gift. I felt more confident in my second response, sensing the words coming straight from my own spirit to his, full of truth and life. How could we go wrong if our answer is Love, I thought? And yet, the magnitude of having his seeking soul in my imperfect hands, caused my confidence to waiver. Who could stand the weight of such responsibility? How could I ever live up to this task?

As I oscillated between quiet confidence and terrified uncertainty, overflowing with the desperation to nurture and protect and teach that only a mother's love can know, my little guy spoke again. 

"Well, I was thinking we should just get Him a bench, so He has somewhere to sit." 

I giggled out loud, the lightness and sweetness and simplicity of his thoughts stopping me in my own tortured mental path. He brought me back to the moment, snuggled up beside his bed, feeling the breeze of his fan on our cheeks, whispering mysteries and life to each other, the best we knew how.  

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Guilt. The endless weight of guilt and regret. Should have, could have. Why did I? Why didn't I? How could I? Self-rejection and mental beatings, reaching, reaching, reaching for...for the impossible? For the vague but brightly illuminated expectations held ever in front of my mind's eye. All I should be and do. All I want to say and accomplish. Willing me toward more, toward better, toward a sleepless night of never enoughs. Marinating, even while I rest, in the heaviness of guilt.  

Lately, I find myself falling asleep in pools of guilt, finally slowing my mind enough to realize something about my day didn't quite align with my desires just as my head hits the pillow. Finally realizing that, yet again, I have fallen short of many of my expectations. I say to myself as I drift to sleep, "Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll do better."  Parent better. Clean better. Multi-task better. Play better. Breathe better. Be better.

I plan on rising early to meditate and read, to focus my mind and heart on truth and love before the busyness of toddler-rearing and working-from-home begins. Some days I get that head start, but most days something goes wrong and I fall short before the sun even rises. My heart is racing and my muscles are tense even as I welcome just awakened little ones, the weight of all that pressure, all those expectations, all that guilt already burdening me. 

I yell too many times during the day. Sometimes I scream and cause tears and the most heart-wrenching frowny faces, that I want to rip my own tongue out. I grab wrists too tightly and I turn the TV on too often. I apologize for what seems like the thirtieth time in an hour, a constant model to my children of failing and I'm sorry's. I hear sweet, accepting, I forgive you's, but know deep down that I am not able to forgive myself. Not yet. Not now, in all this mess.

They say sociopaths don't experience guilt, that they are incapable of the moral compassing of shoulds and coulds that guide much of society. In this sense, I am thankful for my guilt. I am thankful for a built-in cue, signaling a misalignment between my actions or words and my values. I am thankful for awareness and empathy and a desire to match my life with what I believe to be truth. 

But what happens when our values are distorted? When our "truth" gets skewed into a variety of off-kilter expectations and endless quests for more, more, more? Self-imposed standards that, when dissected and exposed, are nothing short of impossible? No more sociopath talk here - nothing that extreme or obvious or menacingly wrong. Perhaps just as dangerous, yes, but much, much more subtle. Masked as goodness, as growth; masked as a desire to love more, listen more, do more, be more. Masked as our own inner drive toward wholeness, or rather, perhaps, toward perfection.

Some days feel like a broken record...

I'm sorry, Kyler.
I forgive you, mama. 
I'm sorry, Havyn.
I forgive you, mama.

But sorry is never enough, because the weight of the guilt just keeps piling and piling and causing me to crack again. Causing me to fall under the weight of it all, so that endlessly I am messing up, endlessly I am feeling guilty, endlessly I am exhausted by the never enoughs...and endlessly I am messing up again. I cannot break free long enough to feel cured, whole, forgiven. The more I mess up, the guiltier I feel. The more flaws in a day, the more self-mutilating I become. 

It is so cyclical, that I cannot help but wonder if it is the guilt that is partially responsible for the emotional mess I find myself in so many days. Sure, I need to be more patient and more attentive and more kind and more gentle and a million and one other mores. Yes I should pray more and trust more all just becomes another list of mores. What about when I'm not more? What about right now? Could it be that the feeling of not enough is actually causing the most damage? Could it be that the weight of guilt from never quite living up to all these standards is the ultimate roadblock, the anchor tying me down to fatigue and failure?

I dream of life without regret, without the nightly ritual of falling to sleep with guilt and disappointment from another day of falling short. I wonder, what would life be like if I really and truly lived this word: Enough. What would it feel like to be content with my parenting and my home and my business and my faith? What would it feel like to live a whole day, not trying to accomplish or to improve, but just marinating in enough

For far too long, that has seemed like a distant dream. And perhaps I am being naive to think this, but it also seems like a lovely dream. It seems like a place of deep breaths and long embraces and full hearts. Where we try and fail, of course, but where failing is not followed by the noose of regret, but by the rope of hope. Where second chances are welcomed with open arms and somehow our souls are slippery enough that the guilt never sticks for long. Where freedom from not meeting our own expectations liberates us to a place of greater fulfillment and alignment with those very desires and dreams. Where we sleep deep, embrace our flawed selves and soar.

Today, may we find courage to whisper to the skies the boldest of all four letter words: "Help!". May we find wings to rise from all the expectations, finding freedom, finally, from the exhausting weight of guilt. 

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mint, Blue & Purple Owl Birthday Party

Hard to believe we're already over halfway through 2014. What the heck!?  It's amazing how slowly an individual morning can go when I'm dealing with two fussy, defiant toddlers, trying to check a million to do's off my list, cook, clean...but then I blink, and six months have passed! And I would give anything to freeze some of those mornings in time, to capture them and live in them forever. 

You may be wondering why all the nostalgia or time-talk. Well, I'm about to share pictures from my kiddos' second and third birthday party...which happened back in March! I'm not sure how I left this on the to do list for so long since I'm normally anal about getting those crazy squares checked off as quickly as possible. Somehow it slipped, but was a special enough event that I couldn't let it go forever.

We had a low-key celebration this year, compared to years passed. Less friends, less decor and a much lower budget. We weren't even sure whether or not to do a party initially, thinking maybe it was better to cut the logistics and expense altogether for a year. But, in the end, I realized celebrations are in my nature and these are my babies who will only turn two and three once. So, party it was!!

I did vow early on not to make any new purchases for the party decor, which I faithfully stuck to. I looted my craft room and put together a theme based on cute little birthday owls in mint greens, blues and purples. I happened to have a ton of sheer mint green fabric left over from my daughter's nursery, so we were able to do a beautiful fabric bunting draping into a balloon chandelier. 

Cupcakes are a must for me because they are a great way to tie in a party's theme, and because I could eat cupcakes all day long! I made owl toppers and heart toppers, all with extra paper I had laying around the house. 

Since I was trying to keep costs low, I made my own cakepops! I kept them simple with white chocolate coating and mint polka dots. Our favors were a hodgepodge of leftover party favors from previous events, clearance halloween favors I had in storage and one bag of new candy. I loved being able to destash my party supply closet, while saving money!

I wrapped little juice boxes in the same coordinating owl paper, stamped owls on blue paper bags and embellished the water pitcher with ribbon and a mint heart. No new supplies were purchased in the making of these pieces (catching a theme?!).

 One of my favorite pieces was the mantle display, which included handmade pieces of art by the kids themselves! 

I always like to display the kids' scrapbooks at their birthday parties. This time around I made a simple "GROWING" banner and strung it between two bottles where their scrapbooks were. 

Happy Birthday, Kyler & Havyn! What a blessing it is to be your mama!

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