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Monday, August 21, 2017

A Must-Read Review: Nichole Nordeman's Slow Down: Embracing The Everyday Moments Of Motherhood


I first discovered Nichole Nordeman with her 1998 album Wide Eyed and her songs were a blend of tender beauty, honesty and a great mix of poetry and theology. What I responded to with all of Nordeman's work is her ability to balance these with the assurance of a master craftsman but that she allows for questions and mystery. I remember being delighted when I opened the CD case for her second album and saw this:


I saw that quote from Emily Dickinson, as well as what she'd written about Madeleine L'Engle and how her book Walking on Water impacted Nordeman's songwriting for that album and I hollered, "Comrade!" I knew that this was an artist who wasn't afraid to explore and ask and not have to have all the answers. I have loved her music and own all of her albums, including her most recent, Every Mile Mattered. Using the title from a track, that first appeared on her album The Unmaking and a rerecorded version with her daughter, Pepper, on Every Mile Mattered, Nichole Nordeman has written a book on motherhood entitled Slow Down: Embracing the Everyday Moments of Motherhood.

As a Papa to a son who is in his senior year of high school and will be heading off to college before too long, when I heard her song "Slow Down," I will admit that I got teary eyed. She so perfectly connected with a parent's heart the desire to slow down time with their children. The days go by so slow, but the years go by so fast. As she sang in the chorus:

Slow down
Won't you stay here a minute more
I know you want to walk through the door
But it's all too fast
Let's make it last a little while
I pointed to the sky and now you wanna fly
I am your biggest fan
I hope you know I am
But do you think you can somehow
Slow down

The song, which she wrote for her son Charlie's fifth grade graduation sums up how all mother's (and father's) feel at the passage of time (much like Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game," another song that brings tears to my eyes). 


It's with a gentle heart, a poet and mother's eye, that Nichole Nordeman writes fourteen essays on motherhood that are poignant, humorous, honest and loving. In the opening, she writes of "The moments we never get back. The moments I was always trying hard to rush through." She writes of how she longed to rush through breastfeeding and diapers and not sleeping through the night and the baby speaking his or her first word ... and then, realizing, she wished time would just "Please. Slow. Down." This book is a soft voice whispering to mothers at all stages of parenting a child, "Don't miss this moment."


Just as she does with her music, Nordeman draws you in with both how well she can relate, but also how beautifully she writes exactly what you were thinking or struggling with. She is candid and encouraging: from being a new mother with a difficult baby and having postpartum depression ("I had never felt so frail. So inept. So alone and small") to all of the bumps and joys and heartaches that come with motherhood. "If I hadn't had babies and toddlers before Pinterest and mommy blogs, I think I would have cratered under the expectations," she writes in a chapter entitled "Pour Your Heart Out." 

She's also enlisted some other well-known moms (Shauna Niequist, Jen Hatmaker, Amy Grant, Natalie Grant, and Sara Groves to name a few) to pen short essays about their own experiences of motherhood.

While this is a book for mothers, as a Papa who has been a stay-at-home-dad and am now working only part-time to be home for my two sons, I can relate to the material perhaps better many fathers. I have been grocery shopping with a child who pitched a tantrum because I wouldn't buy one of the many things that he wanted, gotten to the cash register where he then grabs a candy bar and attempts to put it on the conveyor belt, to which I snapped, "Oh no! You're getting something but it's sure not candy, mister!" The older lady who was a cashier chimed in, "Oh, get that cutie a piece of candy." She, too, experienced my snapping when I replied, "Shut up and stay out of it! You haven't been with this terror down each aisle of this store!" Love of Christ exemplified, I know. (So I completely got Jen Hatmaker's grocery tale in which an older lady informed her, "My children never behaved that way." Jen's response?  "How nice for you, and may I offer my condolences to your daughter-in-law.") It's also why I am quick to go over to young moms who are struggling to shop with their young kids and tell them, "Your jobs hard and often thankless, so I just want to thank you for what you're doing." It's amazing to see their demeanor change. 

I can also relate to Nichole Nordeman writing about her son who's now in the "nearly teen days" and the difficulty of having conversations about "delicate things." She writes, "He is a raging introvert, like his mother. And like his mother, he spends a lot of time in his head and isn't overly verbal or communicative, to say the least. He is a deep well - sensitive, intuitive, and profoundly bright... Charlie can live on an island at times, making it hard to reach his shores." This sounds very familiar because I was just like that and so is my older son. I love how Amy Grant writes that she doesn't "try to control the conversations or ask a lot of questions" but simply listens and is present to them.

Though this book is written for mothers, I believe fathers should read it as well, to at least hear the perspectives of parenting from women who often struggle with insecurities over whether they measure up. One of the passages that hit home with me was when she writes, "Let's be honest . . .we need our children to reflect back how wonderful we are. How hard we are trying, for Pete's sake. The loveliness we'd like to project. How thoughtful and intentional our parenting is." Yes, children fall short of our expectations, but then so do we. Sometimes our kids repeat a inappropriate joke at school - that they first heard from one of their siblings (as Sara Groves wrote about).  My favorite essay is the final one written by Nichole Nordeman entitled "Stones and Swans." It's a heart-achingly, magnificent reminder that, as parents, our greatest calling is to teach them about a loving God. As she writes, we are to "Collect the stones. Hold sacred the stories of your journey with God, and stack them in front of your children as a reminder of what He has brought or is bringing you through." And of allowing them to collect their own stones. It is a deeply moving and tenderly profound essay that completes this wonderful collection.

All of these mothers write about the trials and the struggles, but also the joys and those moments that will be forever etched into one's heart. Yes, parenting is hard - really, really hard - but it is so worth it when we let go of picture-perfect and rest in what is present before us. 


Along with the essays are some beautiful photographs of childhood moments and each chapter ends with extra space for journaling. It's a book that would make a wonderful gift for an expectant mom, a new mother, or a mother at any stage of parenting. Nichole Nordeman and her contributors all offer up candid portraits of parenting and family that will resonate with those women reading it. All of the stories are easy to relate to and it's enjoyable to read. This is not a how-to manual but a lovely work of encouragement, which I believe all mothers (and fathers) need.


Nichole Nordeman's official website:

Official website for the book Slow Down:

Nichole Nordeman's video for the song "Slow Down":




Thursday, August 17, 2017

Shalom


Shalom: wholeness, completeness.

It's a word that is intertwined with another Jewish word shelemut or perfection.

Shalom is more than the absence of war, quarrel or strife. Shalom is a biblical notion of a manifestation of divine grace. The Hebrew root word for grace means to "pitch a tent" or "set up camp." It's used when Isaac departed and "pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar and dwelt there" (Genesis 26:17). What I love about that image is that God's grace pitches a tent or sets up camp within us.  When the Israelites set up camp, they pitched their tents in a large circle as a way of creating a wall or separation from the world around them. Imagine the grace of God as a wall around us. Shalom as refuge and strength. Psalm 29:11 says, "The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace."

As I watch so much upheaval, hostility, violence, oppression, discrimination, bigotry, hatred, and distrust growing between races, religions, and nationalities, I cannot help but meditate on Shalom and our world's desperate lack. When I watch the news, I grow disheartened and downcast at what I see, not as a breakdown of race in this country, but the ugly racism that underlies so much of our history rearing its head so boldly. We cannot heal what we do not face and until we do, there will be no Shalom. So I come to this word, reflecting on its deeper meanings than the mere use of "peace" that we so often speak of. Part of this mediation comes from my spending the end of this year studying the Beatitudes more closely and applying it to my daily life. Certainly current events are a cold reminder that there needs to be more "peacemakers" in our culture, communities, nations and world. Those who embrace with their very lives the ideal of "Shalom" or wholeness, of completeness. Those who understand that this is not only a personal state but one that we are meant to live out in the world. Shalom is a standing against that which would attempt to shatter and fracture wholeness: injustice, racism, oppression, poverty and our obsession with nationalism and war.

Two of the greatest modern peacemakers (Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr) both drew their strength and belief in working for Shalom in a nonviolent way because of their using Christ as a role model for living out peace in the midst of strife, antagonism, discrimination, extreme violence and brutality. Both men lived out this belief to the very cost of their lives. Shalom was something important enough to give one's life for just as Jesus did. They grasped that it is only those who are willing to take "Blessed are the peacemakers" literally and not as mere platitude who Jesus says, "Shall be called the sons and daughters of God."

Patriarch Bartholomew wrote, "Unless our actions are founded on love, rather than on fear, they will  never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism . . . Only those who know - deep inside the heart - that they are loved can be true peacemakers. Our peacemaking ultimately stems from and relates to love for all of God's creation, both human and environmental. In this form, peacemaking is a radical response to policies of violence and the politics of power."

How many of us are willing to step up, to the very risk of our lives, and become "Shalom-makers?" One that we saw recently was Heather Heyer, who died expressing exactly what Christ, Gandhi and Martin Luther King did. And it cost her her very life. Yet that life cut short speaks loud volumes in a world that is so often obsessed with self and self-interests. So often we ask ourselves, "What would I have done had I lived during the time of the Nazis?" or "What would I have done during the Civil Rights Movement?" During such a time as we are in now, the answer is: Exactly what you are doing in this very moment. If you are not speaking out and standing up against such bigotry and hatred, then you would have been silent then.

"Peace," Martin Luther King, Jr, once said, "is not merely a goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." Peace. Shalom is a daily way of living and approaching others, especially those who are different from ourselves (whether that be race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality).

During the time of Christ, it was customary for men to address each other with, "Shalom! Shalom!" (Peace! Peace!). Yet when Jesus speaks of Shalom, he is not referencing a salutation but a spiritual state of being.  In the gospel of John, Christ tells his disciples, "Shalom (Peace) I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." He is about to leave them and his words are meant to more than comfort his followers, they are meant to be reminders when the world is hostile, violent, and they feel overwhelmed and defeated by the hatred and opposition they encounter.

The Shalom Christ speaks of is not only a sense of spiritual well-being (inner peace) but a desire to work towards Shalom in the world around them. It is a working towards ending injustice. As Dr. King wisely said, "Without justice there can be no peace. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it." From the time of the prophets of the Old Testament to the ministry of Christ, the kingdom of heaven was never meant just as some future, heavenly place of perfection and peace, but was meant to spur us on to work towards that in our daily lives, in our workplaces, our communities, in the world that God has set us in. Shalom-making was a persistent and driving force to end oppression, end poverty, end inequality, end injustice, end persecution, end slavery, end social and economic inequality, and end any wall or barrier that we would place between ourselves and someone else. Cain once asked God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and, unfortunately, too many now continue to ask that very same question; despite Christ's having answered it emphatically, "YES!" Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Everyone.

Unless we are willing to work and, possibly lay down our lives, for Shalom, then we cannot under any circumstances begin to refer to ourselves as "the children of God." Christ said otherwise. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God." If we are silent, if we are complacent, if we are too busy pursuing our own self-interests, then we are hypocrites who claim something we have no spiritual right to claim: being a son or daughter of God. How can we claim to truly have the peace of God if we are not willing to face the suffering of others and work to end that suffering?

James 3:16-18 states, "For where ency and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil work will be there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."

We cannot claim righteousness if we are not sowing peace, making peace in a world that has so little of it. As followers of Christ, we are called and impelled to pursue Shalom. What Charlottesville has shown us is that the Church has too often failed to do so.

The Apostle Paul wrote, "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace..." (Romans 14:9). Pursue is active. It requires action from us, not just verbal or mental agreement. Pursuing peace means we have to get up and get out into the very world that needs us to be peacemakers.

The Church should be at the forefront of ending racial hatred, inequality, injustice, and poverty. We should not be content to stay within our own walls speaking and preaching and teaching of personal holiness while ignoring what the prophet Isaiah called, "preach(ing) the gospel of peace"bring(ing) glad tidings of good things?" Are we? Are we bringing "good things" to a world that is broken and hurting. Hurt so often turns to fear and fear often expresses itself through violence. Are we showing them the wholeness, the completeness of turning away from violence of any kind and walking in the very Shalom of Christ that changes and transforms those who are bound up in hatred and fear?

To work towards peace means we have to die to self, to let go of our sense of entitlement and self-preservation. The pursuit of peace is the only way to reconciliation of any kind. As the Psalmist says, "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it!" The question is, are we really and truly pursuing Shalom? Are we sowing peace? In our homes and our communities?  If we are not willing to step up, speak out and do so, then how can we honestly expect there to be anything but what we are witnessing in the news? We cannot afford to live in the falsehood of our safe and secure versions of Christianity with its focus solely on personal salvation. No, we are called to be peacemakers, but will we ignore Christ's call?


Friday, August 11, 2017

Must-Read Book Reviews: Evicted By Matthew Desmond


When Christ tells his disciples, "You will always have the poor with you," as he did in Matthew 26:11, I don't think this was a matter-of-fact statement but a warning. Throughout the Bible, we see God's love and identification with the poor. His prophets are constantly reminding the nation of Israel not to neglect the poor.

Years ago, when I worked in management for a drugstore chain, I was managing one in what was considered the bad parts of town. On a daily basis, I interacted with drug addicts, homeless people, prostitutes, shoplifters and the poor. I got to know some of them better and began to realize that behind all of their situations were stories, many involving poor choices but also a lot of heartache, tragedy, and often abuse or neglect or poverty in their own childhoods. These were not statistics but people. I often took time out of my day to speak to them and just listen, even taking one homeless man (who had a college degree in art history) out for a Thanksgiving meal at one of he few restaurants that was open back then (a buffet).

My time getting to know some of these people changed my attitude about the poor and shed some of my misconceptions or stereotypes as to who they were and why they were in their circumstances. Reading Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City does that as well and for the same reason. Desmond focuses on the stories of people who are trapped in substandard and low-income housing (one is described as having "maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the sink" as well as being infested with rats and roaches). He brilliantly allows those who are caught in this cycle of poverty to speak for themselves, to tell about their own lives. Many of them are not shiftless, lazy, and irresponsible.

Evicted tells stories, often disturbing ones, of how the people who live in these low-incoming housing often have to pay exorbitant costs for rent (often anywhere from 50-80% of their income, leaving inadequate amounts for their other needs: such as medicine and food). There are over 10 million people who are struggling to pay rent and utilities, as well as landlords who take advantage of their status by not repairing walls, sinks, broken windows because it's cheaper to evict a family than it is to do the needed fixes to the apartments or homes. The problems that come with these evictions are that the force children to change schools and often cost the adults their jobs; all of which undermine neighborhoods and inflict deep emotional and physical scars on those who suffer from being kicked out of their homes.  All the while, they long for normalcy and a clean home. One of those written about is 13-year old Ruby Hinston, who takes refuge in the local library where she spends time on a computer creating her "dream home." And what does it look like? Not some mansion, but simply a house with "clean, light-reflecting floors, a bed with sheets and pillowcases, and a desk for doing schoolwork."

Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, breaks the book down into three parts: Rent, Out and After. As he tells the stories of those involved, he warns us, "Every year in this country, families are evicted out of their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions." Yet how many of us are unaware of even stop for a moment to think about or consider this fact of life in one of the wealthiest countries in the world but where there is such disparity between the haves and the have-nots? A country that spends great sums of money to subsidize housing for people who are well-off while the poorest of the poor are completely left out. Only one in four of low-income households that qualify for assistance actually receives it.

The people who inhabit this book are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty in a country that is filled with such privilege. He follows the lives of eight families in deindustrialized Milwaukee. He presents the brutal truth of poverty in America but is never preachy or heavy-handed. Desmond simply lets their heart-breaking stories unfold before the reader. This book is eye-opening and heart-breaking. While it's not an easy read, it's an extremely necessary one.

What haunts me is some of the very last lines of the book:

Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering - by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.

No, indeed, there isn't. As I read those words, I couldn't help but hear Christ warning, "Woe to you . . ." and I wondered if we would ever truly listen?



Matthew Desmond's official website:
http://www.evictedbook.com

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Jen Hatmaker's Of Mess & Moxie


When Jen Hatmaker wrote Of Mess and Moxie, I (a white male edging nearer to 50 than I am comfortable with) am not her target demographic. No, she did not write this book for me (and even says so in the book trailer - though not mentioning me by name - but saying that this one's for the girls, echoing one of her favorite songs by Martina McBride). So I go into her latest work with this in mind, just as I did her last, For The Love

I first encountered Jen Hatmaker when I read her book Interrupted, which came at just the right time because I, too, was at the place where she was in writing that book. I had been challenged deeply by Shane Caliborne's The Irresistible Revolution with its stressing the gospel of social justice. Since then, I have read her other works and have watched a shift in her focus. Her writing is hilarious, honest and inclusive with an "all is welcome to the table" approach. It's that last one that has upset many conservative Evangelicals who disagreed with her changing her stance on same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community in the Church. 

Of Mess and Moxie is written in the same conversational, between-us-girls, tone that she blogs, posts on Facebook and wrote For the Love and has garnered her such a huge following on social media. She draws the reader in using the same style of two close friends sitting down to have an open, funny and honest dialogue with. It's the life is messy but let's get through this together attitude and it has won her both her admirers and her detractors (the latter often commenting on Hatmaker's using less biblical references and more on pop culture: such as binge watching shows on Netflix). It's unfair to review her latest with that mindset because she wasn't setting out to wrestle with theology so much as to encourage women of all ages that they've got this, that they can do it, and to exhort them while making them laugh and cry and come away wishing they were neighbors with her.

"I am not afraid of storms," Louisa May Alcott wrote in her classic Little Women, "for I am learning how to sail my ship." It's a wonderful and apropos quote for this book about navigating the day-to-day lives of family, friendships, and faith. 

The first essay entitled "Unbranded" tends to take a light-hearted dig at her earlier, more overly-earnest and religious books (including Interrupted and 7) and repeats the idea that "You don't have to be who you were." She deftly moves from a self-deprecating humor to encouragement, "You are far more than your worst day, your worst experience, your worst season, dear one. You are more than the sorriest decision you ever made, You are more than the darkest sorrow you've ever endured." It's not an easy transition to make but she manages to do so deftly. She is willing to write of her insecurities and issues and struggles without cynicism but with a generous spirit towards herself and others going through those same struggles.

Of Mess and Moxie about the shifting, shaping of self that goes on throughout all seasons of life and how those are bumpy, messy, frustrating, funny, and filled with both triumphs and tragedies. She connects because she writes of the tensions between caring about Syrian refugees and Gilmore Girls. It's not either or. One does not have to give up joy to balance community, church and the world Christ's called us to love. A person can enjoy pool parties and be concerned about human trafficking. She hits home with so many readers because she candidly talks about how demoralizing comparing ourselves to others can be, how she wrestles with enjoying the beauty God created along with reaching out to take care of the poor and the oppressed; that there are times for feast as well as fasting. 

Many of the essays that comprise this book are witty, honest and relatable. I would imagine it's the relatability of her her writing that has garnered such loyal followers and put Jen Hatmaker on the bestseller list (where I'm sure this book will also find itself). Yet it was the chapters where she lets her guard down and opens her heart that were the ones I responded the most to. One of my favorite chapters is also the most honest. In "We Live," Hatmaker writes of heartache and healing, of the importance of counseling. I love the line "nothing in your life is too dead for resurrection." As someone who has struggled with depression and knows first-hand the reality of the line from the Psalm 139:8, "Even if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are there," I get what she's writing about in this chapter. 

Another that impacted me most deeply was Chapter 12, entitled "Sanctuary." It's here that Jen Hatmaker writes of her struggles with the Church; but it's not an angry rant or a malicious, harshly-critical one, but one that springs from the heart of someone who deeply loves this flawed corporate body that's meant to reflect Christ to the world around her. The Church is to be a sanctuary and Jen takes the word at its very meaning: a sacred place where fugitives were entitled to immunity from arrest." This means a safe place for all: whether they be "the guilty, the outcast, the refugee, the criminal, the desperate." Christ was just such a safe place to all who came to him. It's clear from this chapter that Hatmaker wants a Church whose doors are open to everyone and that each person is welcome to the table. "... all are safe, equally valued, everyone ministered to and included." It's this last part that have caused many in the Church to accuse the author of abandoning orthodoxy in favor of what they consider to be political correctness or an embracing of the cultural and social norms over biblical truth. What I read, however, in her writing, is someone who loves and wants to love others as they are, where they are just as Jesus did. 

Jen Hatmaker wants to set up a bigger table. She asks, "Who is unseen? Who is left out? Who is marginalized? Whose voice is silenced? Whose story is outside the lines?" I love this because it makes me see Christ because those were the places where he was always found and it always, always upset the religious establishment who were more concerned about piety, purity and law than they were about love. Hatmaker's prose shines when she writes about a Church that is less homogeneous and more vibrant with the stories of all who are a part of it and where every voice is heard, including women in the pulpits. 

She promotes a Church that embodies Christ in his ability to listen to the heart-stories of others who had gone unseen and unheard, so that he could embrace them (no matter how far they were outside of Jewish culture and religion). A welcoming Church. But loving so openly, so unconditionally is not easy and will anger a great many. As Frederick Buechner wrote, "(Christ's) life speaks loud of how, in a world where there is little love, love is always lonely." I'm sure Jen Hatmaker got a taste of this loneliness for wanting to welcome the "banned" and make them see they are "God's beloved." 

In her poem "The Summer Day," Mary Oliver asked: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? 

Jen Hatmaker seems to answer Oliver's question when she writes, "...this is your one life, and fear, approval, and self-preservation are terrible reasons to stay silent, stay put, stay sidelined." That is the message that underlies Of Mess and Moxie and, while this book may not have been written for me, I, for one, am glad that I ignored the book's focused marketing demographic and embraced the generous, open and loving heart of Jen Hatmaker.

Official book trailer:


Jen Hatmaker's official website:


Friday, August 4, 2017

Finding God


I read this passage today in Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book by Farther Pedro Arrupe, S.J. and thought I'd share it:

"Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything."