Missional Women and Skyscrapers

When I first became a mom, I was also in my early years of adulthood and vocational ministry. I had just graduated with a masters in theology, and as grateful as I was for the gift of a child, I also deep down felt a little cheated. Like I had let everyone down, like I was going in the opposite direction as planned. I was very young, and I had many ideals and intentions that seemed incongruent with being a mother. I careened into motherhood like I did other stages of my life, and as quickly as I could I resumed roles and responsibilities, out to prove that being a mom wasn’t the end of me. Mostly to myself. In doing so, I delayed forming a more congruent sense of identity, and fostered a belief that motherhood competed with a better purpose.

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Looking back, I wonder if I spent too much time fighting against my role as mom, disliking the embedded stereotypes I felt defensive towards, as opposed to seeing this new part of my life as a conduit through which those ideals could manifest creatively. I wonder if I could have been a little easier on myself, a little more trusting of God’s work through me as opposed to relying on my effort. I am now seven years into my irreversible tenure as a mother and I’ve settled down a bit. I had a short, glorious reprieve from diaper bags, leaking sippy cups, and pack’n’plays. Now, we are a year into our third son, cherishing the good with the hard, a little less rushed, a little less pressured, and, honestly, a little less together.

I can tell you that being a mom has not become the definition of who I am but it has determined most of my waking and sleeping hours for the past 7 years. I can also tell you that, at the same time, it hasn’t been a death sentence to my ideals, my sense of calling, and my dreams. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you, yes you, that new mom, or the woman who had an unexpected, irreversible detour of any kind, are still on mission. I’m glad to report, even just 7 years in, that the socially-minded, justice-fighting, feminist, grown-ass Jesus-loving woman can co-exist with this honor of motherhood. That, as Donald Miller articulates in describing his friend David in Scary Close, maybe while life is declining “in earthly validation [it is] all the while ascending in the stuff that really matters.” You don’t have to become a mom to learn some of the things I’m learning. But you don’t have to not be one also.

I am writing against the doubts and shadows of despair that I myself still face occasionally. You know the ones: the flat one-liners that reduce us to who we are in relationship to one other person, or box in our dreams to a specific shape, size, and color. I’m writing to you from a fellow trench of deafening needs, long days, and short years. You are still you, and your heart for others is going to grow, not wither, from your station in the home.

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Women who are primarily labeled stay-at-home-moms in this blessed world routinely practice a very profound behavior: the act of invitation. She invites the tears of her children, the sighs of her husband, the stories of the cast of characters in her ever-growing community. She invites care when she is exhausted or confused, and help when she is sick. By nature of being a woman, she is vulnerable to surprise, cycles, changes, setbacks and regrouping. She receives people, in her physical space and her emotional depths. She reflects Trinitarian reciprocity and extends the hospitable nature of God as wife, mother, neighbor, friend, visitor.

As a woman translates her self into her leadership in the home, in developing familial and extra-home relationships, and in turn allows her self to be affected and matured through that role, she embodies a powerful combination of structure and adaptability. These are the crossbeams of a good invitation.

In family systems theory, boundaries, adaptability, and the permeability of family norms and rules is discussed. When a family dance is met with a new person through birth or adoption, or a crisis occurs in a particular person’s life, the system has choices. Does everyone’s life come to a screeching halt? Do family rules end up in the trash bin, never to be considered again? Does everyone except one person make sweeping changes, protecting a particular person’s rigidity? Does the family grow out of touch, strangers under the same roof? How elastic is the microsystem?

In Los Angeles, buildings are designed or renovated with an earthquake in mind. The techniques engineers use to mitigate damage to the structure given a seismic crises are mind-blowing to this onlooker. And useful for the ideas of family systems and missional women. There are a variety of technologies but what I found most interesting are the innovative ways in which engineers equip a building to be flexible, and move in counterbalance to the earth’s movement. Rigidity is not reinforced; tension cables, swinging masses, steel tendons, rubber bearings, shape memory alloy…any of these may be the ying to the earth’s yang. To think that our ever-changing beautiful LA skyline is invisibly fluid, absorbent, and responsive.

It occurs to me that in so far as a woman equips her self to be responsive, yet stable, to the larger world, whether the bassinet beside the bed, or the neighbor everyone else calls crazy, she accomplishes the holy task of making room for the Other. In a spontaneous and unglamorous act of allowing her day (not to mention her night) to be run by a pre-verbal life-sucking bundle of joy, or in visiting the lonely with a front carrier and a curated portfolio of puree pouches, she is practicing divine invitation. As she becomes practiced at changing her plans to host a school playmate, inviting an unlikely guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, or promoting her home as a place to drop by unplanned, she demonstrates to her children, her self, and her community that perfection and predictability are not the priority. She acts subversively to the isolating American norms of privacy and refusing liability. She calls to the carpet the evangelical idol of the nuclear family unit and the consumerist approach to making a home.

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When a family system is moderately cohesive, and moderately adaptable, it achieves a flexible structure, a retrofitted connection. Family boundaries are neither rigid nor transparent but permeable. So it is safe for a crisis to arise in or out of the home; the system will hold. It is okay for someone to have an autonomous thought. The connection is not threatened. The dance will change. The change can be painful. But the building does not fall down. It is safe to go to this family with a need. It is appreciated when a guest invites their friend to the party. The children remain the children; the adults remain the adults, but the home is not a bunker. It is a port.

As a missional mom, it’s life-giving to me to continuously and awkwardly sort out how to use my home, my errands, my little realm of supposed control, in a reciprocal manner. I ravenously watch other women who have achieved these maneuvers. A dream that has birthed from the labor of motherhood is to instill an attitude of invitation in my family. My default as a mom is structure, preemptive organization, lists, and routines; these are my Ritalin. (I’ve been known to tape a newsletter-like document to the car dash when my husband and friend road-tripped with our oldest two kids. Because control.) But as a player in the larger mission of God’s upside-down economy, with creative agency instilled by our Creator, I’m compelled to counterbalance that structure by subjecting it to interruption.

The biblical account reinforces this idea of holy invitation, and dynamic family structures. Ruth and Naomi come to mind. Ruth, though she was the guest to Naomi’s family and land, opened up with her pain and adopts and attaches in response to calamity; their family dance shrunk and continued. In the Law, YHWH makes multiple considerations for guests and foreigners, establishing that even when His chosen people were a specific nation, that those boundaries were absorbent. His expectation was that they remember who they are and be responsive to the needs and guests around them (Deuteronomy 10:12-22). Structure and adaptability. Their family feast of booths included the visiting Levite, the servant, the sojourner, the fatherless. Permeable family lines. Jesus demonstrates innovative family makeup, and a hospitable heart always. Stopped on his way to bigger things, tending to basic needs of thousands, positioning his earthly mother to be cared for by his best friend. The culture of our faith is a radical hospitality. The sermon of our Gospel is simple invitation. Our realm lies strategically within this call.

This is unclear work. There is no syllabus. With every additional birthday of my children, additional personality type to the mix, job change, heck, counseling session, this goal of permeable family lines is adjusting. And it’s incredibly inconvenient but it’s a small price for remaining a congruent, missional person. Ladies, this is not win or lose. This is not pass or fail. Your heart is too big, your life too short for that binary garbage. Mine is too. We are committed to our families and that requires different things on different days. We are also committed to our gift for invitation and inclusion. Finding that sweet spot where these are mutually beneficial is a moving target, but what a holy opportunity. Our homes, our emotional space, our maddeningly ordinary tasks, may be the skyline of hope and belonging another soul needs. Stoicism need not apply. Perhaps never before have we been so in touch with our own humanity and limitations as now, here. What a perfect time to extend an imperfect invitation.

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Love

It is after the turn of the year, after the day we remembered the Baby King and I am still stringing along the advent themes. And that is just how it is right now.

There are days when the love doesn’t seem thick enough. It doesn’t seem loud enough or near enough or real enough. It doesn’t seem like it can hold the frustrations, the pain, the way we play out lies and tumble in disappointment.

But then, just as I am not defined by a person or a role, but only by His image, Love is not defined by my sense of it. Of them. Or my imperfect dance with its shadowy imitations.

It is January 2nd which seems promising but a flip of the calendar is not reflected in our everyday lives. The vices still stand. The weariness was not wiped. The gaiety does not dissolve the grime.

The advent guide begins with Zephaniah 3:17, which was the verse I had in my profile in the 2002 yearbook. I couldn’t know then how I would lean on that verse hard and long the next year. The year I felt alone and liberated, devastated and thrilled, faith-less and faithful. It says “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

It is hard to think of delighting anyone except my parents and babies. Let alone Him, Love.

When everything falls down around me, my dreams are up for grabs, the suffering of the world and my neighbor weigh in, and I can’t think of how to pray, I sometimes see I know nothing of this Love. And it is actually a relief. This Love that delights, that quiets, that sings. It lifted me in the darkest, private corners of my first year of college by its relentlessness; it has been the backbone to my story, but still I peer at it awkwardly, uncertain and blurry. Sometimes then I see that I have been sacrificing but not loving, like when Israel’s love, just as the prostitute’s, is considered the morning cloud, the early dew–quickly going away (Hosea 6:4-6). I have forgotten that He loved me first, and He loved him first, and her, and them, before I did anything right. Before he changed that habit. Before she realized she was like that. Before they called Them their God.

This Love, that broke in to the lowest parts of the world in the form of a baby, says this:

“I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with the cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bend down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4).

We are the children, the enslaved, the sick, the asses, the babies. We are the whore that the Love came for, pursues, forgives, delights.

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The Love returns us, returns me, to being a helpless baby. And it meets me when I feel like one. When the advent writing didn’t finish in time, when the Christmas cards didn’t go out, when I forgot to show that person I cared, when I fall, fall, fall. When I forgot that nothing I do or sacrifice replaces holding fast to Love. Holding fast to the first identity of Beloved–of Enough. To a full and divine dependency on a Triune Love Being, like an infant on its caregiver, from dawn till dusk, and through the night. From the first breath.

And He loves us all last too. Still taking us up by our arms, healing us, and wrapping up with cords of kindness. He’s at the end, with the same Love. That is the relief. No matter how poorly I have received and clung to and extended this Love, it is force I do not effect. I cannot mess up the constancy of the invitation.

He came as the invitation. And oh so early in this new year, I receive it again.