Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Becoming Boring

Shortly before my husband and I married, the barrage of pregnant people began. Just a trickle at first, a few friends with newborns. Then the water broke – so to speak – and suddenly we’re the only ones at a party without baby stories.

I couldn't even escape at work, where I was nicknamed “the mom-magnet.” Of all the massage therapists at the office, I somehow got all the pre-natal clients. I must have ranked somewhere up there with midwives and ice cream shops for the percentage of my business that depended on pregnant women.

After witnessing all these growing bellies, glowing parents, and adorable newborns, I couldn't help myself: I wanted to join the mom club too. Still, even as hopeful newlyweds, we felt the constraints of our reality. My dance degree and his seminary education couldn’t pay the bills, and we were both back in school, working part-time jobs on the side.

Besides our financial instability, we were still recovering from an overload of change in the year before our marriage. I moved away from an incredible dance company and very dear friends in Texas to be with my then-boyfriend and our families in Colorado. He discerned to leave seminary only shortly before we started dating. So with concurrent new education and career endeavors, our prayerful decision to avoid pregnancy (using the sympto-thermal method of natural family planning) gave us a lot of peace in the beginning of our marriage.

The I-want-a-baby blues intensified to their worst about 6 months into our marriage. The excitement of our wedding had well-worn off, and the excitement of having a baby sounded pretty appealing.

As a young, 20-something, Catholic woman, it seemed like the thing to do. I had never really bought into the misconstruction that a good Catholic girl is supposed to have six or seven or twenty babies as soon as possible, but I never really let it go either. Plus, I felt like the “good Catholic” world around me reinforced the idea. Couples who, like us, wanted to wait a little while to have a baby at least felt scarce, although perhaps they just weren't in the limelight.

Then two of my friends got pregnant at the same time, and shortly after their announcements, I thought I was pregnant too. Despite our massive fears and our original plan to wait, my husband and I were really excited at the prospect of a baby. I remember how he glowed at this new, unplanned idea and how enthralled I became at starting a new chapter in life. We were genuinely disappointed when the test showed “not pregnant.” Certainly, we felt relief, but the disappointment tended to linger at the front of our thoughts.

If I were honest with myself, the disappointment was largely due to the fact that I wouldn’t be pregnant with my friends. One of them talked about morning sickness as preparation for her new child, an early indicator that her life and her schedule were no longer solely her own. I had never thought about that with my own potential pregnancy. I just anticipated the awesome changes I would get to watch in my body, the attention I would get from others, the joy of belonging to the elite club of moms around me, and the excitement of something new, not even necessarily of someone new.

Those months up to and right after our first anniversary were emotionally confusing. I always felt at peace continuing the decision to avoid pregnancy, but I rarely felt content. Trying to sort out my emotions one day, I had a revelation. (I wish I could tell you this revelation came from a candle-lit pew in a beautiful chapel while in the midst of deep, ecstatic prayer, but it really came while sitting on the toilet. I think that's all too fitting.)

Instead of blessing us with the conception of a child in our first year, God had given us the conception of our boring-ness, of our blessed, nothing-new-and-exciting-going-on, quotidian life together. I had wanted to get pregnant, not for the sake of having another person to love and not with real consideration for the true sacrifices involved, but for the excitement and attention it would bring me.

Month after month, we prayerfully discerned to continue to avoid pregnancy. And we began to grow into the mundane, ordinary marriage we needed as a reprieve from the whirlwind of our previous year and a half. 

I'm sure our boringness has a long way to mature. (And any couple who's been married more than twenty-five years can probably attest to that.) But we’re learning that there’s a special kind of love born out of the ordinary, one in which we can’t rely on the excitement of falling in love, wedding plans, or even pregnancy to rouse us to affection. Instead, we must simply love one another for the other's sake, and we’re learning to rely on the Lord more fully to supply that love.

The deep longing to become parents still lingers and continues today—15 months after our wedding day—for both of us, but the pressure and the agitation to do so immediately have calmed. I have been continually encouraged by a line from Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry:

“All this hurrying will soon be over. Only when we tarry do we touch the holy.”

For us, this season before children has been more than hopeful planning for financial and emotional stability. It’s slowed us to love in the unexciting moments, preparing us for those times when even a new baby gets boring. And unexpectedly, it’s purifying our motives for having children, no longer seeing a baby as the membership key to an exclusive club, or exciting news for our Christmas letter.

We try to remain attentive to the Holy Spirit's promptings, anticipating with joy when our wonderful, boring life together will be made more wonderful by the morning sickness reminders of a new life more important than our own.

For this time, I am happy to tarry, to slow down, to wait; to follow Christ today, not to Mount Tabor, but to an unrecorded Wednesday in a workshop, when He was tired of the daily grind, but decided to make something beautiful out of it anyway.

Rose Thomas writes from Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at RoseThomas434@gmail.com

Sunday, April 14, 2013

One Teacher’s Legacy (re: Middle School Survival 101)

Mrs. Babick was anti-bullying before it was cool to be anti-bullying. We were all just trying to survive middle school, in all of its awkward painful gawkiness. Even now, when we laugh, and cringe, about the cliques of our pasts, we realize we were all so insecure that even the cool kids didn’t know they were cool.

Somehow, none of that seemed to matter in Mrs. Babick’s room. She didn’t notice that sometimes the preps wore track pants, and that was totally poser of them (unless the person was your friend, and you had told them that you thought it’d be okay if they opted out of tapered jeans that day). She didn’t care that the band kids all wanted to sit together in her classroom; in fact, she may have had us fill out that extracurricular interests sheet on day one just to make sure her subsequent seating charts were completely irrational and mean random. (Whiny junior high voice: “But why can’t I sit by my best friend? She’s like, my only friend in the whole world, and if I don’t sit by her in computer class, I’ll never make friends with aaaanyoooone!”)

Mrs. Margaret (Peggi) Babick

When other teachers shut their doors with a sigh of relief at the end of the day, Mrs. Babick kept her door open, and stood in the hallway, greeting the mess of students that had survived another day of hell middle school. Under the stress of heavy backpacks and all the mood swings that define middle school, we knew that if we could just route ourselves down E-Hall, there was a good chance of getting an encouraging, understanding smile from Mrs. Babick.

She had a way of making all of us feel equal, important, and like what we did mattered. During our word processing unit, Mrs. Babick had us write thank you letters to teachers at the school. The way she made us spell check and grammar check those documents, you’d have thought she were an English teacher. I remember her saying, as she proofread my letter one final time, “You know, this letter’s going to mean a lot to this teacher. I bet she didn’t even think you noticed.” And 17 years later, her words still remind me to speak up in appreciation for others’ good works.

As if decorating her own classroom weren’t enough, Mrs. Babick posted a spirit board in the hallway, and kept it bright with a new theme every season. If you wore school colors on Friday you got to sign your name to the wall.

To this day, I can’t understand how, in the same year that I got braces, while having giant glasses, frizzy hair, and thrift store clothing (before “vintage” was trendy), Mrs. Babick made me feel cool. One month, I even got red and white alternating bands on my braces. I was probably the biggest dork in all of middle school. But that month, I got to sign Mrs. Babick’s spirit board every single week.

You can't see it. But that's a sunflower clip in my hair.
I remember running back over to middle school after my first week at the giant high school down the street to tell Mrs. Babick that no one cared if we chewed gum anymore, and I thought my geometry teacher was cute. Somehow, she acted genuinely interested.

We’ve stayed in and out of touch over the years, but I’ve always looked to Mrs. Babick as an example that one person at one point in time can make a long-term difference in the life of a student.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Dallas Zoo: "You WILL have a good time here, because I did when I was a kid!"

The Zoo Trip turned out to be a lot more exciting in prospect than in reality. For me, at least. My hope was to force pass on one of my favorite childhood memories to my kids, so then they could have a favorite childhood memory to some day force pass on to their kids.

I'm pretty sure the boys enjoyed our day, but it wasn't because of the crocodiles, giraffes, and lions.

Their favorite sites, in no particular order:

1. "A TRAIN!"

2. Dirt!

3. A Wooden Box!

4. Giant Rocks!

5. A Tree-like Column!

6. A Sprinkler Head!

7. A Bench!

8. A Recycling Can!

9. A Pole!

10. Mulch!

11. A Bench By A Wall!

12. A Big Wall!

Yes, there's a large, fantastic new kids section full of interactive exhibits and a petting zoo. But that wasn't a part of the zoo when I was a kid, so it wasn't on my list of places to visit today. Maybe next time we can discover some ants, pigeons, and sticks over there!

7 Quick Takes: In Which Facebook Is Not Evil, But Albertson's Might Be (Vol. 5)

1. Facebook is not evil.

I left Facebook for Lent, since I couldn't seem to use it in moderation. Each evening, after the kids were in bed, and since my husband was still at work, I would check in to see what and how everyone was doing. To some degree, I found myself so engaged by everyone else's exciting lives that I was missing out on my own. So I signed off Facebook for Lent. But as a part-time working mom who feels guilty taking away from the limited time I have with my kids, and since it's hard to find childcare for evenings and weekends, I inadvertently gave up my community when I gave up Facebook. No, I don't want Facebook to be my social life forever. But for this season, it's nice to connect with family and friends when I can't be there in person. And it's good to be back!
2. On Family Rules

We have some unusual family policies. My husband and I both work stressful jobs outside the home, and we still agree: If one person is home with the kids, no matter how crappy the other person's day is, or how crappy their job is, or how crappy their boss is, the person home with the kids had a harder day. Kudos to stay-at-home parents. (The link above goes to more of our family rules.)
Yesterday we only read this book 18 times. Today, let's make it 27!
3. On Albertson's Monopoly Game
I wish I could walk away. But the same gene that makes me categorize my grocery lists by aisle and hyper-organize my coupons, prevents me from willingly leaving a task undone. I might lose, and it might kill me, but I will play this damn Monopoly game until it’s over. (This link goes to more ranting about how Albertson's Monopoly is repressing positive childhood memories and ruining lives.)

Our losing Monopoly games, with the new spreadsheet system I devised on top, and the discarded extra loser playing pieces in a plastic bag to the side.
4. On Shopping at Aldi's

The Aldi's grocery flyer keeps showing up in our mailbox, for months now. I glance over it, write a mental note about their inexpensive bananas, file that mental note in the "Things to Think About When The Kids Are Calm And Happy And You're Not Too Tired To Think" part of my brain, and then forget about it until the next circular arrives. This week I dropped in to check them out, and loved their system! 

I expected the $1.99 gallons of milk to be near expiration -- they were fresh and good for another 16 days. I expected a lot of highly-processed, high-fructose corn syrup products, but they had a great selection of natural foods. The vegetables looked fresh; the fruit, less so, but I still found some greenish-yellow bananas to carry us through the next few days.

I usually shop with coupons, because it saves good money, but as every couponer laments, they don't make coupons for stuff you actually need. Sure I can get Pop-Tarts for a dollar a box after stacking a double-coupon on a $5-off-10-item-purchase promo, but if I'm spending $2.99 on a gallon of milk, and $1.89 on a dozen eggs, I still come out behind. And I just lost three hours at the grocery store with a scrupulous and over-loaded coupon portfolio.
Aldi's has a dozen eggs for 99 cents, a gallon of milk for $1.99, a loaf of bread for 99 cents, and all natural peanut butter for $1.99. We were in and out in 30 minutes, with all our staples. And a pineapple. 

5. More On Aldi's

You know life is exciting when THREE of your seven quick takes are about grocery stores.

Here's some insight into the unusual subculture of Aldi's grocery stores, so you're not caught off guard with two toddlers in a strange store on a rainy morning: 
  • There's a 25-cent deposit on grocery carts. You literally put a quarter into the cart, it releases, and when you return the cart, you get your quarter back. Somehow, I found a quarter in my wallet. I don't know where it came from or why I had it, but it preemptively saved our grocery trip.
  • They don't use plastic bags, and paper bags are 6-cents each. Finally, some motivation to remember my reusable bags!
  • They don't accept credit cards. A little part of me knows that credit card companies are on the axis of evil, but they're so convenient, and I earn 1% cash back! Still, Aldi's prices were significantly lower than the other spectrum of grocery stores I frequent, which is likely due in part to the money they save from not dealing with credit card companies. (So the one dollar per hundred that I get back from the credit card company just doesn't feel so generous compared to the many dollars saved in our grocery budget by shopping with the debit card at Aldi's.)
  • There's a sack-'em-yourself policy. My first job was as a bagger at a grocery store, so I'm a little prideful about my mad sorting and packing skills. Luckily, their carts have two seats to tie down at least two kids, so that helps the self-sacking process!
6. Our New Pope
I don't know what sheep do without a shepherd. I can only imagine it's something like how my dog acts when I'm gone for too long: she's unsettled, can't sleep, paces from room to room, little disturbances make her startle, her world isn't right. That's just how I was acting while waiting for the Conclave to elect our new pope. Welcome, Pope Francis! 

7. A New Job

This month I began a new position at the office where I've worked for four years. It's wonderful!! Without going into too many details (so everyone will think I do something important like protect our national security as a special agent in the CIA), I'm enjoying a more focused workload, supporting many great community initiatives, with a more flexible schedule, and more in my degree field of Communications (whatever that is).

Keep Jen in prayer, as she and baby recover in the hospital, and visit Grace @ Camp Patton for more 7 Quick Takes!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Protestant Unintentionally Explains the Mass

Who I am, spiritually, is just droplets of the great faith and love for God that I've always seen and admired in both my parents.

The whole Catholic bomb could have really shaken up our family unity, but much credit's due to my parents' ability to hear me out, know my heart, and support whatever road leads me to Jesus.

Typical Catholic altar proclaiming Christ crucified, celebrating Christ resurrected [Picture Source]
So during Holy Week (the week before Easter for our non-liturgical Protestant friends among us), my mom offered to watch my kids while I joined my dad at a Seder meal, hosted by the Presbyterian church they're attending. Always fascinated by our Jewish roots, and loving the opportunity to share common ground with my dad, in our common faith, I was in.

Steven Ger, Director of Sojourner Ministries, hosts Seder meals to help Christians experience the Jewish Passover meal as Jesus would have observed it at The Last Supper on the evening before his crucifixion and death.

I knew attending this pop-Christian experience of the traditional Jewish Seder meal would be fascinating, but given that it was hosted by a "fundamentalist" theologian at a Presbyterian church, I wasn't expecting something so, well, Catholic.

Tell me if I'm crazy here (nicely, in the combox), but the whole time Steven was leading us through this Last Supper experience, I kept nearly falling out of my chair at one reference after another to the Mass, and I just can't get over how a Protestant can explain the Mass so beautifully and unintentionally. 

At this point, Catholics are probably shaking their heads asking, "Come on, Charlene. Surely you've heard the Mass culminates in Communion, instituted at the Last Supper?" 

Well, yeah, of course. But this was a PROTESTANT describing the MASS and not even realizing it! I couldn't take it. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, "THIS is a Seder Meal? We do this every week! We do this every DAY! Come with me, and you can see it!!"

Nonetheless, I'm seated right by the podium, and Steven is on a roll with a captive audience, so I briskly scrawl notes from his wealth of knowledge and keep my "Amen's" to a polite Southern Baptist murmur.
[Picture Source]
The Seder begins with a matriarch of the church lighting two candles on a small table set beside the podium. We see in this the symbolism that the Light of the World came into our world through a woman. 

Seder literally means "order" in Hebrew. It's a Jewish ritual of prayer, readings, and eating the Passover lamb. Let me do a quick break-down of the Mass for anyone that's not familiar with it: prayer, scripture readings, and eating the Passover Lamb.

As he introduces the Passover, a 3500-year-old Jewish tradition, Steven laments how Christians have lost their sense of ritual, only celebrating Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. I laugh, remembering the much ado over Mother's Day at the First Baptist Church of my childhood, a monopoly of winners each year and an undercurrent of fierce maternal competition. 

In his dismissal of Christians' ability to celebrate religious holidays, however, Steven overlooks a 2000-year history of our liturgical calendar. It's only in the last few hundred years that many Christians stopped celebrating solemnities and feast days and the many seasons of a year that call us to remember our God and our salvation, culminating not in Christmas, Easter, or Mother's Day, but in the Feast of Christ the King, looking to our hope of a New Jerusalem when every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more.

Steven Ger, speaking at the podium, with the Seder meal set up beside him.
Just as I dismiss the similarities between the altar at Mass and the little table with white linen table cloth and lit tapered candles that Steven has set up, he begins with the opening prayer of the Seder meal: "Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe..." And I nearly fall out of my chair. 

We pray that prayer! All the freakin' time! (Can I say that -- "freakin'" -- in reference to the Mass?) Seriously though, that traditional Jewish prayer from the Passover, it's in every Mass, several times. 

Moving on, Steven explains that the Seder meal includes four glasses of wine (though in reverent Protestant fashion, we stuck to Welch's finest), based on the promises of God in Exodus 6, verses 6-8. He lifts a chalice of wine and begins, "Blessed are you, O Lord, creator of the fruit of the vine..." 

I can't help myself. At this point I'm going nuts. Our priest says that! At every Mass! We pray these same prayers!

I get over it, sip the wine, jot down more notes, and keep listening. 

At every Seder, there's a bag of 3 compartments, and a piece of matzah bread is placed into each pocket. The matzah in the first and third compartments are bypassed, but the bread in the middle is broken in two, half is placed back in the pocket, and the other half is hidden in a linen napkin, to be found later during the meal and eaten as a symbolic dessert, the last morsel of food tasted. To Steven, this is a foreshadowing of the revelation of God as a Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, is broken, buried (hidden), and then resurrected (found).

Matzah Bread
After hiding the matzah, Steven emphasizes the meal cannot begin without retelling the Passover story, and he begins the Genesis account. As I hear the familiar story, my mind drifts to the scriptures read at Mass, traditionally beginning with the Old Testament, then the Psalms, the New Testament, and culminating in the Gospel, each day.

Steven shares with us that every Jewish person at Seder believes they were personally redeemed from slavery at the first Passover 3500 years ago. He draws us to ponder, do we as Christians, truly believe we were personally redeemed at Christ's death and resurrection? When we participate in Communion today, are we present to Christ's sacrifice, once and for all, 2000 years ago?

As the Seder explanation continues, Steven picks up a bone from the table, and explains that animal sacrifices ceased in 70 AD, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Without the temple, there can't be a sacrifice, and so, on each Seder table is placed the shank bone of a lamb as a memorial of the whole lamb. He leads us to reflect on John the Baptist's words at Jesus' baptism: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

And my mind drifts back to the liturgy of the Mass, where "Lamb of God" is proclaimed over and over and over:"Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us," echoing the heavenly worship described in the book of Revelation, which refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God 28 times.

It's important to Steven that we understand how Jesus' words in scripture are part of the Seder meal: "When supper had ended, Jesus took the bread." Steven explains that this would be the second piece of matzah that had been broken and hidden at the beginning of the meal. We begin to see its fulfillment as a pre-figuring of Christ. 

Before Steven begins to repeat the blessing that Jesus would have offered, I anticipate his words, recognizing now that the familiar prayers of Mass are an echo of this ancient rite: "Blessed are you O Lord who brings forth bread of the earth," into the familiar words of the consecration. "Take this all of you, and eat. This is my Body, which will be given up for you."

An expert storyteller, Steven calls us to remember Jesus' humble birthplace in Bethlehem, and reveals the Hebrew translation as bĂȘth lehem, "House of Bread." We see our Savior is the Bread of Life. 

Steven lifts the third chalice of wine, "This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." And it's all so familiar, but so new. 

Father Kyle preparing Communion at our wedding
We end the Seder meal with a toast, both the traditional toast for the hope of a restored temple, and a new toast for the hope of an eternal restoration in God's presence: "Next year in Jerusalem!" and "Next year in New Jerusalem!"