Salt and Light

My latest column for The Southern Cross…

I was hard at work on dinner one recent afternoon, and quite pleased with myself in the process. Dinner, specifically the act of offering it on a regular basis, tends to be a challenge for me. You want dinner? Again?

Of course dinner is part of the deal, I get that. The caring for and feeding of children does indeed involve food. Which brings me to my latest motto — Dinner: it comes with the territory.

This school year, since I’ve started working outside the home, I knew having a weekly meal plan would be our only sanity. I came up with a two-week master plan that we’ve been rotating through, to great success. So another great motto — Dinner: It’s on the Table!

Except this recent weekday evening, after finding myself at the stove (again) and cooking (again) and really enjoying the newfound success of tackling the menu/cooking problem, well I went to add one wee dash of salt when the entire salt grinder came apart and a million pink salt crystals tumbled into dish below.

I stood and stared in disbelief — a whole pot of chili instantly ruined. That was my first thought. I shrieked and scooped and when I tasted the concoction a few minutes later I confirmed that yes, this would be worst pot of chili known to man.

The salt was in there and in the few seconds it took me to grab a spoon, the overwhelming flavor had permeated everything.

I kept thinking about how in scripture, salt getting in the mix is a good thing. I tried to let that thought soothe me (it didn’t). But while my chili might be ruined, I had an undeniable example of how salt works. Salt was being salt and its presence was unmistakable.

Salt and light. That’s what we’re called to be. We as Christians are tasked by Jesus to bring His light to the world. And when we’re being who we are called to be, there can be no mistake we are there.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says in Matthew 5:13, adding “You are the light of the world…your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father.”

Salt and light. Love and truth.

The older I get the less I think this call is about preaching with words and more about being the hands and feet of Jesus. Being salt and light means being ourselves, operating out of our love for Jesus in all we say and do — and then letting God do the rest. It’s not about having an agenda, who we think needs to be saved. It’s about asking Jesus to show us who to love, and to love whoever He puts in our path.

This commission is beautiful because it’s available to us all. Being a missionary isn’t just about traveling to the other side of the world. It’s about being love and light right here, in this moment. It’s rocking the brand new baby, and hugging the whiny toddler. It’s feeding the hungry teenager and lovingly welcoming a husband home even when you’re as tired as he is. It’s looking your grocery store cashier in the eye and listening when you ask how she’s doing. It’s paying attention and being willing to care.

In order to be light, we need to be aware of the world around us. We want to preach — but like the prayer said by Mother Teresa’s order every day, we must “preach without preaching, not by words, but by our example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do, the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear” for Jesus.

We are salt. And when we are who we are called to be — living with a heart of love for Jesus and for his people — there will be no mistaking our presence in this world. It won’t be because we preached the right words, but because we loved the person God needed us to love.

Of Late

Here we are in the third week of school and life as a teacher is…really great! I love teaching! Did I tell you I was teaching? I think I did.

This year I’m teaching at the school my children attend (it’s a K-12, very small private school). I’m teaching American History and World Literature in the high school and grammar and lit in the middle school. I get done at the same time as Isabel every day and they deliver her to my classroom on the way to kindergarten carpool. It’s a dream.

Oh sure I’m worn out and I also feel like I’m staying just one step ahead, but it’s so fun and engaging and oh my heavens my brain? It’s lighting up in areas it hasn’t been lit in ages (I realize that’s a weak sentence but I don’t have time to rework). It’s just, it’s really great.

Last year, I had an entire year devoted to me, with all the kids being at school every day. Isabel went to preschool five mornings a week, the five boys were all in school together everyday from 8:30-3pm. I thought I was going to get SO MUCH writing done and instead did next to nothing. I was the writing equivalent of that guy who stands in the doorway banging his head against the frame. Could. Not. Produce. Content.

I begged. I pleaded. I cried out to God. I cried out to fellow writers. I moaned and complained and still, nothing. No words came and finally, somehow, a friend who I don’t really even know in real life, she gave me the best advice ever: sometimes, you just need to be okay with shutting down. Essentially, when you can’t get where you want to go, accept it as what needs to happen for now.

It was a scary prospect but I also knew that I had tried everything and was getting nowhere.

All of that is to say that I had a whole year of focusing on what I wanted to do and didn’t get real far. And this year, when this opportunity arose, I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I was ready to do something beyond my own personal To Do list each day, ready to be out of the house and also (more importantly) out of my head. It’s really intense up there. I enjoy the break.

And so, here we are three weeks in and I absolutely love teaching. I had a flash on Friday where if you had asked how I felt about things I would have said “BIG MISTAKE” but it turns out I had a stomach bug that day which explains the extreme fatigue and overwhelming emotion. I was on the mend by Saturday afternoon and my outlook on life has been much better.

I’m not saying this is the easiest thing I’ve ever done — nor is it the most glamorous. But it’s good. So very good indeed. My brain is loving the challenge, and my heart (let’s end real cheesy like) my heart does too.

Through the Years

This week’s column…

My friend Carrie sent me a picture the other day, the two of us from way back when she was a college student and I was a fresh-out-of college newlywed. We were running partners and spent that season competing in all the local 5K races and having lots of fun.

I looked at the picture, the two of us smiling post-race and showing off our medals, and marveled not just at how young we were but also how we ever had the time. I remember afternoons of just picking up and heading out.

It doesn’t sound like much, but now, as a mother of six, I can’t imagine just picking up and going anyway — not without a significant crew in tow or some major childcare finagling. I didn’t think a thing of it then, the freedom of a midday run.

How did I have the time for that, I marvel as I look at the picture? It’s incredible to think it once was so.

Fast forward a few years and my new form of exercise was walking my two baby boys in our double stroller. And that was wonderful. Having a stroller gave me the freedom I needed to get out of the house. I remember one day passing the home of a neighbor who had a ton of kids (like, five!) and feeling a little bad for her. She was certainly stuck inside because there wasn’t a stroller to fit them all.

Moving forward another few years and, yes, I’ve outgrown my double stroller and have moved onto a triple. Except we now have four boys. So for a while I am able to strap a baby onto me and still get some exercise, but that doesn’t last long and I’m now in a season where mobility is a pipe-dream.

The days are long, and sometimes the years are also long.

The freedom to come and go is just one of many life circumstances that change with motherhood. I’ve witnessed so many shifts in who I am and how I roll over these years. Life with small children is uniquely challenging, but so, too, is life with teenagers. There is beauty in so much of it, but hardship as well.

As I navigate the different weeks and months and years of motherhood, I see God’s grace with me each step of my journey. There is grace for the sleepless nights and those years where I had little time for myself. And there is grace for new, strange seasons where children can be left at home alone and also, can move away to another city.

Some of these stages are certainly prettier than others (don’t mess with a mom operating on two hours’ sleep. Just…don’t). But God is there. He was then, he is now.

When I look back on the tough seasons, I don’t remember ever thinking I couldn’t do it.

Oh wait! Yes I did! I had that thought all the time. “I can’t do this,” I would think as I started to back out of the driveway to the sound of four small children all crying at once. “I can’t do this,” I’d think while leaving our oldest son at college.

And maybe, some days I’d be crying too.

And that’s okay. It’s okay to question your sanity and self-worth and cry a little bit about the intense hard thing you are doing. It’s called being human and God isn’t afraid of our weakness.

Because the beautiful thing is that in those difficult moments, as we trudge our way through, barely lifting one foot from the mucky waters only to have it drop right back in again, that is where we discover the beauty of trust.

There in our weakness, we are lowered into complete abandonment to God and his perfect will.

“I can’t do this alone,” I’ve cried out to God more than once, only to feel his giant, gentle hands enfold me in his love and grace.

“It’s okay,” he will remind me, “You don’t have to.”

When Marriage Feels Like Work

Once upon a time there were a finite number of blogs and I read them all. You could do that back then, in the early days of blogging. There was a circle of secular bloggers I loved to read and I got really into reading them, all the time.

These days, of course, the blogosphere is a strange combination of over-saturated and also (according to some) dead. Which is to say, it’s hard to keep up with everything and I’ve mostly, this past year or two, gotten out of the habit of reading any blogs at all.

But here and there, lately, I’ve popped back on to these blogs, people I knew and was invested in once upon a time and imagine my sadness to discover that almost all of these great bloggers, ten years later, have had one or two kids and are also now divorced.

Today’s discovery was just the latest and for some reason it really stuck with me what this woman said, upon announcing the breakdown of her marriage, that she just didn’t really want to be married anymore and she had finally worked up the courage to tell the truth. She was celebrated by her friends and relieved to get that out of the way.

What a strange concept, I thought, and how very sad indeed. That was my primary feeling, just a profound sadness for someone I don’t know at all.

But don’t you think, I wanted to tell her, that we’ve all had moments when marriage felt like work? Don’t you know that there are no perfect marriages and just because you’re feeling like you want out, that doesn’t mean that these feelings will always be thus?

Of course I could never say those things to this person I don’t even know, and of course I don’t know the reality of that marriage. And that is the truth universally: none of us can speak into any marriage other than our own.

But it got me thinking, wondering, how many people out there feel trapped or unfulfilled in their own marriage because they have a skewed concept of what a happy marriage actually is. Which is to say that there are indeed happy marriages, but that who among us — even those in the happiest of marriages — has not had a season (perhaps as short as a few hours, perhaps a long, dry drought of a time) where this thing we got ourselves into is not exactly what we had in mind?

I can tell you when I had those feelings and they were very strong. In the days after having our third and then fourth babies, I felt trapped and alone and when Paul walked out the door to work every morning it felt like a spectacular betrayal. “How can you leave me here with all these children?” I would ask (some mornings through tears). It was not a pretty season and while it didn’t go on forever, I’d be lying if I said that every single day of every single year has been complete and utter bliss in the marriage and parenting department. It has not. Some days have been extreme sacrifice, ugly, gut-wrenching tear-stained work.

And here’s another thing: these feelings of boredom and ennui? They don’t necessarily happen in the “later years”. Paul and I recently celebrated our 21st (woah!) anniversary and I feel happier and more fulfilled in this marriage than ever. No, for me, the hardest times were much earlier on. Now they feel like a billion years ago but I was surprised when I experienced those bumps in the road, the times when it suddenly felt very hard and much too challenging.

The thing is, marriage is work. It must be if God uses it for our sanctification. Those of us who are married acknowledge that being married means we recognize this is how God is getting us to heaven — through our spouse. And part of that is through our own little mortifications — learning to die to ourselves, learning to grow, learning to acknowledge that sometimes, feelings are just that — feelings.

Paul has a story he shares when we talk at Engaged Encounter every year, a story about a friend of his who got a divorce when he discovered several years into his marriage that his wife had “changed.” She wasn’t the person she once was and that made life tough. Change must mean it was time to move on.

That part of the story is sad, but Paul loves making the point that he’s so glad that this, too, has been the case with us. Change isn’t a bad thing. “I’m glad Rachel isn’t still the 22-year-old she was when we got married.” And so am I!

It’s important to be cheerleaders for marriage. I love being married and I want people to know that happy marriages exist and they are worth the effort.

But equally important is to be willing to be honest with couples who are struggling — this too shall pass. You are not alone. Marriage can be very tough indeed, but that’s where grace and peace and prayer bring us forward. Seasons of hardship and growth yield good fruit that can help us be closer to who God wants us to be.