Lessons learned from Motherhood

by Jill McFadden

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I’ve been a mother for about six months now.  Technically speaking that is.  I haven’t had to discipline anyone or feed anyone yet – in fact, my child hopefully won’t be making its appearance into the outside world until late November.

So, since I have absolutely no experience in parenting, my “lessons learned from motherhood” are intended to be taken with a couple coarse grains of salt.  Still, there are things I’m already learning and perhaps see more clearly now – in this very small window of time when I’m starting to think like a mother, yet don’t have a child to chase around – that I want to remember later on, when time and sleep are on short supply.  Here’s my list of “things to remember” so far:

  1. I cannot control my child or his surroundings to guarantee his safety.   In those first couple of weeks of finding out I was pregnant, I took no less than five (!) pregnancy tests.  Those things are like 99.9% accurate.  But somehow seeing those two lines (or plus sign, or digital letters – I had several brands) made me feel better.  I was worried that something would happen to the baby, and I wouldn’t be able to stop it.  Flash forward a few months, and I’m learning when NOT to look things up on the ole’ anxiety-producing internet, and when to put down the various what-mishaps-to-expect-when-you’re-expecting books, because it feeds my bent toward anxiety.  The truth is, something may happen that I won’t be able to stop.  Even at the point of this child’s life when he is most protected by me – inside my own body – I can’t keep him safe.    The air I breathe is polluted.  The food I eat, as careful as I may be, probably contains toxins of some sort.  I can be careful and sensible, but I cannot fully protect my child – even while enveloped in my own womb.  And I better learn to handle that now, before babysitters and teachers and play dates and playground equipment and college…
  2. Being a mother is not the end all or sum of my identity.  Transitioning into this new phase of life is already thought-consuming.  And it doesn’t really take up any of my time at this point.  So I can see, when my days are taken up with diaper changes, feedings, and laundry, and when a “good day” is one when I succeed in keeping a baby on a sane sleep schedule, how it would be easy to find my life’s meaning in my role as mother and caretaker.  What I invest most in is what I tend to want to find my identity in.  Recently it’s my job.  In a few months it may be my child.  When these roles are going well, I feel ok about myself.  When something doesn’t go how I’ve planned (a worship service or a sleep schedule), I am tempted to feel like a failure as a person.  I want to be careful to find my identity first as a child of God, not as mother or wife or worship director.
  3. I don’t have to be like other moms.  I don’t know if everyone else feels like an uncreative loser when they browse Pinterest, but I certainly do.  I finally signed up for Pinterest so I could search for nursery ideas.  M.i.s.t.a.k.e.  I’m already having to let go of the desire to be the most creative, craftsy, put-together mom, due in part to my limitations.  We don’t own a home, so as a renter I’m not going to be painting nursery murals or drilling creative shelving units in the walls.  Our apartment isn’t huge, so we’re not going to have a different baby carrier for every day or stroller for every occasion or wheel combination.  In that way, limitations are helpful.  They make me unable to do or buy everything I otherwise might be tempted to do or buy.  They teach me early on – peer pressure in the parenting world is as real as in the middle school cafeteria.  And I don’t have to measure up.
  4. I will make mistakes.  I already have.  Like the time our staff lunch featured Panera sandwich platters.  After touching every single one trying to find one without deli meat (who knew, you’re not supposed to have lunch meat while pregnant), I finally found the only veggie sandwich.  Proud of my find and in mid-conversation, I swallowed my first big bite before realizing my veggie sandwich was laden with alfalfa sprouts (apparently another no-no).  Or the time when I ate three or four brownies for dinner, knowing full well my doctor’s instructions about eating healthily..  I’ve already messed up, and my kid hasn’t taken his first breath yet.  So I should get used to it – not as an excuse to not try, but as preparation for learning to give, ask for, and receive grace and forgiveness.  As preparation for learning to rely on God, not my ability to do things right.
  5. Remember my deepest desires when the smaller desires clamor for attention.  What do I pray most for right now?  For a child who follows Jesus and is healthy.  In that order.  When I struggle with his decisions about eating vegetables or college majors, when I wish he’d gotten more of his dad’s athletic prowess and less of his mother’s clumsiness, when it’s tempting to get absorbed in the little things, I want to remember those deepest prayers.
  6. Life is a miracle.  Worth thanksgiving.   Yep – cliché.  But it’s amazing to me that I – more of a ‘liberal arts’ student who would struggle following directions for a high school science experiment – can apparently make a human without really thinking about it.  The way God has designed our bodies and our instincts is incredible.  Reading about labor and all the things that happen exactly as a baby is born – from heart chambers re-channeling to lungs working for the first time – it’s mind-blowing.  When I visited the Sistine Chapel, I remember being struck by the depiction of the creation of Eve.  Eve is sort of bowing, with her hands outstretched and cupped in a receptive way.  It’s like she understands that creation itself (even pre-fall) is an act of grace, a sheer gift.  Truly, he gives us life, breath, and everything else.  And even in a fallen world, it’s worth thanksgiving.  This point is a sober one for me as well, as I have so many dear friends who would love to receive a new life into their family, and have thus far struggled to do so.  The church must strive to be a place that both celebrates and mourns with its members well – a safe place for those waiting in unanswered prayer.

So in sum, I am quickly learning everything I’ll need to know about being a mother.  <That was a joke.>  I do not know what the future holds – the trials and tears and joys that will Lord-willing be part of bringing a new life into this world.  But I pray I’ll hold fast to the God who has already numbered my days, and my son’s, and has known us both before either of us came to be.

Beach Cleanup

by Jill McFaddenIMG_1631

A few years ago Ian and I were on our honeymoon in Nicaragua.  We headed to the seaside town of San Juan Del Sur to stay in one of its nicest hotels (after all, it was our honeymoon).   As we rolled up into town on public transportation – a dilapidated decommissioned school bus decked out in a bizarre mixture of Looney Tunes decals and Catholic icons—I was surprised to find that our hotel was at the very top of a big hill.  To my mind, “nice hotel” in a seaside town meant that the hotel had waterfront property and beach access.

To be sure, the hotel was lovely and the views were stunning.  But swimming in the infinity pool looking out over the crescent shape beach and inviting waters, I still thought it was odd that the hotel was so far from the water.

That evening we walked down the hill to find a waterfront restaurant for dinner.  And it was then that I realized why the nicest hotel is on a hilltop.  The beaches that looked so gorgeous and inviting from the infinity pool were now revealed for what they were – replete with old tires and trash, stained with oil, pervaded by the smell of dead fish.

I continued to enjoy the beauty of the distant beach from the hilltop infinity pool.

Indulge me in an analogy.  If my heart is the beach of San Juan Del Sur, too often I like to look at it—my actions, thoughts, motivations, desires—from the comfortable distance of the hilltop pool.  And from there, really, it looks pretty good.  I mean, I have no criminal record, go to church, help people with some regularity, am usually kind to my husband.   I can even invite friends to the infinity pool.  Compared to a lot of people’s beaches, this one looks sparkling and inviting—from a distance.

But when I do take the time to walk down to the beach, I see my inner life for what it really is.   Full of pride and accompanying insecurity, self-centered, striving for success and approval, addicted to comfort and averse to self-denial.   At the water’s edge, it is clear that even my most sparkling actions are accompanied by oily motivations.

Maybe this is why I don’t make the space or time to visit the beach all that often.
It’s easier to be too busy.

We like to look at our lives from the infinity pool.  We like our friends to look at us from the infinity pool.  But God is always on the beach.  He knows the complex motivations of every action, he sees each thought.  This sounds scary, depressing, defeating.  Why won’t God just stay on the hilltop pool deck?

We might be a little worried to walk down to the beach, thinking God would be there to meet us for a good scolding.  But, to our surprise, he seems glad that we’ve finally shown up on our own close-up shore.  He hands us a big trash bag and one of those pointy sticks, maybe some gloves.  Turns out God is inviting us to do some beach cleanup, and will stay with us and empower us to do it.  If we’re overwhelmed or not sure where to start, he’ll point out a pile of trash here, an oil spill there.  After all, it’s his transformative, restorative, new-life work anyway.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the kick-off to the Lenten season.  Lent is a focused time of repentance and renewal.  Basically, Lent is a time to stay on the beach—or at least spend some time there every day—to face the trash and the smell, and do some serious beach cleanup.  Yes, it can get ugly.  But surprisingly, it comes with a lot of joy as well.  God longs for us to share in his full, irrepressible life.  The more we stay in his presence, attentive to the state of the beach, the more of his life and joy and power we’ll come to know.

Not sure where to start?  This prayer is a good place to begin.  Happy cleaning!

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Psalm 139:23-24

Heaven Torn Open

By Ian McFadden

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At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  Mark 1:9-10

Tearing heaven open.  Now that’s a daring project.

Tearing heaven open, to me, conjures those delicious shafts of smoky sunlight that break through brooding clouds with some regularity in Tuscany or wherever painters hang out.  But that’s because my worldview–and yours, I’m guessing–is more heir to the enlightenment Deists than it is to Hebrew cosmology.  We live in a pretty disenchanted world.  Even if we do believe in a magnificent and powerful Creator, his presence and activity are associated with supernatural events – glitches in the matrix of normalcy that we can’t otherwise explain.  Our world, for the most part, is a natural one, suffering little interference from God.

But the Hebrews saw the world differently.  The natural and the supernatural were much closer together.  I’m not talking about animism or pantheism where all creatures are numinous, divine or even soulful.  I’m talking about a world where a good and wise Creator constantly interacted with and intervened in the natural world of his creation.  Supernatural events bore his fingerprints, but so did natural rhythms, normal phenomena and everyday occurrences.  As Creator rather than creature, he wasn’t of the same stuff or even, necessarily, of the same way of being as his creation.  He could be present constantly and always invisible.  Interacting and manipulating but never leaving marks.  At least not marks that you can find when your modes of inquiry are natural ones.

In the Hebrew mindset, the supernatural world (heaven) and the natural world (earth) were so closely bound up that they touched and, at points, whatever divided them was quite thin indeed.  The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple was one such place.  That’s why there were guards and priests, blood and altars, washing bowls and thick curtains.  They were all there to mediate the touchpoint between two worlds.

In Heaven, the Creator’s wise, just, holy kingship was uncontested.  On earth it was contested in every heart.  And in some hearts, particularly those lodged in powerful people, the contest became not just spiritual but also structural.  Kings, priests, scholars, and governors built around themselves laws, armies and cultures that resisted the grain of God’s kingship.  They promoted injustice and avarice.  They demoted holiness and mercy.  They prized clout and coercion. They sold out the humble and the upright.

That’s why Isaiah pleaded that God would tear heaven open.  “If You would but tear open the heavens and come down, So that mountains would quake before You…” Is. 64:1.  He looked out over God’s people who were “like a people You never ruled,” at a Temple which lay in ruins, at “virtues like a filthy rag.”  He was looking at a devastated and overrun Jerusalem.  He was looking at earth.  More than anything, the scene Isaiah surveyed begged for the Creator’s kingship to rip through and be unleashed and uncontested on earth, just as in heaven.  But it didn’t.

At least not yet.

Until one day an unremarkable peasant from nowheresville up north stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by a man named John.  The scene wasn’t that different than Isaiah’s.  A different emperor in power.  Different priests at the temple.  Different leaders making laws.  But the same contest against God’s kingship in every heart was being magnified in such similar ways that the date and the names didn’t really matter.  It was the same scene.  Except for the peasant from Nazareth.

When he came up out of the water, “he saw heaven being torn open” as the Spirit descended on him like a dove (Mark 1:10).  It was happening at last!  Isaiah’s gut-cry was being answered.  Heaven was being torn open and God’s reign was pouring in. God’s just, good kingship invading into earth just like it is in heaven.

It wasn’t happening because the peasant from Nazareth had prayed any harder than Isaiah had.  It was happening because he was God.  When he said “follow me” and two fishermen and then two more dropped their gear and charged after him, his kingship was being exerted, heeded, uncontested on earth just like in heaven.  When he said, “Be quiet! Come out of him,” and an evil spirit fled from within a man, it was happening.

It was happening–his reign was flooding in–when he healed a woman whose condition had isolated her.  It was happening when taught “blessed are the poor” and when he commanded “love your enemies.”  It was happening when he warned, “you cannot serve both God and money,” and “if you try to hang on to your life you will lose it.”  It was happening when he required a lifeless body to live again.  And it was happening when his own living body died.

That’s the second moment something gets torn in Mark’s gospel.  Mark doesn’t make it sound like anyone else saw heaven tearing when Jesus was baptized.  They missed that, they didn’t realize the gracious invasion had begun.  But none of them would have missed the ripping of the temple curtain when Jesus died (Mark 15:38). The fabric between heaven and earth was torn and would not be repaired.  The incontrovertible reign of God was rushing into the world of the everyday and he had brought it himself as a peasant from nowheresville.

The tear hasn’t been repaired. 

God’s heavenly kingship in Jesus is still invading earth.  Every time our hearts submit to his reign it’s happening.  Every time his people pursue holiness, every time his people press justice and mercy against systemic evil it’s happening.  Every time his name is proclaimed, his reign is renowned, his way is followed, his word is believed – it’s happening.  Heaven is torn open and God’s kingship is coming.

The Power of His Promise

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God’s promises are like Earth’s gravity.  Whether you throw diamonds in the air or dog turds in the air, both will be pulled ground-ward by the the inexorable tug of gravity.  That’s my cheery Advent thought.

Long ago God promised a couple of infertile Semitic retirees that He’d bless the all families of the planet through their offspring.  And for hundreds of years after they laughed at God’s outlandish promise, it seemed they were right.  It was laughable.  Laughable for anyone who saw the cheaters, the backbiters, the flawed leaders, the exiled, occupied nation that slowly emerged from the son that couple eventually had.  A blessing to all the families of earth?  Seriously?

And then Jesus was born.  The one who calls himself the “Amen”,[1] the one of whom Paul says, “all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in Him.”[2]  But the process of getting from the original promise to Abraham and Sarah to the final fulfillment in Jesus looks like alchemy.  Somehow, God worked the base materials of deceit, failure, rebellion, rejection, brokenness, barrenness, sin and seduction into the minted gold of salvation and the promise fulfilled.

Let me show you what I mean.  I think Matthew was gawping at this too.  When he gets just three verses into his story about the birth of Jesus, he mentions Tamar,[3] one of the people pouring genes into the gene stream flowing between Abraham and Jesus.  Remember her?[4]  She was married to a guy named Er, the great-great-grandson of Abraham.  So we’re only four generations removed from the original promise.  Er was evil, so God took his life.  (Yeah, that kinda made me pause too.) According to Israelite ethics, then, Er’s brother, Onan, should have married Tamar to provide her with a chance to have kids.  And this is exactly what Judah, the father of Er and Onan, suggested.  But Onan was worried that providing an heir for Tamar and his dead brother would cause competition for his own heirs, so he refused to help her make babies.  So God took him too.  Everyone knew that Judah, the father-in-law, and his family had a responsibility to provide financially for Tamar and to provide a legitimate husband so that she’d have a shot at kids.  Ducking his responsibilities but trying to save face, Judah sent Tamar back to live with her own family and promised her that once his younger son, Shelah, was old enough he’d marry Tamar.  That’s what Judah promised.  Unlike God, though, he had no intention of keeping the promise.

Cruel years passed by, Shelah grew up, and the promise was never kept.  Tamar, out of desperation, decided to take matters into her own hands.  She disguised herself as a prostitute and waited on the road that she knew Judah would be taking on the way to annual sheep shearing.  Evidently she judged him well, because he stopped and propositioned her, not realizing she was his daughter-in-law.  But, he didn’t have any cash on him to pay for the full-service massage, so he promised another delayed payment–a goat to be sent from his flock.  Not one to be fooled twice, Tamar insisted that he give her a security until the full payment could be made.  She asked him for his seal, his cord and his staff as a pledge.

Eventually, Judah did send a goat to the prostitute who had his security pledge.  The prostitute was nowhere to be seen.  About this time word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law had been playing a prostitute and consequently was pregnant.  To purge the shame from his family, he ordered that she be burned.  Before she could be executed, though, Tamar pulled out the seal, cord and staff and announced that they belonged to the john.  When Judah recognized his belongings, he relented and Tamar lived to give birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

Even if you watch a lot of soaps, you’ve got to admit that is a pretty messed-up story.  A lying, cheating father-in-law who refuses to take care of his widowed daughter-in-law but eagerly takes advantage of women on the road.  A desperate, cunning woman who is willing to seduce the dad of her two dead husbands to get pregnant.  And these are Jesus’ gene pool.  These are the sort of lives and stories that stand between the promise and the fulfillment.  But under the gravitational pull of God’s promise, these are the sort of lives and stories that get melded into the fulfillment.  It doesn’t so much matter what God has to work with–diamonds or dog turds–he still is the alchemist who can bring a savior from a line of sinners.

That’s one of the things we’re going to attend to in Advent this year: the power of God’s promise to take our sinful, broken, sorry little stories and to give them dignity and redemption by writing them into the great story of His rescue and healing of the world through his son, Jesus.  Maybe it was a thought something like that which spilled out in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, saying, “For He took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.”[5]  Maybe that’s what her cousin, Elizabeth, was thinking when she exclaimed, “How kind the Lord is.  He has taken away my disgrace.”[6]

But the power of God’s promise doesn’t extend only to those who happened to live between the times of Abraham and Jesus.  Jesus is the “yes” to God’s promise echoing in both directions through time.  That’s why Paul, writing to a group of suffering Christians in Corinth, years after Jesus was gone, reminds them that even in the midst of suffering they could stand firm in Christ, because they could know God would keep his promise to redeem them in Christ. How could they know?  How can we know?  It is as if Paul anticipated that very question.  He says they could stand firm in Christ, banking on God’s promise because, in the Holy Spirit, God had given them his seal and security pledge.  Sound familiar?  The other time ‘seal’ and ‘pledge’ occur side-by-side in the Bible is in the salacious vignette about Tamar and Judah.  Paul is evoking that story on purpose.  He is saying you can go to the bank on God’s promises.  If you have received His Holy Spirit, you can bet the farm He’s going to fulfill his promise of redeeming you.  The promise of redemption might seem distant and laughable right now–like the first promise did when Tamar was dressed as a hooker and taking her father-in-law’s seal as a pledge–but just as surely as that story became part of the greater story of the fulfillment of the promise of Christ, so too will our base, sinful, struggling stories be transformed by the Alchemist into one great story of the return and triumph of Christ.

So, this Advent as you feel the heavy need of Christ’s return in the cold reality of your sin and struggle, do so with confident hope.  Tamar’s tawdry tale became the prologue to a Gospel.  No matter how sorry your circumstances or how base your story, if you have received the pledge of the Spirit of Christ, your life will be rewritten into the story of Jesus’ triumph with all the certainty of gravity.


[1] Revelation 3:14

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:20

[3] Matthew 1:3

[4] Genesis 38

[5] Luke 1:48

[6] Luke 1:25

image by kevissimo

The Café or the Family Dinner?

by Jill McFadden

Every morning I get up, brew coffee that I think is delicious, grab one of my favorite granola bars, wash my hair with a very particular type of shampoo, and pick out an outfit from one of the too-many items squeezed into our too-tiny closet.1   I drive to work listening to music that I like.  I go to lunch at my favorite café, peruse the menu, and order the entrée that I think looks best.  After work I may watch a movie that I pick out myself,2  hang out with people that I enjoy, go where I want to go, or shop where I want to shop.

Repeat.

Each day brings with it a host of choices, and for most of them, I’m free to choose only the options that are pleasing/interesting/ lovely/delicious/entertaining.  When I go to Starbucks I can order the venti-skinny-double-shot-no-whip-soy-whatever, and I sense the right to be a little miffed if they don’t get it just right.  The truth is, for as much as I complain about doing dishes and sorting laundry, there is almost nothing in my life that I didn’t choose to do because I wanted to do it.  My felt identity as someone who can choose—someone who has the right to choose—is probably even more fundamental than I realize.

Enter Sunday morning.  It starts similarly to every other day, making choices about breakfast and coffee and clothes.  And then I choose to go to church, and I choose which church to go to.  Do I feel like a powerful choice-making consumer?  Check.  But when I come to church something different happens—something that can be uncomfortable, threatening, irritating:

I stop calling the shots.
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Letter to a Friend about Suffering and God

by Ian McFadden

April 30th, 2009

Debbie,

Thanks for your question about where to point people who are struggling to mentally and emotionally reconcile the existence of a good, powerful God with the presence of such evil and anguish in the world.   You should know that I feel your same queasiness about getting asked that question—not because I’m worried that God has left us alone or without any answers, but because the response that God gives us doesn’t come in the shape we expect and doesn’t remove all the question marks.   So answering that question well requires both that you try to discern what is motivating the question (is it an intellectual puzzle? Is it hurt they’re currently feeling? Or is it an attack on Christianity to avoid the challenge of the gospel?) and that you demonstrate in your relationship with the person that you are willing to enter their struggle with them regardless of having only partial answers.

More often than we should, we want to explode someone’s questions with such watertight answers that we forget how important it is that the Bible asks the very same question. The book of Job, the book of Lamentations, a large bulk of the Psalms, and the book of Habakkuk all raise this question.  So the Bible is intellectually honest enough to raise the question!   When we try to answer the question, though, we often overlook how the Bible tends to answer it when the question is submitted most explicitly.
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Pancakes, Puritans, and Penitence

by Ian McFadden

I know it’s hard to imagine, but when I was growing up in England, we never celebrated Mardi Gras.   Well, sort of.   We never called it Mardi Gras.  In England—and in much of the Anglican-influenced world for that matter, Fat Tuesday is called Shrove Tuesday or, more commonly, Pancake Day.  Why?  I guess ‘cause pancakes can make you fat…  Actually whatever name you use for it, the Tuesday before Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday) has historically been a day of feasting and partying.   With 40 days of pared back eating and living looming, most people feel like having a last hurrah.  Thus beads and beer and parades.  Thus also pancakes.   All of which begs the question, “why give up certain things for Lent?”

Lent is the 46 days (if you count Sundays) leading up to Easter.  In the past, the church around the globe has used these 40 days (not counting Sundays now—hang with me)  as a mini desert experience.  The people group called Israel wandered in a wilderness for 40 years prior to God fulfilling his promise to them by leading them into a Promised Land.  This wilderness motif became a useful one for Israelite prophets and teachers to describe harsh circumstances—whether exile or enslavement or occupation by external regimes—which God used to draw his people back to himself before bringing them some sort of deliverance.   Of course the ultimate deliverance God offered was through His Son, Jesus Messiah, who died to free us from the condemnation of our sinfulness and rose, freeing us from the lasting bonds of death.  When Christians celebrate this deliverance in Easter, therefore, it is appropriate to spend a few weeks in a mini desert beforehand, drawing close to God and feeling our need for rescue.

That’s one of the biggest problems for me:  feeling my need for rescue.  That is, I don’t, often. Continue reading