Thursday, December 17, 2015

Forgetting God When Our Bellies are Full

The holiday season provides a lot of time for fullness. Thanksgiving flows into Christmas and we can hardly remember what it felt like to have an empty stomach (or buttoned pants). The predominant theme of Christmas in the West is plenty. We have plenty. Presents spill out from under our Christmas trees. Our parties have food left over to last us into January. And we aren't the only ones who know what plenty feels like.

The Israelites knew what it meant to have plenty. After years of wilderness wandering, depending on God for their daily bread, God brought them to a land of abundance. No longer did they have to trust in new food every twenty four hours. It was there for the taking.

Yet, despite all of God's warnings to them to not forget his goodness in the land of the living, they did. And so do we.

The temptation when we are full on holiday cheer, or pumpkin pie, or presents upon presents is to forget the giver of every good thing (James 1:17). God knows how forgetful our wandering hearts can be, so he provides us with seasons of wanting and seasons of plenty. The ebbs of flows of a life lived in Christ are tangible reminders that this is not our home. Sometimes we have Christmas in abundance, sometimes we have Christmas in longing--but we always have God with us.

That was his promise to the Israelites as they entered the land flowing with milk and honey. He would  not leave them, unless they forgot his goodness and his ways. Tragically they did. And he stripped them of this blessing. He brought them back to wanting as a punishment, but also as a reminder that he is the God who gives and takes away. He will not be worshiped for his gifts. He will be worshiped for his character. Unfortunately, we (like the Israelites) fail to see that character when we have good blessings flowing freely.

The challenge for all of us in Christmases of plenty is to forget the God who kept us in the Christmases of wanting. He hasn't changed. He is still there, giving good things to the very people who so often forget that no good thing comes to us apart from his loving hand (Is. 10:13).

Don't forget him this Christmas. In the longing and the feasting, he is God. Delight in the gifts he gives, absolutely. But don't forget the Giver they are pointing to. He is better.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas is For Sinners

We have a Little People nativity that sits under our tree. Despite our best efforts, it rarely is all in order. Sometimes the animals are sitting on the dining room table. Sometimes baby Jesus is riding in a dump truck. Almost always the pieces are scattered all over our house, only to be returned to the angelic scene after the kids are in bed. Our nativity scene is pretty disheveled, which in many ways is a microcosm of our current season of life.

We are just coming out of over a week of sickness in our house. What started as a bad chest cold for all three kids turned into three ear infections. I guess our motto is go big or go home when it comes to sickness, so Merry Christmas to us. We went big this time. Because of all the sickness I’ve been homebound, buried in dirty tissues, and pretty much exhausted, which is a recipe for disaster for me. I’ve been emotional. I’ve been cranky. I’ve been frustrated. And I’ve felt little Christmas cheer. I actually can’t remember what day it is, let alone remember that Christmas is coming soon.

I was lamenting to my husband the other day that, among other things, my heart doesn’t feel ready for Christmas. I haven’t had the time to stop to think about the incarnation or my own longing for Christ’s return. I haven’t even heard a full Advent sermon yet. I’m way behind on my Advent reading.  And then there is the Christmas shopping and wrapping that I still need to finish. On top of it all, I’ve hardly been a joyful person these last few days.

But Advent 2015 won’t give me a do-over, so this is what I have to work with this year. A cranky attitude, sick kids, and not enough sleep. In a lot of ways I feel too sinful to celebrate Christmas in all its fullness.

And that’s exactly why Christ came.

The hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” says that Jesus came to release us from our sins, set us free, and provide us rest in him alone. I need a repeat dose of that this Christmas season.

I can get confused about the purpose of Christmas being all about happiness, sugar, and Hallmark movies on repeat (and I love all of those things). But that is not what my heart needs most at Christmas time. What I need is the baby that we celebrate. What I need is the rest that only Christ provides. What I need is the freedom from sin that only comes from his finished work on the cross.

Christmas is not for people who have it all together. It’s for sinners like you and me. It’s for a mom who snaps at her children because they interrupt her sleep again. It’s for people who are cranky with their spouses when they try to offer them advice. It’s for the man who yells at the driver who cuts him off. It’s for people who are greedy, people who are selfish, people who hate Christ. Christmas is for the broken and the weary. Christmas is for sinners, for all of us.

So I may not have it all together this Christmas. And neither does my nativity scene. But that’s exactly why that baby is in the manger in the first place—to set me free from my sin and give me hope beyond my circumstances.

Christmas is for sinners. And that’s good news for all of us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Women's Issue We Can All Get Behind

I have been pregnant four times. Each of those times I received prenatal care for as long as I was pregnant. When I had complications I had not one, but two doctors who provided me with the necessary care for my pregnancies. When I have had a hard time with nursing, I have lactation consultants I can visit. My children see the doctor when they are sick and for well-child visits. I'm privileged. Unfortunately this is not the case for many women all over the world.

This is why I love and support the Child Survival Program through Compassion International. This program supports mothers and babies to give them the care, education, and tools needed to live past early childhood (when many children are vulnerable to illness and death). They provide prenatal care, vaccines, breastfeeding help, and literacy for the mothers (because studies have shown that when mothers are educated, they are better able to care for their children). What I love most about this program is that it is all done within the context of a local church. One key aspect of their ministry is that they partner with local churches to care for people in their communities.

As a Christian woman, I care deeply about the well-being of women throughout the world. When mothers have the education, tools, and care they need to provide for their families communities thrive. Why? Because mothers are vitally important to a society. And mothers who feel like they have the resources to confidently and safely care for their children do even better.

The Child Survival Program does this all in the name of Christ. The Gospel is ever present as they meet very tangible needs in communities all over the world. So if you are looking for a ministry to partner with as you end 2015, I hope you will consider the Child Survival Program. As pro-life, Christian women, we should be the first to link arms with women in need throughout the world, offering them life-saving measures for them and their babies. We can put our money where our mouth is, by showing that not only are we pro-life, but we give to causes that sustain life, too. We can have an impact on the spiritual well-being of a mother and her child by meeting her physical needs, but by also meeting her spiritual needs. This is a women's issue I am proud to stand behind. And I hope you will join me.

Monday, November 30, 2015

How to Love a NICU Baby (and His Momma)

Premature babies don’t cry. At least mine didn’t. They make a labored grunting sound that seems sweet at first, but then you learn that it’s because they are gasping for air to fill their under-developed lungs. And that is anything but sweet.  I’ve never forgotten that silent operating room where I welcomed my twin boys into the world eight weeks early. In the fast-moving moments of their early and unexpected arrival, I held my breath in fear over the unknown path that lay before me. Premature babies don’t cry, but their mothers make up for it.

I’ve stood in a dark neonatal intensive care room with a fellow mom, as we stared at our tiny babies. She preparing to leave to go home, me preparing to stay there for the next five weeks. Our babies weren’t leaving, she just couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel next to the hospital any longer. Life and death are happening in the NICU—life is sustained by faithful doctors and nurses, and death is always around the corner as fragile babies fight to survive in a world they weren’t meant to enter just yet.

Loving premature babies is a pro-life issue.

It might seem strange to fold a discussion about premature babies into one on life.  But they are linked. Today marks the end of Prematurity Awareness Month. Unless you know someone who has passed through the NICU, or passed through the NICU yourself, you might not even know that this month of awareness exists. But it’s a vital component to our discussion on the sanctity of life. For a long time 24 weeks has been the big milestone for viability. If you can carry your baby until then, your baby has a much greater chance of survival. After 28 weeks the long-term effects of prematurity aren’t as severe. Babies born after 34 weeks often cannot be distinguished between babies born at term by the time they reach their first birthday. Medicine has come a long way in how it cares for tiny babies. And here is where the pro-life argument is strengthened. The irony of these life-sustaining measures is that doctors and nurses are daily working tirelessly to save the lives of babies that are legally considered life unworthy of protecting. Every day, doctors and nurses use their skills to heal and care for babies that are legally unprotected while inside of the womb. In some states a 24-week baby can be aborted, but in all states a 24-week baby is given a chance at life if born.

But the reality that all lives matter goes beyond just the babies in the incubators, though they absolutely matter. Like abortion is not just a tragedy against an unborn baby, so a premature baby is not separate from a mother who loves him or her. In some cases, babies are in the NICU because of something the mother has done or because the mother does not care about the baby, but in other cases the mother is deeply impacted by the separation from her baby. As one NICU nurse told me on a particularly difficult day, “you aren’t meant to be separate from them yet. It’s okay to feel the pain of that separation.”

As Prematurity Awareness Month comes to a close, how can we as Christians love both the premature babies and the mommas who yearn for them? Here are a few ways:

Hold the babies: There are a variety of reasons a baby may not have parents visiting. Sometimes it is because the parents live far away or need to go back to work. Others it is because the parents have done something to contribute to the baby’s prematurity and therefore don’t (or aren’t allowed to) visit. Many hospitals allow for volunteers to hold the babies that are well enough to be touched. Physical touch for a premature baby is a life sustaining measure. All of the wires, incubators, and tubes in the world can only do so much to recreate the womb for a baby who is not supposed to be outside in the world yet. Physical touch, while it seems small, is actually a very helpful and purposeful way to honor the life of these tiny babies.

Love the mommas: The separation the mother feels is unnatural to her. It feels like a part of you is missing. Pumping in a sterile hospital room, transporting milk to the hospital every day, separation from your baby (or babies), medical terminology you aren’t familiar with, and recovering from a physically traumatic event all contribute to emotional and physical fatigue. There is so much unknown. Will my baby survive? Will he have long-term health problems? Will I be able to care for him if he does? Our church provided meals for us the entire time we were driving back and forth to the NICU, and arranged for transportation for me to get to the hospital every day since I was unable to drive. This transformed my experience and gave me the energy I needed to care for my babies. But even as I type this I recognize there is a lot of privilege that is wrapped up into my NICU experience. I didn’t have to go back to work. I lived near the hospital. I could afford to stay at the hospital if I wanted to. I could even afford to eat lunch at the hospital if I stayed later than I anticipated. I had insurance that provide a hospital grade pump for me. I am married and didn’t walk through the difficulty alone. Prematurity is often tied to poverty, and it is a vicious cycle. From the chance to receive good prenatal care to the care needed after hospital discharge, pregnancy alone is overwhelming to someone living in poverty, and adding a premature baby to the mix only heightens that feeling. As Christians, we could do a lot to bolster our argument for the value of all life by loving pregnant women well (especially those in poverty) and loving mothers of premature infants well (especially those who feel all alone).

Every day there are fragile babies lying in a hospital room somewhere who if they were still in utero are legally allowed to be killed. I’ve seen them with my own eyes and held them with my own hands. The more we advance in our understanding of how a baby can survive outside of the womb, the better our argument against killing them inside the womb gets. The pro-life cause wins when babies live and thrive at every stage—from eight weeks early to five days late. The pro-life cause wins when we acknowledge that pregnancy isn’t just about a baby, but a mother, too. And loving NICU babies and their mommas is a good place to start in practically living out what it means to be pro-life.

****This post is in support of the Evangelicals for Life Conference put on by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (January 21-22, 2016 in Washington D.C.). If you are interested in attending or viewing the simulcast you can register here

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Tale of Four Thanksgivings

That first Thanksgiving was hard, so hard that when I think about it I still feel the pain that flowed through my weary body. I remember how I felt that first Thanksgiving, achingly aware that my body was empty. Empty of a baby that I wanted so badly. Empty of the hope of a baby any time soon. I was surrounded by pregnancy in every sphere of my life, and I could barely choke out the words “I’m thankful” when we all shared our Thanksgiving joy around the dinner table. It felt like a lie. I didn’t know how to be thankful when living felt like death and tears came too easily for my comfort.

Little did I know it would take two more years before I would know the joy of pregnancy again.

I remember how I felt that second Thanksgiving. When treatment was inevitable and I had no assurance I would ever hold a baby in my arms this side of heaven. I spent my holiday battling hot flashes and mood swings in a drug induced menopause all in an attempt to get my body to do what I felt in my heart it was supposed to do—carry and sustain a baby. It was a little easier to say the words “I’m thankful” that Thanksgiving. I had seen God work. I could see, though dimly, that through the dark and heavy clouds of loss and infertility, God was doing something in my sad heart. I just didn’t know what it was yet.

I remember the fourth Thanksgiving, smack in the middle of the baby years with twins, spending many hours pumping and feeding and going to the doctor and therapy. I wondered why after all my longing for a baby God would give me such difficulty with their lives. I wanted ease, not discomfort. I wanted simplicity, not complication. I was so overwhelmingly thankful for every ounce of them, yet I struggled with my circumstances that looked different than I anticipated. Yet still, God was doing something.

Here I am on the sixth Thanksgiving. Lord willing, farther along than I was in the beginning. Still waiting for prayers to be answered. Still battling discontentment with the life I have been given with its mundane struggles, sin, and sorrow, yet daily reminded of the rock solid truth that God is a good and faithful God to his people. He doesn’t leave us. He gives us only good things, even if our definition of good is different. This Thanksgiving, I feel like I am coming to terms with the reality of life in a broken world and I am thankful for it in all its complexity.

I’ve had Thanksgivings of want and Thanksgivings of plenty, Thanksgivings of rebellion and Thanksgivings of restoration. It’s easier to say “I’m thankful” than it was in the beginning, but not because I got what I wanted. These children give me much to be thankful for, yes. But it is more than that. I’m thankful that in my darkness and cynicism and unbelief God did not forsake me. I’m thankful that when I wrestled through the lot he was giving me he still pointed me upward and worked faith into my brittle heart. I’m thankful for years of sorrow and loss, because in the loss of what was most precious to me God was found to be infinitely better than any earthly thing. I’ve learned in the wanting that God shows up, that he can be trusted, and that even when the clouds hang low a break in them is coming.

So I’m thankful this Thanksgiving. As I kiss my boys goodnight and tuck them in bed, I’m so very thankful that they are here with me. I’m thankful for their boundless energy and middle of the night cuddles. I’m thankful for the life they bring to our home that was once so strikingly empty and quiet. But I’m equally thankful that God was here with me as he taught me how to wait on his timetable.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Give Us This Day Our Daily Milk

I’ve never had to wonder where my next feed would come from. For as long as I can remember the low growls of hunger have been quickly satiated by a stocked refrigerator and pantry brimming with snacks. Hunger is not a pain I have felt acutely, except for when I wait too long to eat or am too busy (or lazy) to walk the five feet to the endless supply of food to meet my needs.

But I have felt the hunger pains of another.

Feedings have always been a source of anxiety for me as a mother. From the early days of the twins’ life, I cried as they struggled to eat on their own, only to be met with exhaustion from working too hard, causing them to choose sleep over food. Every meal matters for premature babies, but sometimes eating is just too overwhelming when you weigh five and six pounds at six weeks old. So I struggled and cried and pumped and cried. With each finished bottle we rejoiced. With each minute spent hovered over the kitchen sink washing pump parts and bottle parts, I quietly prayed I would never have to do this amount of work to feed my little people again. With each feeding I hoped in weak, new mother desperation that these ounces of milk would fill their hungry bellies and put fat on their little bones.

Over time it did. Over time they grew. Over time they enjoyed eating. Their desperate cries for food grew less frequent, and I started to forget what it was like to experience the hunger pains.

And now we have Seth.

Seth, who came out with a knife and fork (as the pediatrician likes to say). When you are nearly nine pounds at birth, your feeding situation is far less dire. But I’ve been reminded again of the desperation I felt in those early days with Luke and Zach.

While I’ve never been in want for food, I have held a baby who has forgotten that food will come if he will only calm down, trust his mother’s care, and receive it. I may not have to beg God for my daily bread to come down, but I do regularly find myself praying for daily bread to come through me for the well-being of my baby.

Like so much of motherhood, feeding Seth is an exercise of faith. I’m reminded with every feeding that the same God who cares for the sparrows, cares for my baby. The God who waters the plants with rain from above, also provides food for image bearers like my son.  “Give us this day, our daily bread,” I say quickly in a prayer, yet I fret and forget my hurried prayer when Seth doesn’t seem to get what he desperately needs through me—his only source of the daily bread I just prayed for.

God is in the business of stripping us of every ounce of perceived strength and self-sufficiency. So while I stare at my full refrigerator and basket full of groceries and think I’m not in want for food, I am brought to my knees in weakness when the most needy people in my life cry out in hunger and I don’t have the energy or supply to give it.
Like every weakness God gives us, this is a call to trust in the God who sustains everything, who is upholding the universe by his very word. The God who spoke everything into existence, made manna fall from heaven for the Israelites, and opens blind eyes calls me to trust that he will sustain my baby through me.

“Give us this day, our daily bread,” I pray again. “And give us our milk, too”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

You Have Gifts and I Have Gifts

My sister-in-law and her kids just spent ten days with us. While it was quite the circus around here, I got pretty used to our evening dinners together and growing addiction to Call the Midwife. Parenting alongside another mom for ten days gave me a helpful perspective I've been working through since I became a mom two and a half years ago.

There are many different kinds of moms. And that is a very good thing.

My sister-in-law is a woman of many talents. She can walk into a room and redecorate it in her mind in a matter of seconds. In fact, I sent her a picture of Seth's room before we completed it, asking for help with how to fit everything in there, and immediately she sent me back a sketch of an idea. Did I say she is quite the artist? She is. Her kids regularly ask her to draw pictures of their favorite animals or characters for them, and she gladly obliges. She can make stuff out of Play Doh. She can put together toys and build towers and train tracks without getting frustrated. She is crafty and can think of fun projects for our kids to do together. She is resourceful and servant-hearted, always willing to go the extra mile for people.

She is nothing short of amazing.

And I am nothing like her.

I like other things. I do other things. I am good at other things. Her kids expect different things from her that my kids would never even dream of expecting, and vice versa. She parents her kids out of her gifts and strengths, and I do the same with mine. We both bring something to motherhood that the other does not have, and through this we are helping shape children who will bring different strengths and gifts to the world.

The world needs mothers who are crafty and the world needs mothers who pretend with their kids. The world needs mothers who have dance parties and the world needs mothers who play kickball. The world needs mothers who do all sorts of things, because the world needs kids who do all sorts of things.

Often we see the strength of others as a commentary on our weakness, we feel threatened by them and judge them to protect our own feelings of inadequacy. But their strengths are not a threat to us. They are a gift. They are an opportunity to stand in awe of the abundant creativity of God. Just like we can't all be doctors and scientists, we can't all be crafters either. It's not cause for comparison, but cause for appreciation for how God has gifted each of us to parent the children that God has given us.

My friend Trillia Newbell says it well in her book Fear and Faith:
In our fear of being judged as lazy or of incurring the Lord's disapproval, one way we might seek to feel better about ourselves is to mock other women. Yet have we ever stepped back to consider that some women have been especially gifted by God as cheerful, thankful homemakers?
She goes on to say this in response to our comparison:
What if you rejoiced instead? Perhaps if you see women who excel in areas you do not, it can be used as an opportunity to thank God for His creative design. 
So embrace your strengths, my friends. But also, embrace the strengths of others. Every gift and ability we have been given is working together to serve the world that God has diversely created.