(15:1) Mater Dolorosa

mater-dolorosa-by-currier-ives

A new acquaintance of my husband’s recently suggested that he take 15 minutes every night to write. I took this suggestion to heart as I have missed writing but always feel like I don’t know what to say. While I don’t plan to share every evening’s thoughts, I thought I might share some. I am one to often start projects or have grand aspirations and then never follow through, but this is one that I hope (desperately plan) to keep. You are welcome to hold me to that!

Sunday, July 16
John Henry is sick with a high fever today. He spent the whole day sleeping on me, resting on me, whining on me. It is days like these that I am struck by the sheer uniqueness of motherhood—there is truly nothing else like it in all the world. My child is part of me: began in me, lived in me, even now grows from me. So much of him is me. He takes, and I give. He lives, and I slowly die. I feel his pains and his sadness and his discomfort in a way no one else does, for so much of him is me.

All of these moments as a mother make me think of Christ’s mother. Of course she felt as I do when Jesus was sick. She held him, and rocked him, and knew she would do anything to take away his pain. There is a special position, then, for women, for mothers. We can identify with Mary in a way no one else can. We have shared the love we feel for a child, the joy of their smiles, the heartache of their tears. And although we don’t know it fully, we can know in a distinct way the sorrows of this mother at the cross. Standing at its foot with the Mater Dolorosa, we can feel—although only a taste of the depth of her experience—the nails driving in, the spear bringing water and blood, the agony of her Son crying from a cross of wood. Such horror and such grief. Yet such a gift.

Be it done unto me according to Your word.

Throughout her life, Mary assumed an attitude of not mere acceptance, but gift. She does not just passively receive what comes; she presents herself—her womb, her breasts, her maternal heart—as offerings to the Lord. She gives to Him all that she is, she offers herself as a living sacrifice to God. And while she receives the greatest of sufferings, she also receives the greatest of rewards.

Oh, that I might be more like this Blessed Mother. That I might not simply receive what is given as if I am only a passive object of God’s will, but that I might open my heart and open my hands and offer all that I am for the sake of Christ, embracing His will as a small part of His great plan of salvation.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Not my will, but Yours be done.

When things are hard

img_4456-copy-copyWhen I sit at the top of the stairs, listening to two children talking or crying (respectively) in their beds with this sinking feeling in my stomach that there will not be any sleep this afternoon.

When the baby needs a new diaper and the toddler who has a penchant for standing in her high chair is in the middle of a meal and I have to decide whether to interrupt her scrambled eggs or to risk stains all over the baby swing.

When our sweet little girl is cutting something like eight teeth at a time and wants nothing more than to be held.

When the littlest member of the family, too, wants nothing more than to be held.

This is so hard, I think.

When I can see the layer of dust on my piano.

When I walk in bare feet across the house and feel all of the dirt and crumbs and pieces of dry pasta that are accumulating because I haven’t gotten the vacuum out in days.

When the third dirty diaper of the day means yet another load of laundry and I have to carry the three loads I did yesterday up the stairs to remain, possibly folded (but not likely!), in the hall until I remember to put them away.

This is so hard, I think.

I am learning to allow myself to accept that this stage of life is hard because hard does not mean bad. “Love is always sacrifice,” a dear friend wrote in a letter to me this week. And sacrifice is never easy. It is the best thing we can do. It is what makes us happiest in this life. It makes us more fully ourselves. But it is always hard.

My daily litany of diapers, meals, naps, playtime, kisses, dishes, laundry, diapers, meals, baths, bedtimes is hard in the way that running a marathon is hard. It is hard in the way that learning a new subject is hard. It is exhausting: mentally, emotionally, physically. It is a constant balancing act of many needs, all of them feeling immediate and many of them feeling impossible to fully meet. (Not to mention that all the mothering I have done in my life has been either in the post-partum stage or while pregnant—not the most emotionally and hormonally stable periods of one’s life!) It is all so hard, and that is okay.

But I also want to remember that all of this is so hard precisely because it is so good. Because this hard that I am feeling is the call I am given to lay down my life for another. This hard is the joyful duty of loving another person in incredibly physical, tangible ways. This hard is the burning away of those things in me that are ugly and tainted so that my true humanity may more firmly take root, so that the Lord Himself might make me one with Him.

This hard is the best thing that I have ever done.

And when someone asks me what it’s like to be a mom, or when I think of my days and my weeks, I want to think of more words than just hard.

When Edith watches Finding Dory and out of the blue says “Octopus holding cup.”

This is amazing.

When Edith gets the biggest grin on her face over a scoop of ice cream.

This is magical.

When John Henry clearly gets excited over our bedtime routine and can’t stop grinning at me and kicking his little legs.

This is the best.

When Edith suddenly takes an interest in her little brother and tries to give him a toy to hold.

This is good.

When I hear giggles coming from down the hall because Edith and her dad have a blast during bath time.

This is beautiful.

When Edith says “Mommy,” when John Henry watches me so that he can flash me a huge smile, when Edith says “Thank you,” when I look at these babes and my dirty floors and my piles of laundry and my sleepy eyes, yet all I can think is just how amazing these two little people are.

This is love.

Rejecting abortion: a call to greatness

Processed with VSCO with a7 presetIn last night’s debate, Hillary Clinton suggested that a woman should be able to end her pregnancy up to the child’s birth, primarily in case of a tragic situation that places the mother’s life in danger. She advocates partial-birth abortion, the stopping of a baby’s heartbeat in a mother’s womb and then the violent removal of that baby from the mother’s body.

It is easy for me to take a quick, almost un-thinking approach to that idea. No. Never. A child’s life should never be taken, not for any reason. The end.

But when I take a step back and think of what I am saying, it causes me to stop and think for a moment. No one wants to tell a mother that she must lose her life. No one wants to “force” death upon another person. No one wants to tell a mother who feels hopeless in light of her circumstances that she must “suck it up” and endure this pregnancy and, in some cases, even die.

Perhaps, however, opposing abortion is not a position that insists on the death of another. Perhaps it can be a call to greatness.

*

My literature students recently finished reading Elizabeth Janet Gray’s Adam of the Road. Adam is a minstrel, and his father, Roger, before him. Early in the story, Roger tells Adam that “a minstrel sings what his listeners want to hear. It’s not for him to ease his own sorrows or tell his own joys. He’s to find out how his listeners are feeling and say it all for them.”

Later, Adam meets roaming minstrels who tell stories that are not like Roger’s. “They were short, exaggerated tales mostly making rude jokes about friars and monks and rich abbots.” You have to give the people what they want, the minstrels say.

At first that sounded like what Roger used to say. “But when Adam thought it over he decided that it was quite different. Roger told tales that fitted the good in people, tales about courage and danger and adventure and love.”

My students and I discussed how the deVessey’s tales appealed to the baser side of human nature, but Roger’s tales encouraged the goodness in people. He called people to the life and beauty that they were made to be, and to inhabit. And they responded in kind.

*

Certainly being anti-abortion is a matter of morality. But perhaps it can also be a matter of encouraging the goodness in people instead of the baseness. Perhaps we must understand a rejection of abortion not as placing a restriction on a woman’s life, but as a call to something higher, and a belief that any woman can, in fact, rise to goodness.

I can never claim to understand the hardest situations in which women find themselves pregnant: abuse, poverty, an absent father, rape, an inviable baby. But I am certain that abortion only invites despair and death. It only encourages a mother to continue in her hopelessness. It calls to the darker sides of human nature and presents itself as a solution. Yet it is only a quick “fix,” a death that sadly leads to more death: the partial death of a mother’s very being as she is torn from the child which has its existence from her own; the death of a mother’s body as she reaps the consequences of such trauma; the death of a mother’s spirit as she mourns for the rest of her life the baby that she never knew.

Abortion preys on our weaknesses. It calls to our selfishness and to our deepest fears. It presents itself as sometimes the only charitable option. Should a baby be given life only to grow up in extreme poverty? Should a baby be given life only to live for the rest of its days with a severe disability? Our hopelessness would say no. Our despair would say no. Our fear would say no.

But we are more than our darkness. While evil and sin are so very real, they can never destroy the image of God. They can never completely exterminate the goodness in the very heart of our created order. Humanity is life and goodness and beauty, as well, if only we can live into our creation.

Rejecting abortion is not a heartless imposition of a life of despair and difficulty onto another person. In fact, it is the opposite. It is a call of hope that any woman—all women, whatever their circumstances—can rise to goodness and to strength and to love. It is a firm belief in the goodness of life, and not just the life of their unborn baby, but in the life of the mother. It is an affirmation of her existence and her ability to carry this child, to love this child, to give this child life, both inside the womb and outside. That life might look like raising the child, or it might look like adoption, but her gift to her child can only lead to a multiplication of life.

I want to believe that human beings can act in a way that is true to our creation. We were created “very good,” full of the brilliance of our Creator. We were created with the capacity to hope and to love and to believe and to trust. Our world and our own selves tell us daily that our only options are smallness and baseness. Yet our very existence would say otherwise. We were all made for greatness. We were made to be co-creators, to give life and to share life. We were made to love.

And denying the woman in a clinic waiting room the opportunity for an abortion is not denying her life. It is, instead, offering her a chance to truly live. And we must walk alongside these mothers. We must sing to them the tales of adventure and of courage and of love as they, too, discover that they are capable of greatness.

Comparison: a failure of the imagination

_SMO0508 copyWhile we’re sitting at the Starbucks in the food court, we might find that our eyes are constantly darting to watch the other girls and women pass by. In just the blink of an eye, we find that we’ve sized them up from top to bottom; noticed their hair and sandals; wordlessly scorned their garish make-up and chubby ankles; or silently admired, even craved their D&G sunglasses or their naturally wavy hair.” (Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith)

Dallas is teaching me a lot about myself. In a city of designer brands, fancy cars, pretty clothes and perfect-looking people, I fall prey again and again to this trap of comparison.“Her clothes are more stylish than mine.” “My jeans are two years old.” “Why does her hair always look pretty? Mine is a constant mess.” “Even my little blue purse doesn’t stand a chance against these designer bags all around me.”

I have never been in a place before now that reveals this area of my heart so clearly as Dallas does. I go to the mall and I feel like I stick out. I go out to dinner and inevitably feel underdressed and frumpy. So it is a constant struggle, an exhausting battle, not to constantly compare myself to others. I remind myself that it is not the appearance that matters. I walk around the mall and realize how self-centered I am to think that as I am walking through the mall, people are looking at me and at what am wearing. These are good and helpful realizations of my condition, but Smith presents another thought that struck me this morning as I read his book.

“Subtly, then, we’ve construed our relationships largely in terms of competition—against one another and against the icons of the ideal that have been painted for us. And in the process, we have also objectified others: we have turned them into artifacts for observation and evaluation, things to be looked at, and by playing this game, we’ve also turned ourselves into similar sorts of objects, evaluating ourselves based on our success at being objects worth looking at.” (Smith)

When I look someone up and down and compare myself positively or negatively to them, I am not just feeding my pride, vanity, and selfishness. I am objectifying another human being, another bearer of the divine image.

This language carries force. When we read or talk about men and lust, pornography, or other sexual traps, we talk about it in the same language. Pornography objectifies women, removing their humanity and presenting them as objects to be consumed and wanted. Women rise up against this objectifying by men, yet we are doing precisely the same thing to one another, and to ourselves.

When I look a woman over in order to compare my appearance or wardrobe to hers, I am objectifying her. I am choosing to see her as an appearance, or a fashion statement instead of as a specific and intricate and valuable creation of the God who made us both. Before the world, God chose to create her. God exists in her countenance, her build, the wrinkles on her face, and in the depth of her eyes. She is not an object to be looked over. She is a divinely-created being who bears the image of a Creator who loves and treasures her deeply. She is a walking image of God, not to be objectified because of my pride or selfishness.

When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of the imagination.” (The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene)

From glory to glory: identity and the Christian woman

_SMO9746 copyI just finished this deeply thoughtful work by one of my recent favorite authors. It is both a spiritual memoir and a meditation on some of life’s most important truths. Sometimes, the sentences that strike me most in her writing are those that almost seem as if they are said in passing, or as if they are tentatively written because she is trying to understand herself and doesn’t fully know what she is trying to say. Her rich thoughts constantly give me new insight, provoke new questions, and leave me examining my thoughts and habits.

Winners write this as she begins contemplating her recent divorce, and it struck me as particularly profound:

“I was drifting out of the reach of faith, and I couldn’t even say precisely why—perhaps because my sense of myself as a Christian had become so wrapped up with my sense of myself as a wife that to question one was to question the other.” —Lauren Winner, Still

 I am a wife of seven weeks. I love my husband. I love cooking and keeping our home for him. I love exploring with him on the weekends and spending a quiet Thursday night at home with him. I love being a wife. But as wonderful and fulfilling as this new vocation has been, it is not my ultimate identity and it must never be the definition of Shannon McKendrick.

As a younger, Christian girl, I was taught that marriage is right and beautiful and a good thing to desire. I was taught that being a wife is one of the greatest roles a woman can fill. In its proper context, that is all right and true and good, but I think this must be prefaced and grounded by a much more important truth: your identity as a woman is not found in your marital status.

I think Christian women ought to desire the goodness of marriage, but it can quickly become a belief that her role and worth will only be full as a wife. This belief produces restlessness and deep discontent, as I personally know. As women, we so easily believe that life will finally be full and we will feel complete and perfectly satisfied once that husband comes along. But what happens when a woman discovers she’s not always the best wife? And what happens when marriage reveals inadequacies and weaknesses that were previously unknown? Once I became a wife, there came new identities to idolize, none of them fulfilling: that of a really great wife, or a talented teacher, or a stylish Dallas resident, or a serving church member. It never ends.

Single and married women alike must understand that their identity is not in their singleness or their wifehood. It is only and ever that of a child of God, a creation of the the all-sovereign and all-powerful God of the universe, an image-bearer of the Creator. How much more worth is found as a woman who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Singleness or marriage are both different opportunities for that transformation, and they are both good and beautiful.

Single women: don’t believe the lie that your worth and ultimate earthly fulfillment will come only upon a wedding day. Married women: don’t let your role become your identity. Single or married, we are children of God, beholding the glory of the Lord, and being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18)