After fifteen years of marriage, you become aware of your rhythms as a couple. For us, and I suspect this is true of most, our energy levels are pretty depleted by the time the sun goes down. Once the kids are tucked away, we are tuckered out, so we have couch time (chocolate and/or wine may be involved), working our way through some TV series on Netflix (right now it's Doctor Who). Then it's up to bed where we usually read (him for about ten minutes until he's nodded off, me for an hour or more).
In the morning, I slowly wake up, get ready (still waking up), duck into the prayer closet for a few minutes (aiming for thirty), and then it's time to start school as my husband heads out for work.
So we aren't together for most of the day, and by the time we can finally be alone, we're too exhausted to...wait, there's still the weekend. This is where things get interesting...
Say it's a Sunday and you've just come home from church. You could have family time, maybe play a board game or watch an old movie together...the kids perhaps balk and groan at those ideas, but once we're all settled in, we know we'll have fun...we hope. But there is another option.
Enter Afternoon Delight. A brilliant strategy that pleases everyone, especially your husband (well, at least in my case). Let the kids pick out a movie to stream, make a batch of popcorn for them, and then put together a picnic for you and your spouse, perhaps like the picture above (we ate pastries at church and a hearty breakfast before that, so I kept it light). Enjoy your conversation, delicacies, and the quality time with just the two of you.
By now you've probably figured out that Afternoon Delight is a double entendre. It's a twofer, the best of both worlds, and it lives up to its name. I don't think I even need to tell you what happens after the last of the cheese and crackers are gone. I'm pretty sure you've figured that part out. You head upstairs, lock your bedroom door, and engage in part two of Afternoon Delight. If you've only got time for one part, part two is the most crucial, since privacy for intimacy is the key advantage to this plan.
If your kids are old enough to not need you for the duration of the film, you could even add a few extra courses - spiritual (praying, reading Scripture or a book together) and/or sensual (massage, shower, etc.). Just be sure to keep the main dish, which is "knowing" each other (in the Biblical sense of the term).
I recommend Afternoon Delight once a week. Once you've sampled it, you'll probably want to keep it in your menu rotation. And unlike Turkish Delight (as Narnia fans may recall), you can't overindulge. In fact, the more the better...
Death begins at birth. From the moment of conception, we are on a journey to the grave. None of us knows the span of of our lives - some don't make it past the womb; others experience well over a century of history in the making. We are all dying, but do we say it would be better never to have existed? Few believe that (though sometimes others make that "choice" for them) and fewer still intentionally end their own lives. Why do we cling to life when know death will eventually overtake us? Why do we embrace life all the more as we deteriorate?
The cycle of birth, life, and death in our natural bodies parallels with our spiritual existence. When we are born again, what follows? Death, death to sin and death to self. And yet unlike our new birth, which happens instantaneously, death to self is a process. A series of deaths, if you will. On our way to eternal life, we die a thousand spiritual deaths. Though our sins are forgiven, our sinful nature continues to tempt us to live for ourselves rather than dying to ourselves and being conformed to the image of Christ, in whom we were created and have been redeemed.
These thousand deaths to self are usually little deaths. They are uncomfortable but bearable. Sometimes, though, after following Jesus for a long time, we slip into complacency, and we quench the Spirit rather than put to death certain persistent sins. And then it happens. The Dark Night of the Soul. When God, in his love and mercy, disciplines us so severely that we may even wish we were dead. He shows us the destructiveness of our sin and how it is killing His spirit in us. We have to die an excruciating death to self or else be enslaved by it and lose our lives.
Sometimes it is not our own sin. When we are married, we are one with our spouse, and when God is dealing with their sin, it feels like we are dying as well. It could literally be a dark night, the darkest we've ever experienced, brought on by the worst fight we've ever had with our spouse, in which the sin was being killed, but it went out kicking and screaming. The battle was not with flesh and blood, but in the spiritual realm. It felt like the end of everything had come and there was no hope, but actually it was just the opposite - it was a new beginning.
You rose from the ashes, scarred and weary, humbly clinging to the One you felt - for that dark night - had abandoned you. You were badly shaken, fearful, and desperate. Then you became empty and numb. The damage seemed irreparable, your house utterly ruined, your garden desolate...but something caught your eye - a tiny, green shoot that sprung up overnight. You had a glimmer of hope. That God had extinguished the old life, so that you could start a new and better life together. It would take lots of time and more struggle to heal from the fatal wounds, but this body, this one flesh made of husband and wife bound together in Christ, would eventually be stronger than the previous union, and the new house God was building would far surpass the old.
Your Dark Night of the Soul would give way to a bright and glorious morning. But you would need to be patient. And keep dying. Dying to self. Weeding out sin. Basking in the light of the Father. Drinking in the water of life of the Holy Spirit. Abiding in the vine that is the Son. Growing (with all the pain that entails) in the body of Christ, beginning with your own family.
The Dark Night of the Soul had another purpose, too. It brought you back to your first love. It woke you up to the truth that God is the only one who will not let you down. You may have felt abandoned, but He was with you. He wants you to depend on Him alone. To put all your hope in Him, not another human being. Only His love is perfect and His love is all you need. This is also why you must forgive.
We are unworthy, selfish recipients of His grace. He gives it unconditionally and so we must freely extend His grace. Receiving and giving grace is the most direct path to healing. This is assuming repentance and change are underway (be it ourselves or our spouse or both). That the death really happened on the Dark Night of the Soul and the new life together began - whether it be a literal night in which it all culminated or a more gradual coming into the light over time. If morning has broken, then the work of rebuilding trust must begin right now.
It may feel like there is a void where the sin used to be. You have to discover who you are as a couple without that thing. So it's not just the person "with the problem" (really, just that particular problem) who will feel loss and pain. It was enmeshed in your marriage and now there's a hole where it used to be. It feels kind of drafty and weird. We may thirst and hunger like we never have before. It won't always be this way - over time, love will fill it - but for now it is a way of keeping the death real (when we are tempted to forget or minimize it) and a vivid reminder to turn to Jesus to fill us. His love poured into each of us will trickle into the hole, eventually transforming it into a well, deepening our marriage as our souls are rejuvenated. Where sin once poisoned us, life giving water will flow.
Most people (well, only the lucky few who get them) take a sabbatical every seven years, but in my case, I've taken a sabbatical for seven years. Not from a job, though, but from what I'm doing right now: blogging.
Seven years ago (maybe even to the day), I signed off what was then known as the God blogosphere. I was part of that first wave of Christian bloggers who started talking aloud and then to each other. We created a larger dialogue that manifested itself in posts and comments and blog carnivals and even a convention - GODBLOGCON. Despite different denominations, backgrounds, ages, genders, and more, there was a kinship between us. That's not to say there wasn't also controversy and tension, but it didn't dominate our interactions.
My first blog was called Proverbial Wife. I started it in late 2003 or early 2004 (I had my first baby at that time, so it's a bit hazy, and I'm too lazy to go look it up). The name was a reference to the Proverbs 31 woman, whom I aspired to be, and it was quite catchy, but despite its popularity, I eventually changed it (felt like to much to live up to), and that - changing blog names - was to become a pattern with me. I can't even remember all the names, but the main ones were Marla Swoffer (as in dot com) and Marla's Musings and Always Thirsty. I also had multiple blogs at various times - notably, Olive Cheeses (food blog), GodBlogRoll (a directory of blogs categorized by bloggers' Myers-Briggs personality types), and Intellectuelle, a group blog of Christian women who won a writing contest I dreamed up - it was hosted by Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost.
I loved connecting with others who shared my faith and were deep thinkers, since it had rarely happened offline after I finished school. It was as close as I would get to being part of something like the Inklings - that group of Christian writers which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, my literary (and in Lewis' case, spiritual as well) heroes. Speaking of the Inklings, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the way my blog got its wings was when it was noticed by Jared Wilson, ringleader of what was then The Thinklings, a group blog, which though all male, I considered kindred spirits. They were the first ones to spread "the conversation" to my fledgling blog. (mind you, when I use that phrase, it has nothing to do with anything "emergent")
After 2+ years of blogging daily (or more), I had a solid readership, but the nagging feeling (conviction) that I needed to change my priorities finally got through to me with the news that I was pregnant with my third (and last) child. I had sensed that I should quit blogging when I was about to have my second child, a year before, but when an amazing and generous couple who read my blog gifted me with my first apple computer (which totally converted me) - a macbook (after I joked that I would blog during my labor if I only had a laptop) - I felt that I couldn't throw in the towel just yet, that with this second baby perhaps I'd finally master time management.
That was not to be. And instead of writing from inspiration, it had become an obligation to perform fueled by my desire for acceptance/affirmation/admiration as well as a more pure motive of wanting to encourage and connect with others. But there I had trouble as well - I was too transparent and vulnerable. I didn't "overshare" by today's blogging standards, but it was too much for my personality type (we INFJs are extremely private) and there were other factors at the time (see I've learned to censor myself) that made keeping certain deep things offline even more important (hint: never work out stuff on the internet that you haven't worked out with people in real life first).
The other problem was that because of being a crusader for truth, I was attracted to controversy, or it to me, but whatever the case, it got ugly. The stuff I alluded to in the aforementioned paragraph got mingled in with the online drama, which caused me major distress...and did I mention I was also in my first trimester of pregnancy? That brings me back to the biggest reason I had to quit blogging: my family. I had three year-old and one year-old daughters, with a son on the way. I wanted my attention to be focused on them - after all, they were the reason I was staying home. I also wanted to guard their privacy. And of course there was my husband, too. My online life definitely detracted from my real life - I simply couldn't spread myself so thin, especially being the slow, methodical, non multi-tasking person that I am. I won't even mention how my daily hours online affected the housework...
So that is why I quietly exited my public writing life seven years ago, feeling both relief and grief, but believing I would one day return to my writing (since I have always known - well, since high school - that it's a calling/vocation) when the kids were all in school and I would have my mornings free. That was supposed to have happened this last fall, but three years after I quit blogging, we unexpectedly became a homeschooling family, and I knew things would never unfold the way I had planned, but I also didn't (and don't) regret being on this path...and adventure really...that God has marked out for us. I also know how much it will enrich my writing.
Somewhere in there, I started blogging again (what can I say, I couldn't stay away), but not with my real name and not with any consistency. Thus I had no readership until a couple of years ago when I adopted the Literary Mom pseudonym. I was already a regular Facebook customer (see, even quitting my day blog couldn't keep me offline...sigh...), so setting up a writerly page really couldn't be helped. Thus, instead of blogging, I was blurting out thoughts and curating information for others (i.e. amassing lots of interesting links that came into my massive news feed caused by an untold number of page likes). That continues to this day, though I have "unplugged" from Facebook for weeks and months at a time (fasting it from it for Advent or Lent usually) to sort of reset myself. The internet is paradoxically a perpetual source of angst and delight for me as a person and a writer. I have a love-hate relationship with it and its social media offspring.
This past Lent, I gave up white flour and sugar and alcohol (except on feast days of course), and found myself blogging a little more frequently, which was what I set out to do, albeit half-heartedly. It felt surprisingly right and good. That got me thinking about how long it had been since I had left the God blogosphere; I realized it was exactly seven years. Through the working out of various circumstances (including a reconciliation I consider miraculous) in recent months, I had felt a gentle nudging to come out of hiding, so to speak, but also a sense of trepidation. Nothing had changed for me to be able to suddenly devote myself to my writing - my kids aren't little, but they're still young - and homeschooling is very consuming. So I really wasn't sure what the point in using my real name now would be, yet I also started to feel bothered about my picture being a face behind a book. While it had been apt for a season, I sensed that keeping it (and continuing to not use my real name) began to reflect a kind of cowardice that didn't apply to me. In fact, overcoming fear continues to be a major theme in my life.
So the seven year timing (I'm big on patterns and symbols and rhythms), feeling free to be myself, and rediscovering the joy of writing all gave me the inspiration to throw off the anonymity that bound me and cautiously start a new chapter in my blogging life, going forward with the lessons learned from my previous one, as well as what I have learned during these past seven years of relative reclusivity.
Here are some of my blogging resolutions:
I will not market myself or network or have giveaways (not really my personality anyway).
I will not blog out of compulsion or obligation or on any kind of timetable.
I will steer clear of controversial subjects, especially pertaining to other bloggers and their views.
I will write to express what matters, not just to me, but to others, and most of all, to God.
I will keep my family my first priority and not let blogging distract me or steal time from them.
I will be careful about what I share, guarding my family's privacy and not getting too personal.
If I am ever unsure, I will pray about what to say. I will not impulsively blog.
I will not compare myself to other bloggers or compete with them.
I will not feel compelled to respond to every comment. In fact, responding to comments will be the exception rather than the rule.
I didn't realize how damaged I was until I started a family. My upbringing mingled with my sinful nature were what I brought into my marriage and motherhood. Thankfully God's grace had been at work all along, so that despite (and even because of) my frailties, I continued to be his image bearer in many ways - I was saved and kept by my Heavenly Father instead of wrecked by the abuse, brokenness, and dysfunction of my home(s). My innocence, purity, and character were evidence of the Lord's hand on my life, of Jesus dwelling in my heart, and the Holy Spirit directing my path. Still, there were wounds - from others and the ones I inflicted upon myself when I came of age - both of which he bore for me on the cross. They did not all come to light until this past decade, a season of uniting myself with another human being and our offspring.
In addition to struggling with my sinful, selfish self, there has been the challenge of living something new that I didn't see modeled. An only child of a divorced, remarried mother who worked full-time outside the home has not been trained to be a stay-at-home mother of three, let alone homeschool teacher. I'm breaking new ground, while mucking about in the dirt of the present and pulling weeds from my past. It has taken me ten years to learn and do things that suddenly seem obvious and basic. I feel like I'm so slow, but then I remember that I'm a pioneer - starting a family of my own is a journey, one that has been arduous and exhilarating at the same time, so it makes sense that I'm only now beginning to get settled.
Did you know your church has a personality type? Chances are, it's similar to yours. Also, some of you missed the memo from way back about the Transformations videos being debunked. What you should be showing your congregation is Lord, Save Us from Your Followers (it's also currently on Netflix instant play). If you really want to see revival, then find out what it means to be missional. It's not just another Christian buzz word.
Some weird and dangerous stuff has been creeping into your church via well meaning but misguided homeschooling families who have been influenced by "family" ministries like Vision Forum, No Greater Joy, the Duggars, Bill Gothard (yeah, he's still around) and others who subscribe to a hyper-patriarchal theology (a.k.a. patriocentricity) that teaches legalism, authoritarianism, and the quiverfull philosophy of limitless childbearing.
And another thing--please leave politics out of church. We're not all republicans (or democrats). We're certainly not all fans of Sarah Palin.
I may elaborate on these and other church-related topics in the future, but in case it's a while, I needed to get it off my chest now...and get the word out. So pastors, please do your homework and encourage your flock to do the same. It's an uncomfortable place sorting through truth and error within the larger church world (and there are those who are overzealous and hyperjudgemental - I'm not advocating that), but please let's not turn a blind eye to, or unwittingly promote theologies which are unscriptural and abusive. Let's examine our own hearts - as leaders, as churches, as individual Christians who are, as the old saying goes, the only Bible some people will ever read.
One last thing...let your people go, and even tell them to leave, when necessary. After all, they're not really yours anyway. They're God's. And where they go, they are still part of the body of Christ, so please don't act like changing churches is akin to spiritual adultery. That's not Biblical. It also divides and wounds. Wouldn't you rather have them growing elsewhere than withering in your care?
By my 7 yr-old (click pic for whole art poem)
I was tempted to title this "Surprised by Grace" but didn't want it be confused with the new book of the same title, (which I am curious to read). "Changing Churches" sounded too flat, but this is also the story of that.
We spent the past school year immersed in the Middle Ages and I didn't think history could get any better, but then we entered the Renaissance, which literally means "rebirth". It was spring (my favorite season) and we were on the verge of Pentecost, which marks the birth of the first church. Without my realizing it, in his infinite creativity, God was setting the stage for my own rebirth. Something had been growing inside me for a long time and it wasn't another baby.
It was my conception (pun intended) of grace. I had experienced grace from a very young age, but my understanding of it was incomplete. God's grace had always been a form of protection against other people, but not from myself. It took becoming a wife and a mother for me to recognize how inherently selfish and need of grace I was, both to help me accept myself and to give it to others, especially those closest to me - my husband and children.
In the spring of 2009 I re-read Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. I went through it with a group of women and it invoked a desire in me to grow in the knowledge of grace, so that I could more fully receive and impart it. I pulled every book off our shelves that had the word "grace" in the title. I started to read several of them and liked them, but like so many other ambitious reading projects, this one fell to the wayside. Still, I wanted to "get" grace and I sensed that my desire alone was a prayer that God was answering. He wanted me to get it also, even more than I did. Which is exactly how God's grace works.
And so this spring, as I witnessed rebirths in nature, history, and the church, I too, was born again...again. Like any birth, there was struggle, pain, and fear. But what had been growing inside me needed to come out. I could no longer be part of a church which did not fully illuminate grace, and even muddied it with traces of legalism. Works and service were emphasized and explained more than the person of Jesus and intimacy with him. Fear-based (albeit subtle) turn or burn) invitations to say the "magic prayer" (of salvation) and an authoritarian interpretation of Scripture that refused to consider any other theological position had turned Sunday mornings into cringe sessions for me. Not every week, but increasingly more often. I had long ago lost any desire to invite anyone there, but it had gotten to the point that I didn't want to be there either. Later, when I finally hashed it all out on paper (much more than I've included in this paragraph), the writing was on the wall.
We had been there six years, since we were practically newlyweds and new parents as well. Our previous church had folded and our young unstable family craved security...or at least I did. That church had been the right place for us during those early unsteady years. They had welcomed us and fed us the Word and given us opportunities to serve and be served. And yet as we got to know the church more, and to shape our identity as a family and individuals, I began to sense we were less and less compatible. I started to feel trapped in what felt like an unhealthy relationship. I had defended "us" for a long time, even against older, wiser people who loved me and saw what I wasn't willing to look at for fear of hurting my family. I thought that if only I was struggling, it wouldn't be fair to rip them from our church home, so for several years I was determined to make it work.
The tension was growing inside me, right alongside the grace, and one of them had to go. It was a thistle threatening to strangle the rosebush about to be birthed. The labor of pulling weeds began with communicating with my husband. His resistance was admirable (loyalty, friendship, optimism) until it turned ugly on both our parts (shouting match), but God's grace got us through it and out the other side, though with loss and grief that was more profound for him than for me.
It was in this morose and disillusioned state that we visited a new church - not just new to us but to the area - a church plant of five years (which I had researched online over the previous months), which just happened to have "grace" in its name. As it turned out, it wasn't in name only. Our entire family was captivated that first Sunday. It was like coming home to some place we had never been. It seemingly effortlessly harmonized these paradoxes: reverence and relevance, beauty and grit, tradition and variety, grace and truth (a number of Sundays later, that is still true - I'll share details of the service in another post).
We knew we had to end things the right way at our former church. We met with the pastors and both the angst and understanding of that conversation were confirmation that our time there was over - the associate pastor didn't say a word but he prayed a beautiful and grace-filled blessing for us that felt like God releasing us into a new season.
A few days later, we met with the pastor of the new church and spent a couple hours getting to know each other over Comforts chinese chicken salad, as well as learning all about the church. The phrase "gospel-centered" was a recurring theme, as well as grace, restoration of creation, humans as God's image bearers, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and baseball (I'll save that evidence of God's sense of humor for another post). We talked theology and community and doing away with things like Christian vernacular and an "us vs. them" mentality when it comes to interacting with the culture. His heart was clearly for the people of Marin, and both of us having grown up here, that resonated with us.
An unexpected bonus of this meeting was my husband dispensing with a pre-tribulation post-millenial (a.k.a. Left Behind) eschatology and adopting an amillennial view. Now that he isn't always waiting to cash in his rapture ticket, he can more fully be here, laying down his life to spread God's grace around (and that goes for me too). I'm sure he'll still like John MacArthur but lately he's been more interested in Francis Chan, and we both like that our new pastor calls himself a "winsome Calvinist." Oh, and I apologize for the evangelical-speak - it won't happen again, or if it does, I'll be sure to define the terms, but I'm running out of room here.
And so as we read about the Reformation in our homeschool, entered the season of Pentecost, and watched the first roses bloom in our patio garden, each epiphany of winters past culminated into the spring of my enlightenment. The new things happening in my mind (studying history), my heart (learning grace), my body (experiencing the renewal of God's creation), and my spirit (meditating on seasons of the church year--in part thanks to the Mosaic Bible) all helped to make me grow and step out in faith.
As I closed one door, and God opened another, I felt freedom and joy like never before, as though a weight had been lifted from me. Starting new has its own set of challenges and I'm not naive about that, nor overly idealistic, but I am hopeful, and already encouraged by the vision of our new church home, including what role my giftings can play in realizing it, in harmony with the other members of the church as well as the larger body of Christ (Jesus followers) in our area and beyond.
Indian Valley Open Space Preserve in Novato. My husband brought his little Bible and read Psalm 1:1-6 to us. Nothing better than being with family while immersing the senses in God's creation and filling the heart and mind with his Word. It may be brief (especially with young children), but moments like these invigorate the spirit--and when accumulated over seasons of life--eternally impact the soul.