Safe, comfortable and, here, chop this onion

Recently, I read an article revealing the top three things visitors notice about your home. It supposedly served as a warning against less than spotless bathrooms and the lingering odors of last night’s breaded chicken dinner. Another title, which popped up on a suggested post on Facebook promised to help me give a wide berth to last year’s outdated home trends and decor. If we are not careful, we may actually start to believe some of this stuff.

I am grateful for my home. We live in a pleasant area and our house is roomy enough that we can invite friends over. But my bathroom is not spotless; I have piles of unopened mail, and books and the children’s things stuck in corners. My closets are disorganized. Oh, please don’t look in the garage. It’s kind of gross. I suspect my decor is not on trend, but then again, I am blissfully ignorant of what is popular at any given moment.

I’m not sure I am there yet, but I would love to be the person who is not so concerned about what people think when they enter my home, but how they feel. When I think back to friends whose homes I loved visiting, they were not always the ones with the matching furniture. Not always. Sometimes hospitality and ambience go hand in hand, but not always. My goal is for my guests to feel safe, comfortable, valued and honored. When I can achieve that I will have fulfilled Romans 12:12-13.

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

and

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

I John 3:18

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Now I only embrace this theoretically, but I hope to one day have a home where it doesn’t matter if my floor is clean, because you are welcomed regardless with open arms. Here is a home creed in which to aspire:

Let’s make our homes safe. It’s ok to talk about difficult topics, to voice opinions of dissonance. It is ok to admit failure, hardship and trouble. You will not be undermined. You will be loved and are secure.

Let’s make our homes comfortable.  The furniture here is secondary. There may be a lump in the couch, but the blankets are handy and you know where the silverware is. Let’s make our homes a retreat for our family from the outside world, but also welcome the world to come in from time to time and put their feet up on the ottoman. God holds me accountable for I have often been sheltered by some of the most hospitable of people.

Let’s make our homes the venues in which we can value and honor others. It  is an honor to have you enter our doors. You have blessed us with your presence, and now we want to show how greatly you are valued. We listen, we reserve judgement, we cater to your specific needs. We speak words of honesty, love and gentleness.

As I reflect again on the pointless articles mentioned above, they have not emphasized what we truly care about. Being in someone’s home is about being, and feeling, included; it’s about a sense of belonging.

You may only get water to drink at our house, but, here, you can chop this onion.

If the Golden Rule is treating others as we would want to be treated, then the Golden Rule of hospitality has nothing to do with the scent of hand soap in the guest bathroom. It is how do I feel when I am included in the host’s inner circle. Am I safe, welcome, comfortable, valued? I am far from living this creed out well, but it is a goal to strive toward. You are worth it.

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Parsing sentences

“That grammar lesson was fun!” says no child ever.

Unless….it’s ok to be silly, and they are only incidentally labeling the parts of speech. Unless… they are not only using their memory skills , but also their creativity.

G is learning to parse sentences as he slowly builds his understanding of nouns and verbs, adjectives and conjunctions. Parsing sentences for us at this stage simply means we are reading sentences and labeling all the parts of speech and which words they are modifying. As a seven year old, he has a pretty decent grasp of how language functions. But then, being the talker he is, he certainly takes in enough practice!

We are using Level 2: First Language Lessons by Jessie Wise. The book contains one hundred short grammar lessons, simple writing exercises and picture studies. It is an easy way for me to get in part of his language teaching without having to do much prep work. The lessons only take about 15 minutes, yet seem to be thorough. He has never complained about them, but if truth be told, I would never expect them to be the highlight of his day.

Until yesterday.

During his toddler years, I bought these magnetic words from a long forgotten vendor. We have only used them occasionally, but yesterday I pulled them out in an inspired last minute idea after we had discussed articles (a, an, the).

Sitting side by side, we got busy making up our own silly, lyrical sentences.

As the lesson progressed and G demanded “just one more,” the sentences just got ridiculous. However, that smarty pants labeled every single word correctly.

Things we learned:

1. Nouns can very often moonlight as adjectives. Especially if there are several of them in a row.

2. “Like” or “as” can wear several hats. In most of our sentences, however, they were adverbs.

3. It’s a good day if you are full out laughing at a grammar lesson.

Ratty and Mole and compassion and grace

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows has been a classic for over a hundred years. I have heard about it all my life, and yet I am reading it for the first time now. S and I are sharing the same beautiful copy I purchased online, a hardback with richly expressive and detailed illustrations by Robert Ingpen. It has been a little tricky trying to share a copy. We both tend to want to read it at bedtime curled up with pillows and the welcome silence of the house. We are also writing summaries, or “skeletons of the plot” for each chapter.

Even as an adult, if you have not read this 1908 classic, I highly recommend it even though I have only completed the first four chapters. It tells the story of inexperienced but eager Mole, wise river-residing Ratty, distractible Toad, unsociable Badger and others. Grahame is a master at presenting their distinctly animal-like characteristics while also providing a discerning eye toward our own human peculiarities. The stories flow at an easy trickle. No great events happen, but we are privy to more and more of their strengths and flaws with each chapter. Mole, for example, is quickly dismayed when his foolishness causes him to get lost in the Wild Wood. Not heeding the sage advice of his friend, he persists in entering the forest alone in search of Badger. A rabbit races past him screaming, “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” This is not helpful to Mole.

But then, there is Rat, ever true and brave, seeking out his foolish friend, despite his own fears and the dangers. His only thought is to rescue Mole. Rat holds no grudges. It doesn’t matter that Mole had previously refused his warnings and brought this calamity on himself. Instead, the Rat responds kindly and works to get them out of the situation.

“Dear Ratty,” said the Mole. “I’m dreadfully sorry, but I’m simply dead beat and that’s a solid fact. You must let me rest here a while longer, and get my strength back, if I’m to get home at all.”

“O, all right,” said the good-natured Rat, “rest away. It’s pretty nearly pitch dark now, anyhow; and there ought to be a bit of a moon later.”

P.54

And that, my friends, is love and compassion and grace. Not once did Rat chastise Mole, though it was all completely his fault. He did not abandon him. He saw his predicament, and it became their predicament.

Here is the way to lead others out of the terrors of the Wild Wood:

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Galatians 6:2

When Narration Inspires: a ghostly retelling

Part of my New Year’s Day was spent on the floor of my basement while seven-year-old G scrunched down behind the sofa manipulating his stuffed animals to perform Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This season we have all been exposed to heavy doses of the redemptive ghost story. My family and I have watched three or four versions, including our favorite, the 2009 Disney one with Jim Carrey. We visited our local theater downtown with some friends and enjoyed a live performance. And probably most memorably we pulled out colored pencils and drawing paper while Patrick Stewart dramatically read to us the story on Audible. Thank you, Mr. Stewart! Do you remember when we were right behind you in the Starbucks line this summer in New York? At the one in Park Slope?

We began our immersion into Scrooge’s Christmas transformation in late November or early December, but it wasn’t until New Year’s Day when G invited me to our basement for his impromptu theater that I realized how much he had been internalizing the language, the story, and the message.

I attribute his burst of creativity to the steady practice of narration.

Narration is simply a retelling. Charlotte Mason, the British educator from the late 1800s to early 1900s, utilized narration in the earliest forms. Children as young as four or five were taught to retell a story, fable, or science lesson. We have practiced this a good bit in our home.

Although not in a strict Charlotte Mason manner, G has grown accustomed to hearing a story, then relating it back to me. This youngest and most verbose child of mine was not only an early reader but an eager listener. I now see the benefits coming to fruition. Even when I lack the patience to hear another story – and, believe me from this guy it happens daily – he reminds me with the words of Susan Wise Bauer, the author of our writing book, “But wait, Mom. I’m just getting to the ‘skeleton of the plot.'”

Narration does not just aid the eventual writing process, but it is writing at its rawest form. Unedited, unrevised in most cases, it allows the teller to recognize and create and verbalize his own thoughts. Never underestimate a child who realizes her ability to communicate.

And so, once it had been decided who of G’s stuffed friends would play Scrooge, and who would be ol’ Fezziwig,  I followed him downstairs as he adjusted the basement lighting and, surprisingly, managed a spotlight on “Mr. Monkey” as a lamplighter (never mind the fact that the light was imaginary and the “lighter” was a knitting needle). Thus, began his version of the familiar tale. I admit I was shocked at how well he remembered the story, how easily he moved the plot along. He had memorized large chunks of the dialog. “Bah. Humbug” was there, but so also were more obscure lines like, “Spirit, are they yours?…They are man’s…Beware them both.”

Although he left out chunks of the book and created a couple of extra scenes, they all seemed in the spirit of the novella. My favorite sections were when the stuffed tiger appeared as Jacob Marley sporting several glow stick necklaces as his “ponderous chain.” G’s Scrooge scoffs and amusingly adds to the famous line,

There’s more custard than cuss,

more gravy than grave about you.

Later, as the Ghost of Christmas Present bids a Teddy Bear version of Scrooge from his chambers, the miser looks around and asks, “What is all of this feast?” The Ghost answers, “It is the fruit of generosity. Something you have never shared.” This is a paraphrased line from Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

I applaud. I know this voluntary form of narration will tie the message even closer to his heart.

 

Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim. “Julius” was chosen as Tiny Tim for his size and because he had recently sustained a serious arm injury by the teeth of our six month old puppy. Dad saved the day by stitching him back up, but there remains an obvious scar. G explained, “Just like Tiny Tim has to walk with a crutch, it doesn’t matter if his arm looks different.” God bless us, everyone!

In the event that my narration of this puppet performance seems too impressive for a seven year old, rest assured, there was plenty of flipping back and forth off the couch, dead pauses while he changed characters, and some hand motions that I only assume were unclear due to the actors’ lack of thumbs. And yet, the meaning was there. He narrated what he remembered and what had stood out to him.

I learned a great deal about his memory that day, but even more about his heart.

When He was ready…

Christ came not when we were ready, but when he was.

This has been a difficult year for us. It has been a particularly difficult year for my husband who lost his father just at the end of September after long, strenuous health issues. He has shouldered a good bit of stress at work, and we have been stretched to our parenting limits this year. Can you relate? Christmas may have come this year with us feeling weary and unprepared. There is, somehow, good news in this.

The grace of the embodiment of God on earth is partially wrapped in the fact that we were still a mess upon his arrival. We were far from ready. We had forgotten to be expectant, and had instead grown hurried, harried, and lacking in purpose. Christmas arrived before all the cookies were baked and frosted, it arrived before packages were wrapped and bows tied. We were caught in the middle of some major mishaps. Our lives were ugly and twisted. We had forgotten to hope.

The shepherds were leaning on their staffs, cleaning the excrement from their sandals when the heavens were ripped open and angels burst in chorus above their heads. And even Anna, (Luke 2:36-38) who was waiting in the house of the Lord, may have risen from a despondent corner of the temple, doubting anything hopeful would ever happen to her again.

We were distracted and agitated and frazzled. But then, before Mary had time to prepare a nursery, he was born. Before we tied up the loose ends, and resolved the mess our lives had become, he came. While we were embarrassed, stressed, anxious, and lonely, he arrived, donning tendons and truth. Or we were proud, arrogant, and crass, yet he wouldn’t wait for us to clean our lives up. He would not. We couldn’t.

As his infantile arms flailed erratically, he waved them about and cried, “Behold, I am new! Look, I will live next door. I make everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).

As he breathed on Mary’s cheek, so he had once breathed in us the breath of life. As his divinity seemed to take on a weaker nature, he poured into us his spirit of hope (Romans 5:5).

He came when he was ready, not when I was.

As I vacuum the house in preparation for Christmas guests, I feel the frustration of an imperfect house. It will not all get done. Let’s face it, with three boys, and trying to squeeze in time for a math lesson, is the house ever clean? There will most assuredly be dusty surfaces and blankets piled in a corner. It is an imperfect house full of imperfect people. If I am not ready with the house cleaning, how much more unprepared am I with my spiritual life? My soul needs dusting and there are certainly things I need to purge from my character. If I can welcome family into an imperfect home, then I can welcome this Savior into my imperfect world. He is here! Joy to the world!

His uncoordinated knees knock together as he now kicks, but his movements proclaim, “Come to me. My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30). And Mary, not having prepared perfectly for his arrival, picks up her burden, snuggles him deeply, and discovers, it is indeed light.

Merry Christmas.

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Are you ready?

A frequent greeting which falls from our lips this time of year is “Are you ready for Christmas?” And by this we mean, have you finished your Christmas shopping, do you have the meals shopped for and planned out, do you know where all the relatives will sleep, or how you will get to both sides of the family on Christmas Eve. We might rethink our intentions with this inquiry.

Are you ready?

Are you eagerly awaiting what has been long promised you? Are you resting in exuberant hopefulness? Is the Advent of the Son foremost in your thoughts? Are you ready to celebrate his once-upon-a-time birth and his most assured return?

May we be open to receiving the divine in our life. May we be open to recognizing the blessings and the light, just as the wise men recognized the bright, auspicious star. May we make room for him as we make room for the others before us who need a place to stay, a warm meal, or a sympathetic ear. Are we ready to welcome him as we welcome others in our lives? As we wait this advent, may we grow into a reflection of the holy Infant’s abiding love.

Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!

Luke 1:45

Homeschooling with Homer

With no real plan in place, other than the fact that we had reached Greek civilization and the Trojan War in history, S and I have been slowly reading Homer’s Iliad. It is my very first time, and as has happened so many other times over these last several years, I find I learn at least just as much alongside him.

We found this fantastic version for children and young adults retold by Alfred J. Church. Originally published in 1907, it retains the epic style without being cumbersome to a modern middle schooler.

Here is an example, which must be read aloud for the full effect.

But Poseidon came to the camp of the Greeks…First he spoke to either Ajax, saying, “Hold fast, men of might, that you may save the people. For the rest of the wall I fear not, but only for the place that Hector rages. Now may some god inspire you to stand fast and drive him back.” And as he spoke he struck each with his staff, and filled them with courage and gave strength to hands and feet. Then he passed from them even as a hawk that rises from a cliff, chasing a bird.

Chapter 16, p. 156

In the course of our readings together, we have learned mundane facts such as Ilium is the Greek name for Troy. Thus, the Iliad is ” the ballad of Ilium,” or the song about Troy. We have shared our disappointment in Achilles’ whining. We have laughed at Ajax’s grandiose and lengthy speeches in the heat of battle, while wielding both a battle axe and sword. “Just finish them off!” S jokes. “Focus, Ajax! Focus!”

We prided ourselves on our independent discovery of the epic simile. Although considering their preposterous length and preciseness, it is hard to overlook them. When a figure of speech extends six or seven lines into a paragraph it is impossible to be blind to it. Here is our favorite example.

As when two torrents swollen with the rains of winter join their waters in a hollow ravine at the meeting of the glens, and the shepherds hear the crash far off among the hills, even so, with a mighty noise and great confusion, did the two armies meet.

Chapter 6, p. 46

S and I have discussed and debated Greek virtues, and we have contrasted them with what is lauded today. We have questioned why (spoiler alert) Patroclus’ death was so grievous to Achilles, and whether or not that was more a reflection on the one rather than the other. We discussed the nature of the gods, and their limited powers against man. Overall, this has been a worthwhile read for us. I feel we have both received a solid introduction into the blind bard who purportedly founded Western literature. The Odyssey awaits.

On a Sunday

Sitting in the worship service, looking around at others, I may only see ordinary people, but if I look closer, with eyes of gratitude, I may catch a glimpse of a higher truth. I am part of something truer than what my tired eyes are taking in. God has transformed his people into impressive examples of love and grace. I am not naive; I still acknowledge the pain and brokenness among us. We are far from exemplary on our own merits. There a few struggling with addictions among us. Some have been abused; some have abused others. Many endure profound grief. We stand and sing, however, grateful together.


Sometimes I may not sing. Most of the times I am not able to carry a tune, much less contribute to the four-part harmony our tribe practices. Sometimes I dislike the song. Yes, sometimes I am distracted by the unnecessary apostrophe floating on the screen, or the wrong homonym renders the lyrics confusing.

That’s ok, because I see she has made it to church today. She is up and down chasing crayons from under the pew, escorting wriggling legs down the aisle, and back up again, solo, but smiling. I wonder if she hears the sermon…if it is discouraging that she expends this much energy when she could have stayed home, slept in.

He gets up to say a prayer. He seems so austere at times, almost cheerless. We rarely see eye to eye on extemporaneous doctrinal issues. I have found him annoyingly conservative. But there he stands, wording a prayer of contrition so beautifully I am ashamed to remember a time his gentle words comforted me in a difficult moment last year.

We sing.

We pray.

We hear the words of God together.

It all adds up to greater substance than it would initially appear. Some of us are lonely. Some of us depressed. Some of us are struggling with sins we have dragged about as on “ponderous chains” for years. Some of us are just thankful, hopeful, eagerly leaning in to God’s promises. We live and sing and pray as if they are already true. And they are.

God transforms the ugly into something weak and fragile, distinctly vulnerable, but beautiful.

She bothers me sometimes with her abrupt manner of speaking, as if she has no time for being polite, for choosing grace over expediency. I don’t know it, but I annoy him with my stubbornness, forever asserting myself when I could have just let it go. All of these are examples of what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant by “dappled things.” Somewhere among the archaic language, the newly-hyphenated words, and melodic alliterations, we understand his message. We are a mess. We are freckled and plain, mundane, tedious, distorted and ineffective. We are hopelessly hopefully ordinary.

Pied Beauty

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough;

And all trades their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who, knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers -forth whose beauty is past change.

Praise him.

We are, indeed, “all things counter, original, spare, strange.”

And not unlike Elisha and his servants seeing the LORD’s angel armies for the first time encircling Israel upon battle, we gather on a Sunday in pews nominally comfortable, with people who only appear ordinary, with “landscape plotted and pieced,” and we catch a glory-glimpse. And we praise him.

We gather each Sunday, for “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16).

Praise him.

The name – of it – is ‘Autumn’-

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The name- of it – is ‘Autumn’-

The hue – of it – is Blood –

An Artery – upon the Hill –

A Vein – along the Road –

 

Great Globules – in the Alleys –

And Oh, the Shower of Stain –

When Winds – upset the Basin –

And spill the Scarlet Rain –

 

It sprinkles Bonnets – far below –

It gathers ruddy Pools –

Then eddies like a Rose – away –

Upon Vermilion Wheels –

 

by Emily Dickinson

 

He made himself nothing

I have been reflecting on what Christ renounced to live here on earth.

 “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

‭‭Philippians‬ ‭2:7‬ ‭NIV‬‬

In his book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, Dallas Willard states that we are to live as Christ would have lived our specific life.

“As Jesus’ disciple… You are learning from Jesus how to lead your life as he would lead your life if he were you. Yes, the very life you have…there isn’t a person on this earth Jesus couldn’t have been. .. he relinquished supreme power. He learned to live  in the kingdom of God as an ordinary human being…He could live in your circumstances now.” P. 54

He could have been any one of us. Instead he was a carpenter’s son, living on the wrong side of the Pax Romana. How would he have lived your life in particular? Perhaps that is part of what he gave up- the ability to live all lives, to be omnipresent and to see humanity from every perspective. Jesus was only able to live the one life here on earth, just as we are limited. We can only see with the single pair of eyes that God created for us. How would Jesus have used my blue eyes in America in the 21st century?

Our prayer might be to catch glimpses of his omniscient vision as Creator and Savior. As C. S. Lewis encourages us,

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

In this way, may he teach us as the all-knowing God of the universe, and may his pattern as a man speak to us of his compassion and wisdom as he also was limited in his humanity.