Decorating the darkness

It’s Christmas day.  Here in the Northeast there is a soft blanket of snow which arrived last evening, just enough to cover the ground, just in time for a white Christmas.  The sun, which we rarely see here from November through April, is out and blinds me every time I look through the window.

My kids have finally settled down after the morning excitement, and I am resting in the quiet, thinking of this day and all that it is, or at least all we say it is supposed to be.  So many expectations for one little day.  What a burden to place on twenty-four hours.

And yet those twenty-four hours have so much power.  A day when we feel all the feels.  We are told that it is a day to feel merry and bright, happy and grateful and blessed, joyous and reflective.  There are no Christmas songs that talk about how hard the holidays can be sometimes, how there are seasons in everyone’s lives where we’re just not feeling it for one reason or another.  During time of loss, fatigue, illness, divorce, unemployment, depression, or whatever your struggle, there doesn’t seem to be much room under the tree for the human condition.

I was listening to Rob Bell’s podcast last week.  His guest on the show was Alexander Shaia, who spoke about how many of our Christmas traditions, things we typically consider as uniquely Christian, actually have roots in pagan Celtic rituals*.   He went on to describe how during the months of November and December, as the days got shorter, the Celts would celebrate the coming winter solstice.  As the darkness bled slowly into the days, they honored and celebrated the natural rhythm of nature.  They felt the slowing of their bodies, the desire to do less, to rest, and to settle down.   They observed their forest friends preparing to hibernate, and prepared the land to lie fallow over the winter.  And as they succumbed to this rhythm, they waited in anticipation of the winter solstice, when the light would slowly return to them at the end of December.  In celebration, they would adorn the bare branches of oak trees, and decorate their homes with lights.  The lights that they used not only symbolized the expectation and hope of the coming light, but also were meant to decorate the darkness.  There is a difference between using light to drive out the darkness–like when we flip a switch to light up a whole room–and using lights to decorate the darkness.  Think of how you sit in front of your Christmas tree, admiring the soft glow of the lights.  The corners of the room are still dark, and it’s not enough light to read a book or complete a task, but that’s not really the point of your Christmas lights.  The Celts weren’t afraid of the darkness leading up to the solstice.  They recognized that the darkness itself was as sacred as the coming light.  As they surrendered to it, they honored it.  They didn’t chase it away.  They decorated it, until such time that the light slowly came back to them, days still gray but slowly, quietly, and sometimes imperceptibly lengthening.

Later, Christians adapted some of these traditions to symbolize their belief of the incarnation–light entering into the world in the form of Jesus.

While I found this history lesson captivating, I can’t stop thinking about that phrase, “decorating the darkness”.  Christmas is not easy for many.  There are memories and grief triggers, difficult relationships, and loss.  Some are going through the motions, wanting it to be over.  Wishes of “Merry Christmas” are, to some, salt rubbed in wounds that feel so wide open and raw this time of year.  While gratitude for what is here now is always in order, urging someone with  an amputated arm to just be grateful that they at least have another arm is neither sensitive nor effective.

In the times that my world has been dark, it is rare to find someone who will sit there in the darkness with me.  Usually people want to pull you out of it–to flip the lights on, so to speak.  Perhaps there is a time and place for that.  But I think there is also a time to sit quietly in another’s darkness, to honor its sanctity and keep vigil, the soft light of the candle in your hand lighting things up just enough to decorate the darkness.

Though the solstice has passed and Christmas morning has turned to afternoon, consider honoring the darkness, either in your own life or someone else’s.  It’s not so scary to sit there if you know that someone else is with you, holding a candle and keeping vigil for as long as necessary.  Some darkness comes and goes, some passes more quickly than others, and some darkness shows up predictably at a certain time or place.  You can honor it as a natural rhythm and hold it sacred, but you can’t force the solstice.


*I am not certain regarding the accuracy of the Celtic traditions that Mr. Shaia mentioned, as this is not something I have researched.  So if you are a Celtic tradition expert, please accept my apologies for any inaccuracies, and take it up with Alexander Shaia, not with me.

God our Mother

I wanted to share something with you, my readers, that is a little more serious than my usual posts.  It is a tender topic, and though I may ruffle some feathers, I ask that you be tender in your comments.

I am in a complicated relationship right now.  With God.  I have been taking some things apart, deconstructing if you will, for the past few years.  Some of the things that I have been taught about God my whole life just aren’t making sense anymore.  Things like substitutionary atonement.  How the Bible was written and put together, and how do we know that something really important wasn’t left out?  Or that something is in there that shouldn’t be?  And why did people stop writing the Bible?  Did God say he was done writing Scripture? The way that the church approaches many present-day issues, particularly inclusion of LGBTQ in our faith communities. The fact that Jesus continually criticized the legalism of the Pharisees, and yet as evangelical Christians we have a specific prayer to pray and a way to behave in order to “go to heaven”.  And if praying that prayer–the one where we “believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths” (John 3:16) is what is required, what about all of the people that walked the earth before Jesus? This carrot on a stick theology–it just doesn’t resonate anymore.  I believe that this God I believe in is bigger than that, but right now all the puzzle pieces of my faith are scattered on the floor, and I am turning them all right-side up, looking for edges and corners to get my bearings.

I have been thinking a lot about being made in God’s image.  We throw that phrase around a lot in Christianity, don’t we?  I am made in the image of God.  So are you.  We are his image bearers, all.  And yet–God is always spoken of as a Father.  Jesus was a man.  I sometimes have thoughts that, though Jesus walked the earth for three decades, lowering himself to walk among humanity, what does he really know of being a woman, or a girl?  What does he know of all of the complicated issues that women face?  Of growing into a body that is objectified, oppressed, and sexualized; of periods and pregnancy and giving birth; of miscarriage and mothering, breastfeeding and potty training.  I secretly felt like God was probably limited in this area.

But wait–if I’m a woman, and I am God’s image-bearer, doesn’t God have just as many characteristics of the female sex?  Perhaps he is not as I, as many of us, have conjured him up to be in our minds–a Gandolf-like man, on a throne, sitting in an exclusive country club we call heaven.  Perhaps God is just as much woman as he is man.  Perhaps She is just as much a mother, as He is a Father.  Not 50% male and 50% female, not either/or.  God is and/both.

I heard a poem on a podcast recently that immediately made my eyes well up.  The kind of tears that come when you know you are hearing something profoundly true.  I really can’t stop thinking about it.  It is slowly changing the way I think of God, I think for the better.  I thought maybe you would like to read it also.

God Our Mother

To be a Mother is to suffer;
To travail in the dark,
stretched and torn,
exposed in half-naked humiliation,
subjected to indignities
for the sake of new life.

To be a Mother is to say,
“This is my body, broken for you,”
And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,
“This is my body, take and eat.”

To be a Mother is to self-empty,
To neither slumber nor sleep,
so attuned You are to cries in the night—
Offering the comfort of Yourself,
and assurances of “I’m here.”

To be a Mother is to weep
over the fighting and exclusions and wounds
your children inflict on one another;
To long for reconciliation and brotherly love
and—when all is said and done—
To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,
into the folds of your embrace
and to whisper in their ears
that they are Beloved.

To be a mother is to be vulnerable—
To be misunderstood,
Railed against,
For the heartaches of the bewildered children
who don’t know where else to cast
the angst they feel
over their own existence
in this perplexing universe

To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,
bearing the burden of their weight,
rejoicing in their returned affection,
delighting in their wonder,
bleeding in the presence of their pain.

To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,
And injustice the next.
To be the Receiver of endless demands,
Absorber of perpetual complaints,
Reckoner of bottomless needs.

To be a mother is to be an artist;
A keeper of memories past,
Weaver of stories untold,
Visionary of lives looming ahead.

To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,
And the first disregarded;
To be a Mender of broken creations,
And Comforter of the distraught children
whose hands wrought them.

To be a mother is to be a Touchstone
and the Source,
Bestower of names,
Influencer of identities;
Life giver,
Life shaper,
Original Love.

~Allison Woodard
Printed with permission

Happy Mother’s Day, friends.  We are loved by our Mother.


Hauling my family to church every Sunday is making me lose my religion

Let’s get a few things straight right at the outset, before we dive in.

I love my family.

I love God.

I love and appreciate my church family.

But I have to tell you that for me, attending church with  my family on Sunday morning has earned a place up there on my poo-list with Mondays, dinner, glitter, daylight savings time, and people who try to talk to me when I’m sleeping.

Let us first discuss the hellacious process of getting everyone ready for church, which in itself is enough to make me start raiding the communion wine.  There is the issue of what to wear.  Now, does God care what we wear to church?  Really, no.  Of course we know that the answer is “no”.  However, I do think it is my duty as a parent to teach my kids to dress appropriately for the place and situation in which they happen to be in attendance.  I fear that if I fail to do so, they will one day show up at a job interview wearing pajama pants and a stained t-shirt because nobody ever taught them that there is a time and a place for that sort of thing.  Obviously, we save our pajama pants and stained t-shirts for when we go to Wal-Mart, but I digress. One kid doesn’t want to dress up, which is fine.  We don’t insist on “dressy” clothes, but we do insist on no sweat pants.   Unfortunately, for my 10-year old boy “no sweat pants” is the same as “dressy” by default. So a “certain someone” is inevitably in a foul mood from the moment the sun breaks the horizon Sunday morning.  The girl doesn’t have as much of an issue with getting ready for church because she gets to wear a pretty dress and pretty shoes.  It’s really the main reason she goes to church, aside from the candy our children’s ministry puts in the “busy bag” they hand out to the kids before the sermon.  All that to say that by the time we navigate the “normal” morning mood swings, breakfast, clothing-related drama, getting everyone dressed and out the door on time, and have the “I don’t want to go to church– it’s boring” conversation, we usually arrive on the doorstep of our place of worship a little bit discontent, to put it mildly.

Then there is the issue of actually being at church with kids in tow.  Kids are super talented in that they can ruin anything.  Church is no exception to this rule.  When they were babies and toddlers we would put them in the nursery, which sounds like it would be a good thing, right?  Unfortunately, it turned out to be fraught with all kinds of worship-killing issues, such as separation anxiety, diaper blowouts beyond the scope of the nursery volunteers, feeding times, missed morning naps, and usually some kind of plague that they would acquire 36-48 hours after leaving.  Between the Sundays we missed due to our own kids’ illnesses and the Sundays we had to take our turn volunteering in the nursery, it felt like we hardly ever got to attend the service.   On the rare occasions we were all healthy, present, and able drop them both off in the nursery, Jeff and I would enter the sanctuary and sit there like abused prisoners of war who had just been set free out of a dark hole, blinking in the blinding light of freedom.  Those 45 minutes without the children tugging at us were less about spiritual growth and more about the free babysitting just taking a breather.

With the exception of those few times we were able to make use of the nursery when they were babies, I have not sat through a church service in over a decade without being interrupted every 4 minutes at a minimum.  Over the course of a typical worship service, I break up at least 3 arguments, play a rendition of musical chairs in the pew, field at least 3 requests to go to the bathroom (despite the fact that they both went before we got there), respond to 2 additional requests to leave to get a drink of water, fish at least one child out from under the pews, answer approximately 15 random questions that have nothing to do with church or God or Jesus or worship or anything remotely connected to what I am trying to concentrate on, and THEN–then!!–9 times out of 10 one of the kids will fart (always silent/deadly), thereby crop-dusting all of the poor unsuspecting worshipers around us.  It is exhausting.  And stinky.  And not at all conducive to spiritual growth of any kind.

We have tried many things over the years to try to foster our children’s love for God and their church community.  They love God, but Sunday church is not a fan favorite.  They don’t enjoy going, and because they don’t enjoy it, it is much less enjoyable for me.  I’m not sure how to walk the fine line between prioritizing church as a family without tipping over into legalism.  Or losing my sanity in the process.

This is not how I pictured it would be, of course.  I always thought we would be the kind of family that would be really involved in our church.  Not because I think that will win us any special favors in the eyes of God.  I know we are loved whether we attend church regularly or lay on the couch in our jammies.  But I also want my children to grow up immersed in a healthy faith community, where they will learn the importance of knowing others and being known, of giving and receiving, and where they can practice worship and service.

One of my good friends told me about her husband’s grandmother, who had 6 children.  On Sunday mornings she would take the older kids to the early Mass and the younger kids to the later Mass.  If the older kids misbehaved, she made them attend Mass a second time with the younger siblings.  Say what??  This woman is my hero.

So if you see me smiling maniacally at church on Sunday morning or stage whispering to my kids in the pew, now you know that I’m just white-knuckling my way through until nap time.  MY nap time, that is.  Pray for me.  Deliver me, Lord, from Sunday.


I had a very uptight, clenchy day at work today.  Most days at work are like that for me.  I come out of work sore, stiff and tired.  I am busy all day, and yet when it is over I can’t decide if my physical discomfort is from sheer exhaustion or from inactivity.  And then today I stepped out the door, out from under the fluorescent lights and into the sunshine, and I knew the answer.  I needed to run.

Some days I have to make myself run.  Some days my body cries out to me to let it run.  This was one of those days.  So when I got home from my commute I suited up and headed outside.  Our babysitter graciously agreed to stay an extra 40 minutes, a priceless gift.

It was hot out today, but there was a nice breeze to take the edge off.  And as I ran, I found myself savoring the little patches of shade along the road that would crop up every now and then, as I passed beneath trees.  It was at least 5 degrees cooler in the shade, and it felt like a treat, every single time.  I found myself slowing my pace a little in the shady parts, just to savor it a moment longer.

It reminded me of something I heard in church a little while back.  We were studying about the desert, and how God provided for the needs of His people in big and small ways, even in the harsh Palestinian desert.  The psalmist wrote in Psalm 121:

“The Lord watches over you–
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”

I have no trouble picturing a big, lusciously shady spot.  My husband bought me a big hammock last week and hung it up in the shadiest part of our yard, slung between our biggest tree and the kid’s swing set.  It is the perfect place because, no matter where the sun is in the sky, it is always cool and protected from the sun’s rays.  This is the sort of place I call to mind when I read Psalm 121.

However, I learned that in the desert lands of the Bible, shade tended to be scarce.  It is more likely that the shade the Psalmist was referring to was a much smaller patch of shade under a broom tree.  A broom tree is more of a shrub than a tree, in fact, but commonly found in Middle Eastern deserts.  So when the Psalmist speaks of the “shade at your right hand”, he is literally saying that the shade is just enough to cover him and his outstretched arm.  Just enough to give him a little break from the harsh desert sun.

Just enough of a reprieve from the harsh fluorescent office lights and the daily grind so I can breathe again.

I remember us talking about how sometimes God uses other people to be shade in our lives.  Sometimes, we get to be someone’s broom tree.  Sometimes a teenage girl watches your kids for 40 minutes, so you can run off the frustrations of your day.  Broom tree.  Sometimes it is a quick chat with a friend who really listens or who makes you laugh.  Broom tree.  Sometimes it is a good book, or a good nap, or a good cup of coffee.  All broom trees.  The thing about broom trees is they aren’t very fancy, or very big, or even very pretty.  But they are there, and they are just enough to meet the need for shade.

I spend a lot time thinking about how I don’t have enough. This is especially true when it comes to time alone.  There are just not enough hours in the day to tend to my personal needs for solitude and self-care, not with a full-time job and a family depending on me.  Can I start thinking of those broom trees in my path as “just enough”, instead of “not enough”?

When I got home, the babysitter and Nate were standing outside, knocking on the door.  Leah had locked them out of the house on purpose, because she was mad.  It would seem my time of solitude and reflection was over.  And…back to the grind. The shade was nice while it lasted.


Shades of Grey


I used to think I had my faith all figured out.  Maybe it is more accurate to say that I used to have religion all figured out.  I am, for the most part, a rule-follower.  This is particularly true when it comes to matters of faith.  I would have made an excellent Pharisee, back in the day.  I was raised Catholic, and the impression that I had growing up was that being Catholic is not just something that you are, but also something that you DO.  I was pretty good at DOING what I needed to do to be a decent Catholic.  My mother made sure that we attended a Catholic school, went to church regularly, and performed all of our sacraments as expected.  I went to confession, where I unburdened myself of as much of my Catholic guilt as any Catholic can reasonably be expected to let go of, temporarily.  Our community had a large population of Catholics with varying degrees of church involvement.  Those of us who attended regularly would shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the “Christmas and Easter” church-goers.

When I was in high school, I started attending a youth group at a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.  This was my first introduction to a Protestant church, and I loved it.  Instantly.  It seemed so different from the church I was raised in.  There was no mechanical chanting of the liturgy, no (overt) rituals.  We were encouraged to read our Bibles, study on our own, and the emphasis was on a personal relationship with God.  I threw myself into that.  It made me a very awkward high-schooler, but at youth group and church, I fit in.  I felt I had been relieved of what I perceived as the legalistic burdens that had been placed on me growing up in the Catholic faith.

Now, looking back, I realize that I didn’t really unburden myself of anything.  I let go of some things passed down from my Catholic upbringing, and exchanged them instead for a conservative evangelical worldview, which had its own set of standards and expectations, and its own brand of legalism.

Here is a confession.  Sometimes, I feel embarrassed to admit that I am a Christian.  Not because of my belief in God or Jesus, but because of how we as Evangelical Christians have (rightly or wrongly) become this caricature of ourselves.  Over the past two decades, the world around me has changed, church leaders have risen and fallen, certain societal issues have become hot buttons in the media, and I have been humbled as I have come face to face with my own legalistic beliefs, and my lack of love and understanding for people who  don’t share those beliefs.

I am not at all trying to say that the Church–Evangelical, Catholic, or otherwise–is inherently bad or wrong, or not worth being a part of.  On the contrary, I think the Church is filled with good people who are really trying their best to get it right.  But all of those good people are also imperfect, still learning, and still being shaped, and sometimes we get it wrong, either individually or collectively.  We want to label everything, put it into neat little boxes, maintain order, and have everyone follow a consistent formula that will add up to the sum total of our faith.  So when issues are difficult to categorize, we try to make them fit into a category.  Right or wrong.  Black or white.

For the last decade I have just felt confused about how to look at controversial issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, social justice, racial inequality, or gay marriage, through the lens of my faith in Jesus Christ.  I thought I knew how I felt about all of those issues.  But mostly I just knew what the well-meaning, imperfect people from my church upbringing had taught me about those issues.

I have spent years weaving the fabric of my faith out of black and white threads, only to find out that when I take a step back, it all looks grey.

I am making peace with the grey areas right now.  I think it is OK that they are there.  I think embracing the grey areas has made me a kinder, gentler person.  I am still working on the more militant, legalistic parts of me that pop up every now and again.

I think Jesus actually did his part to point out some of the grey areas, while he was here on earth.  I think of the woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery, when Jesus encouraged anyone in the crowd who was without sin to cast the first stone.  Also, he was a rule-breaker, wasn’t he?  Healing on the Sabbath, hanging with the bad crowd, getting the most devout people of the time all in a tizzy.

My worry is this:  when does this pondering and wrestling with the grey areas of my faith cross the line and become complacency, apathy, or a form of moral nihilism?  If I remove all those absolutes, get rid of the list of moral and religious “do’s and don’ts”, am I subscribing to a watered-down version of faith that I have designed to make myself less uncomfortable in the culture in which I live, or am I breaking through a barrier?  Am I embracing grace, or am I conforming to my culture?

I don’t have any answers yet, in case you were hoping I would have a closing paragraph that would bring clarity.  But I am interested in hearing comments from those who can identify with me and are willing to share!

Image credit:  rakratchada torsap at