Spring Break Sardines

I’ve mentioned before that our bathroom has some… issues. Some of the difficulties include loose tiles and poorly organized plumbing. As part of 2013’s rallying cry of MAKING THINGS HAPPEN at home, we were tentatively planning to address these things before they would become full-blown problems. Unfortunately, these problems popped up too soon and intersected with my Spring Break in a way that meant I didn’t get to do any of the things I planned (and boy, did I have plans), and it meant that my bathroom looked like this…

bathtub…right before hosting a bunch of family members for the second half of Spring Break. Luckily, we have the sort of family that is not scared by frugality and DIY projects, so they felt sharing a half-demolished bathroom between eight adults and one toddler was not problematic in any way. Or at least they were gracious enough to hide any disdain they may have felt. And since I’d just written a post declaring homemaking is about the gospel, not about socially constructed ideas of hospitality or decorating, I didn’t have any room to complain about this being embarrassing.

The first round of company was cousins from Wisconsin. They arrived in time for dinner and we shared a snack of fresh cheese curds and hot tea while we waited for the Michigan crowd to arrive in the wee hours of the morning. 

cheesecurds

When the Michigan relatives finally made it in town, we discovered a little someone (our 18-month-old niece M) thought this extended car trip provided a great chance to stay up as late as she wanted. Much to Aaron’s delight, she was very excited about the deer head on our mantel and made up some hand motion to express her devotion. She holds the great honor of being the only person Aaron allows to pet the deer. She also felt 2:00 a.m. was a great time to check out his fish tank. The word for fish in her toddler language is “Bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo.”
Maria Fish TankNow in a toddler’s mind, after a late night there is nothing better than rising with the sun for a few rounds of the classic game “Take the stuffed animals out of the basket and line them upon the furniture” with Aunt Abby. It was nice to get a little morning time alone — we plotted some great excursions for future summers of Aunt camp.  Maria CollageWe spent the rest of the weekend crammed into our tiny house like sardines, which resulted in lots of opportunities for the time-honored tradition of Aaron wrestling with his younger brother Jack.

Top: Emma, Jack, Aaron, Caroline. Bottom: Bruce, Jack, Caroline, Aaron.

Top: Emma, Jack, Aaron, Caroline.
Bottom: Bruce, Jack, Caroline, Aaron.

Jack roasting a Peep in the fireplace.

Roasting a Peep in the fireplace.

Maria sharing her books and toys with Aunt Kallie

Maria sharing her books and toys with Aunt Kallie

This visit was full of eating, lounging, laughing, talking, shooting/shopping, watching favorite YouTube movies, warming up by the fire, offering awkward marriage advice to the engaged couple, and not much sleeping. This was such a great way to end to an otherwise disappointing Spring Break week, and we miss everyone. It will make for lots of driving, but having THREE sibling weddings this summer will give us plenty of time to spend with these folks in the coming months, too. I’m looking forward to it already!

Vander Port preparations!

“I don’t think you should get your hopes up for this wedding dress trip, Mrs. Hummel, because I have two sisters just like you and I’ve gone shopping with them both before.  I don’t think there is anything fun about it. You’re probably going to be really disappointed.” – a nine-year-old boy in my piano studio.

My first Sabbath of Lent started off with a sudden burst of tears. While I scrambled eggs before church, Aaron showed me a meteorologist’s report indicating a big snowstorm for the end of the week, and said I should prepare myself to make a hard decision about my weekend plans: driving (solo) to Michigan for a special day of wedding dress shopping for my sister Bethany, who is getting married in July. I knew Midwestern road trips in February were never a sure thing when I put this on my calendar, but facing the reality of a predicted blizzard in an area not known for decent road conditions was entirely disheartening.

Almost everyone I know heard my tale of woe during the week, and many faithfully prayed this trip would work out for me. With three sibling weddings coming up this summer, extra time to visit and prepare for the big day(s) are a luxury, so it is likely this dress shopping trip would be my only time to celebrate with Beth before her nuptials. This was it! The trip HAD to happen! And then my prayers were mercifully answered with a very light snowstorm so I could travel safely. This probably came at the expense of children all over my county who hoped and prayed for a snow day from school. I hurried through the local library and grabbed some random audio CDs off the shelf to keep me company on the road.

I listened to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua during my drive. I cried when she spoke of her sister’s cancer diagnosis, and it made me so glad I was going to spend this weekend with my own sisters. After I arrived and recovered from the car time, my mom and all three of us girls spent a long Saturday shopping for a wedding gown. We watched Beth start off nervous and quiet, (probably overwhelmed by thousands of yards of lace, satin, taffeta, ruffles, ruching, sparkles, and appliques)  transforming through the day into a confident, comfortable, well-spoken Bride – with the perfect dress to match! I wiped a few tears when she first wore it. Grandma had to stay home nursing an injured knee cap, so we took secret forbidden iPhone pictures for her.

After all this hoopla, we ended our Saturday with a party celebrating the engagement with both sides of the new family. Now that she’s engaged to Isaac, Beth is marrying into a family of our old home-school friends. (Aaron and I even went to college with the oldest brother and his wife.) During the past ten years of friendship we’ve all known we would somehow become related, since “they have boys and we have girls,” and we have called ourselves “The Vander Ports,” a combination of our last names, for years during our movie nights and beach parties. For a while it wasn’t clear where the romantic connection would eventually happen to bring brother-sister friendships into an official capacity, but Beth and Isaac are finally making good friends into a big extended family. We made plans for the wedding and swapped stories, laughing until we cried on more than one occasion.

vanderports

The Vander Ports (minus Caleb) — best wedding party ever! 

Then I cried a bit when I had to leave on Sunday morning. We chose to move forward with Aaron’s PhD knowing that this career was not ever going to bring us back to the same towns (or state, probably) as our families, but it’s really draining that the current distance requires such sacrifices to get back and forth. During that long trip back, I listened to A Mighty Heart by Mariane Pearl, and I sniffled along with her tale of love and sacrifice, losing her husband Danny at the hands of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan. My story isn’t the same as hers, but she hit me hard; I was very ready to be home and celebrate that my husband was alive. When I arrived, I found Aaron working on a project in the garage. He says it is an A-frame playhouse for our future kids. I think it looks suspiciously like a chicken coop, which he recently mentioned was legal in our neighborhood.

chicken coop Oh, my!

(It seems like there was altogether WAY too much crying over such a great weekend, no?)

learning forgiveness

Hardship brings with it an unwelcome guest that stays much longer than the original suffering: a new and unfamiliar set of personal-connection tools. Life difficulties are hard not just because of the initial situation, but also because moving through dark suffering changes relationships and the way you interact with people, whether you like it or not. I was just marveling at how grief is not a one-time experience but an ongoing spiritual journey while managing an internal battle with myself, processing a bunch of recent conversations that were really hard and hurtful for me. They were challenging not because there was anything wrong with the others involved, but because I have suffered and then because of this I am different. Healthy, encouraging, refreshing relational connections for me happen under a very different set of rules than they might for someone else.

[Image credit HERE]

[Image credit HERE]

I live in the real world, and I am blessed with people all around me, so I connect with many others for work, fun, church, ministry, and community projects. Sometimes this blessing is a challenge to my heart – all this connecting means that, by default, I have to do a lot of forgiving. And it’s forgiving for things I can’t ask an apology over, wiping clean my heart’s slate of these very real offenses that will never be recognized as such by anyone else. I’m in the middle of a huge chunk of this right now. It feels like I have been doing this for a long time, and it is easy to grow quite weary.

But natural weariness isn’t the defining factor here; I’m a Christian, which means the gospel is always relevant to my life and there is supernatural strength accomplishing what I cannot. I read the Psalms and know God’s mercy is over all that He has made. So I have to remind myself these moments of salty-wound-rubbing and salty-tear-spilling are all covered by that mercy, preaching to my own heart that this is part of why the Lord has compassion on us, why he suffered and saved. His clemency is entirely superior over any of these perceived wrongs, and I need it extended to me even more than to any of this stuff going on around me. His mercy is over me, and them, and those flippant words, and the abundance of flippant words I’ve carelessly spilled, and my sadness, and all this every-day experience of the Fall.

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.
The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. 
The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. 
The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his work.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever.
-Psalm 145, esv. 

listening in the wilderness

I feel strange about taking Lent seriously this year because, on the surface, I’m mostly participating on my own. This isn’t something my church (or even my husband) is observing, and so I find myself feeling a little misplaced. I know many people in evangelical circles might argue against Lenten practices like extra church services, fasting and “giving things up.”  And regardless of one’s stance on observing liturgical seasons, every Christian would agree that faith is an internal work of God, not external, not of ourselves. I believe there is much value in traditional celebrations like this, because corporate expressions of faith that spring out from the genuine belief of individuals are a strong witness of our Christian unity and devotion. And though the people I spend my day-to-day life with aren’t really walking on this road with me, I’ve found encouragement that I am actually not alone. Since this Lent thing is something many Christians all over the world are doing right now, too, by setting aside a few weeks as a significant season of prayer and repentance in my own life, I’ve found common ground with friends and family who worship in a variety of traditions and styles very different from my own.

One of my dear Lent-observing friends, Bethany, is a treasure all her own. We met when I was leading her freshman bible study in college and really hit it off over some cookie-baking in my apartment. I always felt those bible study girls taught me more than I ever hoped to teach them, and my friendship with Bethany consistently reminds me of this unexpected blessing. I continue appreciating her beautiful articulations of faith and life, especially recently while reading the same copy of the Bible I used when we studied together, rediscovering profound “Bethany Kj” commentary scribbled in the margins.

While she blogs occasionally about teaching, literature, food, church, and having a cool apartment, Bethany agreed to share some “serious” reflections about Lent here. Her thoughts on this topic began at a young age with the traditional soup dinners and extra services at her Missouri-Synod Lutheran church, and today she finds Lent observance as an encouragement in the midst of weariness and brokenness. In reading this, I found myself thinking of the seventh chapter in Romans where Paul talks about wrestling with the “body of death,” which is what we do during Lent, and praises God that the solution is in Jesus and the resurrection.

“Thoughts on Lent,” from Bethany Kjergaard.
My earliest memories of Lent are sense memories. I remember the smell of the soup for the communal supper before the service (I didn’t eat soup, too picky). I remember the early darkness. We would arrive to church at twilight, and we would leave just before my bedtime. I remember snatches of the liturgy we sang (“let my prayers rise up like incense before you”). The hymns we sang during these Wednesday night services were much more melancholy than the ones we sang on Sunday morning. The services were much shorter too.

As I grew older, Lent became one of my favorite seasons of the church year. Last year I don’t think I missed a Lenten service (and I really don’t like going to church all that much). I think I treasure Lent because normally I feel that I’m supposed to pull it together for church each week. We are exhorted to be joyful in the Lord. Most Sundays I’m surrounded by happy, smiling people. Not so during Lent. During this season I can take the time to be grief-stricken at my sin and my hard heart. I don’t have to “fake it until I make it.” Rather, I can look around me and see that I am broken and the world is broken. As a Christian, one of the most difficult things is looking at the world around me and realizing that while Christ came and was resurrected and lives, it often does not seem that he has made much of a difference. We still have wars, poverty, and famine. The universal church does a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. Time marches onward.

I’ve been reading different meditations on Lent and what this season ought to mean to us. One of the most powerful comes from St. Benedict, and it is the idea of the New Adam and the Old Adam. Old Adam fell and was cast out of paradise into the wilderness. Humanity wandered in this “wilderness” until the New Adam (Christ) journeyed out into the wilderness to bring him back. Lent is recognition that although our path has been made known to us, we are still in the wilderness, the darkness of this world.

I think the darkness of the church during these services made the biggest impact on me. It was very dim with only the altar candles lit. Bernard Clairvaux commented that sin entered the world through sight (Eve being tempted by the beauty of the fruit), but salvation comes through the hearing of the Word. Darkness certainly obscures sight, but it cannot stifle sound. Lent is a time that allows me to admit that I am fallen, in the wilderness, in the darkness and yet despite that I can listen.

giving up

A little over a week into Lent, I’m surprised at how scattered my thoughts about self-denial and repentance remain. I suppose it’s not a very fun thing to think about. At least with the other “big” Church season of Advent, we prepare for the revelation of Word made flesh while planning holiday menus and anticipating the spiritual experience of getting loads of loot. Not so with Lent! For nearly two thousand years, Christians have spent forty days in repentance and self-denial preparing to observe the most extreme series of events in human history: Jesus’ undeserved betrayal and gruesome death that make way for the eternal victory of His resurrection.

It can be rightly said that this is a special season of grief for sin and brokenness in ourselves and the world, and turning away from these things back to God. Of course we should seek repentance at all times, but that doesn’t make Lent irrelevant. There is much to gain in approaching this corporately and systematically — or, to use the evangelical lingo, “in community” and “intentionally.”  Compared to our full observance of Christmas (and sometimes Advent), we evangelicals tend to tend to sweep Lent and Easter under the rug. Perhaps this is further evidence of our own brokenness, indicating that we don’t always take the the death and resurrection of Christ as seriously as his birth.

My thoughts and convictions on this topic are still not fully formed, but mostly my point here is that these forty days are a special time of examining my own heart and orienting myself more fully towards the gospel. In giving up small things – this year, it’s sleeping in past six o’clock and using the computer after dinner – I’m more aware of how much I hang on to and how much Christ gave up for me. And I’ve failed at one or both of these things every day. This teaches me even more about my own rebellion and powerlessness, and how much I must cling to God in all things. I want Lent to be a big deal because these tangible experiences help break me out of my own fallen perspective and emotions. Rightly understanding my own state of helplessness and defeat is the only way I can rightly understand what the gospel means. In Lent, when I turn my heart towards sorrow for sin and grief for all that brokenness has wrought in my life and the world, I gain a deeper understanding of St. Paul writing: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!” and the traditional liturgy stating: “Thus we proclaim the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again!”

Though “giving up something for Lent” alone is meaningless, with a contrite heart the tradition of fasting and denial teaches us about surrender, sacrifice, and salvation. These lessons are profoundly valuable. I’m glad to be observing Lent this year, because I know in “giving up”  little things  to make room for greater devotion to God, I’m learning more about giving up entirely.

“…whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 10:39, esv.