The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center
The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center

Traditionally, today is the saddest day of the year for our family. Barring any major tragedies during the year, the third Monday of July breaks our collective heart open and grounds us back into reality. It is our first day home from Family Retreat.

As I was packing last Saturday, I posted on Facebook that we were headed to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and I wasn’t talking about Disneyland. La Casa de Maria Retreat Center is a perfect gathering place, nestled in the hills of Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, CA. Even Oprah thinks so. One of her favorite vacation homes is just a few miles away. The weather is a perfect 75 degrees most days with cooler nights. The fog rolls in off the Pacific Ocean to blanket your morning walks and prayers, but burns off before lunch to warm the rest of your day. Ancient trees soar overhead; a creek trickles by and gentle wildlife surrounds you.

For one week each year, our family, along with dozens of others, gathers for what has frequently been described as a glimpse of “Heaven on Earth.” From Sunday evening until Friday at noon, there is Sabbath and there is God. From the moment of arrival, we are new family, Family Camp 2013 gathered together in the spirit of Love. There is neither catholic, nor protestant, sinner, or saint, leader, or follower, woman, or man, married, divorced, or single. In this holy place, we are “all in all” in God. One man, a Christian pastor and new to Family Retreat, looked at me after a few days and said, “This must be a bit like heaven. Look at the abundance.” And it’s true. There is an abundance of Love, of food and laughter, rest and activity, fun and friends (who quickly become like family). There are ideas to fill your head and stories to change your heart. There is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit at work, though the name of God is not on every tongue. What need is there for words, when actions speak so much louder?

At Family Retreat, everyone belongs. Older children care for younger and the young care for the old. Technology is mostly missing and as a result, parents, teens and toddlers engage with each other and move beyond their comfort zones. Children roam free on the acreage, independent, but safe under the eyes of dozens of concerned adults.  IMG_0060_2There is no speaker-driven lecture series, or one set of answers. There is no prescribed set of Bible verses, as interpreted by one pastor, or faith tradition. There are stories told, personal truths shared, music played and a multitude of gifts and personalities on display. A volunteer team of returning families does their collective best to present a new theme each year, a framework of ideas about God and Christ and Love and how to become better, stronger families, more able to survive and thrive in the world and the many pressures it applies to us all. Instead of breaking us apart, Family Retreat teaches us how to stay together and hopefully gives us the courage to return to our “other” homes and live out our heavenly values there, for the other 360 days of the year. It gets harder and harder as time goes by, which is why so many families return year after year.

Apart from what it feels like, Family Retreat is also heavenly in the sense that it is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. We celebrate the best of each tradition, from the Catholic mass to Protestant music, liturgical and free-form prayer. We gather to be one Church and to worship God, focusing on what we have in common, instead of what could divide us. And just like heaven, Family Retreat welcomes all types. IMG_0094Though there may be a few “angels” among us, most of us are just real human beings with too much flesh and a lot of blood, coursing through our veins. We have dreams and disappointments, joys and sorrows, demons we struggle with. We are unique, but we share a belief in the creative power, healing presence and ability of Love to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. We trust that Love will never fail to do its work, if we are present and open to it.

One of my favorite songs is U2’s “Walk On,” a song about the end of a life and a soul’s journey to heaven. They say Heaven is “a place that has to be believed to be seen.” Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria is one of those places. No matter how often we tell other people about our second home in Montecito, no matter how many times we invite them to join us, very few have ever accepted the invitation. They simply can’t believe such a place exists, or that they would feel comfortable there. Perhaps they prefer the security of the Law to the messiness of Love. Perhaps it is simply a matter of logistics, or maybe, just maybe, it sounds too much like a cult whose Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking.

IMG_0040Let me assure you, there is no Kool-Aid, just Minute Maid fruit punch and Coca-Cola products in the cafeteria drink machine. There is a swimming pool and a tennis court, a consecrated chapel and a Peace Garden. There is a ping-pong tournament and a talent show. There are family meals, but no dishes to do. There is farm-fresh produce and home-grown wisdom and this blog is my invitation to you. Come and see for yourself how average men and women, children, old and young, families, big and small, can find a glimpse of “heaven on earth” by the grace of God and the power of Love.

If you’ve experienced Family Retreat, use the comments area below to share your stories, or memories. Help me spread the good news!

I grew up in a big church community and by big, I mean really big – something like 3,000 families – and Catholic families at that, with a minimum of three kids, but more likely four or five, or an occasional eight. The church sat over a thousand people and most of the services were standing room only. There were a dozen communion stations and a hundred pews. There was big music and an even bigger Jesus behind the altar. In my young mind, everything about that church shouted, “Alleluia.”

On any given Sunday, there were babies crying and toddlers whining, old folks coughing and parents shushing, but it didn’t matter. A thousand voices raised in song, a thousand voices saying, “Amen,” a thousand pairs of knees hitting the ground in unison drowned the distractions out.

That church community was a second home to me. For eight years, I went to school in the shadow of the church steeple and on Sunday mornings, I was back under it for mass and then over to the school gym for doughnuts. You don’t spend that much time in a place without it leaving its mark on you, for better or worse. Thankfully, in my case, it was virtually all for better, but there were a few things I had to unlearn and a few I am still unlearning to this day. The biggest of those was that size matters.

Because my church was big, I developed an unspoken belief that bigger was better, at least as far as faith communities go. Why pray alone when you could pray with 30 classmates, 300 schoolmates, or 3,000 other parishioners? Why sing solo if there is a choir to sing with you? Why go your own way when you could join a parade already in progress? If one was good, two was better and it grew exponentially from there. For someone who struggled to fit in, I liked the safety of being one little piece of a very big pie. I felt like I was part of the in-crowd, part of something powerful, universal and true.

When it comes to community and solidarity, there is power in numbers. A big church means you are doing something right, doesn’t it? The prevailing wisdom is that if you are getting people in the door, contributing and singing along, you must be preaching a mighty fine gospel.

When I grew up and left my hometown, I spent many years trying to duplicate my childhood experience. I wanted big and loud and joyful and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a part of who I am and what I like best in just about everything from church services to family dinners to birthday parties. But looking back on it now, I see that what I really wanted was to be a part of a church that was part of a scene and I cringe to think how I scorned small churches, with their cassette-tape choirs and single-service schedules. Surely, I thought, they should just give up.

So it is with great irony (which I often think is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work) that our family has found ourselves drawn to a small church community and by small, I mean really small. There are only a few rows of pews, a tiny, but valiant choir and a single service each weekend. But from the time we first walked in the door, Tim and I felt like we were home. The message is loud, the personalities are big and the spirit is joyful. The mission is Love, inclusion, equality and service. It has moved us towards greater humility, compassion, social justice and a lived experience of gospel values. Over time, this community has taught me that size doesn’t matter as much as I thought, but I’ve never quite shaken the feeling that my kids were missing out on a crucial experience of being a part of something big. There is no “safety in numbers” for my kids at this church. Keara and Finn are the only two teens in regular attendance and Molly is one of a half-dozen elementary schoolers. The saving grace is that everyone there knows their names and that is something you just can’t get in a big community.

But I witnessed something at church last Sunday that helped me see in a new light why bigger isn’t always better. It was the First Communion for five of our young members, which is about half of all the children who attend the church. It was exactly like my First Communion and yet totally different. Each child was dressed in her, or his finest. They were surrounded by parents and godparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They walked to the altar timidly, but eagerly. Cameras flashed, videotape rolled and the priests smiled, but that is where the similarities ended. When I received my first communion, I went to the altar with 70 of my classmates. I was one member of a big, white, satiny army and besides my family and friends, hardly any one there could have picked me out of the crowd.

Not so for the little ones this past weekend. The priests blessed each child by name and praised them individually in front of the community for their hard work and unique gifts. Each child was welcomed to the table as a beloved child of God, which we were reminded, we all are. Each child received a gift from the community that reflected their greatest passion, which we hope they will use in the service of others. There was no safety in numbers, no anonymity for these children. Instead, as I looked around at our community, I saw love and gratitude in every visage for the precious gift of these children and my eyes filled with tears and I thought, This is what smaller can do.

Smaller makes us more aware of each and every person and more grateful for each and every gift. It makes us more cognizant of what we have to lose and the part we play in the outcome of everything. It’s hard to remain anonymous in small.

So although I long for my kids to experience what it feels like to get swept up in the movement of a youth group, or a mass of two thousand, I know they are getting something else that is valuable. They are getting called by name. Their unique presence is cherished. They are both receiving and being a blessing each and every time they show up.

Our culture likes to super-size everything – from movie franchises to mega-churches. If some is good, then more is better. I know I always go for the 42 oz Diet Coke instead of a 12 oz can. I love my weekly trip to Costco. More for less? Sign me up! But the last few years have taught me that although bigger is sometimes better, smaller can also be sweeter. There is a beauty in both that I can appreciate more now than ever before. And if at some point, our budget, or time, or church community ever gets expansive again, I won’t be totally relieved to lose the intimacy I have known in these smaller spaces.

Last Sunday, Keara saw a personalized license plate and said with a smirk on her face, “You know mom, Mother’s Day is coming up. What if we got you a plate that said COOLMOM. Would you use it?”

Now, lest you think my daughter actually believes I’m cool, she doesn’t. It’s our little inside joke.  We recently saw a play together where a “cool mom” showed up. In the first act, a tour group leader was taking attendance. When he called out, “Mom,” a dorky, fanny pack-wearing woman stepped out of line, threw her thumbs up like Arthur Fonzarelli, gave a couple serious hip-thrusts and said, “I’m not a mom; I’m a cool mom.” I almost died laughing, as my kids rolled their eyes and looked at me. Like the woman on stage, I’ve been known to rock a fanny pack on occasion. It’s cutting edge fashion.

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But in all seriousness, I think I’m a middle-of-the-road cool mom. It’s not like my kids particularly want to hang out with me, or introduce me to all their friends, but they don’t avoid me either. I am good for all the typical mom things, plus I surf and keep a stash of candy in my car. Those are bonuses to be sure, but I also dance and sing in front of their friends too often.

This week however, I got a new label at a book club meeting. Many of the parents were sharing stories about how stressed out their teens were and how hard they have to work to keep their grades up. I share their pain, or I did until one dad complained that he didn’t know how his daughter got anything done between Twitter on her IPhone and The Kardashians on TV. On impulse, I shared our strategies and then, I wished I hadn’t. For Keara, there is no TV during the week; all tech gets checked in at 10pm, phones and computers included and if a grade falls below the agreed-on standard, there’s no Itouch, or laptop until it comes back up. Keara might not like the rules, but she gets them. She knows tech is the distraction. It keeps her from sleeping, studying, and socializing with real human beings. We don’t look at it as a punishment. We look at it as a way of helping her manage her responsibilities. When she is managing fine, she has all the freedom in the world. When she isn’t, we help her out. For my contribution to the conversation, I got labeled, “The Mean Mom” by the host, and I’m not sure she meant it in a good way.

How funny is that? I am the “Cool Mom” to my kids and the “Mean Mom” to my peers.

Just last night, at a school open house, a dad made a comment about his 16-year-old son who is really giving him a hard time and rolled his eyes towards K, assuming we were in the same boat. I told him we were doing pretty well actually.

He looked almost disappointed. “Do you want to trade with me?” he asked.

“Naw,” I shrugged. “We’re good.” And I woke up this morning thinking about why that is.

I think it’s about balance. My friend at book club might be a little too lenient. She didn’t have the stomach for a fight with her precious little girl, so she had let her run her own program. But other parents are too tough, too fixated on their own point view. On book club night, a dad and I were talking about our girls. When he heard that Keara was interested in music, art and fashion design, he said, “My daughter wants to go into fashion too.” I thought we were about to bond on the best schools and internships we’d found, but he followed it up with, “but she’s going to engineering school.”

Oh. Well, that’s another way to go with your child’s dreams.

We’ve all heard that perfect love drives out all fear, so I am guessing that most of us love our children very imperfectly. It seems to me that we parent out of fear most of the time. We fear they won’t love us if we disappoint, or discipline them, so we let them spin out of control and run roughshod over us. But forcing our own agenda and point of view on our maturing kids is simply another fear-based method. We fear for their future and what other people will think of us if our kids don’t meet a certain standard of success, so we ram our plans down their throats. I’ve parented out of fear most of my life, in both extremes.

When the kids were small, I was the softy, which was tough on my relationship with Tim, but when Keara hit the teenage years, I became hard as nails, which was destroying my relationship with her. Thankfully, I got some good advice last spring that saved us all.

While on retreat in Santa Barbara, the director asked us to bring to mind a painful relationship in our lives and I thought of Keara and all the ways she was driving me crazy. I could find fault with virtually everything she did and didn’t do and I felt totally justified in my hardness, because I was just trying to make her better. As her mom, it was my job to help her grow up “right.”

I don’t know what I expected the director to say next, but it wasn’t what I heard.  She asked us to close our eyes and consider a simple series of questions: “How does this person see me? Who do this person think I am? Who am I in this person’s eyes?” She asked us to drop our defenses and see those answers as truthfully as we could. In that moment, I broke down and cried, because I was horrified at what I saw. Through Keara’s eyes, I saw judgment and criticism. I saw pursed lips and raised eyebrows. I saw a mama on a warpath, who said “I love you” with her mouth, but almost never with her eyes. And I saw our future relationship and it hardly existed at all. When given a choice, do we ever willingly spend time with someone who treats our hopes and dreams, talents and beliefs with so little respect, or appreciation? I came home from that weekend and apologized for parenting her out of fear, instead of love.

As her mother today, I want most of the same things for her I wanted a year ago. I want her to be healthy and well. I want her to be good. I want her to have self-discipline and drive. I want her to succeed in whatever she is passionate about. But more than anything, I want her to be loved. I want her to know she is beloved of me, of her father, of God. If she doesn’t know that, then she doesn’t stand a chance in this world. That is the one thing I could never fully communicate to her when I was afraid.

Fear made me want to “perfect” her. Love reminds me that she is already perfect.

One of the hardest things about parenting is coming to understand that Loving our kids doesn’t always mean what we think it does. When they are small, Love means protecting them because they are vulnerable, but as they grow, Love means being vulnerable ourselves. It means dropping our defenses and agendas. It means admitting when we are wrong. It means trusting in their budding self-awareness and helping them to become the best they can be, (which might not line up with who we’d like them to be). At the risk of sounding like a cliche, love means letting go, but we can’t do it if we are afraid. We can only do it  if we are in Love.

People can think of me as a cool mom, or a mean mom, but the one thing I want to be is a fearless one.

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Last year, I wrote about one of my favorite annual traditions: washing my family’s feet on Holy Thursday. It resonated with many of you and some even said they were adopting it as their own this year. For those of you who missed it, I am linking to it here, but I have to be honest, it almost didn’t happen this year.

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We are leaving for Mammoth today, so any foot-washing was going to have to happen a day early. It takes quite a bit of effort to create the experience and as of yesterday morning, I hadn’t done a lick of it yet. No songs, no letters, no time set aside. I started to rationalize: the kids are probably getting too old; they are so excited to go to Mammoth they will probably forget anyway; they would understand if I skipped it. But deep down, I knew. Nothing I needed to do was more important than creating this sacrament of love.

I was right.

Keara soaked up the moments, then hugged me tight.

Molly got tears in her eyes as we belted out her favorite song together.

Finn could hardly suppress his grin, saying “This is one of my favorite things you do.”

The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, said that of all the things the Catholic Church made into sacraments, he can’t believe they left this one out and I’ve got to agree. I hope that at least once in your life, you experience having your feet washed as a loving gesture, instead of a paid service, but I also hope you have the privilege of holding someone else’s feet in your hands and blessing them as Jesus did. It is a gift to both giver and receiver to be so vulnerable and to experience such intimacy and grace. This is sacred space. 

If they are honest about it, most writers want to say really important things, to have each story, paragraph and line convey something deep and meaningful. To be honest, I am one of those writers and my desire for significance frequently tempts me to say nothing at all. This week was no exception; I wanted to say something holy and  grace-filled as Easter approached, but I found my heart silent, until I saw this…

Since the video is five minutes long, I will keep my commentary short.

After morning carpool, I watched this video in my driveway and tears began to stream down my face. I don’t know why they came, but I have learned that when tears come unbidden, we are in sacred space. Our hearts are hearing a divine whisper and our body is responding in kind, but all too often, we shut it down and wipe them away. We actually run from the holy.

Poet Mark Nepo wrote, “Our ear is only a petal that grows from the heart.” What my ear heard in those five minutes, my heart loved. What my eyes saw, my soul celebrated. And as the crescendo played out before me and the children danced, I imagined the joy of this coming Sunday morning and the Alleluia choruses that will be sung the world over. I heard Rob Bell speak at USC last night on his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, and strangely enough, he spoke of Nepo’s truth as well. Real seeing, he said, “happens when our eyes and our heart are looking at the same thing.” 

Whether we celebrate Easter or not, we are like the symphony in the square. We each have our own instrument to play, our own voice, talent and energy. My hope is that you will use yours this Sunday morning as you gather with your people – whoever and wherever they are – in Starbucks, in church, or in the middle of an Easter egg hunt. Let your ear be the petal of your heart. See the flash mob of joyful, exuberant love that surrounds you. Be brave and begin like the cello player, setting the process in motion. Be aware of the miracle of it all. And if the tears come, let them fall where they may. You are in sacred space.

On the brink of a new day.
On the brink of a new day.

This blog is a departure from my usual storytelling and I hope you’ll bear with me. One of the websites I check in with frequently is Sojourners online magazine. They have a published a series of articles on the rise of “The Nones,” those Americans who don’t identify with any religion, or who would say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It has caught my interest and although I try not to get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, I have to admit this one’s got my number. I think it’s because I identify with both groups in some real ways.

Like many people I know, I stand in the gap.

As a Catholic Christian, I’ve watched countless friends and neighbors walk out of the church. Some linger at the door on their way out with a wistful look, wishing things could be different. Others hit the ground running and never look back. I understand both exit strategies and have been tempted to join them, but I haven’t, not yet. I am spiritual, but also still religious, albeit reluctantly so at times.

As much as I appreciate the conversations that are going on, we “religious” aren’t going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, by beating our breasts, or wringing our hands. The “nones” aren’t going to walk back into church, because someone tells them they should, or because it would be good for them.  Shoulds are rarely effective with adults and if churches were actually good for them, in some tangible way, the “nones” would still be there in the first place.

I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the “nones” is by becoming different churches.

DaringGreatly_final525In the New York Times best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown identifies a phenomenon she calls “the disengagement divide,” or values gap. It is the space between our “aspirational values,” those we claim to live by and our “practiced values,” the way we actually live. It’s the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The gap is inevitable, on both a personal and ecclesial level. But while the first one is manageable, the second is unwieldy to say the least.

On a personal level, we can take responsibility for the gap. We know that perfection isn’t possible, that we fall short each and every day. But if we are healthy and self-aware, we seek forgiveness and make amends. We get up and try again. Though it is a Sisyphean task, a majority of us strive to make the breach as small as possible.

Historically, institutional churches have not made that same effort.

I think it is the “disengagement divide” that the “nones” are fleeing more than anything. A few “nones” might have left the church because of bad music, or a lack of parking spots. A few more might have left because it wasn’t convenient, either to their psyche or their schedule. But I imagine that most “nones,” especially those who identify as spiritual, but not religious are leaving because “the disengagement divide” has become a chasm.

We call ourselves Christians. Right there in our name, we claim whom we follow, Jesus the Christ. That gives us a certain set of “aspirational values” to live up to. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but it does mean we mean have a lot to strive for. Above all, we have to love God and we have to love our neighbor as we have been loved by Christ himself.

Institutionally, we have not done that very well and we have not apologized very often, or taken the necessary steps to correct it either.

Instead, churches have created another sub-group: the “RBNS”s, who are “religious, but not spiritual.” Despite its best efforts, or perhaps because of them, religion has a way of becoming legalistic, of creating in and out groups, and when you are on the inside, it’s awfully tempting to let go of the struggle that true spirituality requires. Belonging to a religion can make it too easy to follow a list of rules and regulations and claim the perks that come with membership.

Spirituality on the other hand is a relationship, an encounter with the Divine that calls us to transcend this material world and the hold it has on us.  It asks us to go deeper. It is through spirituality that we struggle with despair and hope, love and fear, doubt and certainty. Journeying with the Holy Spirit in this way allows us to transform ourselves, our relationships and hopefully the world around us, in a way that mere religion can’t.

Ideally, churches are there to hold us while we engage in this life-long process, but when filled with members (or leaders) who are “RBNS,” our struggle is looked upon as a failure on our part. We are told we just need to “get saved,” or “confess our sins,” or simply trust that they’ve got it all worked out for us from a place of authority. If we would just fall in line, everything would be okay and if we can’t, because we are gay, or divorced, or want to talk about women’s ordination, or whatever is taboo in our religion, that’s when we head for the door.

I haven’t done so, not yet and it saddens me that so many of my peers and the younger generation have done so. I understand it. I am not surprised by it, but I think we will all be sorrier for it. Our churches get more rigid without the leavening yeast of youthful creativity, passion and resources. The “nones,” and the SBNRs relinquish the hard-won wisdom of their religious ancestors, forcing themselves to reinvent the spiritual immunizations that will keep their children mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in this difficult world.

I think it comes down to community, another word that gets tossed around a lot in these conversations. Churches are crying out, “You need us! You don’t think you do, but you really do!” The “nones” are shouting back, “I’ve got my own community, thank you very much and it’s way less hypocritical than yours!” There is truth in both of those statements.

We were made for connection and belonging. We need community to hold us together, to remind us of whom we are and what we are about, to lift us up when we falter and praise us when we succeed. Church communities can do that better than any other when the gap between their “practiced values” and “aspirational values” is small. When Agape is the operative word in theory and in practice, we see Church and Community at their finest. But when the gap is large, it can be the loneliest feeling in the world to be in free-fall, knowing that the people who were supposed to love you in God’s name are nowhere to be found and are perhaps even the ones who gave you a shove off the ledge.

I know there are churches out there that do it differently. I have read hundreds of comments from men and women who want the “nones” to know that their church isn’t like that, that they love with their whole hearts and work earnestly to welcome and include everyone: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, sure and not-so-sure. I’ve listened to sermons from their pastors, been witness to their diversity and cheered for the life-giving work they’ve done. I like to think my church falls into that category as well. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we have the word “Baptist” or “Catholic” or even the word “Christian” in our name, we are going to have an uphill row to hoe. Despite our protestations, we are associated with leaders who have not walked the talk and institutions that have allowed the “disengagement divide” to flourish for too long.

Though I’ve been on the ledge and even felt a nudge or two in the back, I’m not letting my “church” get rid of me that easily. I’ve benefitted too much from my religious background, education and traditions to let it go. My community is the church and the church is the people of God. I have far more faith, hope and trust in them as individuals and as a group than I do in an institution, whose leadership is charged with protecting tradition and the status quo.

Through his work as a community organizer, President Obama observed in Dreams from My Father that “communities are not a given in this country… Communities need to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expand or contract with the dreams of men” (and women I have to add).

I have big dreams for my community, the people of God, but I am pretty sure God’s dreams for us are even bigger. We have a garden before us, a plot of land to tend. I don’t want to fight against SBNRs, people who aspire to something beyond themselves. I want to fight with them to uphold the values that transcend our differences in religion, culture and language, values like Love, grace, beauty, compassion, mercy, justice and equality. I know that wherever those things are found, God is.

I am happy to tell you that Sojourners decided to use this blog as part of their Meet the Nones series. You can check it out here, and read other perspectives as well.

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 Let me begin my first post of 2013 by saying that I hate New Year’s Resolutions.  I never make them and I get uncomfortable when people begin to talk about them. It’s like talking to someone with a booger hanging out of his nose; it’s awkward and embarrassing for both of you. Personally, I can never find time over the holiday season to reflect on what truly needs to change in my life and how I am going to do it effectively and for the long-term. Who can think straight with eggnog, peanut M & Ms and sugar cookies at your fingertips? Companies don’t hold major strategy sessions in December. They hold parties and give bonuses! I try to be as kind to myself as I am to my employees, or would be if I had any.

 In that spirit, I am tabling any discussion of “resolutions” for a later date. Until then, let’s talk television.

One of my favorite shows of 2012 was “Homeland” on Showtime. If you haven’t seen it, let me summarize it briefly for you: Carrie Mathison, played by the fearsome Claire Danes, is a CIA agent, whose mission in life is to catch terrorists who want to attack her beloved USA. Carrie is tough, talented, insightful and excellent at her job. Carrie is also bi-polar, spotty about taking her medicine, and has recently undergone electro-shock therapy. I know it sounds crazy so far, but the writers make it work. The audience believes in Carrie, her insights and methods, because she is never wrong. When every Chief Knucklehead at the CIA doubts her decisions, or refuses to follow up on one of her leads, we all shake our heads in collective disbelief. Apart from willful obstinacy, why would you doubt someone who is always right?

Eric Deggens, a TV critic from Florida, named this phenomenon PDS: Persistent Disbelief Syndrome. He called it a cheap trick that good writers shouldn’t rely on. Its use isn’t limited to “Homeland” either. PDS is a mainstay of CBS’s “Elementary,” and USA’s “Psych,” among others. According to Deggens, there is no reason for characters who are so consistently right to be so consistently doubted. He concludes, “In the era of excellent series like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Homeland,’ why do producers turn, time and again, to the simple crutch of Persistent Disbelief Syndrome?”

I think I know why and I don’t think it’s a cheap trick.

PDS isn’t just a storyteller’s gimmick. PDS lies at the core of human nature. We doubt what we can’t see for ourselves, what we don’t understand, what we didn’t discover on our own. There may be exceptions to the rule, but they are primarily limited to scientific principles.

No matter how many times I am right about directions, my husband still doubts my ability to get us there. No matter how many times Tim predicts trouble when our kids start to wrestle, I let it happen anyway, only to have clean up the wreckage shortly thereafter. No matter how many times we urge our kids to put on shoes before they go outside to play, they ignore us, only to frequently hobble back inside a few minutes later with a stubbed toe, or a bee sting in their heel.

Nowhere is Persistent Disbelief Syndrome more prevalent than in our relationship with God. The Hebrew Scriptures are rife with stories of the Israelites forgetting who Yahweh is and what Yahweh has done for them. From freeing them from slavery to sending them manna from heaven and water from a rock, the Israelites continued to doubt that God will care for them. The New Testament shows that the followers of Jesus do no better. Though Peter witnessed miracles, healings and conversions, and even the transfiguration, he still jumped ship the moment Jesus’ story took a dangerous turn. The Apostle “Doubting” Thomas could be the patron saint of PDS (though we might call it Perpetual Doubt Syndrome in his case).

Over and over again, the scriptures ask us to “Be not afraid,” but that is easier said than done. Fear dissipates only where trust prevails and sometimes, it is really, really hard to trust God. How many loved ones have we lost before their time? How many once-cherished beliefs have been stripped away? How many hopes and dreams have been unmet, leaving us disappointed and lost? Those are ripe conditions for PDS to flourish. When someone consistently disappoints our expectations, credibility becomes an issue, even if he, or she is never wrong about the one thing

To avoid chronic PDS, I have to remind myself frequently that I can trust God about the one thing. I have not yet faced a situation I could not deal with, an obstacle I could not surmount, a hardship I could not grow and learn from when I have trusted in and aligned myself with the power of Love. But it is still hard.

“Love never fails,” a wise man once wrote; what fails is our ability to trust in that Love. And when we doubt, like Carrie’s coworkers on “Homeland,” all hell breaks loose. We go after the wrong target; we leave dangerous people in trusted positions; we make poor decisions based on our own limited perspective. Relying on our own imagination to decide what’s possible, what’s good and just in every situation, we are bound to screw up. But if we can get past our PDS and trust the Love that always seems to get it right, we’ve got a shot at saving our hearts, our lives, and maybe even our very homeland.

During this season of joyful noise and celebrating, shopping and baking, my Christmas gift to you is silence.

There is so much to be done this time of year, so many things vying for your time and resources. When I thought about what I would like for Christmas, I knew it would be less – less of everything – and so I thought the kindest thing I could do is not add my too-many words to your already busy schedule. We are taking a couple weeks off, but let me leave you with this image.

Christmas collageOur house looks like Buddy, the elf, came and decorated. Kiko and Finn think it’s a little much, but Molly G is in heaven. She sleeps in her Santa hat and her snowflake footie pajamas. She turns on every twinkly light in the house whenever she walks in the door. Whether it’s too much or just right, I don’t care. Her Christmas energy could power a small city and I know it won’t last forever. I am savoring her enthusiasm and joy.

To balance out the Christmas crazy, I sit still by our tree in the silence of the early mornings. I center myself in Love and remember the best Advent advice I’ve ever heard:

Be a womb.

It’s the only way Love can be born. IF we can be open to something new, IF we can bear the growing pains that come from being stretched beyond our comfort zones, IF we can promise not to rush people and circumstances into what we want them to be, instead letting them gradually become who and what they are meant to be, IF we can do all this, we will bring Love into the world.

That is my goal for the next month: to be a womb, a warm, safe, life-giving place where Love is born.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas collage

“Be a womb” is courtesy of Loretta Ross-Gotta from her essay “To Be a Virgin.”

If you do want more words, I have a few excellent suggestions.

The first is an sermon called “Pregnant Old Ladies and Other Signs that God’s Story is Better Than the One We Tell Ourselves,” by the lovely and amazing Nadia Bolz-Weaver.

Occupy Advent is on Facebook and they are delivering a daily dose of inspiration, which is witty, irreverent and spiritual. I am so glad I “liked” their page.

LORRI TIPPETT 6/1/1968 to 11/22/2012
LORRI TIPPETT
6/1/1968 to 11/22/2012

Our friend Lorri passed away on Thanksgiving morning. I didn’t write about it; I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t make sense of it;  it didn’t make any sense. One day, a healthy, 44-year-old woman is walking around, talking, laughing, loving. The next day, she isn’t. An aneurysm, a coma, a passing, and she’s gone and all the time you thought you’d have together, and all the plans you’d made are gone too. There was no story for me to tell. There was just sadness and the bare truth that life is too short and none of us are guaranteed even one moment more than the one we have right now. But at her memorial service on Friday, a story unfolded before me that I wanted to share, a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman, whom some of us were privileged to know.

The celebration of her life opened with the worship band from her home church playing a song called, “Strong Enough” by Matthew West. The lyrics go like this,

“You must think I’m strong/ To give me what I’m going through./ Well, forgive me if I’m wrong/ But this looks like more than I can do/ on my own./ I know I’m not strong enough/ To be everything that I’m supposed to be./ I give up. I’m not strong enough./ Hands of mercy won’t you cover me?/ Lord, right now I’m asking you to be/ Strong enough/ Strong enough for both of us.”

Having attended more Roman Catholic funerals than evangelical memorial services, I was shocked as the service began with this powerful anthem with its heavy drumbeat, but I was  immediately taken by the message and the power of music as it pulsed through the room. The song choice clearly acknowledged that her “celebration of life” was inextricably linked to our pain and loss.

As I gazed up at the stage, I caught sight of the drummer. Unlike the rest of the band, dressed casually in dark denim and tee shirts, I saw a flash of white and the slash of a dark tie. It took my breath away. I watched him keep the beat, strong and steady. With his eyes closed, he poured his heart and soul into playing that song. He wasn’t singing, but I knew this was his song. It was his prayer and cry. Up on stage, in the recesses of light, Lorri’s husband Todd played this anthem, finding the strength to make it through the next hour and hopefully the next week, month and year to come.

Todd and Lorri
Todd and Lorri

When the song was over, Todd stood up, put his coat back on and walked off stage to sit once again at the side of his son and his mother-in-law. There were more songs and poems, slide shows and readings and then Todd got up to speak. I don’t know how he did it, but we were all blessed to see Lorri through his eyes. She had been in real estate, selling dirt lots and dreams to countless families in the Chino Hills area. Todd captured the essence of what she did for him with that very same metaphor. He said, “She found me when I was a dirt lot and left me a million dollar man.” She was his coach, manager and cheerleader, but most importantly, she was his biggest fan. That was Lorri’s gift; she made everyone feel as if she were their biggest fan.

My children were no exception. Though the kids were emotionally and physically exhausted as we drove home that night, they would not have missed her service for anything. They wanted to go to show their love and respect for “Miss Lorri” and her family. Tim and I weren’t positive we should bring them, but we were so glad we did. Even in her absence, Lorri taught my children a lesson about the impact that even one life of honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity and faith can have on an individual, a family and a community around the world.

Lorri’s too-short life also taught me a lesson. While it isn’t practical to “live every day as if it were your last,” it is critical to live as if each one matters. As I go through my days, I find myself checking in:

Am I loving with my whole heart? Am I wasting time on things that don’t matter? Is my worry overwhelming my joy? If this day were my last, am I living it well enough?

That last question, more than any other, has become a transformative one for me. I don’t want to close my eyes on a day I am not proud of. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be good enough.

So thank you Lorri Tippet for the way you lived your life, the way you loved others and for all the lessons you taught us, in this life and beyond.

l.wXGtdiVVYDJXFmCw

P.S. “Strong Enough” was purchased on Itunes on our drive home. If you don’t know it, take a moment and check it out.

Goat Rodeo: about the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it. http://www.urbandictionary.com

Most mornings with Kiko feel like I’m at a Goat Rodeo. Today was no exception and unfortunately, no one walked away from it completely unscathed. She stormed out of the house to wait in the misty rain for her carpool; I went to check my computer. This is what I saw on Facebook:

Oh, if I had only known! But wait a minute. I did know. Though I hadn’t seen her midnight post (I go to bed around ten), I could tell from the moment she woke up that today was not a good day. It was her father who didn’t know and who brought this morning to such an unhappy conclusion.

Kiko has never been a morning person; adolescence has done nothing to improve the situation. The challenging curriculum at her all-girls prep school has only made it worse. She does homework until eleven or so and then takes an hour or two to unwind. Her alarm goes off (for the first of several times) at 6:30 AM.

Though I am a morning person, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations. I speak to her minimally. I am helpful when possible. I appreciate her good mornings, using those days to sneak in an extra hug, or kiss and chat about life. On bad days, I avoid her. I pack her lunch, pat her on the head and try to never, under any circumstances, overreact to her snide comments, deep sighs and tragicomical complaints.

Tim has no such compunction. I don’t know what got into him this morning, but as Keara lay on the couch, soaking up her last moments in a horizontal position before the incessant verticality of her day, he would not leave her alone. As the youngest child in his family, his internal switch is permanently set to “tease.” As the father in this home, he has a reasonable expectation for respect and response. While neither of these things are bad in and of themselves, (I appreciate them most of the time), they are not great in combination with an overly tired, teenage girl. I didn’t hear the details of their exchange, but he made one crack after another, which she either ignored, or “cracked” back, until she stormed out of the house.

Exasperated, I looked at him and he said, “I don’t know how you don’t engage when she is acting like that.” I started straightening couch cushions. “Don’t you think she’s being unreasonable?” I folded throw blankets. “Seriously, when someone is being such a donkey, how do you not try to get them to stop?” I began to rearrange the trinkets on the entryway table. He finally got it. “Oh, you do it just like you are doing it to me right now,” he said as he turned and stalked up the stairs.

Ugh. He caught me and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was frustrated at him for messing with Kiko, but I didn’t have to ignore him as if he were a cranky, petulant teen. I could have engaged in conversation with him about his concerns. I could have empathized with his pain and his desire to connect with her. I could have recognized that he only wanted to be a good dad, to make her laugh, to start her day on a better note.

But instead of acknowledging any of that, I was smug and if there is one thing I hate being, that’s it. Cathleen Falsani wrote one of my favorite blogs of 2012, called “Deliver Us From Smugness.” If you have time, you should read the whole thing, but one line in particular has stayed with me on an almost daily basis. She writes,

“The opposite of love is smug.”

She goes on to explain that “To be smug is to be excessively proud of your achievements and successes. Conceited. Arrogant. Complacently self-satisfied.”

This morning I was smug with the man I love. I was excessively proud of how I wrangle the Goat Rodeo that is Kiko and her morning routine, instead of humbly grateful that I have crashed and burned enough times to know when and how to walk away.

So Tim, I hope you’ll forgive my smugness. It is the opposite of Love and Love is the one thing I want to be, every day, in every way possible.

 

As per our family agreement, this blog was read and approved by both parties involved in this morning’s Goat Rodeo.