Letter to a Middle School Parent

Mommas and daddies of middle-schoolers, I have to tell you something.

We pretend like the first day of kindergarten was the hardest first day.
We pretend like those tears we shed were just a one-time thing, and that it’s just because they’re so small and vulnerable.

That’s a lie.

Listen, we know how hard it is to send your vulnerable not-always-little guys off to a building with 1000 other vulnerable kids just like yours. It may even be harder than that time you discreetly wiped tears as your 5-year-old ran to climb the huge orange slide. 

Because so many of our 5-year-olds knew what they wanted out of life, at least that day, and that was enough. They were looking for fun, they were looking for knowledge, they were looking for friends. And many of them just knew that those things were waiting for them on that playground. That kindergartener knew that his answers were right, that her parents loved her, and somehow that friends would miraculously appear. Even if he wasn’t sure, you could be sure for him. You knew that, even if not right away, she'd make friends, letter sounds would click, and she'd do great. You may not have thought you knew that, but, you did. Deep down, you knew your kid would eventually learn to read, with very few exceptions to that rule. Sure, we worried, but we really figured it would all work out in kindergarten. But now, your sweet little boy or girl knows that school can be hard, and friends come and go, and that when they're gone, it hurts. She knows about insults and rumors. He is so unsure of everything, and nothing you can say can bring back that 5-year-old confidence you once admired. What's worse, is you no longer have that deep-down assurance. 

Like your child, your fears have grown. They're bigger and hairier and maybe even an octave lower. It's not a matter of "Will the other kids let him play tag?" anymore. Now it's school shootings, and bullying, and suicide, and sex. And even when it’s not those, it’s the right friends, and for your kid, the right clothes, and suddenly that’s a puzzle you can’t decipher.

Look away from that hairy fear. I want you to look over here at me, your kid’s teacher.
What you need to know is that we know. And we care. 

We know how hard it is. For you and your kid. 
We know what it's like to walk down those halls, lockers slamming, basketball players rushing past, girls snickering, and wonder what planet you fell onto, and how to survive. 
We may not know what it's like to watch your child walk through those big double doors, but we try to imagine (and some of us do know). 

We know which kids are quieter and have a hard time finding friends.
We know which kids are louder, but are really insecure.
We know they struggle with concepts that are beyond them for a time. 
We know they’re just trying to figure out who they are and where they stand. 
We know they’re stranded somewhere between kids and teenagers, a place our culture doesn’t acknowledge.

We know all these things because we care about them.
We care for them because we want so many things for them.

We want them to succeed.
We want them to be people who have compassion for each other, who not only see, but fight for the underdog.
We want to see them figure out that they have a talent for something, and how to make it grow. 
We want to protect them, and keep them safe from all types of harm. 

We will never care or watch as carefully as you do. Maybe that's good. This is an early step of the process to becoming an adult who does all of these things outside the view of his guardians. They have to learn how they will stand when you're not there. But, for now, when you're not there, they're not alone. They have us. Watching them, cheering them on, fighting for them to accomplish the challenges that necessarily are put in their way. 

You remember how hard it was to walk away from that small human that first day of kindergarten? It might actually be harder to drive away from a middle school, knowing what awaits them inside. But, just like back then, they have a teacher - or 6 or 7 - who is waiting for them with a smile, hoping to calm their fears and create a safe place to become the teenager they will soon be. 

One more thing. This letter isn't only for you. It's for me. See, we teachers are sometimes parents too. We see your kid walk in our room, and we see our own. This week, I dropped off a kindergartener and a middle-schooler, (and a 2nd grader for the first time in public school, and a 4th grader who hated public school, and a preschooler for the first time - momma's gonna need a good cry), and I had that same feeling of entrusting my very heart to another person each time.

Relax, mommas and daddies, myself included. They're in good hands. 
A middle-school teacher

Searching For Sunday Book Review

I was lucky enough to receive a preview copy of Searching For Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. Do you ever read something and think, "Oh my gosh. This is ME. This is exactly how I feel." Followed by the possibly-stalkerish thought "We should be besties," but maybe that's just me.

Rachel's words moved me to tears in so many ways. It brought up past and current hurts. It challenged me to see things in a different way. It pushed me to turn to Jesus when my heart is hurt, especially so when it's because of his followers. If you've ever wondered why so many American Christians spend so much time trying to one-up each other with "holiness." If you've ever thought that maybe we should put more energy into caring for orphans than opposing gay marriage. If you've ever been struck by doubt so heavy, you thought you'd never stand again, reach Rachel's book.

I've said for a long time now that I don't really care much for the stories of people who've never doubted. Not that those don't have value, they do. It just doesn't do it for me, personally. I want to hear about someone who not just stumbled from the lofty mountaintop of communion with God. I want to hear about someone who fell all the way down the mountain, tumbling, scraping, breaking bones along the way. Maybe they even turned to the sky and gave God the finger after that, wanting nothing to do with this Christian life. And then, somehow, found their way back to Him. Of course, they found His arms open wide. Those are the stories I want to hear. While that's not Rachel's story, nor is it mine (I'm far too afraid of smoting), because this story is so close to my own - the tumbling and scraping down the mountain, at least - that it is one I will return to again and again.

Rachel's book is centered around seven sacraments of the church. I thought I'd give a few of my favorite quotes, and explain its significance for me (all emphasis mine). Honestly, this is difficult because approximately half of my copy is underlined. But, I figure that wouldn't really serve the purpose of reviewing the book. I've chosen the quotes that impacted me, but I could have done this with quotes I feel are calling for a change in American Christianity. Maybe a blog post for another time.

"The people didn't have to go to God anymore; God was coming to the people. And God, in God's relentless love would allow no mountain or hill - no ideology or ritual or requirement or law to obstruct the way. Temples could not contain a God who flattens mountains, ceremonial baths a God who flows through rivers. Repentance, then, meant reorienting one's life around this reality. It meant repenting of the old ways of obstruction and joining in the great paving of the path, in the demolishing of every man-made impediment between God and God's people, and in the celebrating of God's wild uninhibited presence filling every corner of the earth. It meant getting baptized in rivers and getting out of God's way. After all, with enough faith, a person can move a mountain . . .  even a mountain of her own making."

photo cred: Michelle Ziegler 

As one raised Southern Baptist, I understand the importance and beautiful symbolism of baptism. To this day, one of my favorite songs is Washed by the Water by Needtobreathe gives me chills and brings me to tears (they must be Baptist too, they have a real focus on baptism and rivers). But, this idea that baptism changed from a ceremonial bathing of feet to a anywhere-declaration of love and commitment moved me. As one who's built up mountains of theology, opinions, mistakes, doubt, and failures, I needed to hear this.

"We Christians don't get to send our lives through the rinse cycle before showing up to church. We come as we are - no hiding, no acting, no fear. We come with our materialism, our pride, our petty grievances against our neighbors, our hypocritical disdain for those judgmental people in the church next door. ... We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed the masks and exhale. We come to air our dirty laundry before God and everybody because when we do it together, we don't have to be afraid."

Ruth Meharg illustrated each of the seven sacraments with birds. They are all gorgeous. Check them out at: http://society6.com/ruthmeharg

This sacrament is wholly unfamiliar to me, as a sacrament anyways. But the idea that we are here to be real with one another, to help one another, to hold one another up and share our trials, doubts, and difficulties is home to me. It's why I write. Funnily, I feel free to be that broken self everywhere except the church. That's something I'll be working through for awhile to come.

"But the gospel doesn't need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, 'Welcome! There's bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk!' This isn't a kingdom for the worthy; it's a kingdom for the hungry."

photo cred: Ashley Hamel

This section meant a lot to me; I already wrote a blog post about it. Yet, there's still so much more to say. I used to have a lot of food issues. I used to not drink alcohol because I thought it was bad. Over the last few years, I've gradually let go of those things, so the practice of communion really speaks to me - carbs and wine, no guilt! Just kidding. Mostly. More than that, it's the practice of being real. I believed, from as young as I can remember, that church is the place you put on the fake face for all the people watching - side effect of the fishbowl of being a PK. I still get anxious when I invite people to my house, thinking they'll be judging every tiny thing (What is that stain on the wall? Is there no jump house at this birthday party? Wow, those kids are LOUD. Why does this dish smell like socks? etc). The idea of communion being a place to invite people to see the real you (which, for me, sometimes requires a little wine), in your home, and you let them be themselves. That makes my heart lift with hope for the church more than anything else.

"No matter where I went to church, I realized, doubt will follow, nipping at my heels. No matter what hymns I sang, what prayers I prayed, what doctrinal statements I signed, I would always feel like an outsider."

"No step taken in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new."

photo cred: Stephanie Baldwin Tresner
When I was younger, I was wholeheartedly Southern Baptist. I was Baptist Faith and Message, baptism by immersion, communion once a quarter, Sunday morning/Sunday night/Wednesday night, Republican, anti-feminist, all of it. As I began to question and shed some of these things, I began to wonder where I belong, if anywhere. That first quote hit me hard. I wasn't alone in my feelings, but I still felt - feel - like an outsider. And yet, denomination doesn't matter between me and God. My confirmation rests in the fact that I want to follow Him, wherever that leads, a denomination or not. My beliefs will be based on my communication with God, and no one else's, and God will honor that.

Overall, this book is about how we need church, and we don't have to find it under a steeple. We can find it in so many places, and that building with the cross high in the sky is just one of many. "Even when I don't believe in church, I believe in resurrection. I believe in the hope of Sunday morning."
photo cred: Julie Provost

I received a free copy of the book to read and review. All opinions here are completely my own. I received no compensation for this review. You can buy the book at most bookstores or at: http://rachelheldevans.com/searching-for-sunday

Take Me To Church

It may or may not surprise you, but this pastor's wife did not worship at church last Sunday morning. I think I literally heard 2 words: "The Cross..." and could not get my voice to sing a single word. My throat was too tight with tears.

But I did have church.

At home. In my bathtub. With the blood of Christ, a full worship band (on Pandora), bath salts named "Heaven," and teaching from Rachel Held Evans newest book, Searching For SundayAnd this was exactly what I needed. Today. 

Let's back up to what was essentially an abysmal Easter morning. Scott had to leave at 6:30 am because we're a vagrant church in the process of changing buildings, and things didn't go as planned, so we ended up with no building to worship in on Easter Sunday, and ended up having our Easter service in a park.

To quickly sum up, I didn't help my husband on one of his biggest work days of the year, I yelled at my kids, I didn't get to wash -much less curl- my hair, we were late because I shaved my legs, I was given the stinkeye and a reprimand at church when I tried to walk quietly to the back during prayer (which I was actually taught to do - walk while eyes are closed, but is, apparently, a whole thing), was called out for not singing during worship (whispered out? I don't know.), and I forgot extra clothes for my son being baptized. I was a mess before the second song finished. 

I stood separate from the service, thankful that my freckled skin gave me an excuse to move to the shade. I thought about how the church is where I feel most judged. How I put on my fake face at church more than anywhere else. How I'm more honest with 7th graders than I am with the people that I call my "church family." How I grew up living in a fishbowl, and somehow willingly jumped into another one. How church really stresses me out - getting kids ready, looking decent, saying the right things. Keeping the kids from running rampant through the building, answering questions I'd rather not, smiling and nodding. I wonder what people think of me, and if I'm honest, it's because I'm judging too. Wondering why someone lets their kid do something, or why someone thought that outfit was a flattering choice. Most of the rest of the time my motto is "to each her own" and "whatever works for you!"and I try to rein it in, but I feel so open and vulnerable, and (again with the honesty) wounded, by the church in general that I default to that nearly every time.  I was convicted that I need to "judge not, lest ye be judged."

That's my boy, getting baptized in full Easter attire. 

I made it through the service, then did the whole family dinner thing, the egg hunt thing, the clean-up thing, the pack-up the kids thing, the late Easter basket thing (because dad left crazy early), the promising to play with outside toys tomorrow thing, and the bedtime thing. 

Then, I went to church. 

As I read Rachel's section on Communion, I dissolved into tears. She was describing an experience giving communion to each and every person at a youth retreat - nerdy, cool, athletic, needy, white, black, chaperone, student. God welcomes us all to the table. She said, "This is Christ's body, broken for you" to each and every one, over 300 times. We are all welcome at God's table, as we are. No need for new dresses and shiny new shoes. No need for clean hair or shaved legs. No need to fix all your doubts and insecurities first. Just come to the table. "Communion has a way of flattening things out like that, a way of entangling our roots and joining our hands." - Rachel Held Evans

We need the table. We need the church. Rachel quoted Norah Gallagher, "On those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what to do about Communion." We need the experience of family around the table. I have always felt that my favorite time with my kids is dinnertime. I've never been able to pin down the reason, but it has something to do with intentionally looking at each other, sharing the same experience, and stopping everything else that swirls around us in our busy days. Rachel (she responded to a comment of mine on Facebook, so I'm taking liberties and saying we're on a first-name basis) discusses how communion doesn't have to be the wafer and grape juice, but can be the casseroles and desserts we bring to families, or the spaghetti dinner that lasts well into the night, discussing God, life, parenting, school, work, and all the myriad other things affecting our lives. 

I discussed with Scott right away about how to bring more Communion into our lives. I feel like I'll be able to open up more in my own home, over pasta, brownies, and a bottle of wine. Perhaps that vulnerability (will people notice the stains on the walls? the broken couch?) will push me to remember the way I really feel - to each their own. That experiment will be underway soon. How do you have Communion?  

Also, a full review of Searching For Sunday will be on the blog next week! Look for it! If you already want it, you can preorder and get free gifts! See www.SearchingForSunday.com for more details. 

I cried at yoga.

I cried at yoga tonight. 

I held back tears for a good twenty minutes, and then, at the end, she had us do that starfish thingy, and said to lean your head back "to open up your throat chakra," and that was it. Tears streamed down my face into my sweaty hairline. 

I cried because I was too fat. Too fat to make my body do the things that I wanted it to do. 

Now, anytime a woman says she's fat, someone says, "You're not fat!" even if she is. Which is nice. But unnecessary. I mean, I know I have quite a bit of excess weight. I'm overweight. Obese, even. Thing is, I'm really, truly ok with that word. It's something I'm working on, something I want to change, but it's a fact, and it's ok. Further, the same decisions that made me ok with that word, are also part of what brought me to my current weight. I'm ok with that too. 

What was not ok was that I love doing yoga, and all it did tonight was bring me shame. If it wouldn't have been even more embarrassing, I would have packed up my mat, put my shoes on, and walked back out. 

But I wanted to do yoga tonight. I wanted the feeling of working hard and stretching my limits, literally and figuratively. I just couldn't do much. My belly and my legs had too much fat on them to allow for room to bend the way I want them to. 

So I cried. 

Then, I wiped my tears discreetly (geez, who cries at yoga?!), and walked out.

I texted a friend, who (sweet soul) called immediately, and I couldn't answer because I was in the middle of the gym daycare.

I went home, got kids into bed, and myself into a bath. 

And then, a funny thing happened. I realized that I didn't go home and eat chocolate, or brownies, or ice cream, or pie - all of which exist in my house right now. I had carefully poured the glass of wine I had planned for, and took it up to my bath. I lit some candles. I chose silence to process my emotions better. I didn't even want to do the thing I've done every other time I've felt bad about my body for the last 15 or more years. 

That is BIG. 

Even more, all through the twist-your-arm-around-your-back-and-grab-your-other-hand-under-your-thigh mess, I had been embarrassed for the way my body looked, and embarrassed for the way it did not move, but I did not berate my body. I wanted to, a little bit. I even tried. But my heart wasn't in it. I simply did not want to talk to myself that way. 

That is HUGE. 

So, it seems a little anti-climactic that I cried in yoga, then went home and took a bath, and decided three things: 
  1. I'm going to make better choices when I eat, to lose that fat that inhibited me tonight.
  2. I'm going back to that yoga class to keep improving.
  3. I'm going to keep doing the things that make me love my body.
It might be anti-climactic, but I think it's evidence of a truly healthy mindset that has been missing in my life for a really long time.