How to Waste Your Life and Call it Beautiful

football throw pillows

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

 

When the baby of our family was born over nine years ago, I had a seven-year-old and a four-year-old.

With seven plus years of motherhood under my belt, I’d learned a few lessons about letting go, chilling out, and realizing that it’s all going to be okay. In light of this hard-won Zen version of myself, I decided to enjoy my third baby like nobody’s business.

I would not fret. I would not pursue unnecessary work or projects. I would bask in this last brief season of babyhood and love on my darling boy whose very name means “mercy.”

Mercy. That’s what he meant to my husband and me.

For a very long season, I assumed that I wouldn’t have another baby. My marriage had almost ended. I was working full-time. Life was terribly messy.

And then, it wasn’t.

God breathed compassion into our story. Our third child represented the underserved gift of new life for our family and I resolved to enjoy his babyhood in a way that my angsty, younger-mom self wasn’t able to do with my other children.

Today he is a curly-headed, third-grade boy with a perfect sprinkle of freckles across his nose. He’s much too big for me to carry and he talks like a teenager, compliments of his older brother and sister.

curly head

I’m sure his babyhood seemed like a long stretch of time when we were in it — short nights, ear infections, teething, smeared pureed food in his hair. I can barely remember those episodes now. What I do remember is that I received that short season of my life as a gift.

I devoted myself to adoring him.

Much of my life’s work up to that point seemed irrelevant. My education, my career, all the books I’d read, the ambition I’d cultivated — I didn’t technically need any of those things to be an adoring mother.

Sometimes I wondered if I’d wasted the gifts I’d so earnestly stored up.

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I’ve been many different moms over the last sixteen years. Grad school mom, part-time working mom, full-time working mom, homeschool mom, stay-at-home mom, work-from-home mom, single mom.

I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten it quite right.

As I look back across my story as a mother, the one chapter that feels most “right” to me is the one I just told you about — that one to two year season when I cherished my last baby with lavish intention. I did not call it wasteful. I called it beautiful.

Lest you think I’m someone who believes motherhood is my highest calling and the one thing I was put on this earth to do — I assure you, I am not that person. Though I’ve always longed to be a mother and I was over the moon about each one of my babies, reconciling family with personal ambition has been one of the greatest struggles and missions of my life.

Since I was ten years old, I wanted to attend law school right after college. I majored in the right things. I took the LSAT. But at the age of 22, I arrived at a painful conclusion — a career in law didn’t seem very compatible with raising a family. Not for me, anyway. And just like that, I veered from what I’d always wanted to do. It’s hardly a tragic story. Instead of law, I pursued and enjoyed college teaching.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Sometimes I’m still sad I didn’t go to law school. That doesn’t mean I regret not going. It simply means that my heart continues to beat strongly for the kind of work I would have loved.

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Over the holidays I was at a retirement party for one of my husband’s colleagues. I had the loveliest time chatting with an acquaintance of ours who’s been a happily-practicing attorney for many years. I asked question after question about his work — why he loves it, if he’s glad he went into law, etc. I told him that I’d always dreamed of being a trial lawyer. He told me I should still think about it, that it’s not too late.

The whole way home and for weeks afterward, I did think about it. I’m still surprised at the way that longing can show up unannounced and just linger for a while.

But the reality is this — I have chosen other things.

Though I have worked and still currently work, I have chosen family over full-time work and my own aspirations — even though family life hasn’t {and still doesn’t} come naturally, even though motherhood doesn’t pay well, even though it sometimes feels like a waste of intellect and resources, even though others may say it’s the less than sensible choice.

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Recently I came across a story about another woman who made a less than sensible choice, a woman who “wasted” the resources she’d earnestly stored up, a woman who devoted herself to adoring someone in a way that confounded the more knowledgeable people around her.

The setting is a dinner party. And after the dinner was over, this woman took a pound of perfumed oil and anointed the honored guest, going so far as to let down her hair and wipe the man’s feet with it.

That honored guest was Jesus. The woman’s name was Mary. The imported oil in an alabaster jar was worth a year’s wages.

Can you imagine the awkwardness? An awkwardness that was quickly followed by scoff, scorn, and even contempt. Sure, it was an expression of love and honor but did it have to be so wasteful?

roses

Other guests made the point that the perfume could have been sold and given to the poor.

My own knee jerk reaction was that it could have been rationed out more sensibly. Surely Mary could have saved it in order to provide for herself and for others.

But Jesus didn’t say any of these things. Instead he asked the others to leave her alone and he called her offering “beautiful.”

Whether Mary realized it then or not, Jesus would die in a matter of days and this was her one opportunity to honor him with scandalous devotion.

As she was pouring out the perfume and wiping his feet with her hair, she was actually anointing her beloved Jesus for his burial.

My throat caught as I read this commentary on the story:

God’s people are expected to remember the poor … But Jesus came only once in history to die for his people. Only on this occasion would there be this opportunity to honor Him as He should be honored. 

This moment was not about the poor, it was not about Mary’s rights, and it was not about human sensibility. It was bigger than what anyone could see. Mary’s sacrifice and devotion was part of God’s purpose for her life, for Jesus’ life, and for the redemption and renewal of the world.

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receive my life bracelet

Though I’ve given up on law school, I still long to pursue full-time work that overflows from the core of who I am. And maybe one day I will.

But my real life in this season of teenagers and sports and three different schools and community and work — well, it looks like delivering left-behind lunches, supervising math homework, avoiding the laundry, lamenting the dailyness of dinner, refereeing, running a taxi service, cheering from the sidelines, teaching life lessons while driving my minivan, and giving up on any semblance of work-life balance.

At my worst or even at my average, I can begrudge all of this because a.) it’s mundane and repetitive, and b.) it can feel like a misspent life.

I really did not want to write that last sentence because it sounds awful. But it’s where my human heart can land on any given day.

And that’s why, when I read the story of Mary and Jesus and the perfume, I came a little undone on the inside. Truth and beauty lodged themselves within my spirit and I’ve walked a little askew ever since.

While I may not have Jesus in the flesh at my dinner table tonight, He is always my companion. And He tells us that when we provide for the physical needs of those who depend on our care, we’re also demonstrating love and devotion to him.

wedding

This isn’t a post about career vs. family. It’s not even a post about motherhood. Not really. It’s about receiving our right-now lives as a gift. And that looks different for each of us.

I’m learning that in each season, I have to prioritize the roles that only I can fill. Only I can be my husband’s wife and my kids’ mom. There are other things God also calls me to do right now but I always return to this question:

Who needs me more right now? {For someone who doesn’t love to be needed, answering this question is more discipline than it is default.}

Sometimes only you can be the one to earn a paycheck or contribute to your family’s livelihood. Only you can be the one to take care of an aging parent or an adult sibling. Only you can be the one to help your grown child through a long season of crisis. Only you can be the one to love a difficult student in your classroom or a neighbor who has no one else.

I write from the intersection of my own season and circumstances but this story could be told a million different ways.

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What sacred devotion have you been given for this season? Who needs to receive what’s in your alabaster jar?

Only you and your people can answer this question.

It’s easy to worship at the altar of public opinion or even at the altar of sensibility without realizing that you’ve been taken captive. Modern narratives can be sneaky like that. I’m absolutely guilty of imbibing what sounds good instead of drinking from Truth.

I’m also guilty of looking at what others are doing and then feeling like a failure by comparison. In feeling left behind, I sprint to catch up — only to find that I’ve left my own people behind in the process.

window

Straying from devotion probably comes naturally for most of us. For me, the key is coming back to the presence of Jesus and surrendering to the call of right now.

Today. These people. This season. This work. This devotion.

When we’re running hard toward our hoped-for life, we miss the sacred gifts of the right-now life.

Mary only had Jesus for a brief moment and she did the scandalous instead of the sensible. By everyone’s standards, she “wasted her gift’s purpose.”

Do you know what Jesus said in that moment?

Why are you giving this woman a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives, but not me. When she poured this perfume on my body, what she really did was anoint me for burial. You can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she has just done is going to be remembered and admired.  – Matthew 26:10-13 {The Message}

I don’t know what your life looks like today but I can tell you this. Jesus says your daily offerings are important even though they might seem wasteful by others’ standards.

I’ve lost many years’ wages. I’ve “wasted” years of education. But I only have this one window of opportunity to love my people well right now {while maintaining a semblance of my own sanity.} I’m learning that the teenage years require an availability and energy level that surpass the little years. I’m sorry if you don’t have teenagers yet and that sentence just ruined your day.

Like Mary, we have a brief window to overflow with the specific kind of devotion that each season requires. It probably doesn’t look like anointing someone with expensive perfume and suffering public humiliation in the process. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t costly. Service is costly. Forgoing your own desires in order to equip and love another person is always costly.

Maybe other people won’t get it. There will be days when even you don’t get it. Will you believe Jesus over public opinion and even over your own opinion? He says your right-now devotion is beautiful, that it’s a proclamation of the Gospel, that it’s a unique and sacred part of God’s purpose for you, for those you love, and for the world.

{And then will you turn around and repeat this truth back to me? Every day, I seem to forget all over again.}

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Earlier this week I was hustling out of the grocery store with bags of food that have since been devoured. The strangest awareness washed over me right there in the parking lot.

cheeseboard bfast

I get to do this. I get to do all of this. And it’s bringing me joy — not all the time, but at least for today. Dear God, only you could work this sort of miracle within my stubborn heart. Thank you. And keep doing it. 

One day I won’t be needed in this way but now is not that time.

I want to receive this fleeting season as a gift in the same way that I received the long ago baby season as a gift.

I want to look back on this one, merciful opportunity and call it beautiful.

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You may also enjoy:

How a 92-year-old Woman Taught Me the Real Value of my Right-Now Work

How to Pursue Your Hoped-for in the Midst of Your Right-Now Life: A Series


 

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Why Compassion is the Answer to a Messy Christmas

compassion christmas

How I talk to others is usually a barometer for how I’m talking to myself. And by others, I mean those living in my own house. I am highly skilled at being polite and kind to friends and acquaintances. But the filters come off when I’m in the comfort of my own home and I allow the inner critic to have its way with me.

I’ve been measuring my worth by external markers again. Which means I’ve been measuring others by external markers too.

My house is chaos. Therefore I am chaos.

It’s December 14th and a tree isn’t up for the second year in a row. Therefore I am bad at making Christmas happen.

Relationships under my own roof are hard right now and I’m to blame for plenty of it. Therefore I am a hypocrite and a terrible person.

This child cannot get his / her act together and perhaps never will. Therefore I am a terrible parent and he / she is a terrible child.

You get the gist. I look around at all that is unwell and blame myself. While also, somehow, blaming everyone else. Christmas is a time of generosity and there is just an abundance of blame to pass around!

It has not been the most wonderful time of the year. And while I write this, I am under the quilt because I have the flu.

{Raise your hand if you’re inspired yet by this heartwarming Yuletide post.}

JOY

I’m hardly the first one to say it but there is enormous pressure to get the Christmas season right. Even though Pinterest is not the boss of me, I subscribe to some sort of invisible magazine of expectations and I am the editor. Even though I am all about grace and receiving your own life, December — with all its expectation and obligation — never fails to turn me into a crazy person. I’m my own worst enemy.

Between the Advent readings {we’ve done 6 out of 16} and the gifting and the shopping and the buying and the events and the decorating and the memories we’re supposed to be making, I can’t do it all {on top of real life} and stay well.

I actually get giddy over Christmas. I love traditions. I love presents. I want to create a special season for those I love and give to those who suffer. And this is quite a lot to squeeze into four short weeks. It’s probably why I’ve wanted to skip Christmas, this most beloved holiday of mine, the last three years.

I want to skip Christmas because I’m tired and when I look at this season, it doesn’t look like Jesus. It looks like striving.

When I consider Jesus coming as a baby in the dead of night, hustle and overspending and overscheduling and killing myself isn’t what comes to mind.

Jesus is rest. He is peace. He is fullness. He is compassion.

And compassion always begins with kindness toward myself. At first that sounds like some modern selfish mantra. But it’s not. If I can’t personally receive the lavishness of God’s love and grace, I am hard on others like I’m hard on myself. And that has been terribly true lately.

As Charles Spurgeon wrote long ago,

It is no use for you to attempt to sow out of an empty basket, for that would be sowing nothing but wind.

There has been no compassion in my basket. I’ve gone about my days, sowing out of sheer effort and grit. And it shows up most in my demeanor and in my relationships.

Getting the flu has been a blessing in disguise. I’ve been able to read and reflect, to meditate and sort of rest, as much as a mom is actually allowed to rest. And in this time of stillness, God whispers this message to my weary, walled-off heart:

Calm down. Be compassionate. First to yourself. Then to others. Quit being so demanding and measuring your worth by all the wrong things. And then quit being so hard on those you love and measuring their worth by all the wrong things. I did not come to condemn you, but to love you. And when you begin to believe that I love you just as you are and not as you want to be, loving others just as they are gets a little bit easier.

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Each year, I’m in a different set of circumstances during Advent but the theme tends to remain the same — Christmas is not what I expect it to be. I expect it to be a little more worthy of admiration than it typically is. I struggle to receive my own life, even at Christmas. Especially at Christmas.

I know this because I’m a writer and the words of Christmases past tell me so. I am both comforted and disappointed by the fact that I’ve never quite gotten it “right” by my own expectations.

In the midst of a house that’s still unsettled with unpacked boxes and unpainted walls —

In the middle of Advent and still no Christmas tree —

In the middle of growing-up kids who often bring out the worst in me instead of the best —

I long to speak with compassionate language toward myself and others.

These words by Father Gregory Boyle have given me much to ponder because indeed, the Lord does often come disguised as myself. And it’s always when I come to the end of myself that I see Him clearly for who He really is, a God of boundless compassion toward all who are needy and long to receive the life and love he brings.

Out of the wreck of our disfigured, misshapen selves, so darkened by shame and disgrace, indeed the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves. And we don’t grow into this — we just learn to pay better attention. The “no matter whatness” of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy.

~ Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

 

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This Christmas season, maybe you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and your efforts.

Or maybe you’re like me. And you feel a little bit like a disaster.

May your own flawed and failed humanity be the unlikeliest portal to find Christ Himself, who loves you in whatever condition you may find yourself. May the “no matter whatness” of God be still your spirit in this hurried season. And may his lavish love spill over and run like a stream into the lives of those around you who are thirsting for it.

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This post is one I unwrapped from the 2015 archives. Guess what? The boxes may be {mostly} unpacked but not much else has changed. My heart may forever need this message of compassion each time December rolls around.

Grace and peace, my friends.

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Keep Calm and Remove Some Lettuce: 5 Ways to Stay Merry & Bright This Holiday Season

merry-and-bright

I’ve already started making THE LISTS and decorating the house in my mind. I’m giving my calendar the evil eye and she’s giving it right back.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

If I sound like Scrooge, rest assured, I LOVE this time of year. I love everything but the stress. {Much of which I bring on myself.} Somehow we have turned the holidays into an Olympic sport and I don’t want to resort to cupping just to get through the marathon of it. I want to savor it, to slow down, to sink into the comfort of my home and my people.

The overwhelm began to tap me on the shoulder last week. Instead of making more lists and running around restoring order, I decided to stop and think and write. This post began as a letter to myself but it turned into something for all of us.

If you want to savor this season instead of stressing your way through it, I hope that one or two of these permissions will help:

 

1. Don’t try to cram too much into a small space.

Here’s what right now begins to feel like if I’m not mindful: a fast food salad.

So many veggies are crammed into the plastic bowl that when you remove the lid, it’s like the lettuce is spring loaded. And if you want to add dressing and croutons and toss it up a bit? Well, I hope you enjoy eating your salad directly from the table and floor.

Fast food salads stress me out. They’re full of yummy things. But they’re crammed so full of good things, you can’t enjoy the actual salad.

Don’t be like Wendy’s, cramming an entire head of iceberg lettuce into an 8-ounce bowl.

If your to-do list feels out of control, it’s time to remove some lettuce.

If looking at your calendar makes you break out in hives, it’s time to remove some lettuce. Reschedule all possible appointments and coffee dates to January. Or later.

JOY

If finding all the perfect gifts brings on a migraine instead of joy, it’s time to remove some lettuce and find a simpler way.

The world doesn’t need the martyr version of you during the holidays. They need the relaxed version.

Repeat after me. “Lettuce stay sane this season.”

 

2. Don’t neglect what keeps you centered.

For me this means two things. {Three if you include coffee.}

1. I have to get my heart rate up and sweat a few times a week or I’m mean to the people I love and get even more anxious than I already am.

2. I have to eat spiritual food. This means me and God’s Word.

Sometimes — okay, often — I try to go without it because I’m “so busy” and I’ll get to it later. But this is like trying to get through the day or a series of days without eating actual food.

Going through my day without spiritual food is like slow starvation. I become a shell of who I really am. I’m malnourished. I’m misguided. I am figuratively nibbling on candy and junk and wondering why I feel terrible.

It’s taken me decades to realize this but God’s Word is my food. It keeps me anchored and nourished. And just like actual food, you have to get up the next day and eat again.

If this sounds like disciplined drudgery, let’s remember that food is awesome. Jesus tells us that He’s the “Bread of Life,” not the “Kale of Life.” {Hallelujah.} This means that time with Jesus can be a feast for your soul.

There are other practices that center me and reset my anxious spirit, like being in nature or finding a quiet place. But over time I’ve found that sweating out my anxiety and being with Jesus are the biggies.

MI walk

For you it may be yoga, baking, taking a walk, opening up a book, or locking yourself in the bathroom so that your body can have an actual break from tiny people touching you. I’m sorry I can’t stop them from yelling “Mommy” or sliding their fingers under the door. Maybe your centering thing right now is a babysitter in the middle of the day or a hefty dose of kids’ movies on Netflix.

 

3. Outsource and say “yes” to help.

Get someone to clean for you before the holiday season. Buy up a bunch of frozen pizzas, lasagnas, or burritos to make things easier. Give teachers gift cards or chip in for the class gift instead of coming up with something adorable {and time consuming} from Pinterest.

Buy the pre-made sugar cookies for your kids to decorate.

Order gifts online in your pajamas. Target is super fun but the traffic, the people, the end-caps with the holiday candles I can’t stop smelling — I’m just not mature enough to be there very much during the holidays. Also I have a teensy problem with road rage so it’s best that I stay home.

receive my life bracelet

My sanity means my family’s happiness. And my happiness too!

I can promise you this. Your people would rather have a fun-loving, even-tempered you instead of everything on their Christmas list. If this means a smaller holiday budget so that you can actually enjoy this season by ordering take-out and getting your house clean, well, I think that’s a happy trade-off.

And if your life stage or circumstances are more overwhelming than normal, I beg you to accept any and all help that is offered. Don’t let pride, shame, or self-sufficiency rob you and others of the gifts of grace, generosity, and mercy.

 

4. Honor your Sabbath.

Take a nap. Don’t cook. Or do if cooking is the thing that feeds your soul. Sink into a book or a movie. Linger over dinner and save the dishes until much later, after you’ve had a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

God doesn’t want us to rest from everyday work and rhythms because He demands our rest. He gave it to us as a gift. We don’t have to rest. We get to rest.

tea on the screen porch

Again, this looks different for all of us but it’s a gift I’ve begun to anticipate all week long.

Recently I instituted a break from all things digital {except movies because I’m not crazy} beginning Saturday evening until Monday morning. It was glorious. And weird. I had to fight the compulsion to check things — e-mail, social media, etc. That compulsion let me know that my brain and my spirit desperately needs regular breathing room.

Listen up all you weary souls, we need a real break from all the input. And from all the output. The end.

 

5. Remember the way of Jesus.

Recently I read two little verses in John 6 that I can’t stop thinking about. The people were all in a tizzy about their works. They crowded in around Jesus, fully expecting for Him to load them up with right answers and lists.

“What must we do to be doing the works of God?” they clamored.

Jesus replied  with a simple answer that surely bewildered them all.

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.

That’s it.

Belief is the “work.”

We could unpack that a great deal. Because while belief is simple, it is not easy and it’s definitely not benign. But that’s not my point.

My point is this: The Jesus Way is always a simpler way. 

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We load up our faith with lists and He tears them up.

We load up our salvation with works and He tells us that believing in Him is the work.

We load up our holidays with events and musts and comparison. He reminds us that He came into the world in the humblest of ways — as a helpless, human baby. I can’t think of a simpler way for the Savior of the World to make his entrance into the world.

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We’ll be prone to forget all of this in the coming weeks of busyness, me included. When that happens, simply come back — to your centering practices, to your rest, to your simpler ways, to Jesus.

We’ll all remove some lettuce and begin again.

As we sink into this week of giving thanks, please know how grateful I am for all of you who join me in this space. I get the feeling that you’re as weary as I am from all the “shoulds” and lists. I know that your right-now life is messy and that it feels like someone hit pause on your “hope.”

Let’s un-pause our hope together, shall we? Your right-now life holds unexpected gifts to unwrap. Let’s look for them. I’m so glad to have you along.

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New here? I’m all about helping you recapture the possibility of your right-now life.

If that sounds like something you need, sign up in the box below to receive fresh hope and possibility delivered to your inbox no more than a couple of times a week.

And I have a gift for subscribers:

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If you’re overwhelmed by the many educational options for your kids, if you’re curious about the most important questions to ask, I have a FREE resource created just for you!