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 Taking the Time to Listen May be the Most Fruitful Way to Begin a New Year

beach-solitude

It’s the beginning of January, the season for all things self-improvement.

I spent the first Monday of the New Year not going to my exercise class and staying in my pajamas to bask in the quiet and solitude of an empty house. I set aside my work tasks, lit a candle at my desk, spent a bit of time with the words of Jesus, grabbed my journal, pen, and book and settled into the leather recliner beside my desk.

Enveloped by the quiet of my home and the stillness of January, I tried to remember the last time I’d afforded myself such luxury. I couldn’t remember.

Sometimes we don’t realize how hungry we are until we actually sit down at the table to eat. That’s how I felt, like a starving girl who’s waited too long for nourishment.

The demands of the fall semester depleted me more than I realized. When the holidays rolled around, a glad spirit was nowhere to be found. My soul, battered by the waves of stress, emotional turmoil, family busy-ness, and mind-numbing distraction, washed up on the shore of December and lay there in an exhausted, burned-out heap.

We didn’t travel over Christmas so it should have felt easier. I kept waiting for a grand infusion of holiday spirit.

Nothing.

It’s so easy to forget who we truly are at our core and therefore what we really need. In recent months I’ve chosen distraction over reflection. I’ve numbed so that I wouldn’t have to feel. I’ve used busy-ness and legitimate responsibility as excuses for not pursuing the life-giving disciplines of solitude and writing.

When we sit in stillness, we’re forced to reckon with that which comes to the surface. I had pain I didn’t want to stare in the face. So I’d stop by Goodwill. Or scroll through Instagram. I’d become increasingly impulsive and less intentional. And while that feels good and sometimes even momentarily life-giving, I suffered from low-grade frustration, shame, and resentment.

This is not how I want my life to look. 

We can say that about all sorts of things over which we have no control — illness, tragedy, job loss. But mine was a self-induced disappointment. It’s easier to have compassion toward ourselves when we’re victims of external forces; it’s harder to climb out of a pit that we’ve made for ourselves and settled into.

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tiny-coffee-cup

In the past, I’d have bootstrapped my way into short-term self-improvement. Books! Lists! Goals!

But I’m tired. And I’ve tried all of that. I know the answers and there’s nothing trendy or sexy about any of it.

Today means forgoing the gym and wearing yesterday’s mascara. It means acknowledging my weariness and my lack. It means looking at my mistakes across the recent months, feeling the pain I’ve tried to numb, taking inventory of my real self and my real life and just listening for a bit.

Honestly, I prefer actionable steps and instant success, obvious answers and best practices.

But those are not the ways of the soul.

I’m rereading Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer and I love what he says about how our soul responds to force:

The soul is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

 

I spent the first weekday of January “sitting at the base of a tree,” so to speak. And the truth of who I am began to emerge with more clarity and familiarity than I expected, especially since we’ve been a bit estranged for a while.

With Parker’s language, I spent some time asking myself honest questions about the “truths I embody” and the “values I represent.” I reflected on what my right-now life is telling me {the good, the bad, the ugly} and how that may intersect with the gifts I too often compartmentalize.

I took the time to listen to my life — repenting of the ways I’d misspent my time and effort and acknowledging the life-giving practices I’d neglected.

And for the first time in many, many weeks, the spark of hope began to warm me from within, shining its light into my rhythms, my roles, my work, and my creativity.

I look forward to sharing some hope-filled ideas with you in the coming year. Too often we believe that our right-now roles and routines crowd out the life-giving pursuits that make our hearts sing. But I believe there’s always space for our gifts to walk around in unlikely seasons of life instead of sitting in a box until life issues a more timely invitation.

playmobil-cop

If this sounds like the encouragement you need, I invite you to join the conversation so you won’t miss a thing. Simply enter your e-mail address in the box at the end of this post and you’re all set.

In the meantime, give your weary mind and soul the gift of solitude. Schedule it if you have to. Hide in your closet while your kids watch a show or give yourself some space during nap time. Spend your lunch break in a quiet place without your phone. Resist the urge to immediately make lists and default to actionable responses.

Listen to your life.

God speaks to us through his Word and through creation, in prayer and in silence. But He also directs us through the unique ways He’s wired us to think, work, create, lead, and serve in the world. When we don’t acknowledge the nuances of who we are, we can overlook what we might offer to those around us.

If you feel like it, take some time to journal the thoughts and emotions that come to the surface. It may feel awkward at first. And you may be surprised by what shows up.

Here are some simple questions that may help to guide your listening:

  • What has caused undue weariness?
  • How have you numbed, avoided, and distracted?
  • How have you tried to live a life that’s not yours?
  • What parts of yourself have you kept hidden? Why?
  • What truths, values, and longings are at the heart of your identity?
  • In what ways do you want to live more authentically in the new year?

 

It takes courage to sit with who you really are. And it takes trust to receive your own life. In this new year, I pray that God will give you both.

May your brave listening give way to hope and renewal in 2017. I’m so glad to have you here.

 

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Resources you may find helpful:

bird journal

In a way this feels counterintuitive. After a post in which I’ve encouraged listening instead of action, I’m now giving you a list of sorts.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes certain books and practices become a helpful guide, giving me language and tools to excavate that which I often cover up with busy-ness, distraction, and the chaos of my own overthinking brain.

I’m picky about how a certain book or post makes me feel at the end. Do I feel guilty or inspired? Condemned or encouraged? All of these spoke truth and served as a helpful guide in ways that set me free and never felt preachy. Amen.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here you go:

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer

A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live by Emily P. Freeman

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

“What’s on Your DON’T List?” {Free Hope*Writers Podcast}

This podcast is so freeing and helpful, even if you’re not a writer. I believe it’s fruitful for everyone to make a list of what you’re not going to do.

3 Gentle Ways to Review Your Life in the New Year, a blog post by Emily P. Freeman

The Book of John

This just happens to be what I’m studying this year. The beauty of God’s Word is that it’s alive and active. It speaks to my current questions and hardships. If often influences what I write. I’ve been amazed at the ways in which the words of John have helped me to live in the tension between my hopes and my reality, revitalizing the unseen, sacred work of my right-now life.

How to Pursue Your Hoped-For Work in the Midst of You

r Right-Now Life, a series

About a year ago, I began a post that turned into an 8-part series that explores how we can live responsibly in the right-now while not letting go of the hoped-for.


*Some affiliate links used. Thanks for your kind support of this little corner of the internet!

When You’re Carrying Something That No One Can See: Christmas Hope for Weary Souls

candles

…because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.     ~ Matthew 1:20b

 

It was the second Sunday of Advent and these words leapt from the passage and lodged in my spirit.

I could not shake them.

As my children squirmed in their church seats and rifled through my bag for gum and pens, God whispered his attribute to my walled-off heart:

I am a God who conceives unthinkable things. 

Within the virgin womb of an ordinary Jewish girl, the most divine alchemy swirled with light and life infused by the Holy Spirit.

It’s December 5th. I am worn out and wrung out. God whispers truth about himself and about me:

Marian, I am a God who conceives things. This is not simply who I was at a single point in history. It is who I am and will always be. It is what I do within those who I have called for divine purposes. But you must yield to it. 

I thought more closely about the order of things in Mary’s life, scribbling notes and arrows on my worship folder.

The Holy Spirit — > conception — > surrender — > carrying that which no one can see — > labor  /  pain — > new life — > death — > redemption

I whisper back:

God, what have you conceived in me that I have not yet surrendered to? In what ways must I yield?

And I know what it is. I know what I carry that no one can see.

I long to carry something different and God says no.

This is what I have conceived in you. Will you carry it? Will you labor under this burden and choose to receive it as a blessing? Will you trust that there is life and death and redemption on the other side?

baby

As I write this post, my lip quivers. I do not want to say yes.

In his book, Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning says this about people, pain, and purpose:

Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded…On the last day, Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.

 

My view of humanity is limited; I can’t possibly match up each person that God has significantly used with a corresponding deep woundedness. But I know there is truth to what Manning says.

I know that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. I know that pain humbles us and that wounds make us real.

I’m not looking to be a person of great significance in the kingdom of God. The older I get, the more uncomfortable I am with attention. But I long to be a meaningful part of God’s work here on earth. I don’t want my story, my labor, or my scars to be wasted.

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Mary didn’t have to say yes.

We’re not robots. God entrusts us with choices even within the mystery of sovereign will. He invited her to be part of his work and she said yes.

And aren’t we glad that she, like Jesus, yielded to her Father’s will instead of surrendering to her own rightful agenda?

Her yes gave birth to the light and life of the world. This is why we sing songs of rejoicing at Christmas.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.

We don’t rejoice because all is right with the world —

We don’t rejoice because life has gone as we’d hoped —

We don’t rejoice because we have a robust college fund for our kids —

We don’t rejoice because we have a marriage that’s easy —

We don’t rejoice because we have jobs that are well-paying and secure —

We rejoice because we are a weary and wounded people but we are not abandoned in this state.

girl-on-a-hill

Perhaps you’re carrying a hard and heavy thing you never asked to conceive, much less labor under.

But what if we see our heavy thing as a privilege instead of a weight?

What if we choose trusting instead of fighting?

What if we choose the mindset of freedom instead of bondage — freedom to die to our expectations and even our desires because we trust in a greater purpose?

Mary died to reputation, to convention, to logic, to self, to a comfortable path. She was forced to flee while pregnant and birthed her baby in a crude and humble dwelling. Her newborn child slept in a feeding trough for animals. Who would choose that?

No one.

But with a posture of humility and trust, she yielded to a divine purpose she couldn’t actually see. As she received the unthinkable realities of her own life, she simultaneously received the glorious hope that waited on the other side.

I am the Lord’s servant…may your word to me be fulfilled.

Death always precedes redemption.

Right now I’m wrestling with a sort of death, clenching tightly to fear, to desire, to doubt, and to my own logical solutions instead of placing my big self aside and submitting to the will of the Father.

If you’re in the same place, may the story of Christ comfort us and lead us as we wait for a miracle. May we receive our own lives with trust and hope this Christmas.

That which is conceived in you, though it feels unwelcome, may actually be destined for fullness of life. 

 

You may also enjoy:

Why Compassion is the Answer to a Messy Christmas

Why You Really Are Prepared for Christmas, Even if You’re Not

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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:

school made simple freebie header

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!

*Some affiliate links are used. Thanks for kindly supporting this little corner of the internet!

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