What’s so great about Kindermusik?

At the dawn of the new year, I’m reflecting back and hoping forward. January is an invitation to rehearse the past and I find myself musing about the experiences that I’d repeat if I got a do-over and the ones I’d drive by and wave at second time around. It also invites me to imagine the potential of an even more generative future.

I’ve hit the bullseye of my fifties now and in the seasons of a life story, the chlorophyll is breaking down and I’m starting to blush. Some call the fifties a decade of depth because you’ve lived enough of your story to see a plot line, to recognize what you love and how you tick, to know what makes you feel most alive. The last quarter century of my story has been primarily invested in answering to “Mama”, with all of its rights, privileges and responsibilities, but another title I’ve cherished is “Miss Hope”. That’s the name all of my Kindermusik families call me.

I first connected with Kindermusik  about 25 years back. I sat in a circle with my baby girl on my lap. We shook our bells together way up high, then way down low, really, really fast and then oh, so slow. I was a first time mom, and in love. Determined to do my best for my own little Angel. Kindermusik reeled me in from the first 45 minute class— the music, the instruments, the rituals, the cuddles, the vocal and imaginary play- the whole shared experience was absolutely delightful!

It wasn’t long until I trained to be a licensed instructor and that’s when I began to fully appreciate the method behind the masterfully written curriculums. Kindermusik uses a Montessori play based developmental educational model that supports maximum freedom in a prepared environment. Music is the medium by which young children learn to flex their brain muscles, building auditory processing skills, promoting memory, strengthening the executive function of the brain and increasing neural connections. Every Kindermusik class features a fun theme that integrates developmentally appropriate musical skills, fine and whole body movement, sensory awareness activities as well as language and literacy components. It sounds like work but it feels like magic!

As a mom and as an instructor, I’ve taken countless spectacular imaginary adventures inside the walls of a Kindermusik studio to exciting destinations like the park, the sea and the farm. We’ve travelled in pretend boats, cars, airplanes and taken leisurely walks splashing in mud puddles only to come back home for our make-believe bath. And it all happens while we sing and play with simple rhythm instruments and props. We practice in class what families can take-home and integrate it into their daily routines.

These days, I’m in a new classroom, working toward an advanced degree in psychology. I’m learning that the most compelling research on relational flourishing unequivocally points the direction of the formative experiences in the the earliest months and years of child’s story, even before they possess explicit memory or verbal language capabilities. Attunement from primary caregivers to their babies and toddlers lays the foundation for healthy attachment patterns over a lifetime. 

Attunement occurs when we parents are emotionally available to our children and responsive to their needs, not perfectly but reliably. When we learn to read and understand their cues, to react with engagement to their expressions, to repair relational ruptures when they occur and to touch them affectionately. Then,  they feel safe, seen and soothed, which wires their brains to recognize emotionally healthy bonds.

And that’s what I love best about Kindermusik. By design, the entire class focuses on attunement between young children and the ones they love best. Big and little people drop their coats, purses, shoes and most importantly phones at the door.  We sit in a circle and sing hello to every single friend in the room. Then, mommies looking lovingly into their babies eyes, massage their arms and bicycle their legs. Tiny kiddos giggle as their daddies give them a playful tickle. Nannies imitate their little buddies playing sticks or bells or egg shakers. Grandmas find the most comforting way to rock or cuddle as their grandchild snuggles in close. Grandpas make silly sounds in a mirror as their grandkids look on with fascination. Favoritest big people clap, rub, pat, hug, bounce, jump and run playfully with their toddlers. And sometimes babies cry, so mommies soothe them or toddlers get upset because it’s time to put instruments away and daddies distract them. During class, there are moments of holding our children close and times designated to let go. Just like life, kids go exploring but they need to know you’re there to run back to for a hug, an ear, a smile or a secure place to land.

In a world where feeling safe, soothed and seen mostly seems out of reach, Kindermusik connects people. Regardless of our age or stage, in Kindermusik we look at each other affectionately, we touch one another gently, and in those moments, we know we are safe together.

The sparkly, white, swollen snowflakes are dancing around outside my Michigan window reminding me that the new year is bursting with possibilities yet to be discovered, but I have a good history too, years and decades of partnering with hundreds of families like mine, who live a better, more bonded story because of Kindermusik. And for that privilege, I just feel really, really grateful.

Past posts I’ve written about music, brain development and bonding:

Sending a shout out to the fantastic Maestro Kindermusik programs I’ve been privileged to be a part: Kindermusik of Rockford with Carol Hillman, Miss Lisa’s Music with Lisa Muratore and Kindermusik by Purple Nest with Molly Pieroni. 

Because Gratitude is never Belated

I almost hit a guy tonight driving my silver Chevy Trax. It would have been a  collision of flesh and bone against metal and motor. His outfit matched a starless night, at least I think it did, but it all happened so fast…. Suddenly, there he was, walking into oncoming traffic straddling the white line on the passenger side of my lane. Another car travelled parallel to me so I couldn’t move over—much….

100 yards later, my body started trembling, responding to what my brain already knew. My close enoucnter almost turned deadly.  How might this very moment have been different had body and car collided? When the police officer came on the scene, who would have been determined to be at fault? Me or him? And how much would it matter if the guy’d ended up absolutely broken?

There’s been mostly a hush on my blog this year, the majority of my words spent on academic papers and a hefty reading list—31 books complete on Goodreads 2021. For everything there is a season and this year, listening rather than talking and reading more than writing have been my daily bread. I’m re-considering familiar frameworks, assimilating novel ideas, inputting new data and assembling it all like puzzle pieces linking together to create a more complete 3D picture of who I am and how I fit in my world. Ironically, the image keeps getting fuzzier—but maybe that’s because I buy my reading glasses at the dollar store. Or maybe it’s that the more I learn, the less I know about anything. Everything.  Questions trump answers and some of them are my own, while others are the Mindbenders my kids ask, like the ones we bantered around over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Is male headship in marriage an expression of post-fall brokenness or of God’s design for gender?

What are the most productive days, times and locations for dumpster diving?

I wonder how God decided what Jesus was going to look like…

What can be learned from The Squid Games about depravity and desperation?

Can a relationship ever be healthy if there’s a power differential where the disempowered party isn’t free to walk away?

Which version of Taylor Swift’s Red is best?

What do you think about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict?

What are the most effective strategies for growing your retirement account? 

And, what about real estate investing?

What does the biblical text in its original languages have to say about the role of women in church leadership? And what place do historic records and traditions play in determining God’s intent?

Which Little Women movie is the best and why?

How do enneagram-type combinations impact relationships?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Paul Young’s The Shack and it’s portrayal of God the Father as a Mother? And what to do about gender pronouns to describe God?

Who’s lying about being an operative when they’re really a spy in the board game The Resistance?

And, of all the Frasier fir Christmas trees on this farm, which one would be perfect for our living room?

None of our questions have quick and easy answers—at least for us. Ours is a tribe that could rival an old-fashioned podium pounding hell and brimstone preacher for the love of his or her conviction and it was into one of those kinds of moments that our mediator intervened with a lesson in Communication 101 she learned from a TED talk. “When people aren’t really listening but rather preparing their defensive responses, the conversation is zero on the productivity scale. Just saying.” And it’s not just us who needs that reminder. From the most public platforms to everyday hum-drum interactions, fault finding, finger pointing, moralizing monologues disguised as dialogue are now cliche. We’re so high on blaming the government, the economy, the liberals, the conservatives, the vaxers, the anti-vaxers, the CDC, BLM,  the police officers, the feminists, secular culture, LGTBQ+ people, church leaders and christian nationalists, our sobriety to concentrate on human suffering has been compromised. Meanwhile, at the hospital we work at, the death toll keeps rising, one image bearing creation of God at a time, and relationships are arresting without resuscitation due to metastasized dogmatism.

This is what communal duress has exposed about us and it’s not pretty. But it’s also not all that we are. 

We are also nurses and doctors who don our PPE methodically every time we enter a patient’s room. We treat sick human beings regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, religion or vaccination status. We do our best 24-7 day after week after month and now years. That’s plural. And when the virus wins, we walk our patients corpses down to the morgue on a gurney and then don our PPE again. 

And we are morticians who care for the shell that remains when the spirit has departed. We administrate the rituals of closure and burial, providing needed services and care to grieving families in their darkest hours of raw grief.

And we are teachers, managing multiple educational platforms and adapting to ever changing expectations for the benefit of our students, to create learning environments that offer as much normalcy and stability as is possible.

And we are chaplains, pastors, counselors and social workers providing  safe, secure, soothing support to anxious, fearful, grieving, despairing individuals and groups amidst skyrocketing suicide and divorce rates, each their own form of demise.

And we are supply chain producers who are tirelessly working against the domino effect to keep goods and services available to society in spite of complex barriers to production.

And we are more than what we do. 

We simply are.

We are the objects of the affection of a supremely loving God who looks at all He has made with tenderness and incredible kindness. He actually knows who’s right, what’s right and how to do it right but He chooses instead to focus His gaze on our universal misery with unmerited compassion.

And that makes me grateful—which brings me back to Thanksgiving and our yearly recalibration of gratitude. This year, in addition to all the oldies, new voices, fresh perspectives and more maleness made our crowd better and more fun. I wait all year long for that morning where we walk and talk about the goodness of God in our stories. Our pictures mark time indelibly and remind us that we were together and it was good. The music, the puzzles, the games, the movie, the time around the table with 3 extra leaves, and an abundance of food and drink to share.  Shoulder to shoulder, we thanked God that we are healthy and supplicated for the ones who aren’t. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to answer all of my questions. Or theirs. And some days that feels pretty paralyzing but not on Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, we recount that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end. And we tell each other what that’s been like in each of our stories. And on that day, I just feel grateful.

Starla Rose

September 24—17 years ago today- looked pretty much like this one. Clear blue sky and lots of sunshine.  The opening day of the Texas State Fair. 87 degrees at 3:18 central time in Dallas. Accompanied by her dad and Dr. Payne (yup, that’s really his name), who very assertively instructed me to “Push, push, push!”, she metamorphosed out of her cozy cocoon and found her voice—loudly. In that moment, with her little arms and legs flailing uncoordinatedly, she made her way through the starting gate and her race began.

My kids birthdays are my favorite days of the year. All day long, I reminisce about the life we’ve shared….

This one, she’s answered to lots of names over the years, in-house derivatives of the one on her birth certificate—Woozy, Rosie, Roni, Roan- all terms of endearment for the babiest of all the girls in the family.

“‘Kin-a-‘kin” were her favorite words as a toddler. She’d speak them like a declaration as she pulled my shirt up, oblivious to public decorum. She wanted us to be touching belly to belly all close and warm.

Falasadie, Rushidi and Adona, the little, plastic orphan girls were the main characters in all of her dollhouse pretend stories with Robyn. As time went on, those stories became epics as they added chapters from their cozy twin beds drifting off to sleep at night. Sometimes, I can still hear their little girl voices giggling in my head.

There were teepee adventures in the yard and plenty of princess dress up too.

She started cooking on her Chico kitchen set and created the most marvelous concoctions made out of rubber beef and other such delicacies. Then, she starred in the homegrown screenplay, Once Upon 3 Cooks, as the exemplary sister who shopped and ate healthy. Later, we watched every episode of The Great British Baking Company together and nowadays she bakes, stir-fries and cooks “clean” with eclectic creativity and flair.

I’ll never forget the way she skipped up to the stage at the annual Awana awards night in her multi-tiered cotton “happy” skirt to receive her trophy for being unanimously selected by leaders as the first grader who best exemplified the spirit of Awana.

For years, she lived and breathed Adventures in Odyssey episodes on CD. From before she crawled out of bed in the morning to when she snuggled up next to Oreo at night, Whit, Connie, Eugene and the whole cast of voices were as familiar to her as ours were. Later, she sat behind the microphone at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado recording an episode in the mock studio and shared a Wad-fam-choc-sod in the soda shop with Robyn— 1 drink, 2 straws.

And those weren’t the only stories that put her CD player to good use. Audiobooks, in and out of order, were the order of the day for many years. How many times has she listened to every book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder The Little House on the Prairie series with the reader who sounds like a hoarse cowgirl or the librivox recording of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

Then there was every single Wildkrats episode she watched on the computer expanding her love of and knowledge about animals which she delighted to expound on.

In the hazy, lazy days of summer, you could find her jumping in the neighborhood pool or building sand castles on the shores of the Great Lake. And at twilight, she’d be catching fireflies in the peanut butter jar with the air holes drilled into the cap.

And she got older, she developed a voracious hunger for reading and writing. Her room became a solace for consuming stories quietly. She created characters and worlds and super powers, attempting to translate thoughts onto paper, exploring the complexity of good and evil. And she started retelling the best and truest story of all to children at church every Sunday morning. Then, standing up in front of a thousand people she told her very own story of being adopted by Jesus and got baptized. 

More recently she’s been driving and working and studying. I admire her work ethic, her commitment and her integrity to the extreme. She’s learning how to take care of herself with kindness— getting acquainted with God’s unique design that is her and learning what it looks like to nurture it. Her soul is a mosaic of colors, every wavelength of light and dark all along the spectrum, creating a beautiful rainbow.

Lately, she’s taken up jogging and every time I watch her pound the pavement, I think about God’s words comparing life to running a race. It’s about focus. And training. And persevering. And I’m one of her witnesses. Cheering her on, I’m hooping and hollering, “You go girl!”  from the sidelines. But Jesus, he’s running right beside her. When her pace slows, so does his. When she gets a second wind, he speeds right along with her.  When she falls, he’s got the first aid kit and attends to her wounds. When she needs a drink, he’s the one carrying her heavy water bottle. When she’s about to give up, he gets behind her, like a wind at her back making her next steps easier and when she just can’t anymore, and she collapses along the side of the trail, he sits with her, patiently, until she’s ready to get up and run some more. Here’s the point: She does not run her race alone and she never will. In this fresh new year, the last one before her emancipation, here’s what I know is true. The steadfast love of the Lord never changes. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, O God. (Lam. 3:22)

She got a new t-shirt this summer that she wears for self-inspiration. It’s black with big white letters saying, “I’ve got this!” And she does. She’s got this.

21 Things I Love About Brennan in Honor of his 21st Birthday

After the adrenalin rush of celebrating Brennan’s birthday eve with dumpster diving and a late night swim at Lily’s pool and hot tub, I’m reflecting today on his story interconnected with ours. He’s one of us now—with all of its good, bad and ugly- and I’m so glad he is! Here’s what I love about Brennan.

1) He’s funny. Literally, other than his wife, none of the rest of us can pull off a timely joke successfully.

2) He’s responsible. From the first conversation about driving Robyn places to his get up everyday work ethic, he does what he needs to do.

3) He’s resourceful. From Goodwill super shopping to dumpster diving and metal detecting, he repurposes things better than anyone else I know.

4) He’s creative. In so many ways—like crafting candles from soy wax and pringles cans and making Robyn’s ring out of gold he found metal detecting.

5) He’s a gentle soul. His voice is soothing. He’s sensitive and his manner makes you feel safe when you’re with him.

6) He’s fun. He just is. If he’s around, everything’s better.

7) He cares about God’s creation. From picking up turtles and helping them cross the street to tending trees he grows from cuttings or seeds, he honors what he’s been assigned to steward.

8) He’s sincere in His faith. In all of its highs and lows and its moments of clarity and confusion, he loves Jesus.

9) He loves going to the beach like I do, which makes him a kindred spirit.

10) He’s teachable. He reads, ask questions, takes classes or watches Youtube videos to learn important stuff he wants to know and understand.

11) He’s versatile and flexible. He enjoys lots of things. He’s good at a wide variety of tasks.

12) He’s cool. His vibe is eclectic but he and Robyn are definitely the coolest people in our family.

13) He’s nice. Everybody likes Brennan. He talks to them and treats them kindly.

14) He repairs relational conflict. Brennan gives and receives forgiveness and moves forward.

15) He is a man of integrity. He tries to live honestly and be trustworthy in his personal choices even when it costs him.

16) He’s financially responsible beyond his years. 

17) He’s totally Robyn’s match. I think I could see it from the very beginning and I love that he loves her so well.

18) He likes good music and shares it with me.

19) He’s adventurous. I appreciate how he embraces my crazy ideas.

20) He wants to hike at as many national parks as he can and so do I.

21) He gets excited about finding a great deal or getting things free.

I always wanted a son and maybe someday, there’ll be 4, but today, I’m really grateful for Brennan. He makes my life sweeter and it’s an honor to be his second mom.

What About the Pandemic of Child Sexual Abuse and the Church?

I’ve never written anything more important than this 151st post.

An old adage says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this more true than in cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated in Christian communities.

Case in point. Currently, the Upper Midwest diocese of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) finds themselves in the vortex of a sexual abuse scandal involving children. The abuse was initially disclosed by a mom named Cherin, on behalf of her 9 year old daughter in May 2019. First, she told her parish priest and the news moved up the food chain to the diocese Bishop a short time later. Neither church leader reported the allegations to law enforcement. The accused perpetrator, Mark Rivera, served at 2 Illinois parishes for more than two decades in leadership positions that gave him access to children. The date, 2019, matters because it’s 2021 now and until this spring, the Bishop made no public congregational acknowledgement of the accusations against Mr. Rivera and the possibility that there are other survivors suffering silently in their seats. The structure matters because it exemplifies the widespread ignorance of church leaders on multiple hierarchical levels regarding abuse prevention, responding to disclosure, reporting requirements and after care for survivors and their families. And, this unfortunately is not the only diocese in the ACNA to be embroiled in mismanaged sexual harassment and abuse scandals in recent years.

I write this post as an outsider looking in. My church community is not connected to the ACNA, but I am also an insider looking out because the ACNA is part of my broader Christian family and what is happening there is an institutional protestant church pandemic.

I’m a 50-something mom whose four amazing daughters are almost all launched so I started grad school this past year, simultaneously enrolling in Diagnosis and Treatment of Trauma Disorders and Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.  PTSD, a disorder commonly suffered by child sexual abuse survivors, was the common denominator in both. What I understand better now compels me to write because when you know, you can’t un-know anymore.

But let’s start here.
You don’t know what you don’t know.

This applies to the average person warming the pew and the ones whose bios and headshots are posted on an organization’s website. Both, unfortunately are anemically informed in epidemic proportions about the most basic facts, statistics and predictable, preventable patterns associated with child sexual abuse and its aftermath, which results in failure to protect and care for the little children Jesus loves. 

Here’s a working definition and 3 basic statistics from the CDC and the Department of Justice .

Sexual abuse is any tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser. Abuse can be physical, verbal or visual.

  • 1 out of 4 females and 1 out 6 males will experience sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18.
  • 90% of the child sexual abuse problem is perpetrated by preferential offenders whose victims know and trust their abusers.
  • When a child discloses abuse, 96-99% of the time, they are telling the truth. Abuse actually occurred. 

Do you feel the weight of those statistics?
If not, sit soberly and consider them until you do.

That 9 year old girl whose mom, Cherin, disclosed abuse to her priest in 2019, she and the Bishop have both submitted written public statements recently, 2 years afterwards. You can follow the he saidshe said storylines in blue. 

Read it for yourself.
Really. 
Do.

It’s a textbook case of a mishandled church sexual abuse scandal. 

Where did the church get this wrong?
And what might it have looked like to get it right?

Starting with prevention. How might this tragedy have been avoided had all provincial denominational leaders, church staff, volunteers and parents been trained in the facts and misconceptions about sexual abuse, abuser characteristics, the grooming process, common grooming behaviors and reporting requirements? What if the church had a safety system in place based on this awareness education? In my seminary class, 4 students enrolled. Count them on one hand—a mom, a social worker, a retiring police officer and a staff pastor. Classes on Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse are an anomaly in seminaries, so I applaud my school for offering it; however, they can do better. It is an egregious oversight for any accrediting educational institution to launch graduates into Christian ministry without training them in prevention, reporting and victim-centric aftercare. 

If these church leaders had been trained, they would have realized that not only are 96+% disclosures true, they would also have understood that predators not only groom children, they also groom caretakers and gate keepers of children so that barriers of protection are removed and they have easy access to their victims. Predators, they don’t look like predators. They’re typically charming and distinguish themselves in their communities over time by appearing responsible, trustworthy and helpful. Usually, they’re married and have children. That’s why it’s so shocking when accusations start to surface.

And here’s the thing, accusations will almost always be plural. Once one brave soul finds his or her voice, a symphony of singers will join the somber song. Typically, by the time a predatory offender reaches the legal system, if the truth be told, he’s averaged 150 victims if he prefers boys and 52 if he prefers girls.

And if that 9 year old girl’s church leaders would have been educated in the neurobiology of trauma, they would have realized that when a child finds their voice, that doesn’t mean that she can articulate a cohesive narrative or consistently recount details of her abuse. By God’s design, it is normal for memories to be fragmented and even absent from conscious recollection in order for the victim to be able to bear their trauma. The child’s account would not have been evaluated for accuracy but assumed to be true because 96+% of children’s disclosures of abuse are the truth.

If the parish priest and his posse of church leaders, including the Diocese attorney would have understood mandatory reporting laws, they would have conjoined their legal and moral responsibility to immediately report any reasonable cause to suspect abuse perpetrated by an adult on a minor to CPS or local law enforcement. Instead, churches often want to take reports of abuse to committee to internally investigate first. Sometimes they fear that they will unjustly besmirch the reputation of the accused.

Other times, they are motivated to do so based on innate mistrust of CPS and the legal system, thinking they can adjudicate a more just resolution internally. 

Some churches think of sexual abuse as primarily sin and therefore consider themselves to be the most appropriate setting to address their spiritual process of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. 

And, it’s not uncommon for churches to negotiate deals with offenders to leave their community of faith quietly, believing they are protecting the reputation of Jesus from public scandal or at least protecting the name and renown of their own institution.

All of these options, however, bypass the law, and mandatory reporters are increasingly being held culpable for endangerment of children and criminally prosecuted themselves. 

Once Mr. Rivera was arrested, if his parish and Diocese understood trauma they would have realized that the church can’t provide support for both the victim and the accused predator—that includes his family, who also, sadly, suffer because of their spouse/parent’s crime. The church would have opted for a victim-centered response plan which prioritizes the safety and well-being of the victim and her family, starting with ensuring a protective and supportive community of faith for them to continue worshiping in. Mr. Rivera’s family would need to go so 9 year old girl’s family could stay. Then, because leadership understands that 96+% of children’s disclosures are true, they would promptly and publicly fully disclose the allegations to their congregations and invite the voices of others who have been harmed to be heard. With unanimity, leadership would communicate that abuse matters and commit to becoming a place that protects and defends those who have been harmed.

This approach not only invites voiceless victims who feel ashamed, threatened or fear that they won’t be believed to risk sharing their stories, it also speaks volumes to the individuals who are watching the process unfold and are themselves adult abuse survivors, or married to one or love someone who has been. There is incredible, widespread, redemptive opportunity in the aftermath of abuse if a community of faith gets this right. Unfortunately, the Upper Midwest Diocese of the ACNA didn’t.

Rather than retrying victims in the court of public opinion, as was the 9 year old girl’s family experience, if they got this right, the church would begin the long, holy journey of communal suffering alongside victims instead. 

They would grieve with and for their victims.
They would listen without judging them for their anger and sadness.
The would support them the best they know how, ensuring that they have the resources they need to start to heal. 
And they wouldn’t just say that these things would happen, they’d actually happen.

Tragically, the clock can’t be turned back and the harm can’t be undone for the 9 year old girl, but we cannot and must not continue to get this wrong because when we do and children’s formative experiences in faith communities are sexually violating, barriers to understanding God’s character and receiving His love result. 
And Jesus has something to say about that in Matthew 18:6. 

If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. 

We can; however, learn from the mistakes the ACNA and so many others have made. Going forward, as a unified community of Christ followers, our banner of love can proclaim that we will no longer be blind, deaf and dumb to the pandemic of sexual abuse. Today, we will begin to make our churches places of safety, hope and healing. 
May it be so.

(All data and statistics credited to Ministry Safe, legal professionals who are sexual abuse experts and whose mission is to prevent child sexual abuse in ministry contexts.)

Land That I Love

It’s on my bucket list—to run in an organized 5K race. And I want it to be connected to a cause that’s personally meaningful to me.

I’ve trained.

Tested my stamina on various routes. 

And I almost mustered the courage to register for a race over 4th of July weekend. 

Then I found out that my daughter’s friend was participating and he planned to finish in 17 min. That changed everything! I’m way too insecure to have a 16 year old boy charge past me and wave on his way to the finish line while I’m huffing and puffing on the first half of the course.

So, it’s not a bucket list cross off yet– not until I do the deed with the crowds, in the morning, regardless of the heat, and in spite of my anxiety. But, I did identify a creative alternative so I could at least pencil in my check off.

I like to jog at night. I pretty much prefer doing everything at night… so at around 11:30 on 4th of July eve, I tied my seafoam colored running shoes, put on my reflective vest with flashing lights, stretched my calf muscles, turned on my exercise playlist and took to the road. By then, there were just occasional loud popping-sizzling fireworks sounds like the last kernels of popcorn in a pan on the stove. The moon, a waning crescent, left the sky otherwise pitch black. I could barely see the next step in front of me, but I know this route. It’s become my friend. Over and over again, I’ve coerced my body out onto the pavement and told it to move and breathe, so even in the witching hours, I know where the drains are, where the pavement is tilted and in my neighborhood, the road belongs to me.

And so, I jogged in the holiday 2021 on my own personal 5K run–just me and Jesus because he’s the only one I jog with. It took me a lot more than 17 minutes but that’s OK. I’m not a 16 year old boy. I’m me and I’m doing my best. 

As I jogged, I reflected on my life lived out as a citizen in this country–something I consider worth celebrating. 

Here is where I jog on paved roads and groomed rail trails. It may not seem like a big deal but I’ve been to places where the norm was potholes big enough to make my dad cuss.

My feet and my knees and my back and my shoulders and my heart and my lungs are all able to work together to propel me forward because when I’ve been sick, I’ve received excellent health care and because of masks and vaccines combined with the mysterious grace of God, I didn’t die of COVID. 

This is where I’ve lived out my story and in a lot of ways, it’s been a really cush place to do it in. I’m the majority culture, white European descent, with all its privileges and benefits. 

I have a flushing toilet, clean drinking water, a Meijer grocery store, which in my humble opinion, is preferable to Walmart. 

I’ve seen red rocks, mountain ranges, rainforests, oceans, urban metroplexes and sweeping farmlands with amber waves of grain. 

I live in the best state for me with the greatest lake ever less than an hour away. 

My children have received an excellent education and we had choices about what that would be.

We are free to read what we like, to learn what we can, to speak what we want to say and to worship as we see fit. 

In my city, immigrants from the Netherlands and all over Europe are neighbors to refugees from Syria and the Congo, creating a menagerie of eclectic diversity.

And every year that I’ve staked my space on the sidewalk at the local 4th of July parade, I’ve consumed snowcones and cotton candy while kids on every side of me fill their plastic Meijer bags with candy.

I’m proud to be an American and grateful for a multitude of fresh new mercies morning after morning. And, I am disappointed, even ashamed, of its personal, communal and political toxicity past and present.

This country—it’s a mixed bag. We have much to celebrate and much to grieve. 

Should its goodness be diminished? No way! 

Should its faults be ignored? Absolutely not!

This global planet orbiting around the sun and all of its inhabitants simultaneously bear both a reflection of God and the contaminate of sin. Until God restores all that’s been broken to its original glory, living with this co-mingling of good and evil is an inevitable reality and attempts to sweep our imperfections under the rug in order to preserve a photo-shopped image of greatness is an illusion—a slight of the hand, a trick of they eye.

Being a citizen of this country is a lot like being a member of a family. Every family’s story is ugly-beautiful. The healthiest family owns it all, not just the posed snapshot where everyone wears khakis and a white shirt, their skin tan, feet bare, toes in the sand, smiling. That picture genuinely represents a moment, a glimpse, a slice out of the whole. But those same parents may have gone to war hours earlier about the cost of the photo shoot and on the drive there, the kids elbowed each other in a power struggle from the back seat then blamed the innocent sibling who was minding her own business when their frustrated parent yelled impatiently at them to “Cut it out back there,” and threatened to take away the ice cream cone promised as a carrot for their cooperation. And that photo, it doesn’t show the wounds in their hearts from systemic patterns of shaming each other, the feelings of isolation because their parents are more engaged with their phones than attuning to their children, the competition between siblings for “favorite” child status. That picture doesn’t show how they look in the cold, dark dead of winter and it doesn’t tell what the walls in their home could speak. 

Same is true of our nation’s birthday. It’s commemorates what’s pretty, what’s good, what we appreciate. It’s not about the domestic unrest, the injustice, the discrimination, the violence we enact against each other and our failure to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. But both realities are woven into the fiber of life in America.

David French says, we love our country “not because it is always great—or even always good- but because it is our home. Its citizens are our neighbors. It is our national family. As with any family, loving our family means knowing our family. And yes, that means telling our full story, the good, the back and the ugly. It means hearing from admirers and critics alike. We should approach our national history with this sense of curiosity and security. You won’t make me hate my home. You can, however, motivate me to preserve what is pristine and repair what is broken. You can make me proud of the beauty and sorry for the injustice.”

And that kind of genuine curiosity can transfer beyond the purview of our national identity to a spirit of inquiry about our neighbors, our families and even ourselves. And that’s a cause I’d jog a marathon for.

Where Does My Help Come From?

I lift up my eyes to the mountains–Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121

I’m mesmerized by Mt. Rainier! So enamored, I’ve been driving erratically, scanning all directions for just a glimpse at every stopped traffic light. Truth. So totally distracted by the view, I failed to stop behind the car in front of me and my fancy-shmansy Subaru Outback rental car’s safety navigation system slammed on its brakes independent of me, protecting us from smashing into its rear end. I’ve never felt attached to a mountain and even though I know it’s an inanimate object— it has my heart. 

Here’s the thing about Rainier. I haven’t actually seen the whole thing yet and I have exactly zero decent pictures to prove I saw it at all. The locals say that if the drizzly dinge blows through, I’ll view it in all its glory but so far it’s been veiled behind a puffy cloud right near the tip-tip-top.

Rainier is gargantuan—a 14er surrounded by respectable mountains ranges like the Cascades to its north, St. Helen’s to its south and the Olympic Mountains to the west. I’ve hiked their foothills and I promise you, they’re significant, but next to Rainier they look like midgets on the horizon. 

Rainier stands alone. Visible from all around the Sound, it plays hide and seek. You turn a corner, the fog lifts and it jumps out in front of you squealing “peek a boo”, and you want to giggle like a toddler for the sheer delight of it.

About 5,000 technical climbers summit Rainier each year, like “King–or Queen- of the Hill” for a few golden moments, peons sharing in its glory, but nary the amateur hiker whose best ecstasy comes from getting acquainted with its midsection when the roads are passable and the risk of avalanche low. 

And, Rainier is an episodically active volcano which makes its intrigue all the more mysterious. Under 54 feet of snow, molten lava mostly rests, an unpredictable eruption risk. Like Lewis’ description of Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, Rainier isn’t safe, but it’s good. 

Rainier can’t be harnessed or caught or conquered. It can’t be described or even fully encountered. Any picture I paint using words is woefully inferior to the live experience but for starters imagine my mouth- gaped-open-awe at the first glimpse of this creative genius of God. Indeed, His works declare His glory! He used a star to lead the wise men to baby Jesus and it’s Rainier that’s giving me a fresh glimpse of His help.

Scrolling back through the archives of my story, August 1996 was when God’s words about where to look when I’m desperate for help gained a lot of traction. I found myself lying in a hospital bed on Blodgett 4th floor, IV line taped to my forehand, Pitocin pumping through my veins. Only a few hours prior, the ultrasound tech had slathered my tummy up with warm gel and rolled her probe all over my belly, but that staticky, rhythmic “bong, bong, bong” was nowhere to be found, leaving only the blaring sound of silence. My tiny boy died inside my cocoon, leaving me incapable of waking up out of the nightmare of a stillbirth. During the next 12 hours of labor, Brian read this passage aloud to me. 

I lift up my eyes to the mountains–Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber;indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.  Psalm 121

Over and over, he spoke the Words, my muscles cramping, me whimpering as I breathed through each contraction. Sometimes, there’s no other way than through “it”, whatever “it” is and in those moments, thinking about the mountains reminds me that big, strong, creator Jesus can help me when I cannot help myself.

That has not been my only mountain moment. Scanning through the archives of my memories, like choppy, amateur, home movies, there are other moments, other trials, other challenges, other heartaches, bigger, stronger and harder than my capacity to endure. Cheesy as it may sound, Jesus has always been my Mt. Rainier. 

The One I’m on the lookout for at every page turn on a 365 day calendar.  

The One I’m acquainted with at His base but whose very essence is shrouded in incredible, unfathomable mystery that I cannot fully know, explain or fathom. 

The One who’s not going to be conquered or destroyed or changed by human exploits or circumstances. 

The One who sits enthroned, immovable, omniprescent, inviting me to glimpse His glory, to marvel at what He’s made and how it represents something about who He is and how He loves.

Several years ago, I took up a challenge to look for tangible signs in creation of God’s love for me in the shapes of hearts. On a particularly steep switchback up Rattlesnake Ledge in the Southern Cascades, I spotted a rock, embedded in the muddy trail—a heart. God’s tangible reminder that I am loved. 

He loves me in all the moments that I don’t think I can survive and I’m not sure I want to. 

He loves me in all the moments that I wish would last forever. 

He loves me when I try hard and excel. 

He loves me when I offer my best effort but fail miserably. 

And, He loves me when I’m too tired, too discouraged or too lazy to keep trying. 

He loves me even when I don’t feel loved or even lovable.  

Memories are always my favorite souvenirs and I’m stuffing my mental suitcase full of excellent adventures to take with me from my vacation in Seattle. 

Like the moment the car rental customer service rep revealed our pre-paid “mystery” vehicle as a 12 passenger van. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I replied, and even through my mask, he correctly identified my look of horror and swapped it out for that Subaru Outback with a sunroof and the all-important safety navigation system.

I’ll remember kayaking and paddle boarding on Tapps Lake, chatting in the hot tub, lights dancing on the water after dark. 

Playing King dominos umpteen times without a single win.

Driving through rainforests with mature trees growing toward heaven and up mountains straight through the clouds.

Walking and talking ascending and descending each trail, one switchback after another– raincoats…. or not. And how the sun peeked out, and the clouds evaporated just as we summited the top of Hurricane Hill.

I’ll cherish being close to some of the ones I love best for 6 solid days and celebrating exactly 23 years since Lily made her live debut into the world.

I don’t think I’m going to capture a good photo of Rainier except for the one etched into my memory, and that’s mercy enough.

The 12 Stories of Christmas

Dear Jesus,

It’s almost your birthday again.
The day we celebrate that God got dressed in mortal flesh.
Humbly, controversially, miraculously, you entered the scene of the human story as one of us.
In the most vulnerable way.
Without regard for social rank or convention.
Under the most unlikely circumstances.
You are the protagonist in an epic story that changed everyone everywhere for all time.

Each year, I try to decipher your unorthodox redemptive plan.
But it never gets more sensible or logical.
I find no satisfactory explanation except for unfathomable love and underserved mercy.
Thank you!

Here, in my little world, this year’s festivities look different and I miss our dog-eared traditions…. every single beautiful one.
So much has changed on the home front.
The cookie ingredients are stocked but nothing’s baked.
The felt tree waits for the ornaments to be attached on its Velcro tabs.
The nativity puzzles sit stacked in their boxes.
And the Christmas book bin’s gone out of circulation.

None of my little girls is thumbing through the holdings, piling up their favorites and beckoning me to the oversized chair with “Mommy, read to me” anymore.
It’s quiet here. Too quiet.

Magnetized to the book bin, I sort through the collection and make a small pile of our besties. What I wouldn’t give right this nano-second to be a time traveler, to pile my 4 little princesses on top of and around me delighting in the simple pleasure of sharing stories together.DSCF7085

Then, I have an idea!
How about if I read the stories again? Aloud.
And send them out through the internet to all the places each of my girls call home.
That way, they’ve got them when they need them.
And, we both know, some gray-blue day, they’re going to need them.

So in honor of your birthday, Jesus,
And dedicated to the girls you entrusted into my care,
Here’s my present, given sincerely with gratitude.

Happy Birthday dear Jesus. Happy Birthday to you!
 
The 12 Stories of Christmas
#1 The Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey

#2 My Birthday, Jesus Birthday

#3 The King of the Stable

Enough.

Our Thanksgiving festivities survived the pandemic and this year’s celebration of gratitude, it was a grand adventure.

From chopping, stirring and peeling together around the table on Thanksgiving eve,
To crafting cookie cutter cinnamon ornaments,
And potting amaryllis bulbs for all four households,
Brennan squeaked out a victory in the finals of the whipped cream game.
And thanks to Meredith, Lily’s roomie, my photo memories are now archived onto iCloud.4DA4E08F-2C70-4759-A8EF-C920BBCE960D

The best of all traditions is our gratitude walk. The inaugural year that I enthusiastically unveiled this idea almost a decade ago, it met with strong opposition. We’re talking weeping, scowling, foot stomping dissent. But, we’ve persevered, and that meandering walk along the White Pine trail where we recounted the blessings uniquely attached to each of our stories last Thursday, it was nothing less than worship.
Then came the annual family video reveal.
And our banquet, it was perfect right down to the non-lumpy mashed potatoes.

The fall decorations, they’re tucked away in Rubbermaid bins.
The puzzle isn’t quite finished yet but we’ve polished off the Thanksgiving left overs.
We cut down the perfect Frasier fir Christmas tree according to Starla’s specifications. “It must be majestic.” It’s accessorized for the occasion and tucked cozy in the corner right next to the fireplace.

We did it. Boxes all ticked.
2020—it hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to but after a turbulent year, God brought us together on that day postured for gratitude, recounting our blessings with and for each other.
Another year of mercies, fresh and new each morning.
Abundant.
Generous.
Enough.

The Next Right Thing

Our family add-on, the resident plant expert, he’s got a greenhouse tucked behind our garage, a secret little incubator for growing bonsai trees, succulents and other arborist specialties. One year, on my birthday, he walked through the front door with a baby wisteria tucked tenderly into its cozy, little pot. For me. That’s when I knew he was a kindred spirit.IMG_0167

Come winter, I tucked my wisteria on a corner shelf in the garage because he told me to. After a while, the leaves made a puddle around the planter exposing a bare-naked twig in pebbly soil.

I took a picture and texted him with a sad faced emoji. “Did I kill it?” I queried.
“If the leaves fall, it doesn’t mean the plant is dying,” he responded confidently. “It’s just part of the life cycle.” Truly Profound.

Fast forward to 2020–a year of Shedding. Uncovering. Stripping down to a stick in a pot. And sometimes, I wonder if it belongs in the bin.
The pandemic.
The relational disconnection.
The change.
The losses.
The quiet.
It’s Jarring. Discordant. Like looking at the world without my reading glasses and everything’s fuzzy.

Last year, Christmas Eve morning, I cuddled into a heated recliner seat watching Frozen 2 at the theater with my tribe. Who would have guessed Disney could be prophetic? Depressed, Anna sings,

I’ve seen dark before but not like this.
This is cold. This is empty. This is numb.
The life I knew is over. The lights are out.
Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb.
I follow you around, I always have, but you’ve gone to a place I cannot find.
This grief has a gravity that pulls me down.
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind.
You are lost. Hope is gone but you must go on.  And do the next right thing.

Like Anna, I wake up these days feeling uncertain too. And I’ll be honest, I generally don’t really want to rise and shine. But I kick the covers off my night-sweaty body, sometimes as early as 5:00 and ask myself the same question every morning–the one I learned from an animated princess. Go figure. God works in mysterious ways.
“God, what is the next right thing?”
He replies gently.

Take care of your body.
OK.
So I jog, not because I love it. I don’t. It feels like death climbing the hill up the street but afterwards I’m grounded and energized.
I try to drink more water and eat less sugar.
And I hike when and where I can.

Take care of your mind.
OK.
So, I read more books and I enroll in a graduate degree program because after 26 years of educating my children, maybe it’s time to interweave my own life learning with a formal plan of study.

Take care of your emotions.
OK.
So, I get a job because I need to find an identity that gives my contributions to the world a monetary value too.
I keep writing in my locked journal document, catharsis at the keyboard.
From time to time, I unload on faithful friends who listen long and give me a safe space to feel what I feel.
And I grow things in my garden that are beautiful and make me happy.

Take care of your spirit.
OK.
So, I go on long prayer walks and give everyone and everything to God.
I read His words to me and other people’s words about living their stories yoked to His greater one.
And I add meditation, posturing my body to receive what God gives– quietly, breathing deeply.

Love and serve your family.
OK.
So I plod along with all the dailies—the dishes, the laundry, the housekeeping, the transportation, the grocery shopping.
And I keep stepping into opportunities to fortify each one to walk their own unique journeys.

Love and serve other people.
OK.
So, I volunteer because I can and I want to contribute to ministries that salve the wounds of hurting people.
And I mentor, because even though I’m a piece of work, my compassion is sincere.

Then, at the end of each day, I pamper my arthritic shoulder with an ice pack, shape my pillow around my neck for just the right amount of support and go to sleep in peace because God’s got me. I’m safe in His hands.
And every day, one day at a time, I just keep breaking it down to this next breath, this next step, this next choice, to do the next right thing.

And about now, gearing up for a long, gloomy Michigan winter after a lingeringly bleak pandemic year I tell myself what my kid said– “If the leaves fall, it doesn’t mean the plant is dying.”

And Thanksgiving, it’s a big, bold, brazen megaphone pronouncing this reality;

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is His faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23
.

I carry a lot of hopes into this holiday. Every year.
I want the food to be amazing.
The conversation animated and engaging.
I’d like to finish the puzzle without the dog eating any of the pieces.
I wouldn’t mind winning the whipped cream game.
And Lord knows, I want a good family picture wearing our gratitude shirts.
But when I dig a little deeper, what I’m really hoping is that we’ll come together postured for gratitude, attuned to God’s mercies, counting our blessings. Naming them one by one. Thankful we get to share them with each other. All day long.
And, really, that’s more than enough.