Sunday, February 02, 2020

Musings about Missions and Me

We were nudged toward missions from an early age.

Mom introduced us to missionary biographies such as Through Gates of Splendor and The Triumph of John and Betty Stam. I still remember that glossy black and white picture of the Stams and the story of the baby left in the house while they bravely went to their deaths.

When we didn't appreciate the unusual foods that Mom served and Dad loved, such as corn bread with goat broth, Dad would say, "Oh, but you might be missionaries someday!" In other words, if you can bravely chow down this today, you'll be able to casually pop grubs in your mouth in New Guinea twenty years from now.

Mom had great respect for her friend Bertha who was a missionary in Somalia for many years. Dad taught us Spanish words at the supper table.

Eventually, my sister worked overseas for many years. Paul and I worked with a mission in Canada for eight years, served on the board for a few missions in Mexico, and did short-term work in Thailand and Kenya.

There's no question that missionaries had a revered status in the North American church for hundreds of years. Lucy Maud Montgomery's books mention talks by returned missionaries who were welcomed as honored guests. The Young Pilot magazines of my childhood implied their super-Christian status. In Paul's years at a Wesleyan Methodist college, foreign missionaries would come to speak and urge the students to feel a call to missions.

At some point, however, we got a look behind the honorable aura. The internet and social media facilitated those revelations. We also got to know many missionaries personally and heard their stories. Then there were books and articles by the emotionally abandoned children of missionaries and news stories of the horrific cases of sexual abuse that have come to light in recent years. Finally, there was re-connection with people who were the "natives" we and our fellow missionaries had gone to "reach." We heard stories that made us see the experience through their eyes and sit silent in shock. How were we so blind?

I don't want to be cynical about missions. Sharing the good news of Jesus is a basic tenet of Christianity. God didn't commission a fleet of sky-writing angels to let everyone know. He assumes that people will tell people. If that was God's strategy, we assume it to be the best one.

I've met many missionaries who seem to get it right. They seek anonymity rather than platforms and power, speak the local language like they were born into it, and serve with grace and humility and skill.

This isn't about them.

When I look at our experiences in Canada and also the most notable cases of missions gone wrong, it seems that often things go awry when a system becomes more important than individuals. Not that a system is unnecessary--it makes sense to have mission boards to coordinate, recruit, train, and place missionaries. Imagine each of us, individually, trying to arrange visas, housing, transportation, language learning, donations, and support staff.

Like so many missionaries, we were young and idealistic when we went out into the isolated reaches of northern Ontario to work at a boarding school for high school kids from the northern First Nations reserves. Paul taught science and math classes.

In addition to the culture shock of moving from civilized Oregon to a compound of about 100 people over a hundred miles from the nearest town, I was facing the personal identity shock of being a new mom. Only months before, I had been a college student, involved in all the extracurriculars I could get my hands on--busy, productive, successful, fulfilled.

Now, I was the mom of a fussy, demanding baby who took all my time. While everyone else was busy getting ready for classes to start, I was marching up and down the lane with a crying baby in a stroller. The school needed an English teacher and an advisor for the newspaper. I had to say no. Mothering came first.

I remember feeling troubled, a few months in, about the culture of the school. It seemed we had created a little American Mennonite enclave, and the students were the outsiders. Food, language, dress, rules, consequences, entertainment, concepts of time--"they" were expected to conform to "our" ways.

Some of these things were decided by the leadership of the school, but many were decisions handed down by the mission directors hundreds of miles away. The directors' decisions were increasingly dictated by the churches even farther away who supported them financially. One night, months of frustration resulted in violence as the students attacked structures and staff on campus.

Things got sorted out, sort of, and we were there for a total of two years. Paul enjoyed teaching there, we made lifelong friends, and we both grew up a lot. But I felt that, as a young, inexperienced woman without a specific task on campus, I had no voice to express misgivings or to effect change.

I couldn't budge the system.

An uncomfortable truth is that, in a technical and legal sense at least, we were part of Canada's unspeakably evil residential school system. True, Stirland Lake was probably the last such school, and one of the best. It wasn't an arm of the Catholic or Anglican churches, the students weren't kidnapped off the reserves, and there was no mass grave in the back yard. But Paul and I were part of a school that is on The List, and that is a truth that deserves to be wrestled with.

After that, we spent two years at the mission headquarters, where Paul managed the office, and then we embarked on something very different. A chief on one of the isolated reserves was determined to establish a Christian school in his village. Two other couples had helped to get it going. Could Paul, as an experienced teacher, take over? We said yes.

We lived on that reserve for three years. It was hard, lonely, cold, difficult, inconvenient. . . and wonderful. We were the only family from our mission, so instead of living in a little American Mennonite pod with others like us, we were the anomalies and outsiders, endlessly watched, talked about, and chuckled at. The first year, we had three little children in a tiny little house with no running water. The temperature dropped to 50 below.

But it felt right. We were still under the mission system in terms of finances, emotional support, and transportation, but in most other ways we answered to the chief and the local school board. We did things their way. Promptness wasn't important in that culture, so Paul was flexible with what time the kids showed up at school. Tea was important to them, so Paul fixed a big kettle of Red Rose tea for their morning break. Discipline issues were brought to the parents and the school board and handled according to cultural customs, which were very different from American Mennonite customs.

I stayed home with the children and served countless gallons of hot tea and truckloads of homemade cookies to people who stopped by.

I have no idea if we did any lasting good, and I'm sure we got lots of things wrong. For example, I took pictures of people in the village and let the mission use them in their publications, and I didn't ask the subjects' permission. I regret that. However, I don't think we made heinous blunders that brought trauma or deep loss to anyone, and whatever mistakes we made were ours, not the edict of a faraway supervisor that we felt obligated to obey, despite our misgivings. 

Maybe that's the way to do missions: a system to coordinate and facilitate, but most decisions left to the wisdom and good sense of the people on the ground.

I know there are missionaries who have enough freedom to do lots of damage despite being part of a mission. In the cases I know of, the mission would have had the authority and ability to terminate their service and send them home, but their destructive behavior was allowed to continue for fear that the system itself would be damaged through bad publicity, fewer donations, or work left undone. (Somehow, these rogue missionaries are always the ones who get a lot done without a lot of supervision.)

I still believe in missions as a concept but I'm conflicted about our role in the past and what missioning should look like today. Of course, we look at it from a perspective of years later, knowing all we know now, and of miles away, settled in an American farmhouse.

So I wonder: Is it better to do foreign missions and get some things wrong or to keep farming in Lancaster County or the Willamette Valley and not even make an attempt?

Would it have been better for certain systems or missions never to have begun at all? Do those [in my opinion] poor decisions handed down from high up the ladder, the cultural dominance, the cluelessness, and the times the system took precedence over individual needs and good sense negate any good that was done?

Some of the damage that missions have inflicted is so egregious that absolutely, without a doubt, it would have been better not to ever go anywhere or start anything.

"Meaning well" justifies only so much. After that, "they meant well" or "they had a heart for these people" means nothing.

But then there's "meaning well" with an honest heart. We are called to go and tell, and we go with good intentions. We are fallible beings, sometimes perilously ignorant and naive. We're bound to get some things wrong, but surely if we are walking humbly with God, doing justly and loving mercy, his sovereign kindness will compensate.

Missionaries make lots of decisions in the moment, on the ground, in a foreign culture, with limited information. Those of us observing from 30 years or 10,000 miles away can't fully understand.

However. Surely if we become proud of the system we've built, are too proud of our own culture to learn from another, refuse to adapt or flex, refuse to study methods and history, or use the poverty of another group as an opportunity to exploit and dominate, then we bear the full and terrible responsibility for the results.

In all our online discussions, personal reflections, and refereeing from thirty or a hundred years later, perhaps this quote from Teddy Roosevelt is good to keep in mind, side by side with the caveats in the previous paragraph:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

― Theodore Roosevelt

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sleeping Bags and Stages of Life

My stage of life is best illustrated by the sleeping bags.

They are rolled up and tightly tied like well-behaved sleeping bags ought to be. Some are sleek, nylon, lightweight, and efficient--perfect for backpacking. Two are big, heavy, old cotton bags that would keep you warm in the Klondike. One or two are "mummy" shaped. Most are rectangular. Some are slipped into swishy nylon bags with drawstrings at the end.

They are piled on top of the two upright freezers in the back pantry and also on a shelf on the north wall. In among the sleeping bags, we have at least four foam mats also rolled up into cylinders.

Those sleeping bags have been everywhere: on the trampoline on lovely summer nights when siblings watched for shooting stars and cats came snuggling in the morning chill, spread all over the inside of a pop-up tent trailer out at the coast, down by the creek on boys' adventures [and washed down the creek inside a tent on one memorable occasion], up in the mountains, on road trips, on airplanes, across the country, and on youth-group camping trips.

And back home again.

Our son Steven moved home recently after living at a local fire station for two years and completing an intense out-of-state paramedic program.

I was happy to have him around again, and not only because he lifts heavy objects and comes up with good puns. Like all our offsprings, he is just a good person to have around.

As adult children do, he brought his things with him. And I felt an ancient panic rising.

Many many years ago, we moved to a 20 x 24 foot cabin on a reservation in Canada. We had three children aged 4, 2, and 8 weeks. We also didn't have running water, which I am saying only so you'll feel sorry for me and not because it is really relevant to this story.

A big challenge was Where to Put Things. I had pared down to the very basics of course, since we had to fly in all our belongings. But still. We had kettles, diapers, a radio, flour, soap, pajamas, and such things. And no dressers.

One weekend, early on, Paul went to Winnipeg for a teachers' meeting and managed to come back with a sack of shelf brackets and a stack of laminated boards. He lined our little restroom with shelves and put up a few more in the children's bedroom. I filled the shelves and put underwear and socks in our suitcases and slid them under our bed. It all fit. I was happy.

However. Whenever we got something new, such as when someone sent us a care package of clothes and gifts, I was happy for the much-needed stuff but a little panicky. Where would I put it?

For the next day or two I would fuss and poke and rearrange, and somehow I'd find a place. There. It had a home and a place to be, and I would feel settled once more.

In the last fifteen years, I've had grownup kids moving in, moving out, leaving for short times and medium times and long times, coming for visits, coming for summers, coming until they graduate, leaving again with a sleeping bag and sandwiches tossed into the back seat, 

Often, I've faced that little panic. Where are we going to put everyone and everything??

Before Steven came home at the end of December, I was nosing around the house like an agitated mouse, sniffing with quivering whiskers. How would we do this? What could I get rid of to make more space?

In the back pantry, I looked at those sleeping bags. Surely the time had come. "Everyone pick out which ones are yours, and we'll get rid of the rest," I said.

"But that one is good for backpacking!" they said. "This one is mine, and that other one is good for camping, and those are handy when we have guests, and you use that one on the couch when Dad snores."

So I kept them all.

That defines my odd and unusual stage of life, I thought, that none of my many adventurers are settled enough to take their backpacks into their own dwelling to stay. [Or maybe Matt has his, I'm not sure. But he is getting married this summer and then he will get whatever sleeping bags he has left here, the box of Calvin and Hobbes books in the attic, and all that.]

So Emily cleaned out her things in the sewing room closet and put them into her little bedroom. My book inventory and packaging supplies went from the guest room into the sewing room closet. The VCR went into Amy's room. Steven moved his duffel bags and gigantic fireman boots into the guest room.

It all fit. 

The panicky insides and the nervous whiskers settled down again. Everything had a home. All was well.

So it's a strange phase of life I'm in, with so many adult kids around. Very few women my age can relate, it feels like. But it is thick with humor, good conversation, and unexpected blessings.

Amy cooks delicious Thai dinners on Thursday nights. Emily clears dead iris stalks and live snails out of the flower beds in preparation for spring. Jenny leaves early and comes home late, full of emphatic hilarious stories. On Saturday, Steven singlehandedly put the old lamb shed on a wagon and hauled it out of the field for me.

We all have a home here, it is a safe place to be, and we even have hot and cold running water.

I am the Keeper of the Sleeping Bags.

Quote of the Day at a Sunday dinner:
Me: Fall-apart tender! That's exactly what a Sunday roast is supposed to be.
Jenny: Fall-apart tender? That's what my emotions are.
Ben: Did you just roast yourself?

Friday, January 10, 2020

Book Review: My Other Name is Mom

I was first alerted to My Other Name is Mom when Lisa the niece sent me a WhatsApp note: "Have you read this new Mennonite mom book on the market? It's one of the more realistic, relatable, and inspiring. I get tired of the type with formulas and cliches. This lady has . . . lots of hearty stuff to chew. It's mostly about the more typical young and middle stage of parenting."

"Interesting!" I said.

Serendipitously, the author herself contacted me two weeks later. Could she do a guest post and introduce her new book?

I said yes.

Mary Burkholder talks to you like you're a grownup. You know how to think, and you don't need to be either patronized or revered. You might not have known what you were in for, but you chose this mothering path, and you want to do it Biblically and well.

This was the book I needed thirty years ago. It might well be exactly what you need right now.


Now I Am a Mom
by Mary Burkholder

“When I grow up, I want to be a mommy,” a second grader I know wrote. It struck me as very sweet. I don’t remember all my aspirations as a girl, but I know mommy wasn’t at the top of my list—though I did make preparation against that day by creating a list of twelve names, just in case.
I really wanted to be either an artist or an author. By the time I was eighteen, I had settled on author. I recall an alluring fantasy of remaining single, living alone, and producing best-selling novels. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a prime candidate for feminism; I craved independence. I wanted to follow my dreams. Why should I choose to tie myself to a family?
What if I never got to do anything I really wanted to do?
That was eighteen years ago. Now I am a mom. I do not live alone. And I have yet to write a novel. I still love to write, and I still dream of writing best-sellers, but somewhere along the way, my priorities have changed: being a mom has shifted into first place.
Do I mind?
Let me tell you about a night of my motherhood I’ll never forget; I remember it for two reasons.
The first is because we were taken unsuspectingly by an epic flu epidemic. Four of my five children were ill with the stomach flu on that awful night. I had tucked them in and gone innocently to my own bed for much-needed rest—rest that proved elusive. It seemed just a few short moments later that somebody called, “Mo-om!” Somebody was crying.
I have never seen such a wretched flu, before or since. It had no end.
I trekked upstairs and downstairs, into my bed and out of it again. I changed their pajamas and their bedding. I scrubbed the bedroom carpet and the bathroom floor. I situated buckets that remained largely unused. Even my breastfed baby—I always thought they’re not supposed to get sick—regurgitated everything all over me, the crib, and herself as soon as I stood up to place her back in her crib. After every cry, every call, every re-tucking in, I thought, surely this will be the end of it. Hope springs eternal, and unrequited, springs yet again.
The other adult in our home was incommunicado. Far, far away in another part of the house, he did valiant battle with his own insides. I suppose I should have been deeply grateful I was not sick that night. I suppose I should have joyfully consoled myself that at least one of the children was not throwing up. But at 2:00 a.m., fog-brained and lethargy-limbed, all I could feel was utter hopelessness when someone called Mo-om once again.
It was a night of despair and dismay; an unending saga of dragging myself up from fragmented dozes to stagger to the rescue. I longed for Mom to take over, but I was Mom. At one point, crouched on the carpet with Lysol-scented rag in hand, I had a single clear thought: I never signed on for all this. This is the second reason I remember that night.
This moment of clarity made me think about how I had gotten here: Is motherhood something I’ve chosen? Or did I blindly follow a path of expectation patterned for me by my mom and her mom and her mom? Did I fall unsuspectingly into a trap laid by a church group that promotes motherhood? Do I believe in the importance of my role, or do I just have to like the place I’ve found myself in? How did I get here?
It began when I said yes to a certain dark-haired, dark-eyed young man, and we went out for supper on a Tuesday night. He asked for a second date and I said yes. And much later, he asked me to marry him and I, enamored, said yes. Why had I ever thought I wanted to be single anyway?
We planned a small Friday-night wedding. We bought a little house on a hill in the woods. We honeymooned like the two kids we were and came home to try to navigate realities of an adult world. We were in love and happily unaware of ever-after affects. Children were on the distant horizon—little unknown someones out there who would likely enter my life at some point. I am not a big planner, and I did not have a projected timeline—insert child here. Temporarily freed from other responsibilities, I was writing.
As the years of our marriage went by, one by one, they came along: cute, sweet, funny, endearing, exasperating little additions to our family. And before I knew what was happening, I had become a real mom.
“Mom, help me,” they call. And “Mom, it hurts,” they cry. And, “Mom, look at me,” they shout.
I hug them and spank them and kiss them and read them thousands of stories. They eat up my time and energy. And I don’t want to imagine my life without them.
My children have stolen my sleep, worn me down physically, worried me, aggravated me—oh and they’ve puked in their beds—but they bring me so much joy, and I love them with my heart and soul. My only regrets about mom-life are times I did not show the love, did not feel the love, did not love the moment; because no matter how dreadful, moments are fleeting. I have found identity and security as a very loved, very tired member of this family—even through the gorier bits. I have chosen this. I keep choosing it. And I do believe in it.

Mary Burkholder’s new book, My Other Name Is Mom, highlights the importance of a mother’s
role in the home and in society and counters basic feministic ideology with Bible principles. The
book is refreshingly candid about the tough parts of motherhood, but joyously expresses the
fulfillment and identity found in embracing the role. Mary and her husband Lyndon have five
lovely children of which they are most biasedly proud. Mary has written other books which you
can find on her website.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Mrs. Smucker Grapples With Hard Questions About Fiction Writing

The transition from writing nonfiction to writing fiction is like when someone goes from being Beachy Amish to being Englisch, and they want to put an outfit together.

The Beachy Amish woman has specific parameters. Solid color cape dresses. White covering. Pullover sweaters or cardigans, depending where she’s from. However, she can get creative with the details within those restrictions, maybe putting little pleats at the end of a sleeve or combining a black sweater with a summer-pink dress for a new look.

That’s like non-fiction. You work only with facts and your interpretation of them. That's it. You can't make stuff up, but you can get creative with structure and organization and message.

Now that I’m experimenting with fiction, I feel like the Beachy woman gone worldly. Anything is possible—tank tops, sweatshirts, blouses. Long skirts, pencil skirts, mini skirts. Leggings, jeans, shorts. Solids, florals, stripes. Endless options! I sit down to write and realize I can make up anything I want. Anything! 

It’s a whole new way of thinking—fun but also terrifying.

I’m facing a question that I’ve always faced with nonfiction, but not quite to this degree: How “real” can I be?

Maybe I’ll never get a solid answer that I can seal in a canning jar and leave on the shelf, settled for all time. Maybe this is something I’ll always wrestle with.

After a year and a half in a fiction writing group, I finally finished a story that I was actually happy with. Not a book, let me clarify, but a story. I had fun writing it, the group loved it, and Emily the editing daughter felt that it could go places.

Well, I was happy with it, except for one thing. “But it’s whipped cream,” I sighed. “All fluff and froth and sugar. Not deep. Not about the Hard Realities of Life that I was hoping to address in my stories."

“Yes and no,” countered the critique group. “It’s wholesome. It’s refreshing. And it’s not all fluff! Look, the main character is this single woman who’s made a life for herself. She’s not sleeping around, she’s not bitter. That’s not fluff.”

“Hmmm,” I said.

Soon after I joined the group last year, lacking specific direction, I decided to plunge into a book-length project. A woman I know has a difficult marriage, so I decided to write about her and fix her life. I would also mix in a mystery—my friend “Sara’s” missing pies a few years ago—and solve that while I was at it.

My goodness. That got deep and dark real fast.

The book characters and action veered from real life real fast too, which I found interesting. Ok, so Carol the character was in this tough place. What was it like? Well, her husband and kids didn’t respect or appreciate her. Why not? Hmmm. Probably she didn’t respect herself! And why not? Pretty soon there was a nasty family in her background and a bit of molestation happening in school.

I was hauling this story through mud up to the axles by then, and finally I quit. My group was rooting for Carol, but I was tired of her and her complicated life. I took a break and read one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s collections of short stories.

It was lovely. Story after story of quirky characters and romances that ended in marriage.

Why not copy her, just for fun? With shocking speed and ease, the fluffy story of a Mennonite romance took shape.
As I said, the group loved it.

And I feel torn. Carol’s life is how some real-life people actually live. Part of me wants to dig in there and grapple with those tough issues, writing them out to offer voice and hope to women stuck in shame, blame, and regret.

But when I read a book, do I want that level of painful subjects or do I want a sweet escape from real life?

What is the purpose of fiction writing, for me? That’s what I’m wondering.

Then there’s the delicate matter of discretion. Which topics and details are appropriate? Should I write so that a child can pick up my book and safely read it, as my friend Hope’s little granddaughter likes to do with Fragrant Whiffs of Joy?

Yesterday a woman told me, “Your books take me to a wholesome place where there’s no swear words and no sex.”

“Hmmm,” I said, because honestly, what do you say to such a statement? Also, in the story about Carol, I illustrate the rift in the marriage in one scene by having Carol resist her husband’s advances.

“Is this allowed in Christian fiction?” I asked my group.

“Yes,” said Pat, who hosts the group. “Because they’re married.”

They’re married, it’s realistic, it illustrates a point. But I wouldn’t be comfortable with Hope’s little granddaughter reading it. 

Then there’s the scene where two moms are talking about Jane being pregnant again, so soon, and isn’t she still nursing Hayley? Well, we know how that works, they say, and laugh.

You know that conversation happens in real life. Yes, I could find another illustration, but in that scene, that conversation told you a lot in a few words.

I have no desire to get as “real” as the woman walking into Home Depot ahead of me yesterday. She wore flesh-colored leggings and, in the nature of leggings, ripply, bouncy things were clearly outlined. I thought, “That is far more than I need or want to see. Some things are meant to stay private," and I tried to look elsewhere without tripping over curbs.

At the same time, I'm not interested in the sort of story that wears a mask of perfection—tight smile, every hair in place, perfect outfit in a long coat, with only manicured hands showing.

Where and what is the balance that connects with the reader?

Another question I’m facing is how much I can pull from real life people and situations. I consider my imagination above average, but I have a surprisingly hard time making up characters and stories out of nothing. Why work so hard to make up people when the world is bursting all around with unique personalities, free for the describing?

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the annual Author and Artist Fair in Eugene, a fundraiser for rural library programs. If not many customers show up at these events, you get to talk with other authors, so it’s always a winning situation. Yesterday was a good mix of readers who came by to talk and breaks in the traffic long enough to dash over to a fellow author and catch up.

I seized the opportunity to get advice from the fiction writers around me. To my left was none other than Melody Carlson who has written some 200 books and is well-known in the Christian book world and beyond.  Across the aisle was Carola Dunn, who is now retired but wrote over 60 books in her day, mostly the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries.

“How much do you draw from real life?” I asked Melody Carlson who, just so you know, is nice and approachable despite having sold seven million books, and the collar on her dress was turned up wonkily in back, which made me really happy.

She draws from broad themes, she said, but not too many specifics. For example, she had a family member with schizophrenia, so she wrote a book about it, but changed all the characters and such, so that the mental illness and the family’s feelings about it were the only elements from real life.

She also mentioned that if Hallmark adapts a book into a movie, it’s not ok to have a divorced mom. She has to be edited into a widow.

Of course Hallmark shows are all about escaping from real life, but still, I wondered about that. There are lots of divorced moms in this world. When is it ok to be realistic about this in our stories? I’m not faulting Hallmark. They know they want happy fantasies in the falling snow, so they can do that all they want.

I’m just not sure if it’s what I want for me.

When I asked Carola Dunn for advice, she said to keep asking "Why?" "Why are your characters doing this? What's behind it?" She also said she pulls characters from real life all the time. The funny thing is, people say they find themselves in her stories, but they never name the actual character Carola based on them. It’s very odd. But it works out well.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, I am told, had a difficult life. Her diaries confirm that she encountered levels of frustration and loss that you’d never guess from her hopeful writings. However, notes of loneliness, regret, sadness, and even abuse show up in her stories if you look for them. But things almost always turn out in the end and I can close the book with a happy sigh and return to my complicated life feeling like everything will come out right in the end for us as well.

Montgomery's books endure a hundred years later. A child can safely pick them up and read them. Is that my answer that I can seal in a jar and cease to reckon with?

I doubt it. I think I’ll be wrestling with these questions as long as I keep writing. Maybe the wrestling is more important, in the long term, than the stories themselves.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Full and Empty: A Thanksgiving Poem

Empty oven.
Empty pans.
Empty roasters.
Empty plans.

Make a list of
Fifty goals
Write a guest list:
Fifteen souls.

Empty crock pots.
Empty case.
Clean the fridge and
Clear the space.

Make a menu.
Time to start.
Fill the WinCo
Shopping cart.

Peel potatoes.
Celery chop.
Fill the piecrusts 
To the top.

Crank the pressure
Cooker's vent.
Fill the kitchen 
With the scent

Fill the crock pots.
Whip the cream.
Work together
As a team.

Empty table
Stretch it long
Set the plates where
They belong.

Fold the napkins
Set the spoons
Guests will be 
Arriving soon.

Family, strangers
Covered miles.
Here they come with
Cautious smiles.

Empty stomachs.
Hard to wait.
Smells that make us

Bustling kitchen.
Joyful hugs.
Cream and coffee
In the mugs.

Pull the turkey.
Slice the meat.
It is almost 
Time to eat.

Stir the gravy.
Warm the rolls.
Unplug crock pots.
Fill the bowls.

Fill the table.
Fill the chairs.
Join the hands and
Offer prayers.

Pass potatoes.
Stuffing, dip.
Don't let the turkey
Platter slip.

Pass ideas.
Questions, ask.
Discussion is a
Worthy task.

Make connections.
Laugh together. 
Be a friend.

Groaning stomachs.
Drooping eyes.
Pass the coffee.
Cut the pies.

Empty dishes.
Stack the plates.
Can't believe how
Much we ate.

Fill the empty
Wash the china
With great care.

Fill the couch and
Comfy chairs
Nap like hibernating 

Pass the party mix
And yawn.
Bring on Settlers
Of Catan.

Hug the guests and 
Say goodbye.
House feels empty.
Night is nigh.

Hearts are full as
At this day's
End we whisper
Thanks and praise.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Mom No Longer Knows Everything

I used to toss around the phrase "Moms know everything," as an only-half-joking way to end arguments, protracted questionings, and suspicions about my credibility.

I'm sure the children always thought I invented it myself, but it came from one of the many people who invested in my kids. When we lived in Dryden, Ontario, one of the single staff ladies at the camp where we lived wanted to give my children a Christmas gift. Like all the other voluntary service people, she didn't have much money. So she bought two secondhand children's books and read them aloud into a cassette recorder, clanging a spoon on a metal bowl when it was time to turn the page.

Then she gave the children the books and the tapes. I still think it was one of the cleverest low-cost gifts ever. The kids practically memorized those stories.

I can still see this young lady in my mind--round face, glasses, smiling--but I can't bring up her name. Something Coblentz, maybe.

[Later: Brenda Coblentz! That's who it was!]

One part of one of the stories had a list of weather-related words like meteorology, hygrometer, and anemometer.  Miss Coblentz slowly sounded them out and then added, aside, "If you don't know what those are, ask your mom. Moms know everything."

What a handy phrase. I ended up using it a lot.

It came up again this morning.

Steven is home, briefly. He just finished an intense 3-month paramedic course at a community college in McCook, Nebraska. Next week he heads to Las Vegas for his internship. "Las Vegas is good because there's lots of gunshot wounds, heart attacks, that kind of thing."

I went into the guest room this morning to get some books to fill an order. Steven was still in bed and on his phone. "I'm reading about drugs," he said.  "Ketoralac." He explained further complicated things about Ketoralac that I can't remember.

"I was wondering," I said, "what you do when you come on the scene and someone is unconscious. Let's say you know they need a certain drug, but you don't know their medical history, and you don't know if they're on a drug that will react with what you need to give them."

He explained that if someone's unconscious, you check their blood sugar and their pupils. Dilated pupils could indicate an overdose of a benzo drug. Pinpoint pupils indicate narcotics. He casually went on to explain processes, symptoms, solutions, and if-then scenarios, all peppered with multi-syllable medical words that slipped into one of my ears and out the other without registering in my brain.

I said, "You know, the days when I knew more than my kids are long gone."

He laughed. "Moms know everything?"

"Yes. But not any more."

Those were good days, when they came to me wondering why are leaves green, how old is Grandma Yoder, and who is that new family in church? When will it be my birthday, why do we pray before we eat, and where is the shampoo? Why do tigers have stripes, is this rope strong enough for a swing, and what are we having for supper?

I knew everything.

That is no longer the case.

Last week, I was twirling a fidget spinner and noted the pressure on my fingers when I tilted it back and forth. "Oh!" said Jenny and Amy. "Conservation of angular momentum."

Seriously, who pulls up those words as casually as I recall how to spell mayonnaise?

Among the six of them, they know vastly more than me about rocket fuel, pop bands, Narcan, the Thai language, the combustion rate of lignin, space travel, politics, cooking, fashion, coffee, farming, culture, chemistry, teaching, sports, directing drama, and much much more.

That is as it ought to be. I picture a little splash in a pool, and the ripples radiate outward, into faraway river systems and oceans.

"As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man, so are children of the youth," says Psalms 127:4.

Off they go. Outward from the center.

1 Chronicles 4:10 says, "Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request."

I don't pray Jabez's prayer for myself, because I already have more options and opportunities than I can handle, but I pray it for my children, that their influence for good would radiate steadily outward into a world that needs kindness, knowledge, Jesus, wisdom, humor, literacy, joy, clean water, and rescue.

I know as much as I did back then, and lots more besides, but it's no longer everything. It's only a tiny bit, in comparison.

That's ok. I am happy to be here at home, sending and praying, nudging and encouraging, ever outward. Here at the center, where it all began, is a good place to be. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Story About a Boy and a Girl from Oregon

Once upon a time there was a red-haired boy growing up near Harrisburg, Oregon. He liked to research animals, do dangerous things, and take mechanical things apart.

His name was Matt.

His mom, Dorcas, wrote for the newspaper in town, the Register-Guard.

Seven miles away a little dark-haired girl was growing up. Her name was Phoebe. She was creative and liked science.

Phoebe's dad was named Tom. He also worked for the Register-Guard newspaper, as a graphic designer. He would design the page where Matt's mom's articles appeared.

Tom and Dorcas didn't know each other, but in 2012 Dorcas wanted to self-publish a bunch of her articles. She asked her friend Bob, another RG columnist, who he'd recommend to help design the cover and inside pages.

Bob said, "I always ask my friend Tom."

Tom was willing to help. He found an artist who drew pretty teapots, and he set up the cover and inside pages of Tea and Trouble Brewing. He found a special font that could be used for future books as well. "Your signature font," he said.

Meanwhile, Matt finished up his engineering studies at Oregon State University and moved to Washington, DC, to work for the Navy. 

A few years later, Dorcas wanted to publish another book. Again, she called on Tom. He came out to their farmhouse to discuss it. They sat at the kitchen table along with Dorcas's dad, Amos, who frowned at Tom with his bristly eyebrows and demanded, "So, are you British??"

Tom was gracious. Yes, he has some English ancestry, he said.

This book was to be called Footprints on the Ceiling. Dorcas wanted a picture on the cover of old barn boards with a big footprint. Tom said he could do that, and again he did all the layout and design, and served as a liaison with the printer, Friesens, in Manitoba.

When the time came for another book, Tom was doing the work of at least two people at the Register-Guard, since the newspaper was cutting staff in an effort to stay alive, so Dorcas kept the same font and the teapot artist but hired someone else to take care of the design.

Meanwhile, Matt kept working in DC and Phoebe finished college in Oregon. Matt enrolled at the University of Maryland and studied aerospace engineering while working full time.

In June of 2018, Dorcas wrote an article for Fathers Day. She mentioned that when her son Matt comes home from Washington, DC, he and his dad talk about work and politics, while she and he discuss life, feelings, nice girls, church, friends, and such things.

Tom set up the column, as usual. When he read it, he had an idea. His mother always read the column when it came out on Sundays, and she had the same idea. The two of them discussed it. The grandma was sure this idea came from the Holy Spirit.

Tom sent Dorcas an email. Did she realize, he wondered, that his daughter Phoebe was working in DC? Did Dorcas think her son and Tom's daughter would enjoy meeting for coffee?

Now Dorcas had tried her hand at matchmaking and it had been a dismal failure, so she didn't let herself go into that mode in this situation. Besides, she had never met Phoebe and didn't know if she passed her strict standards. But she knew Matt would enjoy seeing someone from back home, since he always enjoyed Oregon connections, including figuring out that there was exactly one other Oregon license plate in the big parking lot at the Navy Yard.

Phone numbers were exchanged all around.

They met for coffee.

Matt texted a short, nonchalant message to his mom.

A week later, word filtered back home that they had met again.

"Oh!" said Dorcas.

Matt said they went to the Air and Space Museum for three hours.

The Smuckers discussed this at length. Matt's brother Ben said, "Any girl that can listen to Matt at the Air and Space Museum for three hours is something special."

Matt and Phoebe continued to meet. Phoebe's friends at the ladies' boarding house where she lived were deeply invested in the story. "But Phoebe, is he a Calvinist? You can't date someone who's not a Calvinist!"

The two families back in Oregon were deeply invested as well.

By August, Matt and Phoebe decided they were officially dating.

Phoebe spent time with his family at Christmas. Matt went to Phoebe's grandpa's birthday party. The families were delighted all around, and it was so convenient to have the families living only a few miles apart.

By the following September, everyone was anxiously waiting for Matt to propose. To help him out, his mom and sister bought a little unicorn ring from a vending machine. He considered using it when he and Phoebe were by a lake in Minnesota one evening after his grandpa's funeral, especially when a lovely shooting star blazed by, but somehow it didn't seem right to propose right after a funeral.

In October, they came to Oregon again because her grandpa was turning 100 years old. Matt took Phoebe out to the coast one day. When they returned, Phoebe had a pretty ring on her finger--a real diamond ring. Dorcas was so happy she burst into tears.

Her daughter Emily wrote about it here.

They discussed dates, and Dorcas and Phoebe looked at wedding dress patterns.

"Wait. Is this real?" thought Dorcas. It was.

She gave thanks.

As for the "Is he a Calvinist?" question, Emily wrote: “But it’s even funnier now,” Matt says, “because our whole relationship seems predestined.”

For one thing, Tom first emailed his idea only two weeks after Matt had finished getting his master's degree in aerospace engineering. He would never have had time for a relationship while he was in grad school, he said.

And in the most goose-bumpy coincidence of all, it turned out that way back when Tom needed a footprint for the cover of Dorcas's book, he asked his daughters for help. Phoebe painted the bottom of her foot and printed it on a piece of paper. "We have a picture of it," she said. "I was in pajamas and laughing hysterically."

So for the last four or five years, while Dorcas was praying for Matt's future wife, that mystical faceless woman, 2000 copies of that same young lady's footprint were right in front of Dorcas as she sent out orders or arranged her books on a table at book events.

That is how God works.

They all plan to live happily ever after. 

And, in case you're wondering, Phoebe says they're Calminian.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Soft-soled Shoes and Clicking Heels

Every week, new controversies flare up in the Christian subculture. Every month or so, one of them generates enough degrees to pop up in flaming Facebook and blog posts. Ann Voskamp weighs in poetically, the Facebook regulars claim to know what's really behind the event, and someone posts a clever meme.

I deliberately try to stay out of those conversations, since I don't do well with debate and seldom feel like I'm given enough information to form a solid opinion.

A recent event was different. It unearthed and replayed old tapes of angry, disgusted voices, and it triggered that familiar sense of instantly curling up tight inside, terrified, frozen solid, tiny and silent.

John MacArthur made some controversial comments about Beth Moore.

If you don't know: both are well-known evangelical American teachers and authors. MacArthur is a preacher. Beth Moore talks and gestures like a preacher but doesn't claim to be one, I don't believe. Here's a summary of what happened, pulled from this source.

Last week during the Truth Matters Conference at Grace Community Church, MacArthur took part in a panel discussion and was asked to give a “pithy” response to a word mentioned by the moderator. The word given was “Beth Moore,” to which MacArthur replied, “Go home.”
He then elaborated and said, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”
Later, MacArthur added, “Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel doesn't mean you should be preaching.”

I watched the video. The joking, laughter, and applause told me that this was about far more than it pretended to be.

What I heard, to Beth Moore and also to me, was not only "Go home," but: "Will you just shut up?!"

It was the same message the old tapes were playing in my mind.

I talked to Paul and whichever offsprings were in the kitchen, trying to process my reaction. They pointed out that the entire exercise was a bad idea. "Putting these guys on the platform and playing a word association game is like teenagers playing Truth or Dare. There's no way this will end well."

"Even if he thought it he didn't have to say it out loud," I said.

Paul said, "If it were me, I would feel an obligation to actually say whatever popped in my head first. I would feel like I didn't have a choice."

I was surprised by that. He is not a rule-follower.

We agreed that whoever organized the "game" was extremely foolish, and that it was deeply disrespectful to use Beth Moore's name in this context, as a target for derision and laughter.

My family affirmed my gut reaction without fully understanding it. This is a good thing. It means they never heard those angry voices themselves.

I love to stay home, I don't want to preach, and I would rather pick up a live garter snake than be a pastor. I think it's scriptural for men to be leaders, especially in the church and home.

So why did I gasp and flinch at MacArthur's words?

The choice of words, the tone, and the laughter told me this had very little to do with women preaching and much more to do with women having thoughts and words.


I think the closest I came to preaching a sermon in a church was at the NEF [Native Evangelical Fellowship] church in Weagamow Lake, Ontario, maybe 30 years ago, and that wasn't very close.

Church on the reserve was not like church at Brownsville Mennonite. Starting times were more flexible, for one thing. Sometimes the service was all in Oji-Cree. Children freely wandered about. People didn't dress very formally. I usually tried to dress our family up, but I realized what an American Mennonite exercise that was whenever Tommy Kakekayash was late starting the fire in the stove and we wore our parkas and hats all through the service.

Paul wasn't a preacher then, only a principal and teacher at the Christian school, but once in a while they asked him to speak at a Sunday evening service. He didn't think of it as preaching, but I did, at least a little, because I thought he was that good and important.

In winter, he'd get up on the platform wearing his suit and his thick, knee-high Sorel boots with the wild green, blue and white print—not an unusual combination for that setting. He would talk and our friend Gary would translate.

Paul was scheduled to speak one Sunday, but he got really sick the week before, and he doubted he'd recover enough to go to church.

"Maybe I should take your place," I said impulsively. When it's your second year in a mission setting, there's a lot you'd like to tell people about how they ought to live.

"All right," said Paul.



What an opportunity. I debated about this, but in the end didn't have the nerve to actually do it, so Paul got someone else to take his place.

The NEF church would have been ok with it, I'm quite sure, because things weren't very conventional there, as I said, and Rhoda Tait, whose husband had been a well-known preacher in the North, would sometimes go up front and talk for a while.

We also note that Paul was only about ten years removed from his high school and college years among the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodists. They will affirm a woman's call to preach, which surprises people because they are a conservative bunch and the women look like Mennonites who forgot to wear their coverings. So it wasn't such a bizarre idea to Paul to have me speak in his place.

I've spoken to many different groups, but that was the closest I came to even considering anything I might call a sermon, and we see that I was still a long way away. I've never had any desire to be a church leader or pastor, and that has steadily dropped from zero to about minus-515 in the 25 years that Paul has been a pastor.

Yet MacArthur's words seemed directed not only at Beth Moore, who speaks before thousands, but also to women like me.

One time I spoke at a conference and wasn't given much warning what sort of Mennonites would be present. I was told ahead of time that my veil was fine as it was, but I should be sure to wear a dress, rather than a skirt and blouse. Those were easy guidelines to comply with, but I wished later they would have mentioned shoes as well. I completed my outfit with a pair of black pumps with 2-inch heels, because pumps with heels make me feel more competent.

It turned out that most of the audience were much more conservative than me. The women all wore black shoes with soft soles. On the hard tile floors their shoes made, at most, soft whispery sounds, and mine went click click click, up the aisle to the podium, click click click, handing out papers, click click click clickclickclickclick, back down the aisle when I was finished.

Everyone in the audience was kind, engaging, attentive, encouraging. But I got the feeling that because they were so quiet they were essentially good, and because I was so noisy there was something flagrant, conspicuous, and bad about me, as though I should have known the rules but chose to ignore them.

Silence is good, you know.


Sometimes when I speak to women I tell them about Pilate's wife.

We meet her in Matthew 27. She is back in the palace, but she knows her husband is in an awful spot. Jesus is on trial. The crowd is yelling and demanding. Rome is going to be watching how this is handled. And the decision is Pilate's. Her husband's. It all comes down to him, there at the center of this drama.

She falls asleep and has a dream. That man on trial is innocent! He must not be condemned! What is she to do?

She must do something.

I am guessing it was neither common nor remotely ok for her to influence Pilate's official decisions, but she is desperate.  She sends a message. I picture a note, but it may have been a servant's word.

“Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

Then she waits in terrible suspense, and eventually finds out her husband washed his hands in a pathetic attempt to proclaim his own innocence and then handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Think about this.

The decision is Pilate's. The power is his, the weight, the responsibility.

The dream is hers. The knowledge, the awareness, the desperation.

Why was she given the information if she had absolutely no power to decide or judge?

Why didn't Pilate have the dream or the insights?

I don't know the answer, I tell women, but I know from this story that her voice and her insights mattered. Who else spoke up for Jesus that terrible night?  No one.

The Eastern Orthodox Church called her Procula and gave her sainthood. She spoke truth.


"Tell your husbands clearly what you think and feel," I told the women at the retreat in Texas. "No hinting. If he's like a big old hippo, he won't listen to a mosquito buzzing around. You need to talk like a hippo, or maybe an elephant."

"I'm afraid of getting it all wrong," one woman said. "I used to think submission meant silence, and now I don't know how to speak."

That word always pops up in these contexts: submission.

It's in the Bible. My understanding is that it means letting your husband lead, provide, and protect and also supporting and helping him.

I am sure it doesn't mean not saying anything, but we hear the voices from our conflicted pasts. Submission equals silence, the voices say, and silence is good. If we would just shut up, we would finally be good, and everything would be ok. We would know our place. That would be good too.

"Our teaching on submission has made us into good manipulators," says a young friend.

Mennonite women are learning to speak, to chill the sloshing thoughts into solid jello words that can be scooped out and served. "I think this." "I feel this." "Could you please do this?" "I need help." "This happened to me."

Sometimes it comes out all wrong. Miscommunication happens, even arguments. "Maybe silence is better after all," they say.

"No," I tell them. They admit their husbands say the same thing.

"He wants to know what I think about things. He likes when I say it instead of hinting."

The women look surprised as they tell me, and I bless those husbands, finally erasing the voices that shamed and silenced in the past.

"Speaking takes practice," I say. "It's hard to put thoughts and feelings into words. You won't get good at it if you never talk. You're allowed to make mistakes. That's how you learn."

When you were told to shut up, that your only chance at being good was being quiet, it's an unbelievably long and rocky road to opening your mouth and expressing what's going on inside.

Both men and women tried to shush some of us over the years, when we spoke the truth out loud. But there is something uniquely devastating about a man with spiritual authority accusing, condemning, and silencing, especially if you are the only woman in the room.

"You talk too much," they said. "It was actually your fault." "You were out of place." "Stop talking about this." "Do not write about this."

We shriveled and grew smaller before their intimidating gaze. If they were God's anointed, then this had to be the voice of God, confirming all we feared. We must never speak again.

No wonder we reacted to John MacArthur.

Women came to Jesus, weeping, wiping his feet, pouring precious ointment. He found them sinful, sick, bent double for 18 years. He called their names, healed them, and valued them.

"What a waste," said the men with religious authority. "He ought to know she's a sinner." "He violated the Sabbath."

The women didn't have to deal with these men because Jesus did it for them.

"Why do you bother her?" he said.
"Leave her alone."
"Her story will always be told."
"You don't understand love and forgiveness."

To the women he said, "You are set free.” 
"Go and sin no more."
"Go in peace."

The "young man" (we assume an angel) that the women discovered in Jesus's tomb told them not to be alarmed and to go and tell the men what had just happened.

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.

When we meet Jesus, he becomes both voice and message to us, truth and Word, restorer and sender.

The old tapes playing in our heads slowly turn silent in His presence. We learn to ignore the current clamor as well, telling us a thousand conflicting messages of what we ought to be and do and say, and even more what we ought not to be and do and say.

We listen to Him.

"Go and tell," he says.

"Really?" we say.


"All right then. We will."