Living Disciplined in the Dark

In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline. In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline.

According to the author of this Psalm, we must raise glad exultations to God for He has done marvelous things. “But what are these great deeds?” one could ask. “Why should I give praise to this God?” In the first portion of the Psalm, we read depictions of how the entire world is already lifting a chorus of praise to God for they observe the works of their Creator. “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). The people of Israel know the deeds of God in the way He parted the Red Sea and led them across dry land as they escaped brutal slavery in Egypt. Time and again this God of theirs executed justice in the ways He protected his people from rebellious nations. Surely for these acts alone He deserves praise.

The call to praise God becomes a bit convoluted as we move to the central verses in this Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 beckon us to bless God because “he has kept us among the living” (NRSV)  and “he has preserved us” (NIV). This language of preservation make me think of the to meticulous storage techniques involved in canning fruits or vegetables. It’s essential to follow the recipe precisely and to time the heating process perfectly in order to keep the lids sealed and the foods stored safely (and deliciously) for later use. Here in the Psalm the use of the word “preservation” in conjunction with the reference to human life points towards the fullness of life to which God is inviting us. As his people we have intrinsic value and we find our purpose in the work of his kingdom. Thus we are worth protecting and preserving with the utmost care.

This detailed work of preservation is extended in the way in which God does not “let our feet slip” (verse 9). The Lord keeps a careful eye on his loved ones, being sure our feet are firmly planted on the path before us. In my role as a mother,  I share a similar watchfulness over my young daughter on the playground (Stoneco, Vienna, St Mary’s). I sit back and allow her freedom to explore and exert her independence. Up and down she climbs, my attentive gaze always following her. My stomach churns as she creeps close to an edge, but I cheer when she wisely decides to take another route. The moment her foot begins to slip, however, I spring into action and catch her, keeping her from injury. The Lord does the same for us, his sons and daughters.

That sounds well and good, yet we find ourselves reading the words of verses 10 through 12 with shock and frustration, jolted out of our loving image of God.

10 For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;

Here we find the psalmist reflecting on the afflictions the Lord has brought his people through. In the Message paraphrase, verse 12 says “He has road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back.” Not only does it seem we have been deliberately put through the flames of refinement, but we were led into a trap and intentionally burdened. In these verses we find ourselves moved from a place of praising God for the way He led His people out of slavery, to lamenting the way God’s own hand directed us back to prison. “Why would God allow these painful trials and tribulations to face the children He supposedly loves?” we could ask.

The process of spiritual transformation happens in the fire or the rough waters, the darkest times of our journey. Our tendency is to run from pain and ask God to keep us from ever experiencing difficulty. The great surprise of the spiritual life is not that it is free from burden or challenge, but rather that we find ourselves nearest to God’s heart in those moments. When we read the psalmist’s metaphorical description of trials as the refining process of silver, we must examine the greater purpose of this pain. In the refinement process the goal is not to alter the silver, but to bring it to a more pure version of itself. Spiritually speaking, our own journeys toward God are not to lead us further away from who we are today, but toward a more holistic – more sanctified – a more Christ-in-me – version of ourselves.

In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr say, “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.” (Rohr, 100). This summary of the Christian spiritual formation process is an invitation to embrace the pain of life as a way of communing with God. Psalm 66:12b alters our perspective of the turbulent times when we see the welcomed conjunction “yet” changing the scenery. “yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” Suddenly we realize our Good Shepherd has not kept us in the pain for no purpose, but has led us toward a “spacious place” of freedom and abundance. Our hearts can be at rest in this place of “green pastures and quiet waters” as its put in Psalm 23, and we begin to recount the ways God has been faithful through the trials.

If our spiritual journey will take us deeper into the heart of God in the midst of hardship and affliction, we must have a plan in place to endure these times and deliberately call our attention to the presence of God with us. Psalm 66 is a hymn of discipline. Kevin and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I can’t help but think of how perfectly our wedding vows suit this Psalm. We are called to praise God in times of plenty and in times of want, in joy and in sorrow. In order to praise God in the midst of darkness we must live disciplined lives, using the tools of spiritual discipline to place ourselves before God and ask that our eyes be opened to his grace.

The ways in which we cultivate a life whose soul-soil is ready to receive the difficult work of the Holy Spirit is through faithful love and obedience to God. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We express our love for God by intentionally being present to Him and noticing his presence with us. In this Psalm alone, multiple spiritual disciplines are laid out as examples to us. First we practice the discipline of celebration, being deliberate in our praise of God for all of the goodness we have already experienced. By practicing the discipline of contemplation, where we stop and pause (as seen in the “selahs” of this Psalm),  meditating on the character of God or on his good works. This discipline of the mind helps us to notice more readily the ways God is being gracious to us in the midst of our present circumstances. In verse 13-15 the psalmist writes:

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

We can commit to bringing elaborate sacrificial offerings into God’s house even when we find ourselves facing hardship. This turns our hearts to generosity and allows us to better receive the generosity of God. We read the guttural cries of the psalmist in verse 17 when he says 17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue;” we too can commune with God in honest prayer through the suffering. God listens to our prayers and responds, and verse 18 indicates our prayers are most effective when we have practiced the discipline of confession. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Being blameless and righteous when we come before God is an important starting point to all of our prayers and humbly ushers us into the transforming work of the Spirit.

The final steps in our rhythm of spiritual formation is to declare the great things God has done to all who will hear. Verse 5 says, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals” while verse 16 echoes this by declaring, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” As we experience the saving work of God and his gentle presence with us as we endure difficulties, we must tell everyone who will listen the story of God. God’s invitation is for all people to be with him, communing with him and joining in his creative work in the world. Our role is to notice his presence with us in the fiery times or in the times of spacious safety and to glorify his good name always, beckoning others to experience this great grace.

The road of spiritual formation is winding, not linear, being led by the Spirit of God as we place ourselves in a posture of receptivity to his work. By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, contemplation, celebration, confession, and generosity, we are better able to respond to the work God is doing in our lives. Through his work we become more like Him as our impurities are washed away refining our character, drawing out the image of God already stamped on our souls.

Stay in the Cloud

 

The essence of this exercise is nothing else but a simple and direct reaching out to God for himself…not (asking) to be released from pain or for his reward to be increased; in a word (the practitioner) asks for nothing but God himself; so much so that s/he takes no account or regard of whether s/he is in pain or in joy, but only that the will of Him who s/he loves be fulfilled.

I sat with this concept for a long time during this week.  Before I read these words, the Lord was already cultivating this soil in my heart, leading me to a patient lingering in the Tension. Is it possible that God wants me to wait in the tension, to stay in the Land of the Unresolved? I have always longed for direction and a solution. Lord, just tell me what to do and I will do it. I am an active (struggling with the contemplative) after all. I am willing to have the difficult conversations, to confront or to apologize. But to just wait?!

Waiting (and not forcing an answer or solution) is a difficult concept, and one that I have honestly not considered. My form of waiting is really just badgering the Lord for answers. Yet God is asking me to be with Him. It is not time to move on past the pain. This land, this tension between the Already and the Not Yet, is where He wants me. Perhaps an “answer” (in the form I’m imagining) will not come. Maybe I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, settling in deeper to the heart of God because what else is there, really?

 

These are reflections on my reading of The Cloud of Unknowing for my Master’s class in Formational Theology.

 

Kirsten Grace – Month 12

Kirsten!
You are 1 year old today! Happy Birthday, Baby Girl!

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This year has gone by faster than any year I have ever experienced, feeling almost impossible that 12 months have passed since you came (rather reluctantly) into our arms. It was a long, hard labor (nearly 28 hours after my water was broken) and I can’t say I’d want to do that all over again, but I am so thankful I did. Darling girl, you have been the most incredible grace in our lives. WOW. Being your mama is the greatest joy and the biggest challenge I have ever faced. I have no idea how someone can scream and cry and keep me from sleep for almost a year (well…closer to two with the pregnancy-night-pee-thing) … and still bring more joy and bigger grins to my face than I ever believed possible. Kirsten, you are a paradox of stress and relief, frustration and celebration, and I absolutely am head over heals for you.

Let it be known: I would not change one thing about you. Not ONE THING. (It’s as the eloquent poet Sandra Boynton says, “I love what you are, I love what you do, fuzzy little snuggle puppy, I love you!”)

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You are an investigator. You love turning the pages in books, preferring grown up books to your own. You examine toys and tissue boxes. You watch us play piano or guitar and you very intentionally mimic our movements. First thing in the morning when we greet you in your crib, you start pointing left and right, up and down, saying “Dah?”…asking us “what’s that, what’s that?” You know trees, cat, light, book, etc. You continually pull everything out of cupboards and drawers. We actually found you had bit through a Kcup and had coffee all over you. Yum. I also ended up bungee cording your dress drawers to keep you from dismantling your clothes 10 times a day.

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You love food. You have mastered the “squooshi” packets for eating yogurt and applesauce and cottage cheese, but for the most part you’d just assume eat what mom and dad are eating. You have adventurous taste buds. You seem to dislike most fruits, oddly enough, but will go to town on a bowl of chili.

You are musical. On the first day with your “band in a box” you had learned that the cymbals go together and which piece to use with the triangle. You love the “drum set” I made you out of oatmeal canisters, happily imitating our rhythms. You play the piano and guitar gently and intentionally. You sing. You could care less about TV unless the theme song to The West Wing comes on. (Let’s be honest, that is some brilliant orchestration. Good taste, little girl.) When I nurse you before bed I hum “Hush now, my baby” from The Prince of Egypt and whenever I stop, you make a few grunts to indicate, “Keep singing, please, mom.”

You have a vibrant personality. You laugh loudly, you cry loudly. You have a flair for the dramatic. You are hysterically funny, using your eyebrows and facial expressions like a second language. When you feel demanding (about food or wanting attention or demanding to be closer to your pal Landon L.), you screech with the highest pitch I fear all the dogs in the neighborhood will come running. You know what you want and are very unlikely to be a pushover.

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You are a lover. You want to be near both mom and dad all of the time (though no cuddling, please). You give kisses now with an opened mouth and a “Mah!” You still flap your arms wildly whenever you see either of us (or Landon, of course). You give your stuffed animals and other toys kisses too.

You may be an extrovert. You love people and happily bounce from person to person. You are joyful to be around and most everyone seems to enjoy being around you. I am thinking you lean extrovert also because of the way you refuse to be rocked to sleep. Once you’re done nursing, you won’t let me hold you and rock you to sleep. Nope. You want your bed, to decompress by yourself. This reminds me of my own tendencies – if there’s someone in the room I can’t help but interact with them. So to rest and relax, I need quiet, alone time.

You have 5 teeth, you stand without holding on, you’ve taken 1-½ steps. You crawl like a speed demon, take two 1-½ hour naps a day, and sleep through the night from 7-7. (Praise the Lord for sleeping through the night. Oh my gosh, I cannot thank you enough, Child.)

Kirsten Grace,

May you never doubt the Love of God,
The nearness of His Comforter, the Holy Spirit,
Or the friendship of Jesus.

May you be confident of your giftedness,
Humble in your confession,
Genuine in your love of all people.

May you grow in grace and in knowledge of God,
Serving him first, always.

Praying this for you,
Mama

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Kirsten Grace – Month 11

Dear Kirsten,

Oh goodness, sweet girl, I missed your 10th month post completely. I saw it coming, I saw it fly right past me, and I consciously decided not to chase it down. It’s hard for your mom to let stuff go…to say “I need some margin in my life and I have none right now.” So last month that is exactly what I did, I let it go. And somehow, I am certain you still love me and if you ever read these letters when you’re a little older, I think you’ll smile and say, “Oh mom, why would you worry about that? Of course it’s ok!”
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Baby, you are my absolute favorite person in the whole world. These past two months have brought more wonders to our lives than I imagined. Man, those first few months are just tough. The nursing, the teething, the (no) sleeping. But we got through it together and now I feel like we’re having more fun than anyone should be allowed to have. At least once a day you and I get in these laughing fits…I do something that makes you laugh, or you do something that cracks me up…and off we go! It’s hysterical and so life-giving.

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You have learned to wave and point! Every morning when I pick you up from your crib you want to go to the window, open the drapes and we have “Hi, Outside!” Something out there really gets you excited. You love riding in your k’tan under my umbrella over to church, hearing the raindrops. You have come around to loving walks. I look forward to you asking me to take you for a stroller ride. I just love those times together.
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You love feeding yourself graham crackers, peanut butter toast, and cheerios. You drink with skill from your sippy cup and are trying to use a spoon. Most of the time you demand food from mom and dad’s plates rather than something separate for you. You like curried potatoes, chili, and pizza. You have shown some dislike for bananas and don’t seem interested in my chicken noodle soup, though you eat every other soup I make. Maybe it’s the black pepper?

Your body fought a cold for about 2 weeks in November and finally the doctor gave you your first prescription for Amoxicillin. It never slowed you down, though. Kirsten, you do not sit still. You are a little investigator, always going, going, going. I’ve tried to snuggle with you, but it never works. That’s ok. You’re a learner and an independent spirit. And I don’t think anyone doubts that you love your momma, even if you don’t love snuggling.

We’re still breastfeeding, though I think we’re both working towards weaning. You normally nurse when you wake up in the morning, once before a nap, and once before bed. And all glory to God in the highest….you are SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT! The past week we decided it was time for sleep training. I was still getting up once or twice a night with you, plus nursing you at 5 or 6am when I woke up and then laying you back down. It was torture, sheer torture, letting you scream in your bed for somewhere around 45 minutes. Our hearts were racing, and it took intense will power to stay in our bed. (It was more sleep training for me, I think, honestly.) Seeing you in the morning no worse for the wear, made the decision a lot easier. After the third night, I would hear you now and again, but I could go back to sleep and ignore you for the most part. And now, for the last three nights, I haven’t heard one peep from you (or at the most it lasts for 20 seconds!) You sleep from 7pm to 8am. Holy moly! After 11 months, I am finally catching up on sleep!

IMG_8905This shift in lifestyle is making me feel slightly more comfortable with the idea of being gone for 8 days in January (for my Master’s degree residency). Little girl, please know that leaving you is the hardest thing I think I’ve done. I’m not looking forward to it, but knowing you don’t need me during the night is comforting. You do wonderfully with your daddy during every other part of the day, so by then, I know the two of you will have a blast!

 

For as much as you are a momma’s girl, you are a daddy’s girl too! You still get all bouncy and kicky and grin spreading ear to ear when you see either of us.

 

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You love books more than any other toy. You love playing the drums (on boxes or whatever). You love playing the big piano and smile with such pride up at me.

You clap enthusiastically when I cheer “yay!” You gently pluck mom or dad’s guitar strings. And the only time you sit still is when daddy sits by you, playing guitar. You have an affinity for animals that is tough to rival. Wow, you might actually love dogs more more than mom and dad based on the flapping you do. Landon is one of your favorite friends, and you get (a little too) excited whenever you play with him. (He’s had a few scratches on the face from you talon-fingernails and all the love you’re trying to shower on him.)

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You crawl like lighting and stand up with ease, letting go now and then.  You walk along tables or chairs holding on. We’re waiting for the big moment of first steps any day!

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and your dad and I are looking forward to reading our Advent Devotional together and lighting our own Advent wreath. We’re going to do stockings on St. Nicholas Day and exchange three gifts for each person – something spiritual, something practical, and something extravagant. 

We love you, Kirsten Grace. Oh my word, do we ever love you.

An Advent People

This morning I have the privilege of ushering you all into the New Year…the new liturgical year, that is. At Monroe Free Methodist Church, Pastor Kevin and I have chosen to follow the Revised Common Lectionary and today is the beginning of Advent, the start of the new Church year. To begin, we’ll spend some time breaking down these “church-lingo” terms, then I’ll share a bit of my personal story, and finally I’d like to challenge us to become an Advent People.

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Ok, so backing up a bit…the Lectionary. What in the world is it? The root of the word is “lection” which simply means “reading.” The Lectionary, then, is a predetermined way of reading through the Scriptures. Back in the 60s, the Catholic Church made the groundbreaking decision to begin following an organized plan or reading the Bible. The Revised Common lectionary came about in the 80s and 90s when a long list of non-Catholic Christian Churches tweaked the original reading schedule. Each week we read a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, an Epistle (the biblical term for “letter”), and a Gospel (the biblical term for one of the four books teaching on the Good News, the life of Jesus.) Many Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Mennonites, Anglican and Free Methodist churches follow the lectionary together. That’s one of my favorite parts about the lectionary – knowing that on this Sunday I’m reading the same passages that many other churches are across the country, and around the world. The reading unifies the Church across space and time.

The cycle of readings begins in “Year A” with Matthew and it’s correlating Old Testament, Psalm, and Epistle. Then, we start over again with a new set of passages for Year B (using Mark), then Year C (in Luke). Thus…we travel a three year journey through the whole story of the Bible. Though not every verse or chapter can be read during this time, we as a church are able to get a better taste for the beautiful story of God’s redeeming plan for creation, a story that spans Genesis to Revelation. 

Following the Lectionary is not required of our church. It is a decision Kevin and I have made out of conviction; conviction that our personal plans for sermons will never surpass the wisdom of God. Sure, we could be determining our sermon series based on our own agenda, but we’re pretty sure our creativity would run out, our biases would show through, and we could easily steer the church on our own insight. In reading the Lectionary, we trust that the Holy Spirit works outside of time, believing that even (and perhaps especially) predetermined Scripture readings are exactly the message God has for us today. We choose to submit to the authority and study of the men and women who’ve gone before us, as opposed to sticking to our favorite books of the Bible or using the trusty “open your Bible and blindly point” method. It’s exciting to watch how God has used these pre-planned Scripture passages to weave together sermons at the proper time. He is so faithful.

Ok…so now that we understand the Lectionary a bit better, there’s this concept of the Church Calendar (also known as the Liturgical Year or the Christian Year). This is yearly progression through the life of Christ, a calendar of seasons – of feast days and fasting – adhered to by nearly every Christian church. We begin now with Advent, then follow the arc of scripture through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Season. With each changing season, we are offered the opportunity to reflect on how God worked in us and we’re invited to become aware of his leading into the coming season.

Which brings us to today. The cool thing about today?! It’s the first day of the New Year in Year A! So if you’re just hearing about this for the first time, you’re getting in on the “ground floor.” (But don’t worry, we’ll come back around to Year A in 2019).

Today we are entering into the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The origin of this Christian season dates back to 480 AD and perhaps even further…to the times of Peter and the Disciples. The word “advent” simply means “to come” and so this season is an opportunity to prepare and to wait with baited breath for the arrival of the newborn King. We wait, as Mary did, for Jesus Christ to be born. We wait, as the prophets did, for their long-awaited Prince of Peace. But as followers of Jesus on the “other side” of his birth, we have a different invitation to wait. Knowing that the celebration of Jesus’ birth is imminent, we now wait for his second coming. We wait for the day when Christ will come to bring his perfect peace to earth as it is in heaven…for all eternity. We wait with hope and angst for the day when he will make all things right, restoring relationships, repairing sick bodies, aligning healthy governments, abolishing poverty. We wait with excitement and perhaps dread, for his day of judgment, knowing that our trust in him brings salvation but that a detailed account of our lives will acknowledge the moments when we failed to follow faithfully. But we wait.

After years of following Jesus, I only recently began to embrace the seasons of the Christian calendar. A few years back, a friend who I deemed my “spiritual mother” invited me to join her intimate small prayer circle. Each Wednesday evening, five of us would gather in a chilly, candlelit sanctuary for an hour of stillness. We prayed the vespers service together, reading Scriptures and praying written-out prayers. Spending this type of quiet time together was new to me, but became deeply transformative. Together we were experiencing the life-changing lessons contained in the liturgy and the communion of saints.

And it was there that I met Advent. Along with my dear vespers sisters, we read Ruth Haley Barton’s Advent Reflections to guide our focus during this season of faith. Ruth’s writing and urging, combined with the lectionary Scripture passages offered the opportunity for self-examination, for refocusing, for shifting my perspective. Yes, this is the very same devotional guide we’ve offered to you. (Which, side note…the orders are in, and we have two extra, if you’re interested!)

Advent is such a beautiful, yet challenging time in life of the Church. It is at this time of year that we are reminded of our need to wake up to the coming of Jesus in our lives, to become an Advent People.

This Advent-waiting is so difficult because we are invited to sit in this in-between space: a space where we are no longer experiencing the comfortable, oh-so-familiar life, yet neither have we seen the resolution of the waiting…the answer, the direction, the “ahhhh yes” everything-is-turning-out-just-fine moment. We are in the time of holding our breath, left to wait. We can choose to gasp for air, fight for our lives, flee the fearful expectancy. Or we can seek the Lord Jesus Christ in this uncertainty, looking for his movement, listening to his voice. Because even in the waiting, especially in the waiting, there is Jesus.

When I first started observed Advent in 2013, I was in the middle of one of my darkest winters. It was our third year of infertility and that combined with other life circumstances made the dark winter nights a reality in my heart. But during that time, I prayed this prayer:

Lord Jesus, As hard as this is to admit, I thank you for this long time of advent in my life. This journey of infertility may continue for many more years, I don’t know, but the grace, the blessing has come and is coming in the ways I’m learning to seek you. I imagine where my focus would be right now if I had gotten “my way”…and it’s not likely to be totally on you. Teach me now how to keep company with Jesus, how to kindle communion with Him, that it may be an inextricable part of me in years to come.

Advent is so much more than a countdown to Christmas. It is an invitation to wait with God on God in our everyday lives. The process of Christian growth – of spiritual formation – is slow and ongoing and, quite frankly, beyond of our control. Friends, my challenge for our church is to become an Advent People: a congregation who responds to God’s invitation every day; a people who hold vigil with Christ each day – keeping the candle burning in our devotion to prayer and to scripture and to one another; a humble group of Jesus-followers becoming increasingly willing to change, willing to step out of the control seat and willing to let God do his transformational work.

Come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord together! (Isaiah 2:5)

Single-mindedness

At the end of Luke chapter 9, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It is with this resoluteness that Jesus continues the rest of his ministry: a singleminded focus on the plan of redemption for which God had sent him. He is determined to do the will of his Father and to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. It is through his determination that he heals the broken, confronts the authorities, questions loyalties and meekly endures scorn and shame, all on the journey to the cross.

This is the meaning of discipleship, a resolute following of Jesus to ministry of the Kingdom of God. This call to be disciples of Jesus requires a radical commitment. It is a call on each of our lives and it may result in alienation, in setting aside cultural norms and in making choices that go outside of the boundaries of family expectations. You have been warned.

And what is our task? What is this ministry of the Kingdom of God? Our singleminded focus is to live in step with the Spirit of God so that our submission to his will may result in fruit. Yes, the fruit (singular) is the result of our submission to the Spirit, our following of Jesus with resolute courage. Our individual lives will begin to be characterized by this Fruit which only the Spirit of God can make grow in us. And this fruit is not for us alone, it is for the transformation of our community, for the common good.

So root deeply into the community to which God has called you and begin calling out the Fruit of the Spirit in one another. Make it a common and resolute purpose to follow Jesus undistracted, pedal to the metal, and watch that Fruit multiply.

The call from God for each of us is to follow Jesus in the singleminded task of the ministry of kingdom of God: to Love one another. Our focus is to submit to the Spirit of God and allow his Fruit to grow in us and transform our earthly community into the Kingdom of God on earth. 

Persistence in Prayer

Very often, it seems that our spiritual lives can be marked by seasons. There are seasons of action, seasons of waiting, seasons of darkness, seasons of sadness, seasons of joy, seasons of peace. In seeking what the Lord would have me to do right now, his answer was PRAY. I reiterated my question to him, thinking that perhaps he didn’t understand; I was asking what it was he wanted me to do. I even wrote down a few tasks, good and righteous work, that I thought I should be spending my time doing. My spirit quickly course-corrected as I felt that prompting from His Spirit, “No, you’re not going to do that good thing. You are going to pray.”

“That’s it, Lord? Of course I’ll be praying, but what do you want me to do? I really prefer action and crossing things off of my to-do list. Praying seems so inactive.”

But friends, the Lord is teaching me that prayer is exactly the opposite of inactive. Prayer is active. Prayer is where we meet God. Prayer is where we step deeper into trust and faith. Prayer is where we pour out our truest longings and come to know more of who God is calling us to be. Prayer is where we sit in the presence of God and enjoy him. Prayer is when we listen quietly to his voice. Prayer is where we wait and watch and know God will do the work. Prayer is humility. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is God on the move.

And so the Lord has called me to a Season of Prayer. Seasons can be days long or months long. I don’t know what this season will look like, but that is the beauty of prayer and staying in touch with His Spirit – He will tell me where and when to move next. And He will do the same for you.

In this Season of Prayer and through these lectionary passages of Scripture, God is revealing to me three essential aspects to a life defined by persistent prayer.

First of all, a life defined by persistence in prayer involves boldnessLet us then approach the throne of grace with confidence that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16). In Luke 11 Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray and he uses a story of a rather demanding friend to demonstrate the generosity of God. Imagine a friend banging on your door well after your family is asleep, seemingly desperate for loaves of bread to share with another friend who showed up at his house. He persists, even after receiving a rejection and eventually, this good man likely wakes up his entire household to get to work baking bread for a friend of a friend. Let us be more bold and more brazen than that man when we approach the throne of grace. Let us knock incessantly on the door of God’s throne room, beseeching him for help even in our darkest hours or with our most basic needs. Even when we could probably conjure up a solution all on our own, baking our own loaf of bread rather than pestering Almighty God, let us set our pride aside. God is waiting to give us what we need, and not only meeting our needs with good gifts, but giving us the Holy Spirit, his very presence to be with us always.

Abraham was bold and brazen, too, when he continued to bargain with the Lord for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. He cried out again and again for the Lord to save the city if he could find even 5 righteous individuals living among the sinfulness. God could have rejected Abraham’s request or refused to listen, but Abraham refused to give up and God honored that tenacity.

Secondly, a life defined by persistent prayer involves consistency. Keep knocking, keep asking, no matter how trivial or how out of reach your request may seem. As I mentioned in my last sermon, spiritual disciplines such as prayer are not to be acted on once or twice or even occasionally. These disciplines produce righteousness in our hearts and connection to God’s Spirit through our continued practice. Prayer involves consistency, invoking the name of Jesus again and again and again. Sometimes it seems redundant, like once we’ve prayed for so and so or for this request or that, we should cross it off the list and be done with it. But persistent prayer means consistent prayer. The more we come to God the more bold we become. Verse 3 of Psalm 138 confirms this: When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me.

Finally, a life defined by persistence in prayer starts with thanksgiving. I will praise you, I will bow down to you, O Lord, the psalmist says. We have endless reasons to offer thanksgiving to the Lord – for his marvelous deeds throughout history, for traces of his grace and goodness in our own lives, for his faithfulness and love and great mercy. It sometimes seems impossible to find reasons to be thankful, particularly when we’re in a season of darkness and despair, where the Spirit of the Lord seems silent and we can’t find any answers. But in those dark days, press into the Lord even harder. Begin to hunt for evidence of Him in your everyday life. Find his grace in simple things, like the reflection of a rainbow in the bubbles of your kitchen sink or the way a baby giggles in the grocery store aisle or finding your favorite comb you thought you’d lost forever…thank God for those things. Thanking him in the small, seemingly meaningless moments of life, will root you firmly into his character and carry you through those dark days. Everyone who seeks finds, right?

Two aspects of my own journey of prayer stood out to me as I studied these passages and contemplated a a life defined by persistent prayer. Concerning the call of God to step into a season of prayer, I thought I would share what that’s been looking like. When I was at annual conference, I spent a lot of time in the church nursery with my baby girl. Across the hall was a room designated as a prayer chapel to be used by anyone during the day. There was a pastor who was stationed there and spent most of the day alone. At one point in the afternoon, through two closed doors, I heard this pastor literally crying out in prayer for at least an hour. He was likely praying through the book of reports, covering each church and each pastor in heartfelt prayer. I was in tears listening to his tenacity, his boldness, his sincere intercession for people he’d never met, believing God’s will would be done in our Southern Michigan churches. I began to pray that way more consistently. I take walks almost every day and when I walk by myself I take the time to pray. I choose a 3 mile path that is mostly secluded so as to pray all the more boldly. I find that praying out loud helps me to focus my thoughts. And so I pray.

I probably look like a crazy person walking through the cornfields of Keegan Rd, talking to myself, sometimes crying, other times grinning like a fool. Those are my very real encounters with God. It takes a while to set aside my conscientious pride and put away my flippant thoughts and truly focus on intercession, but once I do, man, it is the most emboldening experience. Almost always I begin by praying for my church – our church. The ministry I am a part of in this congregation and in this town is a gift that I am incredibly passionate about. I believe God is at work in our church. I believe He is changing our lives and drawing many of us into a lifestyle defined by prayer, transformed by Scripture, committed to honest relationships and conflict resolution. I believe He is freeing us of our dependence on finances and moving us into effective ministry to the hurting and the lost. I believe wounds are being healed – wounds inflicted by church, by friends, by spouses and children. I believe God is pulling our little congregation out of a place of frustration and desolation and into a land of passionately pursing holiness…together. I pray for all of those things.

I pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to change us in ways we never imagined. I pray for each of us to be pliable under His firm but gentle hand, willing to endure whatever formative encounters He may have for us. I pray for the state of our church finances; that we would step into a new mindset of budgeting and be willing to give to missions and ministry first, above and beyond what we could possibly afford on our own, believing God will honor this Kingdom-use of money. I pray for miraculous things to happen through our generosity – that our hearts would be changed and become increasingly trusting of God’s goodness, and that we would give God all the glory for the way He will surely provide and even multiply our resources. Oh, may we be faithful!

Then I start to picture these pews and I begin to see your faces. I name you before God praying for fervor for whatever needs I know of and interceding on your behalf for needs that the Holy Spirit brings to my mind. I pray for each of us to be so in love with Jesus and completely committed to weekly corporate worship. I pray that we’d each be moved with compassion for our coworkers, our neighbors, our waiters, and our cashiers that we would begin praying earnestly for each of them and inviting them to join us in church, to be a part of our congregational experience of God.

I begin to pray for needs of my other friends and mentors. I pray for my husband, for wisdom as he pastors this congregation, for passion as he seeks Jesus through prayer and study, and for continued strengthening of our marriage. I pray for my daughter that she would grow into her name – to be a follower of Christ by the grace of God.

And on and on.

Secondly, I thought I’d bring a visual example of how I’ve prayed and encourage you to do the same. These are my prayer journals from March 2014 to now. I use these not only for prayer but also to guide my time with the Lord. I read the daily scripture passages which are included in our bulletins. As I read I write down passages or words or phrases that stick out to me. Sometimes I write out my thoughts about those passages or spend time rereading those lines and ask the Lord what it is that He wants me to hear. If I’m also reading a devotional or a book about the spiritual life, I write important quotes down so I have a mind-body connection to the words and the time to let their meaning steep in my soul. And throughout those types of journaling, I write out my heart’s prayers.

In preparing for today, I read through many of these pages. I was looking for excerpts to share with you and in the process I experienced God all over again. As I reread my petitions, I was struck by the persistence of prayer. There were pages where it seemed I confessed the same sins again and again, pleading with the Lord to deliver me. My heart remembered the heaviness of those sin struggles. And then suddenly I recognized the freedom the Lord had given me. Two years ago I was in bondage to a sin I couldn’t seem to shake. And today I stand to testify to the Lord’s faithfulness to the faithful. Even in the privacy of my own bedroom I was embarrassed to read some of my own confessions and remembered what it felt like to write them down over and over again. But, friends, we must persist in prayer. We must be bold even if we look ridiculous and feel bothersome. We must be consistent even if it seems repetitive and pointless. We must begin with thanksgiving because there is always evidence of God’s work around us. When we persist in prayer, we will be able to look back, maybe months or years from today, and say PRAISE THE LORD.

Kirsten Grace – Month 9

My dear, sweet Kirsten Grace,

Every time I walk into your room to get you from your crib, I am physically overwhelmed with love and cannot seem to utter any other greeting than an overly-exuberant, “Hi baby!”

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I know you are hardly a baby anymore. You are growing up before my eyes into a unique little kid, one with a tiny tooth and a gigantic personality. We simply adore you, Kirsten. Sometimes your dad and I fight to get down the hall to your room first, so eager we are to greet your smiling face. We often find  you standing up with your wubbanub puppy pacifier dangling from your mouth. As soon as you see either of us, your excitement is obvious – arms flapping, body bouncing, legs kicking, and a grin from ear to ear filled with a joyous “panting.” This is the same greeting we receive when we pick you up from the nursery or a babysitter’s house, or even if one of us has been gone from home for a while. I don’t think anyone doubts your love and affection for mama and daddy.

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This month you’ve grown fast and furiously. You took your first “crawl”…just one crawl…early on in the month, but still seemed to prefer the cautious safety of sitting or rolling like an old pro. On Monday September 19th – after two nights of 12 hours of straight sleep (glory to God in the highest…the first full night’s rest you’d had since month 3…) you decided to start crawling like it was old hat. By the end of the week you could easily follow the cats all the way down the hall and into the red carpet room. (Thanks 1960s for that beautiful design gift.)

You are pulling yourself to standing with ease and thankfully can sit back down without fear or tears. (Or tears for fears.)

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I am convinced you prefer to wait on any skill until you’re certain you can master it on the first try. This is not unlike your father, which he admits. :)

Speaking of your dad, it is pretty obvious that your looks highly favor his. And I think it’s adorable. Last night, an acquaintance saw your newest pictures and had the thought, “Who’s the new baby? Her looks have changed so much and she suddenly looks just like her dad.” But even so, you are a lovely little girl with your very own looks and expressions and personality.

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We love your vibrancy and enthusiasm and your great big passion for all things!

You are responding to the word “no,” eating practically grown up foods – quinoa, old fashioned oatmeal, peanut butter toast, curried vegetables, soup, and every sort of mashed fruit or vegetable we put before you.

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I am thankful for the gift of a successful 9 months (so far) of breastfeeding. Those first weeks were nearly unbearable but at the time I knew nothing different and forged ahead. Being able to nurse you is a gift. I am so glad you still want mama, but I see your preference for real food beginning to form. You are going much longer between nursings, only once a night and sometimes going to bed or nap without it. It is exciting and a little sad to my mama-heart at the same time.

We love watching you learn and investigate everything. We love hearing your deep, belly laughter. You sing now when I start to play the piano. You “talk” to us all the time…bababa-ing, mamama-ing, dadada-ing all the livelong day.

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You love your cats (especially your new kitten, Dot) more than anything. You can play by yourself with blocks and you love books, especially daddy’s big books. You have pulled the protective covers out of the outlets on the first day they were installed. You ate a fistful of cat food and didn’t seem to mind it. And mom & dad won’t be taking you to a “tipping” restaurant for the foreseeable future, thanks to your falsetto singing screeching vocalizing (?)
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We love having you with us, Kirsten. You have rocked our world forever and we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

love,
mama
PS – At your nine month well-child visit, you received your third hep B vaccine and got great remarks from Dr. Aza and Nurse Julia. We love them!

You are becoming our little circus peanut, hanging out in the low end of the percentiles, but looking  happy, healthy, and full of life! You are 26 inches tall (grew just half an inch since your 6 month appt!), putting you in the 8th percentile. You weigh just an ounce under 18 pounds (just 2 pounds up since June), which is the 33rd percentile. And your head circumference remained the same, putting it in the 63%. Yay for all the brains! :D

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Kirsten Grace – Month 8

My sweet baby girl,

You are growing up so beautifully and (just as I’ve been warned) so quickly. I am cherishing your gummy grins while they last (for your teeth still haven’t decided to make an appearance). I am soaking in our moments in the rocking chair, nursing you before nap times and bedtimes (for I already see glimpses of their disappearance). I am trying to remain calm when you are shrieking like a banshee whether out of glee or anger (for I know eventually the days will come when you’d be mortified to have anyone witness such outbursts). I am loving your growing affinity for mama and daddy (for your love for friends…and Lord, help me, boys…will someday be upon us). I adore you bouncing gleefulness and your cheerful arm flapping (for I know you will be on the move before we know it and I really don’t mind your lack of mobility at the moment).
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first time exploring Lake Erie with mama

This month you have tried more foods that I could probably list, and you seem to love them all. Green beans, watermelon, peaches, zucchini, tomato, and all sorts of summer produce have graced your plate (and your face and arms and hair). It definitely appears that you are teething, but we don’t see anything poking through just yet. You gnaw on everything like your life depended on it. Beyond my better judgment you chewed on the edge of a table in the restaurant last week, mouth gaping and tongue waving in eagerness every time you began leaning forward to gnaw once again. It was hilarious and disgusting and adorable all at once.

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Like most kids, you seem to enjoy non-toys almost more than actual toys. The best way to keep you occupied and quiet in public is sitting you on the floor next to something like mom’s bag to just look at and poke at and grab and of course chew on. Paper and napkins and books are your favorite items, loving the crinkle and the texture. There is nothing that gets you more quickly angered than taking away a piece of paper you were chewing on. Wow, the wrath surfaces instantly. (But, Kirsten, my dear, we just really don’t want you to eat paper, that is gross and unhealthy.) And currently you are sitting on the kitchen floor joyously and inquisitively playing with a metal spoon and sauce pan. What fun!

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Aside from those items, you do have a few favorite toys.  Your puppy dog pacifier now goes everywhere with you. It is a must for bedtime and nap time, but also nice to have when we go out, keeping a pacifier from rolling tables away from us. (The Wubbanub is an incredible invention.) A couple weeks ago, you had your first encounter with your very own baby doll. She is a soft-sided Cabbage Patch handed down from your Zia (Aunt Ashley). You just light up when you see her. Blankets (especially their tags) remain a favorite and your crinkle book is a winner (we just happened to misplace it, unfortunately.)

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You are rolling over professionally now and getting close to pulling yourself to standing or rocking into a crawling position. You just seem a disinterested or perhaps fearful, or maybe a little of both. Like I said, I am content with your immobility at the moment, for it makes some things a little easier. I do really look forward to the day of walking hand in hand with you to the church, though, or having you crawl into my room just to find me. (Let it be known that I do not look forward to those eerily quiet moments when you are sure to be doing something mischievous, like climbing onto a bookshelf or getting into the Vaseline or plastering your body with my makeup.)

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You seemed to have adjusted to using the church nursery as your second bedroom, napping more readily most days of the week while we work or have worship practice or whatnot. I have constructed various baby monitors out of tech devices using Google hangouts. (Though your screams are heard throughout the church building if all is quiet.) There had been many times a poor unsuspecting parishioner entered the church for a meeting or a service project and woke you up without meaning to. They felt so terrible, and yes, I would love for you to sleep, so I made signs to hang in the hallway to ask people to be as quiet as possible, or at least warn them that you are asleep. It’s a little jankity but it works alright and we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.

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cherished kisses from great grandma Mary Fish (93 years old)

We are still faithful users of the cloth diapers (you’ve avoided rashes for many months now). You still adore bath time (which happens most frequently in the kitchen sink). You go to sleep well, but you have slept through the night since sometime in the third month when you led me to believe we had won some infant parenting award. Nope. Not even close. You wake up yelling (yes, yelling) at least twice a night, sometimes three or four times. (I cannot even remember what it was like to get a full, undisturbed night of rest, which just blows my mind because it was of utmost importance less than a year ago. My, how times change.) During one twilight rendévous I typically change your diaper because it is pretty inevitable that you will spring a leak otherwise. But you will then go back to sleep after nursing, keeping me up for just about 15 minutes each time. Not bad, I suppose. (And thinking of my future self who will likely be laying wide awake in agony when you are experiencing some sort of high school crisis or deciding on college or staying out past 8pm with your friends, I will take these sweet innocent nighttime encounters any day.)

Kirsten, I love you, everything about you. You are crazy and intense, yes, but you are MY crazy and intense girl. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. You know what you need, you have vast expressions that rival my own, and you have a smile that can instantly win over the sourest of moods.

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Keep being you, Kirsten Grace. We love you.

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Kirsten Grace – Month 7

My sweet Kirsten,

Wow! What a joy it is to be your mother! Watching you grow and develop, experiencing the world’s sights and sounds through your perspective is so much fun. I am being transformed, daughter. Through mothering you, the Lord is opening my eyes to his grace in new ways. I am being tested, challenged…will I give mercy? Will I seek His grace? How will I respond when I’m frustrated and exhausted and everything seems to be going wrong? Will I take credit for the days that go smoothly…or will I find God’s gifts in those times? 

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I am thankful, sweet girl, that the Lord in his mercy waited to call me to motherhood. I am thankful because holysmokes I don’t think my spirit was ready for this crucible all those years ago. This is hard. Time is a bigger premium than I can describe. And I notice how selfish I still am. (How am I still so selfish?!) For all of the difficulties and pain and “opportunities for growth” that mothering you has allowed me, I am beyond thankful. Growth is sometimes painful. Crucibles don’t have comfortable connotations. But you are the most wonderful gift I could ever be given. You do give me countless opportunities to step deeper into my Christ-in-me identity. And you do bring more joy to life than I ever knew possible. (Have I mentioned how motherhood is a paradox?)

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You are just over Seven Months Old and I am loving this stage. With every passing day and week, you become more independent, more funny, more personable, more loving. Your smile is truly contagious (as Gramma says). Your expressions are boundless.

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love the big personality you have. There’s no doubt that intensity and a flair for the dramatic are hard-wired into your being, and with that extreme comes possibilities for deep, Christ-like compassion and true, Spirit-led love for others. You are a leader in the making, Kirsten Grace. I see your strength of personality, your unique combination of traces of me and traces of your dad. We pray that you will root your life deeply into Jesus and use your very evident gifts of passion and fierce tenacity for the Kingdom of God.

You are a gem, my girl, beautiful and unique and priceless.

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This month you’ve fallen in love with all sorts of new foods. You’re still loving butternut squash and sweet potato, and you’ve added apple, pear, avocado, banana, spinach, carrot, zucchini, mango, and chicken to the mix. The mesh feeder has been a fun and wonderful tool to introduce new foods. There were two pears on the counter that were super soft so I sliced them up and gave a piece to you in the feeder. After just a few minutes, you’d eaten both of those pears! You haven’t been too sure about banana, but a semi-frozen cube of banana in the mesh feeder was devoured. Carrot wasn’t high on your favorites, but in the mesh feeder, the puree was gone quickly! (Thanks, Amanda, for this great gift!)

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You’ve been sitting like a big girl in your high chair to eat. We could have put you in the high chair months ago, I think, but there was something very grown-up about the idea of you in a high chair that made me hold off. But you were ready for it and now we are too. It’s so much fun watching you experience our favorite foods in raw, real form. I love feeding you things that I can take bites of because they’re foods I love too!

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You’ve turned a corner this last month with Sunday mornings. I know how tiring and long Sundays are as a pastor, and I can imagine they feel even longer and more tiring when you don’t understand why you’re still at church and why can’t I just be with mommy and daddy? But this last month, you really seemed to start settling into this aspect of life as the pastors’ kid. Part of it is the time I’ve spent with you in the nursery during the week, nursing you and putting you down for a nap in the pack ‘n play. Being a mom and a pastor, I’ve continued to hone our church nursery into a place that is comfortable and clean, that provides for all the possible needs of babies and their parents. It’s a cool bonus gift from God, allowing me to step into a place of hospitality by way of motherhood.

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Anyways, Sunday mornings has brought a decent number of before-church naps which aids your nursery-time tremendously. God has also brought a growing number of new families with new babies to our congregation so our nursery is a fun-filled place for you to be. You seem to be a people-person through and through. When you’re in their alone, you tend to fuss. When there’s lots of friends around, you’re happy as a lark.

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You’ve started reaching for me, which I adore. If I’ve left you with daddy or a friend or family member for a while, you’ll have been peachy-keen-content for quite some time. But as soon as I walk into your line of site, you start fussing rather dramatically. I love that you love me so, and seem to have a crazy-desperate need to be with momma right now. But really, Child, you’re just fine. Take a deep breath. It’s all good.

As much FUN as it is watching you grow and become more whole YOU, it is a true privilege to call you ours. We love you, Kirsten Grace, and that is one thing that won’t ever change.

Always,
Mama

A few fun facts:

  • you love water bottles, almost more than any other toy
  • you started practicing with a sippy cup and you’re getting the hang of it
  • you are now consistently able to get a pacifier back in your mouth
  • you’re sitting up like an old pro
  • your hand dexterity seems to be strong: you’ve been passing toys back and forth from hand to hand since before your six month appointment
  • you have started mastering the grown-up, real-food poop. Holy cow. Poopy diapers have diminished from a few a day to about every 2 days. But wow, you are a CHAMP at poop. whew-whee.
  • your bedtime is between 7:30 and 8 and you let us know. I still nurse you every night before bed.
  • you sleep until 1 or 2am, nurse, then back to sleep until 5 or 6, nurse, then back to sleep until 7:30.
  • you’re not really consistent on any sort of daytime naps.
  • you love Tavie.
  • you love watching screens.
  • you flap your arms and bang on the table constantly; we think you might be our next cajon player on the worship team
  • you have powerful vocal chords and a crazy high falsetto
  • YOU FINALLY ROLLED OVER! A few times now we’ve found you on your tummy in your crib. Go, you!
  • you like taking rides in the stroller or on my back when we go bike riding
  • you are starting to play
  • you bounce when you get really excited
  • you fed yourself your own bottle for the first time

Kirsten Grace Month 7