Spiritual Growth

Little by Little

There’s a widget on my iPhone home screen reminding me how fast time flies. Each day it displays pictures reminding me what memories I was making months and years before.

One month ago. My seven-month-old son gnawing on an Easter egg while his big sister hunts for eggs scattered through our yard.

One year ago. My pregnant belly trying to get comfortable on a lawn chair while my daughter draws with sidewalk chalk.

Three years ago. My newborn daughter, covered in baby acne, laying on the pillow in my lap while I binged Netflix on maternity leave.

Five years ago. Taking pictures in my graduation gown and masters hood, ready to graduate the next day and start my dream job the following week.  

Swiping through these photos, the time appears to have traveled at the speed of light, especially compared to the unhurried speed of my day-to-day life now. I’m often impatient, evaluating each day on its own: meals prepared, diapers changed, words written, and too few hours of sleep. By these measurements, my days don’t seem to add up to much. I struggle with how these mundane moments are a part of the good work God has promised he prepared for me (Ephesians 2:10). Yet each day, each step, each photo snapped is a test of my faith—whether or not I believe God make something beautiful from these mundane moments of life.

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Spiritual Growth

A Month without Podcasts

There’s never a quiet moment in my house. I wash dishes while listening to my daughter sing her memory verses. I grade assignments while Daniel Tiger plays in the background. I write this to the soundtrack of my son’s white noise machine broadcasting through the baby monitor. Even when there’s a quiet moment, I often fill it with another podcast or a phone call or the new Taylor Swift album. There is little time for silence in my life.

It’s hard to hear with all the noise. The roaring oven vent dispelling smoke from burning chicken overpowers my daughter’s cries for help on the potty. My headphones tune out my son’s cooing in his crib during a Zoom call. The voice of the Holy Spirit is overwhelmed by the constant stream of voices coming from my phone’s speaker.  

I love podcasts. It’s one of the first apps I open every morning—queuing up my shows for that day. There’s one recapping the news, one expounding on theology, and another sharing encouragement for mothers. My ears are itching to hear what wisdom they have to give me that day.

These voices have strengthened my faith over the years. They filled up lonely spaces during postpartum and pandemic months. They have connected me with other people who have different perspectives than mine. They have taught me things about God and his Word. But as with chocolate and social media, you can have too much of a good thing.

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Spiritual Growth

Spring is Back

My husband was in the thick of studying for his licensure exam, and at eight months pregnant, I was in no condition to keep up with our yard’s summer growth. We were contemplating hiring a neighborhood teen to tame the jungle around our house when my dad volunteered to come over one day to help clean it up.

He mowed the lawn and trimmed the edges. He sprayed weeds and killed ant hills. I helped as much as my burgeoning belly would allow—sweeping up stray grass clippings and picking up sticks. My last request of him was to trim back our bushes that now obscured the view from our living room window. I left him with the hedge trimmers while I went inside to prop up my swollen feet. An hour later, I went back outside to see a large pile of branches at the end of our driveway. I thanked my dad profusely as he showed me his work.

“I noticed a branch on the tree out front was hanging too low,” he added. “So I went ahead and cut it back, too.”

Turning to face the lone tree in our suburban front yard, I recognized the empty space immediately. My pregnancy hormones took over, and I began to cry. “You cut off Karis’ branch.”

For the previous five months, that single tree had been my two-year-old daughter’s best play friend. Without playgrounds, zoos, museums, or even church, we had spent most of our days outside. I would rest my exhausted pregnant body in a patio chair on the front porch; she would play in the shade of a low tree branch.

I have dozens of photos of her beneath that tree. Karis in a neon pink t-shirt and rainbow shorts shaking a bubble wand. Karis wearing her favorite Baby Shark dress inspecting leaves and dandelions. Karis dressed in the first day of school outfit she would never wear in a classroom, sitting at the base of the tree and watching neighborhood kids play across the street.

That tree, that branch, defined our pandemic experience. And now it was gone, like so many other certainties from everyday life.

My dad apologized for not asking permission before pruning the branch, and he assured me it would grow back healthier. But I still mourned the loss of her tree branch—the loss of everything that had changed in the preceding few months. The pandemic had worn my hope thin, and I struggled to believe something beautiful could come from the brown stub now sticking out of the tree. I struggled to believe something good could come from brokenness all around us.

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Spiritual Growth

Gray Toy Baskets

For four years, we hosted weekly dinner parties with friends in our tiny newlywed apartment. What we lacked in space, we made up for in homemade dinners and a large board game collection. Two or three couples would squeeze around our hand-me-down table eating lasagna and playing Settlers of Catan. Some of our sweetest friendships were forged while trading brick for wood—building deep connections while we built roads and settlements.

Most of our friends were like us: newly married, still in school, no kids, and no money. But one of our dearest couple friends were a few years ahead of us and already had two children. They weren’t able to come over as often as we invited, but one weekend when they were free, we set dinner an hour earlier to accommodate their little ones’ bedtimes.

I thought I was ready for a toddler and infant to visit our apartment. I set out an extra plate for the toddler (a smaller version of our ceramic dishes) and put a blanket on the ground with a single car for the baby to play. I laugh now, thinking about how unprepared I was for the frenzy that ensued—for the spit up, tantrums, and sticky fingers touching everything. For a toddler who curiously and constantly asked questions and opened every door. For a baby who wanted to join the party at the table instead of being relegated to playing on the floor. Our friends took it all in stride, gently and firmly helping their children adjust in an environment that was obviously not kid friendly.

At the end of the evening, the mother helped the toddler clean up after himself. She laughed as she picked up a few DVDs accidently knocked off a shelf and onto the floor, “I hoped those weren’t alphabetized.”

They were. I prayed my smile camouflaged my inward cringing.

After watching my friend that evening, I wasn’t sure how I could ever be a mom like her, able to gracefully handle the messiness of motherhood.

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Spiritual Growth

A Cloud in the Sky

My senior year of high school I received acceptance letters to my top two college choices. Both offered decent scholarships. Both were reputable liberal arts universities that excelled in my chosen major. Both had great on-campus activities and surrounding environment. One was close to family, and one was a few hours away. Yet instead of excited anticipation, I felt a surge of fear holding the two letters in my hands.

While I knew I was privileged to have a choice in schools, I felt crushed by the weight of the decision. As a high schooler, I heard the world’s (and even sometimes the church’s) pressure to work hard to choose the “right” college (and meet the “right” spouse and get the “right” job). Now that I had what seemed like two equally good options, I was terrified of choosing the wrong one.

I discussed the decision with my parents. My friends. My boyfriend. My teachers and coaches. Pretty much anyone who would listen. It was all I talked about for weeks. Eventually, I mentioned it to a pastor at my church, and before I could pull out my pro-con list, he stopped me and said, “Bethany, both are good schools. You can obey God and grow closer to him at either place. As long as you’re following him, there isn’t a wrong decision.”

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Spiritual Growth

A Small Part of the Story

I’m thirty weeks away from my thirtieth birthday, and I’ve started listing things I want to do before I hit big 3-0. Nothing crazy like bungee jumping or skydiving—the list is full of simple activities like re-watching the Avengers movies chronologically, finally learning to ride a bike, and trying a new cuisine. But with the newness and excitement of my twenties slowly moving into the rearview mirror, I join other twenty-nine-year-olds asking the bigger question looming over the next decade: What is my purpose?

It’s valid question, one that even characters in the Bible asked of themselves. King Solomon wrote an entire book about trying to find his life’s purpose in money, women, and pleasure. But Solomon came to the conclusion, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:3).

That’s not the kind of answer we like to hear, though, when it comes to our purpose. In our hyper-individualized culture (even Christian culture), we prioritize a purpose that is unique to us. We’ve overbuilt the concept of purpose, believing each person has a singular, specific purpose to life that they must work to find—or their life might be meaningless.

While God does sovereignly ordain meaning to each person’s life, it’s not the flashy concept that’s perpetuated by one self-help book after another. Our culture says that we are the leading actor in our own story—we must discover the narrative that will lead us to our happiest ending. Yet Solomon tried to write that story for himself, and it fell flat. Instead of the leading role, we are actually each a supporting character in God’s story of redemption. These minor roles don’t make our lives less purposeful, but more. Instead of trying to write our own fleeting story, we’re part of a story that will last for eternity. It takes faith, though, to lay down our own ideas for grandeur and accept God’s role for us in his story.

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Spiritual Growth

The Gift of Rest

I never understood why a person would find a bubble bath relaxing. Maybe it was the years living in a dorm room with a shared bathroom followed by an apartment with a less than desirable tub, but taking a long bath was never on my list of calming activities. Even when my husband and I moved into our first home which had a garden tub in the master bathroom, I never considered a hot, bubbly soak as a way to rest.

Our garden tub remained empty except for toddler bath toys and dirty towels until midway through my second pregnancy. When my pelvic floor pain finally became unbearable, my husband drew me a bath and poured in Epsom salts borrowed from my mother. Still wary of the idea, I tentatively lowered myself into the warm water and looked up at the ceiling. While my body instantly relaxed, my mind raced and my fingers fidgeted. Instead of feeling calm, I felt guilty sitting there doing nothing but soaking in the aromatic oils and salts. My fingers had just begun to prune when I realized the true reason why I don’t enjoy bubble baths.

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Spiritual Growth

Storm Drains

It’s that twice-a-week juggling act where I hold an infant carrier, a lunch box, a backpack, a jacket, a craft, and my keys in my arms. I shift the weight of these items and reach for my daughter’s hand (who is only carrying her freshly unwrapped lollipop). But instead of standing next to me, my toddler is peering into the parking lot storm drain with tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong, sweet girl?” I say quickly while my biceps burn.

“I drop my waw-ee-pop,” she replies, pointing down the concrete trimmed blackness in front of her. The white stick with a pink candy circle teetered precariously on the edge of the storm drain, moments away from dropping into the dark pit. “Can you get it?”

“No way,” I answer as I usher her away from the edge and back towards our minivan. “We’ll get you another treat at home.”

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Spiritual Growth

Home for the Holidays

My husband texts me that his office’s Christmas party is cancelled. While it’s not my favorite Christmas event, it’s another reminder of how different this holiday season will be. I erase the event from my calendar and flip the pages of my calendar back to November and December of last year (though 2019 feels like ten years ago at this point). Every block has something written in colorful Sharpie and coordinating holiday stickers. Pumpkin patch. Holiday markets. Christmas parties. Church dinners. Visits from family. Christmas light shows. Advent services. Add to that long trips to see family out of state, and we had a busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season last year.

I return to this month’s calendar page. While definitely fuller than April 2020 in the heart of the pandemic, the boxes for this November and December are less cluttered than years past. Only a couple of socially distanced parties and outdoor events scattered throughout these next six weeks. There are more celebrations planned in our own home, and everything is written in pencil instead of pen (because 2020). The first wave of emotion hits me as I remember the precious traditions we won’t get to experience this year. Singing Christmas hymns in our church. Watching Christmas movies in a local historic theater. Attending parties in friends’ homes every other night of the week.

The sadness subsides and is surprisingly replaced with peaceful contentment. I look at the remaining events on the calendar for 2020, and I’m grateful that I still have family to celebrate with. That I can still decorate our home. That my two-year-old daughter will only know delight instead of my own disappointment.

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Spiritual Growth

Look Up

I massage the back of my neck after laying my son down in his bassinet. Three months of nursing and constantly looking down to check on him has worn my weak neck muscles. I stretch out my neck and shoulders one more time then walk towards to the kitchen to begin preparations for the day, but my muscles find little relief.

I look down as I mix oatmeal and scramble eggs.

I look down as I rinse the same dishes I washed yesterday.

I look down (and bend down) to help my daughter go to the potty.

Laundry. Emails. Another nursing session. In only a few hours, my neck and shoulders are even more tense than before I massaged them that morning. Wearied, I sit down on the couch and look down once more, but this time at my phone. Even if it strains my neck a little more, maybe my brain will receive some relief as I scroll, tap, and skim.

“Mommy, will you look at me?” my daughter says, standing right in front of me with her princess dress, fairy wands, and messy blonde curls.

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