Monday, December 30, 2013

Best of 2013

As is my yearly tradition, here is a post of personal highlights from my year, ranging from factual to thoughtful. Thanks for riding out another year with me, friends!

10 Goals I Had for 2013:
1. Finish a draft of my novel “Starlings” (Not completed yet, though I made more headway on it, particularly in terms of plotting and world building)
2. See (and shoot) at least one band I haven’t seen before (I saw a few for the first time, but I don’t think I photographed anyone for the first time)
3. Make a more dedicated effort to keep up with guitar playing (Success here was mixed, since I didn’t have my guitar for a significant portion of the year)
4. Plan a wedding (more specifically, mine) (Well, this one I managed)
5. Learn to take more personal initiative (This one I also made tangible progress in)
6. Invest better in relationships that I have slighted much more than I should (Mixed success. This is a lifelong goal, I believe)
7. Keep up with Greek (Successful-- sat in on Greek class at my alma mater a few times, worked on translation projects on my own)
8. Learn at least one new piece on the piano (from sheets, not that I personally arrange) (I didn’t accomplish this one, though I arranged several more)
9. Drink less coffee (and learn to drink it black) (Mostly successful. I drink less than half of what I did, and though I usually at least need some milk, I never need sweetener anymore)
10. Volunteer more of my time investing in the ministries and causes I care deeply about (Done, but nowhere near to the extent that I would like)

10 Significant Events of 2013:
1. Getting to see Disciple with four of my siblings
2. Final few months living in Colorado, including junking my first car
3. Going to Sixflags and to see Skillet with siblings and longtime friend and fellow music fan Mikayla
4. Living in downtown Nashville for a month and interning with a record label
5. Spending a few days in Georgia getting my heart filled to overflowing by my “Fern” friends
6. Marrying my favorite person
7. My 6th CleanPlace Moot in Colorado
8. Moving into and setting up my first apartment with Jordan
9. Hosting my coworker and dear friend Sarah, plus attending and covering the Dove Awards
with her
10. My adopted sister Liz’s visit and the countless adventures we crammed into one awesome week.

10 Random Places I Visited in 2013:
1. A 24 hour Jewish coffee shop in Manitou Springs, CO
2. A side room of Frothy Monkey coffee house in Franklin, TN where Kevin Max was reading
3. An awesome boot store on Nashville’s Broadway that I wandered into with Sarah, complete with an adorable southern gentleman proprietor
4. Lovely, quiet gardens on a misty day in Georgia
5. A cow pasture in deep Texas where we ended up while trying to find a venue
6. The Manitou Cliff Dwellings, ancient Anasazi homes that I visited (and excessively photographed) with my friends Sarah, Rebecca, and Eleanor
7.  A little tea room in Shreveport, LA that I revisited with my mom for the first time since my mid-teen years
8. Side paths of Colorado’s Garden of the Gods in middle of the night
9. One of the most hillbilly gas stations in Tennessee, where I ended up with two Wisconsin friends in tow
10. A renovated caboose buried deep in the Colorado mountains

The 10 Songs that were the Most Special to Me in 2013:
1. “Hope of Morning” by Icon For Hire
2. “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You” by Derek Webb
3. “Jesus Jesus” by Noah Gundersen
4. “Closer” by John Mark McMillan
5. “Though You Slay Me” by Shane and Shane
6. “Salvation” by Skillet
7. “We Fall Apart” by We As Human
8. “Hold Me Now” by Red
9. “Beautiful Scars” by Disciple
10. “After the Storm” by Mumford and Sons

10 Miscellaneous Things I Learned in 2013:
1. The concept that cynicism and intelligence/wisdom are the same thing, or even strongly
related, is false and incredibly damaging.
2. People with different beliefs than those I hold-- even complete opposite beliefs-- are a whole lot less scary than I was raised to believe.
3. Nostalgia is a dangerous drug, to be taken in limited quantities with your feet firmly planted in where you are now.
4. The fact that joy so often comes paired with a dose of sorrow doesn’t mean that you should forgo the joy to try to avoid the sorrow; it just means you have to find ways to embrace and fully live both.
5. What employers value should never, ever be taken as any kind of standard of what are actually valuable character traits. And on a related note, the societal notion that being in certain kinds of jobs makes you a “higher” or “lower” kind of person is deeply flawed.
6. A very high percentage of discomfort in my relationships comes from my own pride.
7. Music and the music industry are two very different things, and navigating the latter means never losing my love for the former.
8. Most things we think are small (conversations, actions, moments) really aren’t small at all. Every detail matters. 
9. Overcoming dark in our lives is much less about constantly trying to starve the negative and much more about conscientiously, intentionally feeding joy, hope, and light (likely a blog post expanding on this coming).
10. There is no shame in holding to traditional beliefs and clinging to the basic doctrines about the reality and character of Christ. It doesn’t require becoming an intellectual infant. Some thought systems have endured for a reason.

10 Goals for 2014:
(This is always problematic because my life is so unpredictable. I’m going to try to nail down less nebulous goals this time around however.)
1. Run a race (10k at the very least).
2. Change my job situation (Lord willing).
3. Go to a festival again.
4. Write a letter to/have a conversation with at least one of my heroes explaining the impact they had in my life.
5. Find some practical ways to combat recurring anxiety episodes. 
6. Volunteer charity work through church at least once.
7. Wear skirts and dresses more (this being less shallow than it seems-- being confident enough to do so would be an accomplishment).
8. Read at least one book in the fields of theology or literature purely for learning/academic reasons.
9. Visit a place I’ve never been before (meaning a new state or town, not just a new coffee shop-- though I wouldn’t complain about that either).
10. Grow my hair out (also less shallow than it seems-- being healthy enough for my hair to grow is both new and a really big deal).

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Exiled Hearts

Throughout the years of my faith and even the years before I had much of anything resembling faith, Christ has most often found me in sorrow. This may be because grief is the emotion I naturally tend to experience most keenly and most often, and it may be because that is where my need for Him is felt deepest.

In the past, this has not held as true for Christmas. I love this season. I love that it’s about rescue. I love that it holds a new kind of hope. But this year, burned out and weary, I’ve had trouble connecting myself to messages of joy and comfort when it’s so far from the realities that feel more present at the moment.

Recently, I got into what I call a shouting match with God. These happen often in my walk with Him, and though some might call it irreverent, if the often-emo poetry of the Psalms tells me anything, it’s that He can take it. I owned up to my deep sense of loneliness and isolation, the feeling that I’m barred from the things I hoped for, and held it out in trembling hands. And I dared to ask Him a question: “How can I believe You’re here in this?”

And He answered: I was exiled too once.

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
Isaiah 53:3 - 4

The cultural bent, inside and outside of the church, is to reserve Christmas for the joyful ones, the happy ones, the ones who get to go home to whole families. But maybe that’s a side effect rather than what it is

Christmas is for the lonely ones-- He chose to be lonely with us. Christmas is for the wandering ones-- He wandered with us. Christmas is for the exiled hearts facing long, aching roads before they reach anything close to a place that feels like home.

Because as much as I feel vulnerable being so far from the familiar and comforting in these recent months, I can’t even grasp the vulnerability of being God wrapped in the skin of a newborn baby. And I imagine that when He opened His dark newborn eyes-- eyes that had only ever been bathed in glorious light, now plunged into the thick darkness of an ancient night-- His crying was more than an infant’s noise. He was learning the deeply human ache of being terribly far from home.

Though I shrink from dismissing this with an easy answer (to let the Christ child sit with us in our loneliness bears a sacredness as weighty as the joy of knowing that He was also our Redeemer), I also find courage in remembering that His exile, like my own, was not purposeless. He chose it for the sake of love. Every trembling human breath through chapped human lips, every moment in the dark, was a part of making Love complete-- a part of perfecting love in us. 

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
Isaiah 53:5

He became lonely with us so that we would never have to be truly alone again.

Merry Christmas to my fellow wanderers-- He goes with us.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas Lights

I have always loved Christmas lights.

There is something about them that consistently returns me to a state of child-like wonder, something that pushes me to the kind of innocent hope I usually don’t even believe exists anymore. 

It has always been this way. Even as a teenager, I remember army crawling deep under the branches of my family’s tree and then rolling over on my back to look up. The lights would glitter like a golden spray of stars frozen mid-shower, their rays broken and reflected on the silver tinsel garlands woven up over the dark branches. No matter where my heart was on those December days, the lights were a constant calm, whispering be still. All will be well.

This might be part of why, in some of the hardest years of my life, I chose to use hundreds of Christmas lights as the primary lighting in my room year round. Lights outlined my band posters and textbook shelves and CD collection, shedding a soft, sympathetic glow over countless hours of writing papers and falling asleep with red eyes and shoes still on.

Later I’d move in with a dear friend in Colorado who shared this same love for Christmas lights-- her living room and kitchen were also outlined by the bright, winking bulbs, and for the hours when I was in the house alone, I’d often use them as the only light source yet again. It felt especially right on the days where snow fell softly outside, breathtaking in its chilly, dangerous beauty as I sat inside ringed in by warm light.

This year is different than any that has come before it. I’m a newly married 20-something in a new city just barely getting by with a dead-end job and a heart that lately seems to have dead-ended as well, and Christmas lights honestly seem like an extravagance I have no right to indulge. I had to rationally weigh the possibility of not decorating at all-- after all, no one but me and my husband will see it anyway. I am living in the kind of isolation where I hesitate to bake for the Christmas season because there’s no one to eat any of it, where I know if my car breaks down in the ice on the way home from another long holiday shift there is not a single person I can call to come pick me up.

But maybe all of this just means I have more reason than ever to pull out the strands of Christmas lights we used at my wedding and re-use them, in defiance of the grown-up cynicism that threatens to choke the light from this gray December. When I was a child, others hung up the lights for me, and I simply soaked in their glow. Maybe part of being “grown up” in this season is not retiring the lights, but rather choosing to hang them myself even if there’s no one here to help or even to see.

I don’t know the thought inside out yet, but I feel that hope is something we choose instead of something that happens to us. Hope is in defiance of, not rational reliance on, the shadows circumstance casts on us. Hope is truest when it is impossible.  After all, the incarnation, this mystery that prompted this holiday, must have seemed the same-- the strange idea that a newborn’s cry heralded a collision of the dark night with the divine, that the frail infant hands held love enough to alter the course of human hearts forever. 

So I’ll hang the lights and I’ll hope, in memory of the way things have been and anticipation of what is to come, in recognition that the miracle of God-with-us is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago-- and that is reason enough to shed a little light.

Friday, November 1, 2013

These Are My Souvenirs

"Here’s to the twilight, here’s to the memories. These are my souvenirs, my mental pictures of everything. Here’s to the late nights, here’s to the firelight. These are my souvenirs..."
- Switchfoot

Moving away from one home to my second home and then moving away from that one within the space of a year has given me the chance to experience a breadth and depth of new emotions.

One of them is a particularly deep, bittersweet nostalgia. And I don’t mean the “remember before facebook” surface-level type that I imagine will become more prevalent as I progress through adulthood. It's the kind that comes more naturally to me with my heart's natural bent to sorrow, the kind that says “remember when we were still allowed to be innocent?”

Largely, I think this kind of nostalgia is emphasized because, as I have said in many conversations, I am aware that there really is no “going home” after you move away. You can go back to the same place, but it will have changed-- circumstances will have changed, the people will have changed, you will have changed. No, you cannot really go back. And that gives the contrast between “then” and “now” a sharpness that bites deep.

I’ve often been in a place the last few years where my day could be wrecked by a simple photograph of a group of friends, knowing that group would probably never be assembled again. Pictures of my siblings when we were all a little younger and a lot more innocent can be even worse.

I close my eyes and go back in time: you were just a child then, and so was I. We were so young, we had no fear. We were so young, we had no idea that nothing lasts forever.
- Switchfoot

Yesterday I was digging for an old picture, and in the process ended up exploring my facebook timeline. Countless old posts, pictures, memories, and stages in relationships flashed before my eyes. And at first I had that familiar deep pang of regret, this feeling that there was a beauty there I will never get back.

Photo taken by my dear friend Kate during the 2010 CP Moot-- easily still the best week of my life
And then I started to try a different focus, dragging my heart away from its natural inclination to mourn. I recognized that some of the most cheerful posts and brightest smiling pictures had been from days or seasons where I was actually really aching down deep inside. Perhaps I can perceive a kind of innocence in interactions then, but the fact is that things I now see as pebbles were mountains to me then because I hadn’t ever crossed them yet.

Nostalgia is an instagram filter for life. It’s easy to use the past’s highlights as an excuse to feel discontent with the present’s lows.

Honesty forces me to admit that in the future, I’ll likely look back on this phase of life and think “if only I could get that back.” I’ve started to make a game of guessing which parts of my circumstances I will miss later-- a game that pushes me to enjoy the moments with the fullest appreciation, drinking them deep and swallowing slow.

Because that is the other side to this: yes, I wrongly romanticize my history at times to feed my own discontent. But I also do myself a disfavor when I swing too far the other direction and pretend it was all ugly. For a long time, I saw much of my childhood and teenage years as only shadow. That is false. This should be proved just by the amount of stories I tell in conversation. I have lived stories and friendships and adventures that are breathtakingly beautiful, and naming them so is part of living life in gratitude and grace. 

Of all the things I still remember, summer's never looked the same. The years go by and time just seems to fly, but the memories remain. In the middle of September, we'd still play out in the rain-- nothing to lose but everything to gain.
- Daughtry

The balance I am trying to strike is being grateful for where I’ve come from without neglecting to keep my eyes ahead. After all, this story is so far from over. I have traded younger joys of the past for some weightier joys in the present. My life may have had time to teach me more of sorrow, but I certainly also know more of grace. And though that, like any part of growing, is not easy, I will continue to believe it's worth it.

"Reflecting now on how things could've been, it was worth it in the end.
- Daughtry

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Growing Pains

I’ve been going through a bit of what feels like a second round of teenage years physically lately. I’ve shed a significant amount of weight and worked at getting in shape in order to combat some long-standing health problems, with the result that sometimes I feel like I don’t know the skin I’m living in anymore.

When I curl up to sleep in positions that have long been comfortable, my ribs and bones press against me at odd, awkward angles. When I went to shop for work clothing, I had to try on size after size, attempting to figure out which one actually fits now. As chilly weather approaches, I keep pulling out fall clothes (my beloved hoodies and plaid shirts) and finding that favorite garments now hang like strangers on my shoulders.

Although this change is not a bad thing in itself, it leaves me feeling insecure and lost in my own body sometimes. All the rules for how I function have changed. Running a mile is easier than it’s ever been, but skipping meals is harder than it was.

This seems like a suitable metaphor for much of my life right now.

My life wears a skin I’m not familiar with, and sometimes it feels like it’s all awkward angles and disorientation. This rocker kid with a heart bent towards all things reckless and passionate has become a housewife working brutal early morning food service shifts. After years marked by middle of the night road trips and airports and walkways by stages and too much coffee and cheap french fries, I’m living life static. 

The final symbol of this for me was when I had to cut off several inches of fluorescent blue from my hair so that I could be accepted in the workplace. It was like watching a little piece of my identity forcibly severed.

Honesty forces me to admit that there are scattered days where I hate it. I hate the clothespins and the dishes and the endless parade of budget notes and bills. But those days are rare, since I am determined to count these moments like they still matter. More often I just feel this kind of quiet heartache inherent in my daily routine, this question asked more in curiosity than rebellion: will I ever get to do the things that have made me feel alive again?

I know that for some people, these are the things that do make them come alive, and I have a deep respect for the homemakers and the housewives and the steady, deep-loving souls hidden in so many houses and part time jobs, brave enough to embrace peace. They have a kind of courage my soul shrinks from. This makes me wonder if I somehow missed a part of being human, if I’m just too selfish to be settled down.

So the question I wrestle with is this: how do I live a life burning just as bright here as I did when rock shows and travel and friends and adventures were life’s difficult but radiant fabric? It has to be possible, since the soul I am has not changed with my circumstances, and the purpose God breathed into me has not been erased by my position.

I never want to be the one to settle for apathy. I will always restlessly pace to the borders of my life, hold out my arms, and fall over the edge with faith as my wings. But I don’t entirely know what that looks like for me right now, as a creative serving people bagels at 6:00 a.m., as someone who (often unhealthily) idolized independence learning to be a wife, as a mind who loves learning confined to the mindless mundane, as an adrenaline junkie constrained to spend free time doing laundry by hand.

But I know that even in “settling down,” I don’t want to settle for less than the deepest adventure. To some extent being sustained in this goes back to the truth I come back to over and over again: what we do is not who we are. I have felt like my soul is awkwardly straddling the fence between “ordinary” and “alive,” but maybe in reality part of growing into this skin is learning to be consistent no matter where my feet are planted-- finding the things about my identity that endure beyond the circumstantial and letting those things anchor me.

I don’t have it figured out yet. I’m not sure yet if I ever will. But I’m going to keep trying, one step, one songs, one coffee cup at a time-- as always.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Simba and Shame

The other night I was watching my childhood favorite movie The Lion King with my husband and a friend. I watch it fairly often (which probably says a lot about my progress-- or lack thereof-- at becoming a “grown up”), and I’m increasingly noticing that I perpetually bring something new away from it. Some stories are like that-- they grow up with you.

So if you can forget for just a few moments that I’m talking about animated lions here, I’ll try to capture the theological parallels I carried away from it this time around.

Let’s set the stage in case you haven’t seen it in a while: in perhaps the darkest and most emotionally traumatic scene of my 90s childhood, lion cub Simba’s father and king, Mufasa, is trampled to death attempting to save Simba from stampeding wildebeest (set in motion by Mufasa’s murderously jealous brother Scar). 

In the aftermath, Simba’s first reaction is simply grief. But in mere moments Scar appears on the scene, and he instantly starts implying that the weight of what has happened rests on Simba’s shoulders. With subtle statements like "if it weren’t for you, he would still be alive" and "what will your mother think?" Scar infiltrates the grieving kid’s thoughts. Soon Scar has Simba utterly convinced that not only does he bear the weight of witnessing his father’s death-- he caused it, making him no better than a murderer.

So Simba runs. For years. The shame drives him to irresponsibility, to recklessness, to turn his back on everyone who has ever loved him. Eventually, the honest but stern words of a friend and the spiritual reminder of his identity drive him to return to his homeland. And when he does, his absence has left his beloved kingdom in ruin, his family and his friends oppressed and starving.

Of course we know the ending by default of it being a Disney movie: the bad guy is brought to justice, the kingdom is reclaimed and healed, Simba gets the throne-- and the girl. And there is a turning point in this climax process where Simba realizes for the first time that Scar lied to him. Scar set all the weight of the murder on Simba’s shoulders, but in reality it was Scar who did the killing. And in the moment when Simba realizes that he’s been lied to, his shame completely falls to pieces, and that freedom is what gives him the strength to defeat Scar once and for all.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably starting to get some ideas of why this matters (beyond the fact that it’s actually some pretty epic storytelling for an animated feature).

I have a history of making really destructive decisions. I hold the belief with a certainty stronger than death that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, I am not the same person that I was (2 Corinthians 5:17). Those things no longer have the power to name me. But I also believe that there is an Enemy who will try as hard as he can to tell me otherwise.

Now that I’ve been following Christ for a while, I find that often my struggle is less directly with obvious sin (though I would not in any way claim to be immune), and much more with shame. No one can make me sin anymore. That is an idea I reject on the basis of 1 Corinthians 10:13. I have a choice, even in the face of being tempted towards vices that once owned me. I might not always choose well (and I am so needy of grace), but I will always have a choice. 

So now what paralyzes me is much more often these thoughts which so often refuse to let me rest: what if I did this wrong? What if I hurt someone unknowingly? What if I didn’t love well where I was supposed to? What if I wrongly invested my time? What if my past really isn’t behind me? And the “what if’s” drive me to a crippling sense of guilt. 

Back to The Lion King. The funny thing is, in this case Simba didn’t actually do anything wrong-- it was a horribly broken situation manufactured by someone else that he was thrust into. But he was accused, and the accusation made him believe he was dirty and evil beyond repair. Had he not bought the lie, he would have stayed with his people, become king, and presumably saved his people a lot of starvation and suffering. Even if Simba had been guilty of his father’s death, that still would have been less potentially destructive than his years of running and letting his people starve in slavery. 

Sometimes shame itself is infinitely more destructive than any mistake it suggests we've made.

Because of the reality of the life and death of Jesus Christ, the weight of any sin we’ve committed, any mistake we made, was forgiven as completely as if it never existed. "You’re still dirty" is a lie. "You’ll never be more than this" is a lie. "No one will love you after this" is a lie. And Satan’s subtle whispered accusations and prompts towards shame are just an empty echo of a world that will never be.

So the question may be now how do we combat it? Though this is of course simplified tremendously, maybe there is something to be said for the way that happened in the movie.

Shame is combated with being reminded who you are. Shame is countered by turning to face it in battle instead of running. And shame is put to death by letting the blazing light of truth collide with and conquer the murky dark of the lies.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
Romans 8:1

So there you go. Theology and The Lion King. Let’s live unashamed today, friends.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Love Deeply. Hold Loosely

"I've left enough things behind and seen the good of it to realize that it's not always a bad thing to lose."
- Jon Foreman

We live in a world of impermanence. 

The other day I was on the phone with a very dear friend who lives very far away, and we talked about the way our fast-paced, constantly relocating and moving culture is one where community often becomes a revolving door of short-term associations. Especially at the college age when proximity is temporary, the danger is developing calluses-- no longer choosing to invest in relationships because the cost too far outweighs the seemingly meager return once separation occurs again.

I have started experiencing this on a deep level than normal after a year of constant relocation between my family in Texas, my friends-like-family in Colorado, and the strange culture of Nashville. I often experience a crippling terror of every good thing I encounter leaving, I begin to feel like my story has been one endless string of goodbyes and closing chapters. And the temptation is to simply shut down relationships as the cause of the problem.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel like I am not alone in this. Because I am an all-or-nothing extremist at heart, coping tends towards either mourning inconsolably for what I’ve had to leave behind or else ignoring it completely and telling myself I never really cared about all of that so much after all. Both are lies. 

With a world so cracked and bloodied, so far short of what it should have been, we can’t afford to set out to brave adventures alone. But we also can’t expect that we won’t be torn from companions along the way. My favorite story involves fellowship, but one of the key events is the necessary breaking of that fellowship to further the greater overarching purpose each of the characters is assigned. 

The trick is that if we only think about the fact that we could lose good things, the good thing ceases to be enjoyed. When I’m enjoying a set by one of my favorite bands, I never once look at the time to gauge how much longer they have to play. I’m too fully captured by the beauty of the moment. It’s a kind of fearless delight I am learning to strive for when I am with people.

And yet separations come-- and they must. So in the face of this tension, it’s in almost paradoxical balance I find the truth, as is so often the case. My heart wrestles with it, and I don’t quite understand how to do it yet, but I accept it as true: I have to love deeply but hold loosely. I have to stare down the reality that loving will mean heartache, and I have to choose to love anyway. 

Because in the end, my Christ and my experience and my own heart all resonate with the reality that people are worth it. I will love my friends deeply, even when it’s years between meetings. I will love my family with all my heart, even when that means crying through phone conversations because the miles are long and lonely. I will try to let my heart grow to be big enough to accept this moment fully, with joy and with willingness to accept partings when the time comes.

And after all, we live in the age of text messages and facebook that transport our words across the world in seconds. There are ways to make the goodbyes a little easier after all.

“Hold me fast, ‘cause I’m a hopeless wanderer. And I will learn to love the skies I’m under.”
- Mumford & Sons

Monday, August 19, 2013

Three of Seven

Growing up, if I happened to be out in public without siblings in tow (which was rare) and someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had, my response tended to be met with pity.

I remember vividly showing up for a sewing camp at age 11 (just in case you forgot or didn’t know, that statement should remind you that I was homeschooled) and politely explaining to the elderly lady teaching it that I was one of seven children. Her jaw literally dropped, and after a moment she managed (in proper southern fashion) “lands’ sakes! Why would anyone want that many?”

(Roughly 1997)
(2001, a few hours after my parents' minion roster was completed)
There are dark sides to big families, and I would be the last person to deny that-- there can be endless feelings of invisibility, desperate competition with siblings to try to win some sense of significance and individuality, fights that quickly turn to all-out brawls as siblings choose sides. Take the potential for drama and irritation in your average family and multiply it by six extra kids. Add in the fact that in my case all of us were around each other 24/7 due to homeschooling (and for the first 10 years of my life we all lived in a house that was just a little bigger than a spacious apartment), and the reality is that my childhood relationships with my siblings were not often positive.

And so for a time I thought that perhaps the disbelief I encountered was well-founded, that trying to make so many little humans peacefully coexist was an impossible and unwise pursuit. Maybe I really was a victim. Maybe there'd been some vast mistake. As a teenager, I learned to sheepishly nod my head in uneasy agreement with criticism of families with more than two or three kids. When I got older though, I started to question it more, to revisit the criticisms I’d so often heard first from acquaintances and later from the broader context of culture.

I understand that usually the grown-ups who offered pity meant well, assuming I couldn’t be properly cared for, could not grow into a whole adult, in such a crowded environment. But although this wasn’t intended, the comments about how there were too many of us also easily imply that my four younger siblings shouldn’t have been born. That is a statement I reject with my whole being-- first and most importantly because the world would be incomplete without Mercy’s compassion, Spencer’s swagger, Lucy’s creativity, and Jasper’s hope, and second because I wouldn’t even be fully myself if I had not had the privilege of being their big sister.

See, the thing is that to a large extent they were always right-- being in a big family is usually a harder environment to grow up in. For this reason and others, having a packed house isn’t a calling everyone has (and I do definitely think it has to be a calling for it to work at all). Certainly it’s not universally beneficial for all children. Trying to navigate the emotional complexities of that many people that close to you is a task any mature adult would find daunting, and as a kid it’s outright impossible sometimes.

But the reality is that I would not have traded it for anything. That environment gave my character a chance to be refined in a way I never could have found elsewhere. The years of carrying family responsibilities shaped my understanding of what it is to be selfless (as did observing how much my father sacrificed to make such a big family work). Even the endless sibling squabbles taught me more about forgiveness than I ever would have understood had I not had to share a bed every night with the sisters I’d been fighting with all day.

It may be that big families are one of those experiences that makes or breaks you-- in ways, my heart has experienced both. I think that the parenting method used has a massive impact on how well big families function, and so do external factors like the social and spiritual climate you’re in. I can’t speak into the complexities of other big family situations or experiences, and I can’t say what would have happened had I not encountered God the way I did as a teenager and had everything about the way I interact with people change. But at least in my case, I can say without reservation that it was worth it.

So when I run across extremely negative statements about big families, I think about the souls this world would have missed out on had my parents not been brave enough to bet against the odds... because as far as I’m concerned, the pay off has been more glorious and messy and beautiful than anyone could possibly have foreseen.