Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I broke my own rule yesterday...
Please don't judge me...
I just couldn't wait any longer...

I listened to Christmas music a whole 48 hours before Thanksgiving.
And it was glorious!

I usually feel the itch about now (especially since, as a pastor, I'm thinking about Advent and Christmas long before Thanksgiving), but I hold out until the Day of the Leftovers (Friday). It's a commitment that is reinforced every October when stores start to display Santas and Christmas trees. But this year my willpower was spent in other ways. This year, I just couldn't wait. I felt as if Tyler and I have been celebrating Thanksgiving and Advent for months without the music...

Certainly, this year we've had more than our usual helping of thankfulness with sides of hope. Each week we find ourselves more and more thankful for everything around us: for babies that have not only survived, but are thriving; for friends and family who have shown us abundant love; for a church who responds with grace; for doctors who truly care; and for our own relationship, which has only grown stronger during these months. If someone asks us tomorrow, "What are you thankful for?" we'll need close to an hour to list it all. I've never been more thankful.

So yesterday, as I drove home from our 35 (35!) week ultrasound where the babies measured over 5.5lbs each, I couldn't help but feel the joy of Christmas and the nostalgia of family. Even if I hadn't put the music in, my heart was already singing "Joy to to the World!" Very soon, Little Gummi Bear and Jr. Mint will be joining our family with real names and sweet faces. Their first Christmas will undoubtedly be the most blessed Christmas of our lives. We are so excited...we just can't wait...

But we do.

The season of Advent is just around the corner (officially beginning on Sunday). For most of us, though, Advent preparation is marked less by a church worship service and more by the sound of the clock buzzer alerting us to the beginning of a chaotic day of sales and shopping.

For many, the Friday after Thanksgiving is not only a day to listen to Christmas music, nor is it fondly titled "The Day of the Leftovers." It's Black Friday, of course! It's a day to shop, buying as many gifts on sale as possible. Some of us awaken before the sun in order to be the first in line...for a TV or a toy or some other electronic item. For some, Christmas preparation begins with their primary task of the season: shopping. I remember one year when my parents took my sister and me to the mall for Black Friday was the year of the Furby if I remember correctly. I was a teenager who LOVED the mall then, but even I was completely overwhelmed and appalled at the intensity of the day.  The crowds and the emotional charge were outrageous, and we spent our entire day in lines (not to mention, we weren't even successful in our Furby quest)! Never again have I set foot in a mall or big box store the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Instead, the Harrell family tradition became spending that Friday finding our perfect Christmas tree. For many years, we bundled ourselves up to trudge through acre after acre of White Pines, searching for the "perfect" one. Branches needed to be strong enough for ornaments and full enough to hold many strings of lights. We considered many before falling in love with "the one." Dad cut it with a handsaw while my sister or I held it with gloved hands. With help, we'd tie it to the top of the car for a quick trip home along Nebraska back-roads winding through harvested cornfields. Then we'd excitedly welcome it into our family room with lunch and hot chocolate. Friday night and Saturday were spent decorating, listening to the first Christmas music of the season, and smiling. The season of preparation was officially upon us, ushered in by family, tradition and nostalgia.

This year, for this pastor and her family, Advent preparation and waiting have an entirely new meaning. Not marked by a calendar day or a certain tradition, the meaning of Advent settled in our hearts as we began preparing to welcome two real babies into the world. By now, the nursery is ready, car seats are installed, my hospital bag is packed...and our hearts are wide open. After so many months of uncertainty and fear, we welcome feelings of relief, joy, and love. We have waited so long for these words from our doctor yesterday: "At 35 weeks, your babies will be fine, even if they're born today." Oh the joy! We have waited...and waited...and now we wait...and wait...

In a world of instant gratification, waiting has become almost unheard of. Tyler and I chose not to know whether our twins are boy/girl before they are born. Thus, we have heard more than one person cry out with surprise or lament,"But how will you prepare?"
"The same way I would otherwise," I respond, "babies don't care what color they're wearing." In many ways, preparing for the babies' gender was the last thing on our minds. Our preparation was forced to take a different path: sure, we started by preparing for a "normal" twin pregnancy, but then found ourselves preparing emotionally for the babies to be born way too early, weeks of bed rest, and the possibility of being parents of two children with major disabilities and many hurdles in life. We prepared ourselves for extended NICU visits and drained bank accounts. Only lately have we been able to put our emotional and physical energy into preparing like "normal" first-time parents again, by arranging a nursery, imagining a healthy delivery, etc. For a long time, we had to wait to make plans because we simply didn't know if our plans would come to fruition. Waiting, for us, has been the norm.

So this Advent season, we are so very thankful for a time of waiting that is finally full of happy expectation, hope, joy, and health. We are thankful for a non-traditional time of waiting this Advent -- to be spending our days and hours preparing our hearts and home for two new lives rather than shopping at the mall; thankful that our counters will soon be covered with dishes rather than frosted cookies and the hallway full of laundry rather than Christmas wrap.

Most of all, we are thankful for a reminder that Advent preparation and Christmas joy are really not so much about the cookies and the wrapping paper anyway. They're about finding the holy wherever we are: whether participating in family traditions or finding a new way through whatever life brings us. Advent is about making room in our hearts and our lives for new life, for transformation of our world, for hope and joy, peace and love. It's about welcoming a baby named Jesus into the world, the one who promises that even in the midst of our darkest nights...light shines. 

New life is on it's way...for us, for the shape of a baby (or two).
How will you prepare this year? With what energy will you wait?

Will you spend these days waiting in lines and feeling exhausted...or will you find life elsewhere, with family or friends, or a quiet time of prayer? Will you attend Advent church services or say a prayer for someone around the world with every ornament you hang? Will you share some time or a meal with a neighbor in need, or give your own spirit a welcome break from your usual busyness?

This year, Tyler and I may not have much peace and quiet and we may not make it to many church services...but we will certainly open our hearts and arms to the light of God and the promise of new life. We will listen to Christmas music and celebrate hope. And we will thank God for you, the family and friends who have kept us in prayer all these months of waiting...

"A light shines in the darkness...and the darkness will not overcome it."

Amen. God is Good.

Monday, October 24, 2011


What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.
-Emil Brunner

I've used many metaphors to describe these 9 weeks and 4 days of bed rest. It's been a stormy sea, a marathon, a roller-coaster, a journey. It's been both bothersome and blessing, chaos and calm. When I look back on the past 2 1/2 months, I can barely remember them because they've been so very full and so very empty. It's as if my mind and spirit can't define or contain this time into a single definition or category. 

But if I must choose one theme to cover the ups and the downs, the chaos and the calm, it is this: 


I remember the very first full day of bed rest. 20-some hours after the jarring news from the high-risk specialist, Tyler and I found ourselves sitting across from our regular obstetrician. We were still in a bit of shock, listening intently for any bit of information and explanation we could gather. We heard it in sound-bytes.

21 weeks. 24 weeks. 28 weeks. 

We were at 21. We wanted to get to 28. But it seemed like the doctor was stuck at 24.

I know I've written the most heart-breaking words I've ever heard in a prior post: "If you go into labor before 24 weeks, there isn't much the hospital can do. They might admit you, but the babies probably won't survive." The doctor said this with a ridiculously matter-of-fact tone. (As if there is anything matter-of-fact about losing life after 21 weeks of it!)

Her voice said "if" but her eyes said "when."  She looked at me with an intense gaze, staring at me to be sure I understood. I looked back at her from behind a rippling waterfall, the tears starting to well in my eyes.  Then I looked at Tyler. 

"Remember, you're on strict bed rest," she continued, "That means no leaving the house, no laundry, no doing the dishes, no going up and down the" As the doctor's list of what I couldn't do grew longer and longer, my heart stretched farther and farther to find hope. It felt like a rubber band being pulled tighter and tighter, stretched beyond its usual capacity in order to keep something together. I felt like it might snap and break, as rubber bands are bound to do when stretched too far for too long. I looked back into the doctor's eyes as she continued...

"Nothing we can do...We can pretty much guarantee you're not going to make it to full term..."

That was it. I was done. I couldn't hear any more. I'd gotten the picture, heard the words, felt the heaviness. My senses were overloaded with despair. I don't remember anything said after that. Tyler and I left the exam room in a daze, arms around each other, tears on the verge of flooding the entire 2nd floor of Chagrin Medical Center.

That evening we processed what had been the second doctor's appointment in two days. We revisited the words we'd heard and the words we hadn't. We admitted to one another that we felt significantly heavier and more despairing after this day's appointment. The day before had been full of "when's." We'd been given a set of milestones and timelines that extended beyond the point of viability. We'd been given something we could do (bed rest) that might help us get there. That day, we'd only been given the raw, painful truth of our immediate situation. 

One day we had hope. The next day we didn't. It wasn't that our situation had changed, or that the information being given to us was any different. It was all the same.  

We decided to listen to the first doctor (he was the specialist, after all)...and we chose hope.

Those first few weeks of bed rest were the most difficult. It was a battle to keep hope front and center in our minds and hearts. But we knew we had to keep it there. We knew that the minute we succumbed to the spirit of despair, our babies were lost to us. Deep within, our intuition told us that if we decided inside that they wouldn't make it, they wouldn't. So we reached, stretched and searched for hope in just about everything.

And alone, I don't think we would have made it. There were too many scary moments; too many sleepless nights, spontaneous tears, startling symptoms and overwhelming odds. Soon, we realized that just like the chores building up around the house, we needed help.

I remember receiving an email from a friend at church just a week or two into it all: 

"We certainly already all love those babies," she wrote, "and I have every faith that all will be well." After reading the last line, I laughed in between my tears. Although I was thankful for her words, I was NOT so sure that all would be well. Hope was dangling on a string in our house, and we were scrambling to reel it in. Yet, the note made me laugh because here I was, the pastor, the one who speaks of hope on a regular basis, running dangerously low in hope... and hearing my own words being spoken back to me. Even more, hidden in those words were these unspoken words: “it’s okay if you feel hopeless right now. We’re holding on to hope for you. It’ll be here when you need it.

Soon after, the cards started flooding our mailbox. In 9 weeks and 4 days, I could probably count on one hand all the days we haven't received a card or email of encouragement. Some of the cards have messages, some are simply signed...but we know that all come with a prayer. We have received over 100 tangible prayers and reminders of hope in the mail. (side note: I think my church is single-handedly keeping our post office branch open!)

This is why faith communities ROCK. Literally, our church has been a rock of hope for us during a time when life itself seemed so unstable. If I ever needed a reason to believe in the institution of church, this is it. Sure, I can and do find God every day in the trees and the sky or as I walk silently through the metroparks...until I can't leave my living room. I can say prayer after prayer as part of my own individual spirituality...until I find myself speechless with despair. And in those moments when my own spirit is struggling, when hope has been thrown overboard in a sea of doubt, someone has brought it back with a life-preserver, holding onto it and holding it out to us until were were ready to take it for ourselves.

Emil Brunner had it right. Life cannot be sustained without oxygen. Life cannot be sustained without hope. Sure, many people survive crippling illnesses and spirit-crushing situations without a church family or close community, but Tyler and I know that the reason we’re still breathing and loving deeply is because we’ve been held afloat by the prayers and love of true community, real family. It’s not something we could have done alone. We needed the people who have held onto life-preserving hope for us (and the babies) when we didn’t have the strength to do it ourselves.

Today, we are almost to 31 weeks -- 10 whole weeks of bed rest filled with every kind of emotion possible (and a little extra frustration and exhaustion thrown in there for good measure). Today, we are just a little over 6 weeks away from what the doctors consider "full term" for Gummi Bear and Junior Mint. Yes, contrary to what doctor #2 believed, we can actually see the beacon of light ahead and are filled with hope. From here on out we can be certain that all will be well.

And we are so. very. thankful.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


And the (slow) race to the finish line continues...but at least it's not raining, right?

Today the sun is shining in Cleveland and my heart is happy. It's my dad's birthday and also the 28 week milestone for our two little ones. Hooray for good lives of love! Without really knowing how, Tyler and I have made it through 7 weeks of bed rest with our bodies, minds, and spirits intact. To be honest, we didn't really think we'd get here. Seven weeks ago, even one week seemed like a marathon. Seven weeks seemed nearly impossible. Tyler may have felt a bit more optimistic than I did (if so, not much), but I was certain that even if the babies made it to this point, the rain clouds would settle in and my spirit would be hovering just above depression. Just the thought sent me looking in that direction listening for thunder.

And yet, here I am, nowhere near the pit of despair. Each day has been a struggle, but each day has brought us closer to hope and deeper into grace. I've finally allowed myself to buy some decorations for the nursery. My wonderful family is throwing me a small family baby shower in a week (something I thought I'd have to give up since I can't leave home). Tyler and I even agree on four full names--perhaps the greatest miracle of all! With greater than a 93% chance of survival, we can finally believe that our babies will be in our lives, arms, and home for the long-run. That, in itself, is grace and beauty.

However rocky, there have certainly been an overwhelming number of times over the past seven weeks when we have been able to praise God and celebrate. I've tried to share those with you and others who I have written or spoken with. The concept of bed rest was and still is daunting, but finding and sharing the moments of hope and joy have been part of what gets me through each day. At the same time, this journey has been one of the most difficult I have ever been through. Yes, it's gracious...but it's also grueling.

More than one person has said to me over the past weeks, "Be thankful for this time of rest -- it's like an extended paid vacation!"

Say, what?!?

It always takes me a few moments to figure out how to respond to this comment (sometimes said honestly, sometimes passive-aggressively). My first inclination is usually to laugh at what must certainly be a joke...but then I hesitate.

I hesitate because it's true -- I am so very thankful for my loving church family who are continuing to pay me even though I am not able to be fully present with them right now. I hesitate because I know that most people would do anything to have a day or two of breakfast in bed, reading, writing, watching a TV show or ten, crocheting, friends coming to visit and bringing food. Seriously, I know hope that I will never again have such an extended amount of forced down time (especially with kids in the mix) and I am trying to make the most of it! I especially hesitate because I understand the jealousy that may arise in others who are overworked and under-appreciated, or even those who haven't had good time off in much too long.  I hesitate because I am a huge advocate of Sabbath. I believe with my whole heart that God has created us and the world to take time for regular rest and renewal. Every living creature deserves good rest and not enough of us get it these days. Why not agree and be thankful?

I hesitate to respond by justifying myself to the passive-aggressive ones because even if this is restful time off of my regular (fairly stressful) routine in ministry, doesn't scripture tell us in the story of Creation that even God rests after a time of fruitful work? Aren't the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) full of mandates to allow workers and fields a Sabbath time of rest every 7 days or 7 years? Don't we all know that good rest can be crucial to the renewal of our energy, passion, and commitment to our areas of work and ministry? I hesitate because I don't think I should feel guilty for resting. Even God rests without guilt!

But then I speak up. Truly, this isn't a vacation in any sense of the word! I'm not really sure that I can even count it as Sabbath. To fully rest, to find that renewal, we need time and space to care for three different aspects of our selves: body, mind and spirit.

I may be able to call this a Sabbath rest for my body. I am able to sleep enough during the day to make up for interrupted sleep at night and I am certainly not stressing my muscles by over-use. But then a good friend reminds me that my body isn't fully resting.-- ever! -- it's working hard to create and nurture not one, but two lives! Plus, my muscles may be at rest, but they are surely not thriving. Many aches and pains are intensified by muscles crying out to me for exercise and care that I cannot give them. Overall, my body feels far from rested as it is stretched, pushed, and even neglected in places.

I certainly can't call this time Sabbath rest for my spirit and mind, either. My mind has been full of information and worry, working through scenarios and counting down days if not hours that the babies stay put. Navigating multiple doctors means keeping track of who-said-what-and-when so that I can be sure the babies and I get the best care. I count contractions and glasses of water, servings of vegetables and hours. I worry that I haven't been able to go to prenatal classes (will I know how to go through labor without someone explaining it beforehand?!? Of course! With these complications, I am 500% sure that there will be an over-abundance of people in the room to help. But I still worry)! I can't visit possible daycares, or interview pediatricians. And even though my congregation is continuing ministry without me just fine, I am still thinking about them -- planning worship by email, praying when they're sick, thinking about what I wish I were able to do with them during these months and what I hope to do in the future (and yes, wondering whether I'll be able to keep up with my hopes and plans for ministry when I also have two tiny babies throwing off my entire routine. Church folks-- who wants to babysit?) Seriously. My mind is far from's on overload!

And my spirit? Well, there are three things keeping me from the brink of insanity. The first is an overwhelming community that has spanned multiple states and countries! We have received the gift of food from family and friends here in Ohio, someone sponsored house cleaning every other week, and a friend comes to straighten things in-between. I've received more books than I can read in a lifetime, and care packages continue to roll in from other states. Soon I will be writing a blog post about community  -- because I've realized that even if people find God by being "spiritual but not religious," there is something holy and crucial about a church community. My spirit, my connection to God, the very substance of my faith would not be where it is today without a community who have represented God to us in these days.

The second thing keeping me from the brink of insanity is attitude. Tyler and I could have responded to this overwhelmingly difficult journey in so many ways.  Understandably, anger, frustration and depression are almost impossible to avoid in times of illness and stress. We have experienced our share of those. We do our best to acknowledge and share them with one another; If we don't, they may turn into bitterness. So we've shared all of these crazy emotions with one another -- sometimes at the most ridiculous hour of 3:00am! But the biggest saving grace is that we made an intentional effort to keep light spirits and loving  appreciation for one another. We cannot change our situation, but we can make every effort to keep our relationship healthy through the storm. Heaven knows, we'll need every string holding us together when the stress of two newborns becomes a constant part of our marriage! (Wait, what?!? Didn't someone tell me once that all a baby does is sleep, eat and poop? How hard can that be, right?)

Finally, watching for God, watching for grace, and working toward growth has been a huge part of my every day. I guess it's part of that attitude-thing. I could lie here feeling resentful of the situation and frustrated that I cannot go out to enjoy the changing leaves or coffee-shop dates that I miss so much. I could let my over-active mind control me (and, to be honest, too often I do). But my most healthy times, the most beautiful times, have been those in which I channel my frustration or worry into growth. I have learned so much about myself and how I deal with stress during these weeks. I have grown in my identity as mother and wife, not to mention what it means to be a good friend. (And oh, have I been showered with examples of "good friend" these days. Sheesh!) I have encountered situations much like those whom I care for in the congregation -- the starkness of hospitals, the agony of awaiting test results, being home-bound, struggling to adapt to a quickly changing identity -- and these situations have (hopefully) made me a more compassionate pastor and person.

Honestly, this time isn't really a Sabbath and it's certainly not a vacation! It's stressful and challenging in mind, body, and spirit. In these seven weeks I have worked so very hard -- not only nurturing dear Gummi Bear and Junior Mint into life, but also becoming my best self in the face of adversity, giving crucial attention to my marriage, continuing to grow in faith and hope as I rely on the Spirit of Life to sustain the babies and me when medical care cannot, and finding ways to put all of this into words so that others can understand and share in the journey.

And, wow. What a marathon of a journey this is...

...People cheering on the sidelines, offering a cup of cold water here and there, exhaustion and hope mixing to form adrenaline...will someone be holding a "finish line" sign and a gold medal at the end?!? Please say yes!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


"How are you doing?" is the question of the day...every day...
Everyone wants to know and everyone asks.
"Same ol' same ol!'" or, "holding steady...which means good!" I say with a smile and a shrug.

As it turns out, the raging storms have calmed and we're sailing on relatively smooth seas these days. Things have been pretty uneventful and we've found a bit of a routine. At our doctor's appointment yesterday, we learned that Baby A/Gummi Bear is 2.1 lbs (59th percentile) and Baby B/Junior Mint is 2.2 lbs (63rd percentile)! Everything else is holding steady, and we were given the go-ahead to skip a week in between appointments. Three times Dr. vB said, "I'm so happy. This is good."  Tyler and I just looked at each other, eyes grinning. Finally, some space to breathe.

But, the question is, are these smooth seas here to stay, or are they just the eye of the hurricane? We don't know. We were still sent home with instructions to monitor for early labor contractions. We're still playing a guessing game when it comes to a few time-sensitive treatments and how much longer my body and the babies will hold on. So, while the storms have calmed, my spirit is constantly on the lookout for any grey clouds on the horizon.

"How are you doing?" a good friend asked a few days ago.
"Doing well..." I said. But then I added, "...except it's so very difficult to walk the line between self-awareness and hyper-vigilance every day." The thing is, I need to be self-aware enough to watch for and count contractions, even the "normal" ones, when they come. If we ever get beyond a certain number in an hour, the doctors want to see me right away. There is a window of time in which treatments can work, so I must be aware of that window and get myself there in time. This intense awareness, in itself, is exhausting. And I've found that if I'm not careful, the abundance of time in every day causes me to tend toward hyper-vigilance: taking note of every twinge, every bump and every new feeling with great anxiety. It's enough to make me crazy, so I'm trying to trust myself; to minimize my over-analysis as much as possible while still being mindful.

Mindfulness has been a saving grace for me these days.

Being mindful means paying non-anxious attention to the world, to the spirit, to that which surrounds and dwells within us. It's a practice I learned to love during divinity school while reading some of Thich Nhat Hanh's books. In fact, mindfulness is probably my favorite spiritual discipline and one that I try to practice often:

Breathing in life-giving air....breathing out anxieties and worry. Paying attention to the breath that brings life and the Holy Spirit that moves.
Eating mindfully: taking time to taste the food as I eat it, giving thanks for the lives that worked to bring it to me and the nourishment it gives my body. Bread and drink become communion with God.
Walking as a prayer, taking each step with intention. Imagining myself walking the path of Jesus.

A few days ago I took some time to recline outside under a large Oak in our backyard. I brought a book and a glass of water out with me, and planned to read for a while. My plans quickly changed as the warmth of the sun beckoned my spirit and the breeze took my gaze upward. For some time...a long time...I just lay there and took in my surroundings, breathing in the air and soaking up the sun. Without so much to distract me, and plenty of time to spend, I saw my backyard with new eyes.

The Oak tree is magnificent: much taller than I'd ever taken time to notice. The leaves have become a softer shade of green as the summer sun dries them out and they prepare themselves for fall. A squirrel lives in a nest  there, racing down the trunk to taunt Oscar or fly over to the fence where he watches me with suspicion.

The flowering bush to my left is slowly losing most of it's beautiful pink blooms, but the bees are not discouraged. They buzz around from pink to pink, every once in a while venturing further to the yellow flowers in the planter before zooming off to the north. I imagine their home and their community abuzz when they return.

A line of carpenter ants slowly and yet quickly moves from the patio where I sit, along the edge of the mulch, then up and down the trunk of the tree. I watch to see where they are going, but the line is so high I cannot find the end. They must make the tree their home as well, I suppose. I watch them move and realize that even while you and I busily fill our days with work and worry, nature continues her movement forward.

The wind blows. I breathe. The birds sing. The earth turns. Life moves. God speaks.

All of this happens every day, although few of us (including myself) allow ourselves the time to notice. We breathe without thinking. And yet, do we breathe deeply enough of that which we need to survive, body and soul?  We race from appointment to appointment, concerned about much that is beyond our control. Do we take time to notice the beauty of the leaves or the grace someone has just extended us in passing? There really are so many gifts of grace in every day. Our creator has infused the world with them. Do we notice?

I am thankful for this time and reminder to be mindful. I am thankful for a chance to pay more attention to my world, to think deeply and walk carefully (when I do). I am thankful for a chance to eat with intention, praising God for the many people who give of their time to provide nutritious meals for my family. Most of all, I am thankful for this chance to be ever so mindful of the two lives growing well with me. I do realize that if not for bed rest, I would so easily rush and run from place to place, giving my attention to ministry and preparation and to-do lists rather than to the grace of a small "tap, tap, tap" near my belly button.

How are we doing these days? We're making it. The babies are healthy and growing. Tyler and I are finding routine in our new reality, being mindful of one another and remembering to love and laugh. We're watching, waiting, hopeful and thankful for the gift of this day and a break in the stormy seas. And, although we are mindful of what is around and within us, keeping watch for the clouds and the rain, we are so very aware and filled with gratitude for the sun and the calming breeze of the spirit that fill and sustain us now.

Life is growing. Life is good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


At first it seemed to me that every speck of dust became 1000 times its usual size. I'd lie back in the recliner and look straight ahead at the small console on which our tv stands. It's a free piece of furniture I snagged during my first week of full time ministry at Good Shepherd. Tyler and I had just moved into our first house with only a set of bedroom furniture and a brown couch. Thus, you can imagine my excitement to find this 1970's beauty cast away sitting in the middle of the church's fellowship hall with a sign saying "Free to a good home." Anyway, this beautifully free piece of furniture happens to magnify every speck of dust that comes within 6 inches of it, and it kills me every day that I can't get up and dust it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not really a clean-freak. On a good week, I'll use my Friday off to take a good sweep through the house, straightening our messes and cleaning the really important stuff (i.e. the germies in the kitchen and bathroom). Sometimes I'll dust...but not usually. Usually I just let that go.

Until I get word that guests are coming to visit. Then, with skyrocketing intensity, I insist that every inch of the house be spotless. It's taken Tyler more than four years to have even the slightest understanding of what it is that compels me to clean like a madwoman (and insist that he do the same) before anyone else can enter the house. He still doesn't totally understand, but has developed some helpful coping mechanisms. I, on the other hand, can't seem to find the antidote for my periodic insanity.

So here I sit, staring at dust particles the size of softballs, knowing that I can't get up and clean them and it would be ridiculous (not to mention harmful for my marriage) if I insist that Tyler do so every day before work.

Why, you ask, would I need to have the TV console clean every day?
Because people are coming to visit every day.

Every other night, someone brings us dinner. Some days, friends stop by randomly, knowing I'm home. I've rarely spent a day without seeing at least one person other than Tyler. It's been fantastic and my spirit feels connected to the world. I'm so very thankful.

But every time someone comes over, I have a minuscule panic attack. The TV console is dusty. Oscar's toys are everywhere on the floor. The paper recycling is overflowing in the dining room, the kitchen is full of dirty dishes, and the refrigerator is stuffed to capacity with leftovers that need to be discarded. Not only this, but whenever someone comes to visit, I hear my Grandmother 's voice in my head reminding me that a good host would always offer her guests a beverage. My thoughts go something like this:

"Can I offer you a drink?" I ask.
"Yes? Okay, well, go ahead and get it yourself. I'm not moving."
I can see my southern grandmother cringe in the background.

So I don't offer a beverage and then I feel guilty about it. I worry that my guests are grossed out by the piles of dishes in the sink. Even more, I feel completely helpless when those same guests actually do the dishes in the sink. Because that's my job. I should be in there preparing to serve them. They are guests in my house, after all.

Hi, my name is Melanie and I have severe hospitality guilt.

When I think about the roots of my guilt, I could blame (or thank) my family, who taught me from an early age how to set a good table, prepare a well-balanced meal, endure conversation for hours on end, and hone my host-antennae to see every empty plate, glass, or stare. But I can't really blame them, truly, because there is something good and helpful about the southern/midwestern hospitality I was raised to know.

I could blame my church, which teaches a faith rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. Deep within these sacred texts are rules and expectations regarding hospitality. When a neighbor comes to your door, invite them in. When someone comes for a visit, offer them your best meal and something to drink. Even Jesus said "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:35) Welcoming is a primary emphasis of Christian scripture; I'd go so far as to say it'd be the eleventh commandment.

But do either of these teachings justify my guilt? Probably not. The truth is, my guilt isn't really about welcoming. I can welcome people into my home just fine. The root of my guilt is perfection. The problem is, I can't show off my perfected hospitality from a recliner. And it drives. me. crazy.
But only because I'm focused on a skewed definition of hospitality.

Biblical (and cultural) hospitality, at its best, is about welcoming and opening oneself to another. It's about seeing beyond ourselves to know what another person might need in order to feel loved and cared for. When Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food," his focus is not on how delicious the meal was, but that someone looked beyond themselves and saw another's need. My guilt does the opposite of that: it causes me to focus on my own sense of purpose and perfection, rather than the true needs of another.

"Please excuse the mess..." I said to a friend who stopped by unexpectedly the other day.
"What mess?" she replied as she moved a few things to make room in the refrigerator for a blessed meal, "your house is WAY more clean than my own...and I'm not even on bed rest! If this is messy to you, I'd hate to have you over to my house right now. Anyway, I just want to help out -- not make more work for you and Tyler."

And it hit me. My friend wasn't here to be served, but to serve. In that moment in time, the best way I could welcome her was to invite her into my mess. She didn't want to see a spotless kitchen, a perfectly clear refrigerator and just-dusted TV console. She wanted to come into the chaos of life, and bring hospitality to me.

In that moment we were both guest and host at the very same time.
I welcomed her into my home, offering what she needed most: to see me and serve me.
She welcomed me into her life, offering what I needed most: grace and a home-cooked meal.

The truth is, our lives are often messy. We run out of time, we are stricken with grief, we encounter the unexpected. None of us are immune to chaos. 

When that chaos happens, we can respond in so many ways. We could close our doors to the outside world, bearing the burden alone. We could politely apologize time after time, potentially passing our guilt onto our guest. We could push our own limits and run ourselves ragged trying to meet every expectation we (or society) holds for us...

...Or, we can just take a deep breath and open ourselves up to the mess that is life.

I know that no one else sees the softball-sized dust particles sitting on the TV console. They're too focused on Tyler, the babies, and me. They're too happy to be able to help in a time of need, celebrating every small milestone with us. They're too busy offering blessed hospitality to me to be concerned about my hospitality to them. 

Sometimes I think that's what God is like: simply wanting to be welcomed into the mess of our lives in order to help, celebrate, and welcome us back in return. God doesn't ask us to have it all together before walking into a faith community. We don't have to close the doors to the "junk room," hiding our clutter. And we certainly don't have to have a perfectly clean table before we sit down for communion.

God only asks that we be willing to open the doors to our hearts, letting the fresh air of grace fill us. 

In some ways, I'm thankful for the dust balls and the dirty dishes. They remind me that I'm human, imperfect and messy. They remind me that I am loved, not just for my skill at organization or achievement, but because I am me. Most of all, they remind me that honestly welcoming others into my life means opening my doors and letting them come in, whether or not I have it all together.

It's been a hard lesson, but I've learned these past weeks that hospitality means so much more than setting a nice table or making sure every guest has a beverage. It's about welcoming neighbor, and welcoming God, into the inevitable mess that is our lives.

So come on in.
It's a little bit dusty, a little bit chaotic,
but all life is like this sometimes.
Why not live it together?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lucky Number 24

24 is a good number, don't you think?

Today is a big celebration in the Harrell Delaney household! We've made it to the 24 week mark in my pregnancy. 24 weeks is the point of viability with babies. If they're born today, the medical world knows what to do. If they were born just a few days ago, they wouldn't have had much of a chance. It's a milestone, a mountain to have climbed in the 3 weeks the babies and I been on bed rest together.

Three weeks ago, as Tyler and I sat in the doctor's office reviewing what was going on and why we needed bed rest, we kept hearing these words: "We just have to get you to 24 weeks. We just HAVE to." The next day, as we sat in yet another doctor's office, she said, "If you go into labor before 24 weeks, there isn't much the hospital can do. They might admit you,  but the babies probably won't survive."

Woah. Talk about serious words. I much preferred Doctor #1's approach. We just HAD to get to 24 weeks...and we did!

So, today I celebrated with a visit to the outside world! (Okay, so it was only the hospital/doctor's office. But at least now I know the world still exists beyond my driveway!)  I'm "getting out" for weekly doctor appointments these days and today the doctor and I held a small celebration. I almost brought cookies, but then I remembered that I was scheduled to do the glucose screen test (the one where they make you drink something that reminds me of McDonald's orange drink on steroids), and I decided not to add any more sugar to my afternoon than I had to. So we celebrated with a high five instead.

Since our hospital is a university based hospital, there are always students and residents around. Today was no different. As Dr vB and I shared a high five, he looked at the resident and said,

"24 is a lucky number, right? We've gotten this far on luck. Pure luck."

"Whatever it is, I'll take it!" I chipped in.  But, just as the words came out of my mouth, my heart said, "but, it's way more than luck."

Sure, it might be true that Dr. vB was "certain" we would miscarry 3 weeks ago.
Somehow, we didn't.
It might be true that in the coin flip of a decision made 2 weeks ago, Dr vB thought either option was highly risky.
Somehow, Tyler and I made the right choice.
It might be true that bed rest is not a guarantee of success when it comes to delaying labor and birth.
Somehow, it's working.

Dr. vB says that our "somehow" is luck. But it isn't pure luck, is it?

People of faith have another word for luck. We call it prayer. Or grace. Or God. As Tyler and I breathe a sigh of relief with each day that passes safely, we know deep within that our "somehow" is the grace of God mixed in with more prayer than we have ever known before. Truly, we have more people praying with and for us than we are even aware of. From Ohio to Washington D.C., Nebraska to Florida, Arizona and Colorado, we are completely surrounded in prayer and hope and love. So the "luck" that our doctor talks about? I has to be more than that. We feel it.

I haven't always known what to think about or do with intercessory prayers of healing. In fact, that's a generous statement; I haven't often believed that intercessory prayers do much of anything. My scientific and rational self can't figure out how it works. My spiritual self believes God is always working toward healing in every aspect of our lives, anyway -- God is already on the job, so to speak --  so what difference would a prayer make?

But last summer, a good friend of mine had a very sick little 2 year old, and I couldn't stop praying. I prayed the traditional word-prayers, I prayed "in color" with my crayons, I prayed with every breath and every blink. I wasn't sure what my prayer was doing, but I couldn't not pray. My prayers came as naturally and constantly as breathing. At that time I realized that through my prayers, the spirit-connection I had with one beautiful little 3 year old, her parents, and God, was unbreakable. I knew then that prayer was important. I knew that whatever happened, God was with that young family, God was with me, and God was in every particle of space in-between. And that knowledge brought us peace.

Today, the mom of that little two year old (now three), holds Tyler, me, and our two babies in prayer in exactly the same way. So do our families in Nebraska and in Ohio. So does our entire church family. So do friends we keep in touch with through email and facebook. And, "somehow," that knowledge brings us peace.

I felt that peace deep within during one of our scariest moments two weeks ago. It was one of the most critical times we've had so far, and instead of thinking about the risk, I was thinking about prayer. I thought about the family members who were praying at that very moment. I thought about how many prayers had been said and breathed for us in the last 24 hours. Most significantly, I felt those thoughts and prayers surround me like a warm bubble in the midst of a cold hospital room. I felt the prayers of the people. And while I still felt an overwhelming uncertainty about what would happen that day, I knew that I wasn't alone in my worry, my fear, or my hope.

I wasn't alone. We are not alone.

Remembering all of the prayers, yes feeling all of the prayers, reminded me that never in our lives are we apart from the one who created us with love and who continues to create in and heal us. The holy Spirit of life is always as close to us as the air we breathe.

And it isn't luck in the air. It is LIFE. What we feel is the holy spirit of God working to bring healing and life into the world. What Tyler and I feel is the holy spirit working toward life in our whatever way that happens for us and these babies. So we breathe in all of the thoughts and prayers like air and feel peace deep within. Peace that comes in knowing that no matter what happens, we are not alone. That "somehow," with prayer and the presence of God, life will be sustained.

So, today, we celebrate lucky number 24...

        ...knowing that "somehow," 24 isn't the last lucky number we'll see.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Grace, God, and Growth

Immediate. Bed rest. Babies. Risk. 

The words floated in the air as if held up by invisible strings. I reached for them so that I might understand, but they remained just above my head as I lay there listening to the doctor explain what he had just seen on the ultrasound screen. 

"You mean, like, now? Today? No more going into the office? But I'm a's just me. Can I still preach on Sunday?" 

Those were the words that came out of my mouth, but the concepts in my head were less coherent.  I was trying to string together what had suddenly gone so wrong, while grasping for a sense of what my new reality would be.

I could hear it in the doctor's heightened and worried tone. I could see it in the way the technician just kept moving the ultrasound around without looking me in the eye. I felt the way the already-too-small room seemed to cave in. My world would soon be limited to the familiar walls of my own bedroom and the smooth leather of the living room recliner.

How long? For as long as it takes. Maybe 14 whole weeks. Long enough for the two tiny babies growing within me to be able to survive (and not just that, but to thrive), on their own. Gummy Bear and Junior Mint, we lovingly call them. They aren't ready for the outside world yet. They need me, still. 

They need me still.

In the tears that came eventually, I processed the intensity of what this "rest" would entail.  I cried for the babies, cried for the risk, cried for my own body which quickly began to ache without daily use. I wondered how I, with my A-type and driven personality, could spiritually and emotionally withstand so many weeks without to-do lists and the meaning I ascribe to my work (both in and out of our home). The unknown was heavy. 

But with every day, the unknown becomes known. Two weeks have now passed. While the tears still come every now and again, meaning has not been lost. The grace, gift, and growth of this time has been abundantly clear with every roller-coaster day. Some days it is the meal brought by a friend. Some days it is the struggle itself that opens a new window into the meaning of suffering and perseverance. Some days it is a deep breath and the reminder that with every God-infused breath I take, my two precious babies breathe with me.

These days are full of worry and hope, growth and grace. I pray that through this journal of sorts I will be able to process and remember these stories of rest while I do all I can to nurture these two tiny babies into the fullness of life. I pray that you who read this blog will find meaning and grace in my words. 

Most of all, I pray that the stories I share will speak truth to the inevitable struggle and beauty that together sustain the growth of all life.

Thanks for joining me on the journey...