Saturday, April 19, 2014

So Much To Do

Why do I feel so compelled to keep all the plates spinning and to respond to the incessant to do lists? 

Why does productivity matter to me so much? 

Why do I always say "yes"?

Why am I so distracted all the time? 

Why is it so hard to stop? 


I have been extremely distracted lately. And this state of being distracted, well, it's distracting. I don't think it's likely that anything new is distracting me, just that I'm waking up to all the noise that's been there all along. I sit down to play baby dolls with my two year old daughter and almost instantly my mind wanders to the bowtie orders I need to be making and the fabric that needs ordered and the emails that need sent and I'm down a mile-long list of business to do's before I realize she's still sitting there, waiting with her baby doll. It's excruciating for a moment, but my wheels are spinning too fast to stay in one emotion for long.

Later on, I sit with my son to build trains and again, like second nature, my mind is racing with writing prompts and analogies I want to remember and books I need to read and others I forgot to return and fines that need paid and the spinning mental to do list consumes me all over again. I decide to give myself ten minutes to send a couple emails and get all the laundry gathered, hoping that by checking off a couple boxes from the to do list, I will again be able to focus and breathe. I excuse myself from the kids, pleading with them to play kindly with each other while I’m gone. I send the emails, but am distracted by the mess of the office and in the midst of sorting piles and picking up crayons, I hear crying and screaming from the basement. I find both children sobbing at the bottom of the steps, one having been hit by a sword and the other bitten in retaliation. I fume at them for not being able to play together for ten minutes while mama gets some work done. I situate them on the couch with a cup of raisins, then resume my sorting and cleaning and, after checking emails again, gather the laundry. 

By this time, the kids are frantic for my attention and I’m consumed with guilt for all the distraction and stressed even more by the endless list of to do's. The "ten minute" break has turned into a half hour of frenzied doing, and I plead with myself to just slow down and let my focus rest entirely on these two beautiful children. I drop the laundry basket at the top of the stairs, straighten a few cushions on my way back, then plop down beside warm, welcoming bodies.

I'm able to breathe into some time with the kids, cuddle with them to books and sit down for lunch together. My mind flitters off here and there throughout our cuddles and conversations, but mostly I'm present and warding of the Do Demon with the hopes of productive nap time hours, quickly approaching. We chitter chatter and cleanup from lunch and I have this urgent sense of wanting to freeze time, to savor these moments forever. For a moment I am caught up in what really matters. 

But then, I race to lay the kids down for naps - dreading the day I won't have those hours to slash my to do lists in half - and run downstairs, dashing from item to item, responding to more emails, finally throwing in that load of laundry, cleaning the kitchen, timing my every step. I check in with my list, check the clock for the hundredth time. I allow myself a four minute shower, respond to more emails, numb with a scan of the news feed, then race back downstairs to switch the laundry. Multiple times, I realize my heart is racing from trying to squeeze four hours into an hour and a half. I try to take deep breaths, to think of a better way. I add "exercise" and "write" to my to do list as I race upstairs to gather too-soon woken children. 

The day continues on, with laundry to fold and floors to sweep, groceries to buy and errands to run, food to cook and kids to love. We stop by the park for a mental breather, and I'm able to relax again, briefly, and breathe deep when we look eye to eye. But all too soon my mind races and in my frenzy, I find myself repeating tasks, over-checking emails, numbing to news feeds and staring past the people I love the most. By the end of the day, I'm exhausted, guilty, frustrated and still have a few more to do's to finish up before I can collapse into bed. I end with a pending to do list and set my alarm for earlier the next day. Maybe an earlier start will help?


I have long, long been a juggler of many plates. I've proudly received the comment, "I just don't know how you do it all?" hundreds of times and have breathed deeply of my ability to stretch the limits of a tight schedule and check off every last to do on my list. I've also found room to check off others' to do lists, being the go-to-girl for hosting baby showers and birthday parties and babysitting and volunteering for some project or another. My "yes's" have outweighed my "no's" a million to one, while I meticulously schedule each minute and, then, write another to do list. 

When my husband and I met and married in 2005, I was working a 30 hour a week job, volunteering at least 10 hours a week with our church's college ministry, keeping up a packed social calendar and finishing out my senior year at Ohio State University, where I petitioned the dean every quarter for permission to take above the maximum allowable credit hours. I was paying my way through school - refusing to take on any debt - living on my own and planning a wedding. I literally ran (or sped) from one responsibility to the next, rarely uttering the word "no". In fact, I volunteered myself - my time and energy and talents - constantly, to family and friends and any reasonably needy cause. When people would ask, "Are you sure you have time for that?", I would proudly answer, "Oh, yeah, I really thrive best under pressure!" Which I whole-heartedly believed. And so the responsibilities would pile on and I'd somehow manage to keep all the plates spinning, with astonishing success, and would marvel with others at my ability to take on so much. 

My husband has always been my biggest fan, and in those early years of marriage, I remember how impressed he was with how much I could handle and how thoughtful I was about using my time intentionally, even it did mean a bit of steam-rolling and constant motion. I lived by this "intentional time use" mantra. I was obsessed with productivity and using every second of my day to check something off my to do list, which fortunately included relationships and ministry and volunteering. But instead of endless evenings of laughter or sharing, my friendships were grown during volunteer hours or while doing the laundry or over a ministry planning meeting. Which wasn't wrong, but certainly imbalanced. I had a hard time allowing myself to stop and saw little value in activities purely intended for pleasure. Life was being shared, but largely because we were all rushing through it together. Everything had a point, a plan, a purpose.


Only very recently have I awakened to the value of personal time or down time. And even more recently have I acquired play and creativity and rest as meaningful values. It is so new in my life to ask for an evening out alone, that I often still feel a twinge of awkwardness and guilt when I hear the words come out of my mouth. I feel as if I should look over my should to see if someone else has made the request on my behalf, or if, in fact, it was really me. I am new at setting boundaries and am an amateur at saying "no". It is a daily discipline to stay mindful of my limitations and a new practice to ask for help.

In Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she focuses extensively on these concepts of play and creativity and rest as aspects of a whole-hearted, healthy lifestyle. In fact, it is this book and the corresponding e-Course that have started to engrain these values meaningfully into my soul. Brown speaks directly to my exhausting, endless to do lists when she writes:

"In today's culture - where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, and we base our worthiness on our level of productivity - spending time doing purposeless activities is rare. In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen. We've got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of time."

I read this and think, "Oh my God! She is in my head. How did she know exactly what happened the other night?!" I am too often verbatim the Doer she's describing, feeling far more stressed at the thought of sitting still, than running frantically on behalf of my list. I have long shirked play and creativity and rest as unintentional wastes of time.

And where has it gotten me? Exhausted. Distracted. Guilty. Empty.

Brown later encourages, in her matter-of-fact way, "Stop pretending play and rest are optional" and, at least for the moment, it resonates deeply within me. I sense the value and I adopt the practice.

I keep practicing, and on some days I find myself in the midst of chaotic distraction, but on others, I find I've chosen a calmer way. I'm becoming ever more mindful of the pull to define myself by doing and increasingly convinced that pleasure is purpose enough.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fragile Starts

What is false and what is true? 

Who am I and what's the point?

I overthink these sorts of questions in the midst of laundry and nature walks with my toddlers and preschool lesson planning and bowtie sales. I think and I read and I so want to learn how to live well. To live whole.

Recently, a book was recommended to me by a friend that focused largely on the idea of false selves. This wasn't a new concept, but one that seemed to require my attention, since it was the fourth or fifth time the topic had been sat upon my lap. The concept of false selves resonates as truth to me: the idea that we learn patterns of coping, ways of fitting in, methods of earning praise and respect, all of which become compulsive, defining, illusory selves. Longing above all else for love and belonging, we become whomever we think will get the most love and belonging. Often, that "whomever" is only a mist of our truest self. 

For me, scholastic achievement - then achievement in general - and being the "good girl" have historically been selves that I've clung to with ferocity. Very early on, I identified worth with accomplishment and love and pleasure with following rules. I became addicted to "doing the right thing" and being an overachiever. I loved the accolades and became increasingly sure in my identity as a "good girl". I wanted to be the best at everything I did, or at least appear that way. Appearance was key.

Through truly praise-worthy accomplishments, several bouts of depression and lots of normal life in between, I remained deeply attached to these identities of doing right and being capable. In and of themselves, these qualities were not and are not harmful. But somewhere along the line, they became consuming, overly-defining and imprisoning. I was not just someone who had a good work ethic, was intelligent and resourceful - I had to do everything well; I had to get straight A's; I had to appear put together. I was controlled by my "Yes", ruled by my need to always show up, take on more and more and more and never let down. 

Or else? 

Or else...

Or else, people wouldn't like me. I'd be found out, not enough. Friends wouldn't call back and nobody would show up at the party and God would be disappointed and my life wouldn't have any meaning and I'd be alone, unloved. 

Doing defined my being. 

It wasn't until recently that I've been able to start seeing through the mist of these identities. It wasn't until tragedy struck my life that these false selves revealed just how strong their grips were. And it wasn't until I found myself still, incapable of doing and accomplishing, totally broken and empty, that these selves finally started fading away, revealing a wholer, freer self, much less attached to "do's" and "rights".  

My battle today is to stay attached enough to those false selves that I am no longer defined by them. To keep my eye on their grip, to stay mindful of my motives and aware of where my worth is coming from. Living a truer me, a me that just is - valued, loved, whole, beautiful, creative - is a process of constant checking-in and readjusting. Perhaps one day my true self will be a strong oak, deeply rooted and firmly planted. But today, it is a precious, fragile start, with tiny green leaves looking heavenward and a delicate stem still bending from the weight of life. 

In light of this fragility and the time and pain it's taken to unravel the false from the true - the be from the do - I am keen to raise my children in a different way, to make this vocabulary part of their lives and to help them find love and belonging in their being. I read about the false self, and after a brief introspection, my mama heart quickly turns to, "Oh, God! How can I keep my children from being overly attached to false identities?" I think and fret and wonder, "Do I praise their accomplishments too much? Do I attach too much pleasure to doing right (or too much pain to doing wrong)? How do I lead them in becoming themselves, unhindered by false attachments and unecessary obsessions? How do I raise whole children?" 

I think of a million ways throughout the day that I'm probably ruining these precious beings; and fear even more the millions more I'm not even aware of. I analyze conversations we've had, replay recent interactions and reevaluate our current routines. And all the while I keep asking, "How do I raise whole children?" 

The task seems nearly impossible - all the known shortcomings, all the unknown imbalances. I strategize, make lists, reserve a few more parenting books and breathe heavily. I so want to protect them from wasted years, from feeling empty or alone or not enough. I want to empower them to be capable and content, responsible and playful, truthful and free - balanced and whole in every way. I want their journey to be a bit lighter.

And then I see the mist clouding my vision, my own false selves tightening their grips - the voices that demand everything be perfect, that life have a plan and rules to stick by. I see the controlling self trying to formulate and the people-pleasing self looking over one should and then the next. I see fear pointing to a bright red sign "Not Enough".

And I see, again - I know with every breath - that the best way to give my children wholeness, fuller and freer life, is to know wholeness myself. To live wholeness before them. To be full and free.

So I breath and return to being. 

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Easter Sale

For all my NBrynn blog readers and Facebook followers, this week I'm offering 20% off all boys' bowties and sibling sets in my Etsy shop. I'm also introducing over a dozen new sibling sets in a new design, with matching mini bow and bowtie for brothers and sisters or ring bearers and flower girls. Spread the Word and enjoy! 

Enter code: EASTER20

(Sale valid March 18-22. Not valid on wedding lines)

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Sunday, March 16, 2014


A letter to my son, on his third birthday:

My precious son. It is hard to know where to begin. In three short years, you have filled my life with unfathomable joy and hope and beauty. Your daddy and I were moved to tears when we first met you, and I am still caught off guard - lump in my throat, tear in my eye - at the overwhelming love I have for you. That first day in the hospital, finally welcoming you and holding you in my arms, my heart grew by acres, where you remain today.

Like many expectant parents, your daddy and I doted over every detail of your nursery - painting and creating and planning day and night. We chronicled my belly expanding month by month, until finally we held you. We attended birthing classes and took hospital tours and celebrated with friends and family and marveled that we were going to have a baby. We were going to have a baby.

Kyler, you are a miracle. 

I had grown up knowing in my gut that I was created to care for orphans. I remember watching commercials about orphans in Africa, their hollow eyes and swollen bellies, and my chest swelling with passion, an unshakable sense of “I must do something!". I couldn’t understand how, as an affluent, Christian society, we hadn’t put a much larger dent in the orphan crisis internationally. I couldn’t understand the lives around me that didn’t place orphan-care as a primary aspect of their lives. As soon as I had the language to verbalize it - around the age of six - I began announcing that I would adopt multiple children when I got older. I felt this was my grand calling in life.

I told all of this to your daddy on our first date. Being the amazing man that he is, he took the news in stride and, having a passion to care for orphans himself, soon became equally adamant about a family built on adoption alone. Later that year when we married, we had already had dozens of conversations about our future adopted family and were both cemented in our decision never to birth biological children. 

Kyler, you are a miracle. 

Over the years, these concrete decisions were aided by several medical professionals, who repeatedly informed me that I would have a very difficult time conceiving. When we were ready to begin the adoption process, my doctor wrote a letter to our adoption agency informing them that, medically speaking, I was a prime candidate for adoption. I didn’t need the science to confirm my calling, but having that letter in hand felt like a mission from God himself. I was purposed to adopted orphans.

In the fourth year of our marriage, your daddy and I went through a very painful experience. We lost our jobs, our friendships, our stability, our calling, our foster son and our faith. It was a devastating year. 

As we writhed in the pain from that experience, there were days that I could hardly get out of bed. It felt like the tears I’d cried throughout the night had cemented my body to the sheets, so that there was no physical way to remove myself. I’d lay there, plastered in pain. It all became so overwhelming, that I finally had to tell myself to stop crying. To stop feeling. To stop talking. Just to go through the motions of the day and keep breathing. 

In the midst of all that aching, I kept hearing my soul say, “You are a mama”. I’d yell back at that ghastly claim and the memories it induced and I’d try to run away again. I'd silence and stuff, but after a few months of running, I grew weary and finally listened. 

Almost magically, my heart opened up to the idea of birthing a biological child. It was a thought I had never, ever had until that summer, and one that I’d always believed was nearly impossible for my body. Your daddy was shocked when I first suggested the idea - it was so far from anything we’d ever known. But, then, life was so far from anything we’d ever known, too. 

Kyler, you are a miracle. 

I was pregnant within a matter of weeks. 

We tested and tested and tested again, unable to believe that we would have the privilege of welcoming you into the world. We dreamed about holding you and knowing you and calling you by the name we'd so carefully selected. I visited the doctor diligently and doubted, even until the last day, that my body was actually capable of such a miracle. 

In the early morning hours of March 16, 2011, you taught our hearts to laugh again, to hope again, to love again. You taught us that miracles do happen and nothing is ever a waste. You made me a mama again, and I'm honored to call you son.

Happy Birthday, Kyler! My precious miracle.

I love you,

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Thursday, March 13, 2014


Sometimes we just give up. Occasionally it is of the sort where all at once we leave a half-finished project on the work table for months and months, until finally a new project or a cleaner spouse beckons us to do away with it. Other times it's the new workout schedule that we successfully implement for 2.6 days and then realize on day five that life has effectively continued on without any form of exercise, or any missing of its absence for that matter. 

Then there are times when quitting takes the form of a slow drip: consistent, rhythmic, routine. This is the kind of sub-concious quitting that comes about by a series of events, a build up of decisions - all culminating in a total release. A slow surrender. Bit by bit...gone. 

Brene Brown describes this in Daring Greatly as the "betrayal of disengagement". She talks about a jar of marbles, each marble representing connection or engagement or effort. Marbles trickling into the jar with each decision to say, "I love you" or with each day we stick to a routine. Then, the marbles just as easily spill back out with each decision to roll over without a word or to let life busy us out of our good intentions. We put marbles in or take them out, one at at time, our offerings of love or refusals to try again. 

I'd like to think I do a lot of marble-loading. I speak words of affection, I give thoughtful gifts, I serve, I listen. I work hard to help provide for my family, I give, I create. But I know swiping a marble or two is all too easy for me. I withhold a word of love to preserve my own comfort, I resist being the first to call or email a friend, I make endless lists of to do's and miss the bigger picture right in front of me. Sometimes I get so good at not speaking or just doing that I've emptied the marble jar completely. I've systematically lost connection. I've slowly quit engaging or trying. Sometimes, I find that I’ve lost hope or interest all together.

I don't like thinking of myself as a quitter. It doesn't fit my cultural or familial or personal definitions of a good person. I'd err on the side of irrationally "sticking to it" before I'd consciously let myself be seen as giving up. But the kind of quitting I'm good at, the kind of giving up I see all around, isn't conscious. At least, it's not a conscious decision about a total release of something. It's the slow build-up of decisions, the one-by-one swiping of marbles, the lifetime of small choices that move us further and further and further away from commitment and connection, from engagement and effort. Until one day we find that we have quit; we've squeezed our lips shut so many times that they are nearly sealed and relationships are broken; we've stuck to the to do list day after day after day and find ourselves empty and disconnected from the meaning we once saw on the horizon.    

When I find myself faced with the atrophy of heart that comes from this build-up of decisions, life looks too grim. It seems hopeless and I'm tempted to let the last little piece of connection just slip away. I don't feel capable of the effort it would take to be in good physical shape or to have an amazing marriage or to be content and connected spiritually. Those seem like far off dreams, too far for my feeble arms to reach. 

But then I think about the marbles, and all those little decisions that got me to this place - and I wonder if the reverse isn't also true. If choosing to say "I love you" today will eventually heal. If picking the apple over the cookie will slowly add up. If whispering to the sky Thank you” will, in it’s time, lead to something fuller. If putting forth just a little effort, opening up just a little more, will get me closer to the wholeness of life I long for. And then I'm hopeful - that marble by marble, one step today, perhaps another one tomorrow, dreams and relationships and meaning and life can be built again.

May your jar be full, friend. 

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Birthday Letter

A Letter to My Daughter, on Her Second Birthday: 

Baby girl. I cannot even begin to express what a miracle you are, how profoundly you amaze me every day. I look into your eyes and know there is goodness in the world. I watch you giggle and am filled with hope. I see you play and love and know there is meaning in it all, after all. It's hard to imagine a time when you weren't. 

There was such a time, though, and sooner or later, you will learn that daddy and I didn't plan for you in the traditional sense. We were exhausted from your brother's terrible sleeping habits and under the impression that mama's body didn't work as well as other mama's in making babies. We were lost in newborn baby world and busy with work and school. We were emotionally spent from years of doing and eager for the "easy life", or at least a break. When we found out you would be, we were at first shocked and then scared.

But, you were meant to be, baby.  

I was terrified of raising another child, overwhelmed at the messiness of our lives and despairing at the thought of more labor pains and more sleepless nights. I had just returned to my fulll-time office job when we found out I was pregnant again. I was constantly nauseous, extremely fatigued and very frustrated that life continued to be out of my control. That break I'd been hoping for seemed ever allusive and I struggled to find an emotional equilibrium.

But, you were meant to be, baby.

As your brother grew and finally learned how to sleep and as our hearts adjusted to the idea of welcoming another, our surprise and fear soon turned to excitement and anticipation. We were thrilled when the doctor said we'd be having a baby girl and dove into planning your nursery. We painted and decorated and doted on every detail, our hearts expanding with each act. We chose your name with care and dreamed of the woman you would be.

You were so meant to be, baby. 

I cannot express how deeply moved and grateful I am that life is out of my control. You are an amazing gift, Havyn. You are fully loved and fully welcome. You are divine in every sense. You are meant to be - in this family, in this time, in this world. Havyn, you were always meant to be.

I see you nurture your baby dolls - giving them endless kisses and tender cuddles, rearranging their blankies, feeding them and taking them for walks - and I marvel at your innate kindness, your inherent tenderness. I watch you gather all the play food and all your purses, all your baby dolls and their toys, all their blankets and bottles, and huddle piles of stuff on your "boat" - and I am proud of how hard working you are, how determined and resourceful you are. I see you light up when you dance and giggle when your brother does something silly - and I weep at how beautiful you are, how alive you are. 

You are strong and you are capable, but you know how to ask for help. Don't ever stop asking for help, baby girl. It only shows just how strong you are.

You are kind and loving, but determined in your "No". Stay strong in your "No", Havyn. Listen to your heart and guard the life within.

You are creative and smart, but sometimes people will tell you "No". It's okay to go for it anyways, Angel. It's okay to just be yourself. 

You are meant to be, Havyn. And I am so thankful I get to be with you.  

Happy Birthday, baby!


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Friday, February 28, 2014

A Mealtime Prayer

We sat at the table with the usual chaos and disarray inherent in mealtime with toddlers. We were spending a wonderfully relaxing weekend at the lake house with one of my husband’s older brothers, his wife, and their two young kids. Our kids played fabulously well together, laughing, pretending and disappearing for hours without needing intervention. The lake house is a miraculous haven for this very reason and a place I cannot wait to go.

Mealtime, however, is always mealtime and this one was proceeding as usual: kids in and out of their seats a million times, messy hands grabbing at everything in sight and lots and lots of promises for mounds of sugar in exchange for a bite of a carrot. In between all the bribing and grabbing, my sweet niece, Reese, decided it was time to pray. She communicated this by telling everyone to hold hands and then once all the kiddos were in place, she said, “Ok, Aunt Noelle, pray.”

I tried to redirect her by overstating how much I wanted to hear her pray and when that didn’t work I said maybe one of the other kids had something to say. Her insistent demand that I pray became louder and more urgent, so that the other adults in the room now turned their attention to our hand-holding. My husband tried to help, “Oh, Reesey, I don’t think you want to hear Aunt Noelle pray.” Her own mama and daddy encouraged her that she could pray for herself and we could all get back to lunch.

But one of the truly beautiful things about kids is that when they get a good idea in their heads, they stick to it. I love this determination, except of course, when I’m awkwardly the recipient of it. Finally, my own son lowered his head and softly said, “Thank you for this morning”, which is something he heard his Papa say a few months ago and has intermittently repeated ever since. This appeased his cousin enough that we were all allowed to let go of each other’s hands and return to our vain attempts at sitting still and eating vegetables.

The scene stuck with me the rest of the day and began to haunt me as the week went on. I felt so exposed and so incapable as a mama and an aunt in that moment. A flurry of memories filled my mind and I kept wondering why I couldn’t have just said a heartfelt, “Thank you for this amazing family and this time we get to spend together.” Simple, real, Amen.

But, the truth is, I haven’t prayed in over four years. Nothing about prayer feels simple or real anymore.

I used to pray religiously – in every sense of the word. Regularly, routinely, by the Book, to the One, ask and you shall receive, morning, noon and night. I prayed with friends, I prayed for friends, I wrote prayers, I sung prayers. For over a decade, prayer was an enormous part of my days. And when I prayed, I had a secure sense of Who I was speaking to: Part Love, Part Wrath, Powerful and All-ears. I felt my prayers were making a difference and being heard, despite the creeping skepticism and doubt. And so I prayed and prayed and prayed.

Little nicks and cracks started to appear in the walls of my prayer life over time. There were days when it seemed the connection had been lost and I just wasn’t getting through, the answers weren’t being delivered fast enough, something with the formula was off. The first time I remember this happening was when I was about seven years old. I’d been sent to my room for a timeout, by which I mean, I’d pushed long and hard enough that my mom couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I had one of those school fundraiser catalogues in my room, with all the over-priced wrapping paper and chocolate goodies. I flipped through and found a pile of chocolates that I just had to have. It must have been a Sunday afternoon, because this lesson was fresh on my heart: “Ask and you will receive.” It seemed so simple and so obvious. Why hadn’t I heard of this a long time ago? So I started praying something like this, “God, I heard this morning that if I really want something and honestly ask you for it, I’ll get it. So, I’d like to put in an order for this pile of chocolate, which looks so delicious and would be the perfect hold-me-over while I’m suffering through this isolation up here. Please give me this chocolate, God. Amen.”  It’s amazing how vividly I remember sitting there and waiting with my hands open, half-convinced that real, live chocolate would fall into my lap any second.

As the seconds wore into minutes, I uttered a few more reminder prayers, hoping that my first prayer had just gotten lost in the pile of other requests. I was used to having to wait my turn, being one of five children, so I patiently asked again. Then again. And again. The longer my hands remained empty and that glossy pile of chocolate stared at me from the catalogue, the more hopeless I became. It reminded me of all the other times people hadn’t shown up in my little life. A voice seemed to say to me, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work.” And so, eventually, I gave up. And that’s my very first memory of prayer.

As I got older, the let downs got bigger. When I was a Senior in high school, I earned the right to address my entire class and small town as Valedictorian. By this time, I was a devout Christian, attending multiple meetings a week, spending hours of private time in prayer and Scripture reading and serving in several ministries. In April, when it was confirmed that I was ranked number one and would give the class address, I went into prayer overdrive. My heart and mind went wild with visions of people falling on their knees in repentance and weeping at the revelation of Love. All that good, radical Christian stuff. 

Every morning leading up to my speech, I set my alarm for 5:00am. Then I would mount my bike, imagining I was Joshua leading his troops around the wall of Jericho; I rode around and around the school, praying the whole time. I prayed for specific classmates and teachers and administrators, imagining the walls of their hearts falling down and accepting the Good News of Jesus. I prayed for old boyfriends and past enemies. I prayed for a community awakening. I pedaled and prayed for an hour or so and then went home to change before heading to my morning babysitting job, where I prayed some more. I dreamed and prayed and expected all month.

In the afternoons, I turned my prayer focus to the content of my class address. I wrote several drafts, seeing this as the catalyst for the miracle that was about to happen. In my youth group, I shared my dreams and prayers and asked my friends to join me. I really, really believed that what I was praying for was going to happen. When graduation day finally came,  I was so prayed up and hyped up, I think I literally expected God himself to descend from heaven with a burst and a bang.

I was, perhaps obviously, sorely disapointed. I gave the speech without hiccup or stutter, nevertheless, God did not descend. Nobody began weeping or spontaneously fell to their knees. Nobody cried out, “Oh, thank you, God!” or ran to the stage for prayer. To this day, I am not aware of a single change in anyone’s life that came from all that praying and expecting…except my own. It put another crack in my faith, another “See, I told you it wouldn’t work” written on my heart.  God hadn’t show up again and I was confused and hurt. 

I started the summer voicing some of my hurt and confusion, but nobody seemed to have any answers or any interest in sitting amongst the questions with me. In hindsight, I think it mattered more to me to be a good Christian than to be at peace with my questioning. So, eventually I did what seemed to be the only logical option: I stuffed the questions and the pain down, down, down. When I think about that process of stuffing, I imagine the questions as a balloon and me as a large glass vase with a small opening at the top. Every time I pushed the balloon in, some other part would pop back out, so that there was always this sense of squirming and discomfort and misfit about my faith.

Eventually I did become an avid prayer again. There was a season that I begged God daily for my father’s health; another when I prayed and weeped for the pain I saw in family and friends around me. I prayed they would know God, make good decisions, find friendship and peace. I prayed for orphans and injustice. I prayed for neighbors and foreign exchange students. I prayed for provision and guidance. I prayed often for forgiveness and help with all my own personal shortcomings.

Over the next several years, I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. There were many more nicks and cracks in my prayer faith along the way. More voices taunting “I told you so” and more daggers piercing the truth further into my heart that nobody really shows up. Somehow I kept managing to silence them all, or rather to keep more or less ignoring their nagging, stuffing them down with more prayer and a very busy religious life.

Then, in 2008, my husband and I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand. For years we had planned and prayed for this move, dreaming of a life overseas, serving the underprivileged and orphaned, sharing our faith with the locals and raising our own family. In many ways, our Christian faiths had built up to this move. It felt like the fulfillment of years of dreaming and praying. And now, with much excitement and anticipation, we were making the move.

Within weeks of our arrival, the dream began to fall apart. I’ve written about much of our Thailand experiences elsewhere – the loss, the betrayal, the disappointment. From a prayer perspective, it was the final crack in an already crumbling foundation. We’d spent hundreds of hours in prayer over relationships and ministry projects that now fell lifeless at our feet in a single day. We prayed for friendships and marriages back home that also withered into lifeless heaps. We prayed for guidance and comfort and found silence and confusion instead. We, and many, many others, prayed in groans and pleas and constant beseeching for our foster son, Makham, only to have him inexplicably ripped from our arms. Nick, crack, shatter...

As I write today, it’s been exactly four years since Makham (now Joel) was taken from us. Losing him and experiencing the months of emptiness following that loss was the crack that made the whole foundation of my faith and prayers crumble. In the past four years, my prayers have been reduced to infrequent moans, guttural “Oh, God’s” and “If only’s”. If I've prayed, it's been out of sheer exhaustion and with no expectation of any answer or comfort. These were second-nature moans, with nowhere else to turn, certainly with no understanding of to Whom I might be speaking. It's felt as though I had no option but to finally resolved myself to all those whispers and all those daggers that spoke of what never would be. 

And so, it was out of all this that I heard my niece’s sweet, simple request for a mealtime blessing. In a second, all those cracks revealed themselves and all those daggers pierced me again. I sat there and took a 15 year life tour of unanswered prayers, shattered dreams and a mysterious God. I gave all the loss a moment of silence. I couldn’t find the words to explain to my niece why I didn’t have a prayer to voice that day. I couldn’t figure out a way to simplify all those years and all that pain. I couldn't explain to the kids why part of me wept at their cousin's innocent request and I certainly couldn’t begin to explain to them why another part of me welcomed her invitation; why, in some oddly, undefined way, part of me was ready and willing to offer a prayer of thanks that day, to someone, somewhere. So, instead, I redirected and smiled a lot. I encouraged my son when he offered his own little prayer. I squeezed hands tightly and said Amen. 

And then I whispered to myself, "Thank you." 

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