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Home and School
by Ann Voskamp

Home and School is a monthly column written by Ann Voskamp, a farmer's wife, Christian homeschooling mama to half a dozen exuberant children, and author of Mary Pride Award-winning geography curriculum, A Child’s Geography. Ann scratches in the dark daily at Holy Experience


Email Ann

 

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Draw God
Ann Voskamp, November 2008

Later I would learn that Uccello painted the Battle of San Romano with tempera on wood panel in 1435, a scene recounting the victory of the Florentines over the Sienese.

But walking through the Louvre that day I didn’t know any of that. Frankly, the painting’s spirited clash of metal, charging horses, flapping banners appealed little to my pastoral, peace-loving sensibilities. But it was that boy sitting there….

If it hadn’t been for that cross-legged boy sitting on the floor of the gallery, a few feet from this masterpiece that purportedly once hung in Napoleon’s bathroom, I likely wouldn’t have given the work more than a passing glance.

But when I realized what this child attempted in the circling of tourists and foreign languages and the clicking of shutters, I lingered long, intrigued.

What I witnessed brushed me, dyed me, soaked into the fabric of me.

Actually, the young boy didn’t gaze on Uccello’s painting either. I never saw him look directly at it. Instead, this boy of perhaps ten turned slightly to peer at the canvas beside him. An artist had propped up an easel in front of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, carefully dipped her brush into the palette atop a stool, and painstakingly copied every stroke of Uccello's unto her canvas.

And this boy copied every stroke of hers.

Perhaps it was that Uccello’s work overwhelmed the budding artist in terms of sheer size, overall complexity or looming magnificence.

Or maybe because he simply could see this living artist, this intentional, considered painter right here before him, that he decidedly imitated her every gesture.

In a way, she incarnated Uccello.

She highlighted the sheen of a mane just like Uccello’s and the boy, simple ballpoint pen in hand, slowly sketched the arch of a mount just like that. She daubed at her recreation of Uccello’s shadow falling across armor. The boy too let his pen carefully shade.

She painted Uccello. He painted her.

The child copied the copyist.

The gallery surged with another drove of sight-seers murmuring over the masters, but it’s the unsophisticated drawing of a child imitating an imitator that captivated me. That scene of one disciple following another disciple following the Master is the one imprinted on my memories of the world’s most renowned museum.

For wasn’t it a kind of incarnating of the essence of the art of parenting? More: of spiritual formation? Ultimately: of Christ-likeness.

God first stretched flesh over Himself in the person of Christ and came among us to show us how to make the God-life come to life. He brought the God canvas close so we might see it, live and in color, that we too might imitate. And now His Spirit perpetually stretches skin over Christ-in-us to show our children, the world at large, how to animate the canvas of a soul with the same God-life. We, who imitate Him, bring our God-canvas close, so others too might imitate.

That life-relay in the Louvre re-enacted Paul’s exhortation to children in the faith, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Our children imitate those they spend time with, are attached to, be it peers, parents, teachers, coaches, faith communities. Jesus concurs, “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher…” (Matthew 10:25).

I wonder what my children are copying from the life modeled in the daily gallery of my heart, this home?

I may well forget that Uccello used wooden models of the rearing steeds in the Battle of San Romano, or applied silver leaf so that the metal studs gleamed, luster long now worn off. But for these children circling through my day, watching what I paint on the canvas of these hours, I do well not to forget:

Draw God. Incarnate Jesus. Imitate His Spirit.

They're copying our life-canvas.

Photos: watching the imitator be imitated at the Louvre

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

 

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How to Untangle
Family Life

Ann Voskamp, October 2008

“It’ll get better if you get closer.”

John’s mom laughs as she untangles five-year-old John and Malakai, two boys practicing for a three-legged-race at a community gathering.

But our Malakai’s close to tears as I unknot him from a snarl of arms and legs and feet. 

“Really, if you’ll get closer, put your arms around each other, you’ll find it gets easier.” John’s mom takes an arm and wraps it around a shoulder and I find one too and direct it around a neck, and the boys shyly giggle and step out again.

“One-two! One-two! One-two!” John’s mom chants, and I cheer, and the boys stride off in rhythm, arms flung over shoulders. And the boys turn faces to each other, happy eyes shining, and belly-laugh. Us mamas can’t help but laugh too. They’re maneuvering life’s tangle!

For isn’t family life a bit of a three-legged race? Days tie us together, and schedules trip us up, and everything snarls. We stumble and fall and it hurts. Tears brim. 

“It’ll get better if we get closer.” Because relationship— love—is the most transformative force in the universe. It’s what God wants with us: intimate relationship. Get closer. And it will get better. 

Too often, I buy the lie, the one the serpent hisses. Speak harsher and it will get better. (More tasks will get accomplished.) Push harder and it will get better. (More places can get crammed into the hours.) Bluster longer and it will get better. (More life squeezed into life.)

But don’t I know it? “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city…” (Proverbs 18:19). The harshness, the blustering, the pushing, offends and we trip. Knees and elbows smash and we  bruise. It gets harder to get up.

A flurry of accomplishments will not get us happily across life’s finish line. Tasks aren’t the purpose nor the priority. If to-do lists are what compels us, inevitably, we’ll stumble. Because that’s not the essence of family life. 

The essence of family life is the care of souls.

When we tenderly draw near, collect hearts, wrap each other in arms and love, we hit our stride.  The three-legged race (or five legged or seven legged or ten legged race) becomes a happy delight. We get closer. And it gets better.

What I’m learning as we step (sometimes fumble) through the three-legged race of family life, these ways of getting closer genuinely make it better:

  • Reach out and gently touch when you talk; make it a practice to always connect before your direct.
  • Fully listen to conversations with your ears, eyes, whole body language. Smile into eyes.
  • Make time for walks, a mug of hot chocolate, a chapter of a book read aloud together. There’s no better way to spend time than making time.
  • Let your words fill with the affection you feel. Children don’t assume they’re loved when our words aren’t loving.  
  • Tuck in with long talks in the dark, a foot rub, prayers. It’s the happiest way to finish a day.
  • Slow down: the priority is hearts not household tasks. Take a deep breath and preach to yourself often: “I want to be more than I want to do.”   Relationship is not just the priority. It’s all there is. Our family relationship are hallowed. Aren’t they forever? (Clean floors and schedules aren’t.)   

The three-legged boys practice intently and when the race begins, I’m at the other end, arms wide open, ready for Malakai and John as they step, tumble, laugh across the finish line. And when they fall into me and I wrap them up, this happiness feels good. 

We’re closer and it couldn’t be better.

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

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Live a Celebrated Life!
Ann Voskamp, September 2008

Young hands celebrate September with posies of pink erasers budding on the end of slim yellow stems and hours dressed smartly in routines. It's the rite of back-to-school days:  the folding open of fresh notebooks, the lacing up of maiden shoes, the packing of new lunch bags.

It's the ceremony of new school days.  

We do that, us soul carriers. When we deem events significant, we create ceremony. Marriage ceremonies, baptismal services, holiday observances. yes, too, back-to-school traditions. If we consider an occasion meaningful, we develop a ceremony to duly recognize it.  Simply, ceremony is a repeated action that marks important happenings:  always candles on birthday cakes,
centerpieces for Thanksgiving, vows on wedding days.

And yet, isn't every day important? Do not all of our acts warrant ceremony?

Each moment God generously bestows is momentous. If we embrace each day as gift, then isn't each event noteworthy?   And if each moment lived is important, could we not then live in ceremony, celebration wrapped around each bead of time?

God does.  Every day, He acts in ceremony, repeated quotidian order of services: calling sun-orb to arch across skies, ocean waters to wet land's lip, again and again, the globe to dance in orbit with milky moon through heavens. Our God acts in endless ceremony to bring order to the world. And so we too, made in His image, are ceremonious beings, bringing order to chaos through ceremony.

Whenever parents create ceremonies, or a rhythmic routine, around any daily activity, we impose order on the environment, instead of on our children. The order of service we create around bedtimes, school times, mealtimes allow ceremonies to prescribe behavior instead of each event requiring parental directive.

This atmosphere of known routine, expected ritual and, yes, celebrated ceremony, not only lessens the number of decisions that a parent must make throughout the day (the established ceremony directs, instead of the parent), but children thrive in such an environment. Children "want things repeated and unchanged," writes G.K. Chesterton. "They always say, "Do it again". [It is] grown-up people [who] are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is
possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. The repetition in nature may not be mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore."

When we reject repeated actions as monotonous and Spirit-quenching, are we simply exposing our weaknesses? If we chose to "exult in monotony," to embrace habitual ceremony, would we be inviting the same God who instituted the observances of feasts, temple ceremonies, the service of communion, to be our strength too? Perhaps the repetitiveness of ceremony does not stifle
the Spirit, but ceremony invites us to regular meeting places, places to commune with the Spirit.

So we meet our days with routines, ceremonies around the simple. Perhaps we tie up breakfast with quiet music, prayer for the day, and a lighting of a candle. Or wrap up school times with a habitual place, a consistent time,
and an anticipated order of service: an opening hymn, a Word of Scripture, a time of happy sharing. Possibly we establish a ceremony of evening circle, with a gathering for the read aloud of a classic while tired feet are
massaged and hot drinks sipped, before tucking children into bed with blessings. The rituals and liturgies are uniquely ours; each family has the privilege to create their own distinctive (fun? unusual? memorable?) ceremonies around regular occurring events.     

The institution of a ceremonious life requires daily petitions for God-strength; in the flesh we are too weak.  But the mundane in our lives begs for the Christ-vigor to be made lovely with ceremony. The repetition of our days need not be monotonous, exasperating, recurrences. Couldn't our
days be a theatrical encore of a beautiful life?

Ceremony changes us: the single become married, the soul emerges baptized, the birthday christens another year. Ceremony offers us the opportunity to change our everydays too. Isn't it time to celebrate life? 

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

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Humming Along:
How to Compose
New Habits

Ann Voskamp, August 2008

I have flailed and I have failed. Too many days I have meted out grating cacophony, loose and disordered. 

There’s a time to stir porridge, but someone howls, “I can’t find socks!” and I’m digging about for two purple ones the same size, preferably holeless, to soothe teary angst, while oatmeal burns black.

There’s a time to collect curious ones to read a stack of nourishing words, and the washing machine sirens its last spin and I’m stringing up a pinned necklace of wet towels and children and reading time scatter.

There’s a time for everything under heaven. And that is the time we need.  A certain time for everything, a steady beat to our days. 

Parenting Performance

Parenting is the composing, the performing, of music, song upon song. Musicians play one right note after the next right note after the next right note. It’s not an erratic splattering of sound, a fickle, helter-skelter banging of random notes. Music has order. It is composed. Notes are intentional, considered, deliberate.

As music has rhythm, recurring refrains, order, so does peaceful parenting. One action thoughtfully follows the next action that wisely follows the next. Days of habits, fluid and lyrical, create pleasing harmony. Lives with known rhythms, thoughtful arrangements, sing.

I have flailed and I have failed.

But there is hope. Listen. Can you hear the serenade of His Kingdom? “Behold I make all things new (Rev 21:5). I am about to do something new (Isa 43:19).” We with shapeless, jarring songs may, thankfully, choose new songs.

Ritual Rhythms

I watch my daughter sit before white keys, wrists arched, her fingers stretching into song. Each finger knows where to stroke next. She hardly thinks; it’s nearly automatic, unconscious. So goes our daily songs, the essence of our habits.
     
“Forty-five percent of what we do every day is habitual,” posit researchers. “This is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of the subtle cues.”

We play a note that becomes a subtle cue for another note to always follow: rise and pray. Or check the internet. Or go for a run. Day after day we practice our chosen series of notes, the actions cued by other actions. We become a song. As Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

To sing new songs, we need to pay attention to our rituals, the beat of our days, even more than focusing on self-discipline. For the power of association, what note accompanies a time and place, may in fact be more potent in habit formation than simple willpower. Researchers suggest that the elements that cue specific behaviors fall into four general categories:

  1. Specific location or time of day
  2. A certain series of actions
  3. Particular moods
  4. Company of specific people

As each bar of music accompanies the previous string of notes, so our actions synchronize with particular locations, times, moods and people. If we want to form a new habit, we must associate that new, unfamiliar behavior with an established activity.

“Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods,” said Dr. Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. Actions seek accompaniment: couch-cup of tea, make dinner-wash hands, bedtime-book reading.

Chaos into Cadence

Throughout the day, consider the next beat. Compose a string of notes.

  1. Couple meal times with Scripture memorization and prayer.
  2. Yoke read-alouds with tea-time.
  3. Arrange Latin to follow math to follow grammar.
  4. Choreograph a series of steps: laundry, bedrooms, breakfast.

Create your rhythm, a harmony of habits that are prompted by a definite location or time. Turn chaos into cadence. Keep time with the time there is for everything under heaven.

I watch my daughter play new songs and I know: learning new songs is often challenging, even frustrating. But once the piece is mastered? She plays nearly effortlessly. Too, composing a new refrain of behaviors, a chorus of rituals, is deliberate, slow, trying work. But once the behaviors become habits, rhythmic rituals, we catch ourselves singing without thinking.    

And in reality, living in cacophony is more wearing than the hard work of practicing habits. “Laziness means more work in the long run,” writes C.S. Lewis. Flubbing away at whatever strikes our fancy leaves us in far worse dire straits than applying ourselves to the work of playing concertos.  
 
“Habit is ten natures!” writes Charlotte Mason, who thought habit formation was actually one third of the entire educational process. “If I could but make others see with my eyes how much this saying should mean to the educator! How habit, in the hands of the mother, is as his wheel to the potter, his knife to the carver--the instrument by means of which she turns out the design she has already conceived in her brain.”  Because habit is what governs nature easily. 

Sacred Songs

While peace wilts in an atmosphere of unpredictability and inconsistency, where every single action is open to debate, children thrive in an environment of routine. Rituals determine the next chords and simply being familiar with the melody fosters security, soothes anxiety, promotes confidence. Our song becomes our everyday liturgy, the sacred sway of our hours that rocks and comforts our children.

I have flailed and I have failed.

But today sings new with hope rhythms, rich and full, a melody that keeps time with the time for everything under heaven.    

I am humming along. 

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

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Considering
Home Education?

Ann Voskamp, July 2008

I remember that place, that deciding place of how to educate our children. I remember its weight.

I recall standing there with pudgy hands wrapped around my leg, peering down that road diverged in the yellow wood. Unsure of the next step, the faint whisper from a faint heart came, “Which road for us, Lord?”

We stayed there for awhile waiting, asking, listening. And we found that to hear His voice on how to wisely educate children was best heard on one’s knees. He will speak: Keep your nose in the Book.

There on your knees, waiting for the Word, it is sometimes easy to forget that He loves these children even more than you do (for they are His)---He does have a unique, individual plan for each of them that He will faithfully reveal.

He called this family to take up the road less traveled, the one marked “Home Education.”

Though many had gone before, winnowing a worn and true path, I confess, we felt like pioneers, forging new ground.

(But isn’t each family pioneers in their own right? We are each father, mother for the first time, traversing the parenting prairie with these children for the first time. Where are we going? How do we get there and what do we need for the trek? Raising up children is new territory for each of us.)

Whichever trail you set your foot to will decide your landscapes and views. Be it home education and the myriad of paths therein, or other educational routes, a family grows out of the landscape of the path which they tread.

That trail becomes a way of life, a way of seeing, a way of being. Consider, dear Mama, which landscapes and vistas He has put in your heart to see… and embrace that path and its lifestyle. The journey, whichever one, encompasses the travelers.

Here is how I might suggest you consider the journey into Home Education:

Authentically.
Live your life. And invite your children to join you. Read together. Pray together. Sing together. Work, bake, garden, chore, clean, sew, fix, build together. Don't fabricate artifical demarcation lines between schooling and living. Live a one-piece life. Live holistically.

Joyfully.
Explore! Be awed by His World! Restore Wonder! Be a creative, thinking, exuberant person who spills with the joy of learning. Your zest for learning and life will be contagious--the children will catch it!

Curiously.
Read, read, read. Fill the house with library books. Play classical music. Post the art of the masters about the house. Go for walks in the woods. Learn a new language, a new culture, a new poem. Everyday set out to discover again, and again, and again. The whole earth is full of His glory! Go seek His face...

Consistently.
Consistently read. Consistently pray. Consistently keep the routine. Consistently live an everyday liturgy.
Children thrive in routine. So do households. Have hardstops: times that you fully stop to pray, to read, to write. Regardless of what isn't done, what isn't finished. Make a full stop, do the needful thing, then return to meals, laundry, household management.
Consistently be consistent.

That's all. The curriculum doesn't really matter, so much. Use what works for you, how He leads you.

Just make it part of your real life, make it a joy, make it all a discovery, and prayerfully make it consistent.
For us, our guideposts through a day:

~Prayer, memorization, Bible Reading, hymn singing

~2 hours a day of Reading --especially before they are five

~Reading Living Books (history, science, geography, literature, poetry, art appreciation)
(for lists of living books see here: Ambleside Online, 1000 Good Books, Real Learning Booklist)

~Bluedorn's Ten Things to Do before the age of Ten offers good thoughts for beginning homeschooling

~ Readings happen in Circle Time, also known as Morning Time (these morning time posts are priceless gems, worth printing out and praying over) ...

~Latin, math, grammar/writing/spelling

~Apprenticing to real life: 2 hours of barn work daily, and then household chores

And at day's end, we think on our Seven Daily Rungs, the seven things which we endeavor to learn and do daily, to live holistically, our one-piece life.

But really, curriculum is not the road on which homeschoolers travel. Whether what lines the shelf is of a Charlotte Mason bent, or classical, Abeka or Sonlight, Tapestry of Grace or Bob Jones is of secondary importance.

We travel on The Way. We live and breathe in Him. He is our road, He leads us on, He is a guide worthy of our trust.

Lean on Him.

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

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Making Connections
Ann Voskamp, June 2008

“Gather and knot.” That’s all I ask them.

It’s all anyone will ever ask of them, really.

So they try.

First, young eyes and minds gather. Stretching fingers of tree limbs catch sky, saturated in blues. Green’s but a fleeting whisper through the woods, the sky all loud and showing through.  I watch them see.

Having gathered, then they knot the strands, slow and tentative.

“The wood’s green clouds drift in on spring.” Our just-teen says the words, but his eyes keep searching the landscape, looking for more idea threads.

“I think it’s more like this,” offers younger brother. “Fresh green cloaks the woods all worn and grey from endless winter.”

I nod, smile. They have gathered strings from the world’s web and knotted. These children, their winding cerebrums a net of neurons, have made their own connections, between cloaks and leaves budding, spring and clouds and trees standing near.

All of a child’s learning, reading, discovery, is about connections.  Poetry, with its lyrical metaphors, captivates because of surprising associations between senses and scenes. Uncommon connections of ideas birth inventions, creativity, innovations. So we ask children, “Gather and knot.” Connect, connect. 

But it strikes me the other day, watching a daughter wrestle with adjectives and adverbs, that education is more than the gathering, knotting, lacing of the world’s silvery threads. Authentic, deep learning ultimately emerges from the most powerful connection of all: the spinning, collecting, braiding of heart strands.

“We, as persons, are not enlightened by means of multiple-choice tests or grades,” writes educator and author Karen Andreola,  “but rather by the other people in our lives that we come to know, admire, and love. We are educated by our friendships and our intimacies.” The one who gathers us and knots our heart close is the one whom we emulate. We are educated by those whom we connect to.  

So we leave dry texts on the shelf and read what we describe as living books. For children connect with ideas and information when they’re gathered to an author who is a real, knowable person, an author with a unique voice and expressive words who touches a child’s eyes, heart, and thought world.  Neurological research clearly indicates that learning thrives and connections multiply when we tuck knowledge into an envelope of feeling, wrap facts in emotive language. Because that is what kindles our hearts. Stirred hearts open, see, make associations.    

One of ours sits in early sunlight, bent over books, and blunders through lesson after lesson, gathering little and any knotting attempts dissolving into an undecipherable, tangled muddle. An eraser scrubs through a page, a pencil flies across the room, and I’m baffled at synapses and information that defy connecting. But I remember, this time, that education is more than a gathering and knotting of cerebral matter. I rub tense back, brush hair out of eyes, pick up frayed heart fibers and I knot with simple words: “Can I help? Together, we can figure this out. Want to pray first?” We do, and I repent of all the times I’ve forgotten the connection that makes everything else connect.  

Later, in afternoon’s honey light, I watch young nimble hands crocheting, strings gathered and knots tied. Yet there are spaces between the connections. So too we know the inevitable academic gaps, relational holes. But we choose the strings carefully—vibrant words, living books, creative endeavors, unconditional tenderness. Daily we tie close--us, child, the wonders of His world and our Creator.  In spite of gaps, we gather and knot all these strands. 

This weave holds and we are warmed.  

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

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Find Your Peace Rock
Ann Voskamp, May 2008

It is an entirely unremarkable moment, one I repeat every day at noon, all throughout the fall and winter. I am cutting squash, chopping, scooping, dicing. But today, as I scoop out the tangly pulp, seeds scattering and falling on the countertop, I scoop deep into me and feel the wrapped tendrils of who I am.

I am startled. Scraping out that pulp, I face my own insides. I am taken aback at what twists and knots within me. I test again. Yes. Raw, messy fear. Can it be that is, right now, what snarls and writhes around my soul, strangling me? Yes, that is what I feel in this moment of time. I can feel it, as real as those squash strings between my fingers.

Funny. I never have named this feeling before. Not this name. Perhaps “uptight.” Or “stressed.” But today, fleshy pulp in the palm of my hand, I can simply say it: I am afraid.

Am I enough? Loving enough, gentle enough, giving enough? Can I do, BE, enough today? Will I be able to stay ahead of the mushrooming laundry, the army of hungry stomachs, the endless waterfall of questions, the tsunami of needs today that will overwhelm? Do I have enough inner resources today to ride the pounding surf? I don’t want to fail.

I know this feeling. It’s the same squeezing panic that wrung me when I’d swim too far from shore and my feet couldn’t find a slippery, algae covered rock to cling to. In the murky depths, currents relentlessly tugging and dragging, I’d flail and feel about, looking for a toehold.

Like every mother, I am in way over my head. The depths plunge deep and dark, and I am a helpless cork bobbing about the smashing waves, breathlessly trying not to panic. It is like my soul cannot touch bottom.

I lay down my knife and quarter of squash. I am stunned by the naming of this tangle of feelings inside of me. I think that I multi-task. I juggle. I orchestrate, co-ordinate, manage, one eye on the clock, one eye thinking of what comes next: change over the laundry, check on Hope and grammar lesson, switch Shalom from puzzles to legos, call the butcher shop to place an order, set the table with bowls for the steaming lentil soup, mark Levi’s math exercises. But I have named the beast that lurks just below the waters, with gleaming eyes waiting to spring: fear.

Five-year-old Malakai, still learning to decipher the puzzle of phonics, wanders through the kitchen, his church kid’s club booklet in hand, pretending to read his Bible verse for the week. He lilts the words from memory, eyes fixed to the page as he walks: “Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” (Mark 4:39.)

And directly, something within me stills. I cease to flail. I almost want to laugh at the surprising aptness of it all. (But, really, is it surprising?)

He rebukes my winds. His word, alive, relevant, sovereign, from the lips of an illiterate child, calms my waters. “Peace, be still.”

And underneath, my foot feels an anchor, a verse from my Bible reading in the dark still of coming day, a verse that I nearly skimmed over, but now revisits me, knowing it is a lifeline meant for this very moment:

“No, there is no other Rock. I know not one” (Isaiah 44:8).

I pick up a spoon to finish scooping squash pulp. The tangled part of me unknots. Floats. My insides have loosened. For I have found it. When fears, even nameless, cloaked ones, sinisterly drag, there is a Rock who cries through the waters, “Here… I am your home in these seas. Place your foot here, your heart here. Stand on me. And live.” These fears diminish, cut down to size.

How to hold to the Rock in the midst of everyday storms? “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God,” writes Henri Nouwen. When I pray, I intimately know the crevices of the Rock, the texture of its surface, the immensity of its steadfast character.

I lay the squash halves in to the enamel dishes, and slip them into the oven. Turning to the sink to wash the last remnants of squash strings from my hands, I hear the sea as the water runs over my fingers.

My fears are washed away with a prayer of three simple words, a lullaby on the waves: Peace, be still.

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

Related resources: Peace is a Person

 

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Feathers Plucked
for a Nest

Ann Voskamp, April 2008


Mother ducks pick feathers from their chests to line their nests

Houses may be bought, built, or borrowed. But homes can only be made, and that with ourselves. Or so the ducks told me.

They told me without a sound, just simply as they preened and nestled, oil on canvas. The children press in close too, for a better look at Alexander Max Koester’s painting Ducks, and I read aloud the caption below the brushes of color.

“Mother ducks pick feathers from their chests to line their nests.”

I pause and the children gaze thoughtfully at a clutch of plump white, blizzard of feathers fallen down. But it’s those words that mesmerize me: “pick feathers from their chests, to line their nests.”

Eyes fixed on a duck breast puffed, mother plunging beak in deep, I question wondering self: “How else did you think nests were lined?”

With leftovers. With the discarded, the molted, the not-so-necessary feathers. I thought mother ducks picked feathers up from what was laying about, scraps, lining nests with what simply could be mustered after the fact.

But no. (Is that only the way of other mothers?) No, a mother duck plucks each feather out from the heart of her bosom, warm and soft. She lines the nest with bits of herself. The best of her, from the deep spots. She cups her young in her sacrifice. 

Children pull at the corner of the page, anxious to see the next painting, and, reluctantly, I move on. But for weeks, part of me lives among Koester’s ducks. (Koester, captivated, painted dozens of duck paintings throughout the course of his life. I’ve come to understand.)

Days later, I am scrubbing out the arches of muffin tins after breakfast, the clock ticking insufferably loud in my ears. Children need books and learning, and I’m tuned for the expected chime of the doorbell, a service personnel’s scheduled visit. And the words rise near to the surface, “I don’t have time for this! No muffins tomorrow morning!”

Pluck.

The words sharply sink. And I, learning, line this nest with a feather. Not a leftover. But one decidedly plucked. The service man meets me with muffin tins still in the sink, and a circle of happy young. Whose tummies next morning fill with another batch of muffins.

The sun’s perfect globe of glow nears the horizon when boys, glint in eyes, recalibrate vacuum cleaner to fire socks. Weary, I have food to find, laundry awaiting escort, math sheets to mark. They fire.

And I Pluck.

Bellies jiggle, peals of giggles, as old mother chases after future men, wrestling them down, tying them up in tickles. We warm here in laughter. It feels good, wild and alive. So again they fire, and again I pluck, and we pile high, one atop the other, nesting down into sacrifice, soft and small.

Some feathers for this nest have hurt, pain of the plucking lingering long. But why speak of the details? And was it really sacrifice, or just this too-tender skin? It’s done, it was necessary, it was for something better. Some nights, when all sleep, I feel along the hidden bald patches.

There are times, too many, when they call, “Read me a story?”  “Wanna play a game with me?” “Can you come help me?”

And this mother refuses to pluck. Something, some task, someone (me?), rates as more pressing, more important. I deem the nest acceptable. Then comes the pecking, the scratching, the squawking. With lining wearing thin, the nest chafes hard. We hurt and cry. Nests need  feathers deep.

Someone must pluck.

When will I learn that down sacrificed settles and soothes? For scraps won’t suffice. Snippets of time, leftover me, a trinket, a diversion, tossed. Mother ducks don’t line nests with feathers, dirty and trampled, the molted and unnecessary. Why would I? Nests need feathers fresh, warm with mother’s life.   

Night descends and calls children to dreams. I lead them to their gate, arms and legs under quilts worn from the ride. I read stories, stroke hair, say prayers. Prayers to Him who plucked hard from His own heart. A sacrifice, staggering and true, for love of His very own. We learn love from His laid down.

Tired heads nestle into pillows, pillows of down.

On feathers plucked, we rest.

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

Related resources: May the Children Eat First  

The original Koester painting, "Moulting Ducks," is part of the collection at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle www.fryemuseum.org 

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The Parenting Pursuit
Ann Voskamp, March 2008

Socks hurl across the kitchen, a hail of chaos splintering morning routine and order. Thunked in the back of head, I spin from sink and into the face of a grinning twelve-year-old. I am set to return with volley of words about maturity and setting an example and simply folding laundry instead of rocking the boat. His younger brothers are already whipping back knitted wools with mismatched sweatsocks. And then one of the statutes of the Geneva Convention of Motherhood flashes across my interior screen: Ignore negative attention-seeking behavior so as not affirm it. I can still remember the assured voice of the retired schoolteacher who insisted that was the only way to raise children. Eyes on stacked plates, I quietly direct younger boys to return to the organizing of the cutlery drawer, gently ask older boy to finish folding towels. The commotion slowly calms and I am left to wondering.

Is it true? Ignore attention-seekers? Don’t give them what they seek: attention. I shine the kitchen sink, mulling. Attention-seekers are hungry. They are empty, needy. They seek that which they need: attention. We feed hungry children. We clothe cold children. Do we not give attention to attention-seeking children? True, no negative, lecturing attention. But, surely, more good, loving, affirming attention. I mentally revise that mothering statute: Attention-getting antics are red flags to do just that: give more attention. That the relationship needs more attention, more time, more intimacy, more affirmation.

I carry in another load of wet laundry and call for that boy-man. A laundry rack needs assembling. I carefully read instructions, noting parts and pieces; he dives into connecting, screwing, aligning. I applaud. He screws on a wheel, never looking up, but a smile leaks.  I hand him a section, ask what he needs next. We laugh when we get one rack backwards. The roots of relationship grow deeper.  And I think: are behavioral problems symptoms of relationship problems?  If behavior breaks out in an attention-grabbing rash, doesn’t the relationship require immediate heart attention?

Not ignoring. Not time-outs. Not banishment. How does Father God parent?  He whispers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Though I was “a brute beast before [Him]…[He] hold[s] me by my right hand” (Ps. 73:22-23). He meets my raging antics with what I need: more of Himself. Relationship. When we have behavioral problems, it is indeed a relationship problem: we don’t have one with Him.

“Parenting is not a skill to perform. But a relationship to cultivate,” writes Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On To Your Kids. Mirroring our spiritual development, parenting growth results not from techniques or procedures, but from rich and real relationship.

A close friend writes me of recent day of mothering. “Katharina, when tired, quickly becomes sour and sullen… which moves quickly to nasty. I rebuked her and gave the space and option to change her attitude. In her “space” she decided to lay it on more. I gave her some warm, unrelated attention and let her lie on the couch under a blanket with a book, but the snuggle on the couch didn’t change her heart at all. She just kept working her way in deeper.

“I called her to me, (and of course, she refused at first… and then came, all the while telling me how I was wrecking her day.)  She wouldn’t let me touch her nor look me in the eye. I pulled her stiff body towards me. And then I said just what you said to your child the other day. She didn’t budge. At first. I said it again… She almost immediately crawled into my lap, melted into me, and stayed there several minutes. Before she left, she gave me several kisses and for the rest of the day… the whole rest of the day… hardly left my side.”

What had I said that day to my child, the words my friend spoke too? Words that didn’t originate with me. I only repeated the words God Himself spoke first. To this nasty, impenetrable, attention-seeking heart.

I had been putting away the last of the laundry. Cookies cooled on the countertop rack, the wafting sweet luring boy-man to hunt down the source. Walking through with a stack of towels in arm, I shook a no towards prowling boy-man. “Cookies are for bedtime reading. Please don’t touch yet.”  Moments later, out of the corner of my eye,  a glimpse of the swipe, the dashing away. I call boy-man’s name. His face says it all: guilty, red, ashamed. A rebuke surges, punishment riding its crest. But the Spirit comes quickly. 

And brings words of relationship, relationship that I only know because He first loved me. My lips move, but the words are His: “Child, I love you unconditionally and nothing you do will change that. Always, no matter what, I love you deeply. I am very sorry for what you did here.” I inhale, exhale. “But  I love you all the same.” I pause and take a deep breath. His eyes are watery blue. “May I grant you mercy, just as Jesus grants me mercy?” His eyes drift away. And I slip to the mudroom, seeking quiet dark to lick these mothering wounds and all the disappointment.

But he comes too. With words of his own, words I don’t expect. “Mom? I am sorry I hurt you. I did the wrong thing. I shouldn’t have done that…. Is there anything I can do to make that right? Can I help you with something?”

Mercy did that, performed a heart change that punishment is impotent to accomplish. It did it to my own heart: transformed relationship. I wanted attention. I wanted self-gratification. I sinned. God gave me not penalty, but Himself. He bathed in me mercy, healing deep wounds. He wrapped me up in relationship. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12). Love does what law cannot.

And yet He knows there is no formula, or pat, easy answers. We reject Him, sin against Him, betray Him. But He, Love, pursues relentlessly. In the face of heartache. Our behavior drives Him deeper into relationship. He knows full well that the relationship problem is not a result of His failure to love, but the stoniness of His children’s hearts. It is not an issue of how much Father loves His children, but how much, if at all, His children love their Father. Undaunted, He gives His immediate love attention to the rash of our sin. In hopes that His love will stir our hearts.    

I look into the face of boy-man. “Yes, son, there is something you can do.” He waits and I wade into those eyes. It feels rich and right. “Tomorrow, could we match the socks together, you and I?”  

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

Related Resources:
Hold on to Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld 

 

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The Order of Love
Ann Voskamp, February 2008

Love is patient.

Is there a reason why patience is the first qualifier in the biblical “love chapter” describing the characteristics of love? I wonder. Only because I am a mother who is long on love and, too often, short on patience. I mean, why not first, “Love is gentle,” or “Love is tender?” Or, better yet (to my feeble mind), “Love is a flash of divine revelation, a supernatural infusing of the spirit of God.” It is all that, yes. But first, of utmost importance, (I’ll trust the order of the inspired Word) love is patient. Nitty gritty.

And hard.

That is what I am thinking as we pour pancake batter into the griddle on a Saturday morning. Milky, buttery circles loop about the pan in interconnected rings, misshapen hearts that sizzle and pop. A toddler looms dangerously close to heat. A preschooler anxiously slops more. A lanky one flips prematurely, batter oozing, dripping. Sensitive child bursts into tears that the hearts are all smeared, the rings mashed. Oldest, with egg poised to crack, asks if I want more? More? More of this careening ride? I sense a loudness, akin to a pleading howl, surging close to my lips.

The Spirit soothes, strokes the frayed edges: “Love is patient.”

Love is patient. How can I be patient in the tipsiness of this domestic chaos? How can I be patient in the pain of now? When vocal cords pitch screams, when tears brim and fall, when the clock keeps ticking steadily ahead and we just keep sputtering, stumbling along? I want to strive ahead of here, into the future where we all stick to the script of buffed perfection.

Deep breathe. Love is patient. And it strikes me, an epiphany over the fry of bubbling pancakes, “Love can only be patient when it is first grateful for what is right now.”

It is true: I can love only when I am thankful for the now. When I embrace the present as a gift, a time and place not to be afraid of, to resist and fight, but a place to accept, to welcome and receive as a bestowment from a kind Father.  Love cannot be patient when I am discontented, when I am trying to micromanage. I fail to love when my fears (of failure, of bedlam, of tardy, tangled, turmoil) drives me to control, to strangle every moment with my demands. When my obsession with control chokes out gratitude, patience lies limp and  love dies. Patience can only grow in the soil of gratitude. Lack gratitude, then lack patience, and, ultimately, lack love. 

Henri Nouwen suggests that  “[t]he word patience means willingness to stay where we are and live out the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”  Patience is only a possibility when we mindfully invite this moment to rest here, and not hurry on. And we can, because we know that this moment brings us something, something yet hidden that will reveal itself as a gift for which we can give thanks.  Nouwen offers that “patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present….” I reflect on and concur: Patient pilgrims linger in the present, thankful for what is. Where thankfulness flourishes, patience blossoms, and one reaps love, abundantly.

And when I am not patient?  My failure to love is first a failure to be grateful. My sharpness springs from my lack of appreciation for who they are now, my impatience for them to grow into someone different. The more afraid I am, the more controlling I am, the more dissatisfied I am,  the harder it becomes to be patient, to be loving. Patient people dare to accept people where they are, grateful for who they are now, appreciative of works of art not yet finished but still deeply loved.

Deep breathe. Love is patient. And it can only be patient when it is first grateful, receiving the present as a present, grace.

How to be grateful when careening? Remember….

There are few emergencies

Then why that pitch to the parenting voice? Emergencies are wildfires, screeching sirens, and gaping wounds. In everyday life, we rarely experience emergencies.  Then why do we need to holler, fly, rush off? As Simone Weil writes,  “Waiting patiently…is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Yes, love is the foundation of the spiritual life, and it begins with grateful patience. And, when I think on it further, really, what catastrophe will befall if we slip into church 5 minutes late or dinner is on the table 15 minutes after six? Sure, it’s time to be in the car and junior can’t find his other shoe.  Or the soup needs seasoning and toddler wraps like vine up a parental leg. Take a deep breath. This really isn’t an emergency. Now is good. Now comes in a box to be unwrapped and, yes, even this, can be appreciated. Now is not an emergency to rip through, but a moment to embrace with gratitude. 

There are all, only, gifts

When it all teeters off-kilter, if we wait patiently, long enough to peel back the droopy  (or is that weary?) eyes of our heart,  a hidden gift reveals itself. If we tilt too and see the world slant. This toddler leaning over the griddle? That curiosity endears, lights, impassions.  Here, let’s  lift you away from that heat and let you see these frying cakes.  Sensitive child wailing? That tender heart is a unique gift. Why don’t we pour another batter heart again and mend yours too? Instead of pulling hair out, cock head to one side and pull the waiting gift out of this mayhem. Count His gifts: the way the light shaft pools on the floor at child’s feet, the curl of little one’s nose, the nape of growing child’s neck bent over books. When the gifts are patiently unearthed from the rubble, gratitude surfaces too. Love then stabilizes the chaos.

There are never fears

Fears grip tight, crushing my chest cavity. Alot is on the line in parenting. A soul. A young person’s future.  And, when I am ruthlessly honest, seemingly even my own reputation. Fear of failure prods, pierces, weighs.  Fear and gratitude mix like oil and water: incompatible. I cannot appreciate the gift of this moment, this child as he or she is now, when fears puncture. Trust births gratitude; fear stabs it. I can only accept this situation as a gift when I trust the benevolence of the Giver.  If I fear that the current scenario is actually to my detriment, harmful either currently or for my envisioned future, then I am anything but grateful, anything but patient, anything but loving. Most likely, when fears close in, I grow impatient, wanting to escape, or change, the present scene. True to the flight or fight theory of response, my fears too often feed  either anxious fleeing or angry fighting. I am waking to this in my own life:  The more afraid I am, the harder it becomes to express gratitude, the harder it becomes to practice patience. The harder it becomes to love.   
 
Ultimately, fears and anxiety indicate a lack of trust in the goodness of the Giver of Good Gifts. And when I can’t give thanks for what He gives, I grow impatient, and am, sadly, incapable of love. If I am not grateful, and love in my life is sparse, it’s time to grope around in the dark and arrest the fears that lurk. I talk aloud to them, if necessary, naming the fears, disarming  their potency with Truth. Throw on the light, let the fears flee instead, and see that this God of love is entirely worthy of dogged, untiring trust—because He gives only good gifts.

The kids crush in and I grin. I think I get it, the order of love, the preeminence.

Love is patient first. Because it first is grateful.  

©2008, Ann Voskamp   

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2008: Set to Soar
Ann Voskamp, January 2008

The New Year wears hope like a fragrance. The scent, tender, young, sweet, carries in on the wind, and carries me.    

So I watch it come, this first day of the first month of a brand new year, breaking over the horizon, breaking up through our jaded hopelessness. Just on the rim of our clean farm fields of white, a new time, fresh hope, dawns.  Do these fields of unspoiled winter await new tracks, like an unfurled year awaiting new ways of being? Pristine and blue in morning light, this snow gives me pause. Before embarking into the pregnant hope of 2008, I think: which way will I step? What will be the path I choose across this stretching expanse of time?

Tracks can only be made once.
And then I catch it. A stench.

That decaying rank that I know all too well:  malodorous, rotten fear. Fear that I am impotent of change, that I am doomed to this body of death, that new ways can’t be my ways.  What if I will always be this way… (fill in the blank with fear of personal choice: self-centered, overweight, uneducated, unmotivated, debt-ridden, angry, anxious, apathetic, unfulfilled…)  What if our family, this marriage, these children, stagnate, fester, languish? What if all tomorrows are just more of all our yesterdays, never learning the lessons that were meant to be learned?
And this, this mingling aroma of  sweet hope and putrid fear, this is where I goad myself onward, each step fuelled with the prodding kick, “I simply must try harder.” Try harder to order my life: more organizing, more scheduling, more managing. Try harder to educate our children better: read more, create more, experience more.  Try harder to be a heart after His: pray more, sing more, memorize more. Try harder to tramp good tracks.

I remember from yesterday (and the string of days behind it) with its muddied mess of imprints:  trying harder only  results in harder trials. Self-striving nurtures self-hatred.   Toiling in the flesh produces foiling in the soul. Looking back on the trail tromped through other years, I have eyes to see: to forge new tracks one needs more than simply sheer effort, gritty determination. Yes. But what then? 

As the premier day of the newborn year stretches, I watch the wind lift, gently lull, the branches of the spruce trees that tower outside my window. I cannot see the wind, where she comes from, where she goes, but I watch a thin veil of snow, blowing in with her, going off with her.
And the wind whispers, rustles, rumors from Home: one needs wind’s hope, His Spirit. For this wind brings falling flakes, blanketing muddled tracks. Grace, His Spirit, covers, fills our empty spots, intercedes. His mercies fall new every morning. Fear, its stench, ebbs in the knowing: every day, we begin again. We remain, thankfully, always beginners. Each dawn pulls back the blinds on, always, day one.

How then to make tracks just through this Day One? How to set out into the New Year?

  • Set back to the Wind 

Set back to the wind, and let His Spirit gently move you forward. Let His Spirit carry, when feet are too weak to carry on. I abruptly arrest myself with every “I must try harder.” And gently remind to form new words, utter new prayers that transport to new places: “Spirit, fill more of me. Lift me, Spirit.” Set out  into New Year’s hope knowing,  “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing (Jn 6:36)…Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty (Zech. 4:6).” Set back to His Wind, and let Him fill your sail, your life.

  • Set jaw

 Set back to the wind and set jaw to persevere. For we add to our faith, perseverance. The day will be long, the way deep. We will grow weary, discouraged, tempted to turn back to familiar, rutted paths. But set hand to the plow and refuse to turn back. For, really, what can go awry? The Spirit’s got your back.  So set jaw—persevere, be patient, embrace long processes-- and let the wind blow.     

  • Set times

Set, fixed, times to make certain tracks each day allows for the wind to move us, for  inspiration to surprise us.  Sporadic creativity, intermittent, random commitment, generally fails to forge a steady trail. If we pursue new, desired paths simply when we can get around to it, too often the darkening sky of the urgent distracts us, detours us. Progress is born out of rhythm, routine, regularity….set times. It is how the saints met God: Daniel prayed three times a day facing Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10), the psalmist purposed to praise seven times a day, the early disciples prayed at fixed hours, 9 am in the upper room, (Acts 2:15),on the roof for noon prayers  (Acts 10:9), on the way to temple for 3 pm prayers (Acts 3:1). If set times are the necessary catalysts for spiritual growth, so are set times critically compelling elements for life growth. With back set to the wind, and jaw set, set habitual times to pioneer new habits.  Uncertain times will lead to certain failure.

  • Set sights

Embark daily with a keen focus on the trail markers, on the intermediate goals that line the way. Be it daily markers of an hour of reading aloud to thirsty young minds, fifteen minutes in prayer, twenty minutes invested into a relationship, intermediate rest stations dot the path of our long, arduous journey. Set goals along the way, and fix your sights on the these midway markers: one pound shed this week, 5 chapters read, one date night with a child. Set sights close…  “By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running,  and I am not turning back” (Phil 3:13 MSG). Set eye on the intermediary goals along the way, breaking the trek into achievable segments—and be off and running!

  • Set Out

Simply, finally, take the first step. Again and again.  The wind, hope on its wings, sweeps each new day clean before us, and sweeps over our tracks from yesterday, filling with grace. Quell fear. Keep setting out.  “Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day” (Luke 9:62 MSG). Seize the day! Set out, fixing “attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out!” (Ro. 1:12 MSG).  Changed from the inside out. Set jaw, set times, set sights, set back to the wind…and unfold arms, like wings extending, feeling that change coming through.
A New Year blows in and we feel that Spirit wind catch, lift.

We are set to Soar. Set to Soar.             

©2008, Ann Voskamp          

 

 




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