Twin Pillars: A Tribute to my Parents, and an Open Letter to Young Parents Today

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
– Mother Teresa


“Like arrows in the hands of a warrior,
are the children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”
Psalm 127:4, 5a

To the warriors that double as parents,

I’m writing this to you.


I want you to know that you are seen.
I want you to know that you are loved.
I want you to know that you are celebrated. 


In the midst of a world crowded with violence, injustice, and suffering, I am daily in awe of the immensity your courage. I am unable to fully comprehend the bravery it requires to raise your babies to find peace in the chaos, especially on the days it’s hard to even find it for yourself.

Yet, I am a product of it.

My life is a tribute to yours.


I’m writing to encourage you – to tell you now what your babies don’t yet have the words to express – what they may not even recognize.


I am currently twenty-three and am the second oldest of six girls. I have been living largely on my own for nearly three years now, in a village several hours southeast from the cozy hobby farm I grew up on in Northern New York. I’m constantly complimented by peers and adults alike on things such as my integrity, my work ethic, and my confidence. But regardless of what the compliment is, the undertone of all of them is the same: an acknowledgement – albeit a small one – of the years my parents spent directly investing and pouring into me. I am their living, breathing, opinionated legacy.

Your kids may not yet recognize what a gift you are. In fact, they probably don’t, because so much of what they know as normal is established based on what you’ve built. And thus, everyday, I reap a harvest of blessings from choices that were sown and carefully cultivated years ago by my parents – choices I had nothing to do with. Growing up, stability was my normal. Having two parents that genuinely loved each other and continued to choose each other regardless of circumstances is what I grew up knowing as status quo. Do you realize what a miracle that is? My parents are world builders and shapers.

It wasn’t until I was in at least eighth grade that I started to notice that when my school hosted an event, not everyone’s dad and mom was in the audience alongside mine. So apparently not everyone’s parents made it a priority to attend all of their events? I was legitimately confused. I was nothing short of awesome – I thought – or perhaps my parents’ enthusiastic involvement had inadvertently led me to believe – so it only made sense to me that my parents would want to come to any event I was a part of. Suddenly, their attendance to my events appeared to have nothing to do with my inherent awesomeness, and everything to do with their priorities. (Because, as we all secretly discover as we grow up, listening to two hours of forth and fifth graders bust out varied renditions of three blind mice is actually not that enjoyable. Who’d have thought?)

I don’t want you to read this letter and become discouraged, thinking that it’s impossible to reach the precedent set by my parents. Because in that case, you’re missing the point entirely. My parents were not perfect – no one is. There were instances where they acted rashly or disciplined without proper context. However, the Bible says, “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8.) Thus, all of moments in which my parents acted less than perfectly were ultimately drowned out by the roar of love.

And, in spite of all of their imperfections, I have never – ever – for a second of my entire existence, doubted whether or not I was loved. When I was small, love looked a lot like my parents going to all of my events, doing my laundry for me, or picking me up after school. Now love looks more like a phone call or a package.

So, if you receive nothing else from this letter, please receive this: if your children know that they are first and foremost loved – beyond reason and merit – it will protect them better than any academic lecture they will ever hear, and will give them a tangible picture of how God loves them in a way nothing else can.

My parents love me more than they love themselves. Their prayer for me is that I will outdo them in every capacity – not to live vicariously through me, but because they love me and want me to succeed, even if it doesn’t look conventional. My mom even once confessed to me that she regularly prays that all of her children will go farther in faith than she ever did, equipped by standing on her spiritual shoulders. Friends, that’s a good mom. I’ve already started praying the same over my future children.

“Your greatest contribution to the Kingdom of God may not be something you do, but someone you raise.”
– Andy Stanley

My parents are the first people who introduced me to Jesus – as well as the first people I saw live out their faith. This perhaps says more of them than anything I’ve written previously. I’ve heard many stories of people who are disenfranchised with church and Christianity because while their parents went to church on Sunday, it didn’t affect their day to day life, and they were wounded by their parents’ hypocrisy. Witnessing my parents’ individual and corporate faith had the opposite effect. My parents demonstrated daily that a relationship with Jesus is something to be desired, and that following Him is much more about action than head knowledge.

My parents recognized that raising a family is a ministry, and they invested in it accordingly. Most of the blessings I’ve reaped from their choices are grounded in their faith. My rolodex of childhood memories is filled with snapshots of my parents in the Word: my father at the kitchen table before he left for work, my mother at her favorite corner on the couch, a corner affectionately nicknamed her perch. Every night, I was tucked in under my comforter and a blanket of my mother’s prayer.

My parents were also not afraid of different denominations, because to them, furthering the gospel was central. This often contrasted them against the other church going parents I knew. My upbringing was very ecumenical. While I have traditionally Mennonite roots, I was involved in AWANA at a Baptist church, I attended my first youth group at a Pentecostal church, and I helped with VBS at a Presbyterian church.

It was easy to receive the sort of my faith my parents demonstrated because my parents never asked us to walk a path that was untouched by the imprint of their footprints. My parents understood what James meant when he penned the divisive words: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18.) As aforementioned, I grew up on a hobby farm, and I was one of six girls – both things which lend themselves to lots of chores. So at an early age, I was expected to make my contribution around the house, but I was never expected to work alone. My parents worked alongside me (and perhaps, sometimes, in spite of me.) This fostered a genuine respect between my parents and I that continues to this day.

Though I don’t yet have children of my own, I’ve spent enough time with children and young parents to know that parenting is not easy. In Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton describes a day in the life of a mother this way:

How was my day? It was a lifetime. It was the best of times and the worst of times. I was both lonely and never alone. I was simultaneously bored out of my skull and completely overwhelmed. I was saturated with touch — desperate to get the baby off me and the second I put her down I yearned to smell her sweet skin again. This day required more than I’m physically and emotionally capable of, while requiring nothing from my brain. I had thoughts today, ideas, real things to say and no one to hear them. 

I felt manic all day, alternating between love and fury. At least once an hour I looked at their faces and thought I might not survive the tenderness of my love for them. The next moment I was furious. I felt like a dormant volcano, steady on the outside but ready to explode and spew hot lava at any moment. And then I noticed that Amma’s face doesn’t fit into her onesie anymore, and I started to panic at the reminder that this will be over soon, that it’s fleeting — that this hardest part of my life is supposed to be the best time of my life. That this brutal time is also the most beautiful time. Am I enjoying it enough?Am I missing the best time of my life? Am I too tired to be properly in love? That fear and shame felt like adding a heavy, itchy layer on top of all of the hard.

But I’m not complaining so please don’t try to fix it. I wouldn’t have my day or my life any other way. I’m just saying – it’s a hell of a hard thing to explain – an entire day with lots of babies. It’s far too much and not even close to enough. 

Parenting – raising tiny humans – is hard. But I beg you – I entreat you – to keep doing the hard thing. Don’t get so bogged down with the mire of dirty laundry and stickiness and  mayhem that defines your daily experience that you lose sight of the worthiness of your task.


I am the product of two people who didn’t.


Even as I conclude this letter, everything I’ve said about my parents still seems like a trite introduction. I’ve barely scratched the surface. The English language has failed me in paying proper attribution to the twin pillars I call mom and dad. It is both far too much and not even close enough.

Please know that you’re not alone in this hard thing, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. All of us are just muddling through as best as we can. There are no perfect lives, just as there are no perfect people. There is only the imperfection that is still worth embracing. Find your tribe and do life with them. My parents did, and modeled that for me. Community is a vital thing. I cannot overstate this enough. It is the life blood of any successful undertaking – or in this case, upbringing.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”
– Frederick Douglass

And so I encourage you to keep fighting the good fight. Because while you might not feel like you’re changing the world, you may be raising the children that will. All revolutionaries started as children.

As my parents always said, it starts at home. 

Much love and prayer,

Amy J

 

 

Advertisements

Undone to Become

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I was entirely aghast and heartbroken.

I couldn’t believe I was in this place again.

“Hi,” I sobbed breathlessly into my phone. “I really can’t be alone right now. Can you come over?”
“I’ll be right there.”
Joan clicked off and I buried my tearful face back into my pillows, returning to an all too familiar state of despondency.

How do I properly encapsulate a six month period that had lasted a thousand years? I was parched, a desert aching for rain. I was a garden, overpowered by ruthless weeds. I was a trumpet longing to make music, held in the hands of someone who no longer knew how to play.

I was bone-weary. Every night the moon sympathetically looked on as I crawled into bed and cried until the ocean of grief inside me would no longer yield salty tears. Then I would pray until exhaustion forced my eyes closed for a few fitful – yet blissful – hours of escaping reality. It had been a season of hard choices, relationships ending, and misunderstandings. I was so sad, so lonely, so tired.

Please understand that I am intimately familiar with grief. I know its knock on my door, I recognize its feet on the landing. But it is an entirely different thing to grieve the loss of someone who is still alive than it is to grieve the loss of someone who has died. This was uncharted territory for me. When I did manage to have a coherent thought, it was something along the lines of it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And then I would spend hours tormenting myself upturning every stone in the graveyard of our shared memories, wondering what I could have done differently, if there was something –anything – I could have done to have salvaged the relationship. But regardless of the number of hours spent digging my fingers raw and bloody, the results were always the same – there was nothing to be done, except let the dead bury their own dead.

Joan arrived and held me as I wept over – yet another – friendship ending. And then, knowing that words were trite and insufficient, she very practically bought me a gallon of my favorite flavor of ice cream and turned on Parks & Rec.

“I don’t understand why things like this keep happening to me,” I lamented to her. “I’m not strong enough for this.”

Isn’t it funny that sometimes, though the truth is right there before our eyes, we are blind to it?

Joan, being the incredible friend that she is, didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to speak Christianese platitudes to me. She knows me well enough to know how unapologetically stubborn I can be when told things I’m not ready to hear. She knew it was imperative that I walk through this and all of the emotions that accompany it in order to arrive in one piece on the other side. And so, in a wise effort to spare herself from awakening the beast, she simply said, “I don’t know why these things keep happening to you either, Amy. Do you want to watch another episode of Parks & Rec?”

And then she grabbed my hand in a reassuring squeeze, communicating in the way that words cannot that she’d be there for me throughout the duration of my journey and beyond. Sweet, intelligent Joan.

You see, the fact that I wasn’t strong enough was exactly the point. What I was seeing as devastation was actually an invitation.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.”
– C. S. Lewis

I was being invited into a deeper and sweeter relationship with God, an intimacy with Him unlike any I had ever known. But that required me to face the deepest and ugliest parts of myself. I had to be honest with myself so that I could be honest with God. It required me to release the dreams I was holding with white-knuckled determination. Perhaps one of Satan’s most pervasive lies is this idea of “Christ and.” If I only had Christ and __________, I would be happy. There is no “and.” There is only Christ. God was teaching me to hate my own mother and father and sisters, even my own life, in light of His glory and grace (Luke 14:26). He was teaching me to work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). God was allowing me to be shaken to the stones of my foundation so that the faulty structures I had built would crumble, and I would be left with the only thing worth having: Christ.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.” 

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, hymn

Unbeknownst to me, since Nancy had passed away, all of my relationships have been colored through that lens of grief and loss. Sometime after she passed, (perhaps even immediately after she passed,) I went from holding my relationships loosely to holding them fiercely in a vice grip, only loosening my unwilling fingers once my hand was forced. Relationships are beautiful things, and I truly believe that they are one of the only things worth doing. However, they must be kept in their proper place. The root issue wasn’t relationships. The root issue was one of control. I was desperately clawing for control because I was terrified of losing another person. In fact, I was so scared of losing someone again that I allowed myself to be repeatedly mistreated if it meant keeping relationships intact.

Idolatry always has consequences.

Fear is the antithesis of faith. After all, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). You cannot take steps forward in faith if you’re allowing fear to have the final word. The steps are not available to you. Ironically, in my quest for control, I lost control. My quest to be in control landed me in bedridden grief for months. I had to withdraw from my classes in order to wrestle.

Fortunately, though we are saved by faith alone, we do not have to operate by faith that is alone (paraphrase of Martin Luther.) My friends rallied around me. This season of darkness was lit with the unprovoked provision of meals, bouquets, letters, and other gestures reminding me I was loved and cared for, not the least of which involved a gallon of ice cream. Meanwhile, God chiseled away.

Worship: Basking in Victory

IMG_3140

During the end of this season I went home, and wished for the hundredth thousandth time that I could have a conversation with Nancy about all this. And as I was sitting there, watching the sun sink below the trees behind her gravestone, my thirsty heart received its first drop of rain in months.

“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing.”
Zephaniah 3:17,
the verse referenced on Nancy’s gravestone,
the verse she referenced in her final letter to my mom 

I was sitting where my sister was buried, and yet I knew that her funeral only served as an earmark of her crossing into eternal celebration and communion with her savior. I was sitting in the place of Victory, not wallowing in the place of Defeat. Nancy’s grave is place to worship, a Monument of Redemption and Resurrection. The same God she looked upon daily was with me in this very moment, and had been through all the recent months of grief and loss.

This was a God I wanted to serve. Unabashedly, unashamedly, and undistractedly.

In that moment, a ravenous appetite for Jesus was awakened within me unlike anything I’d previously known. God had been steadily chiseling away the relationships I had used to fill the space only He was meant to occupy. No wonder I had been so dissatisfied and lonely. And though His chisel had hurt unlike anything I’ve ever known, it brought me face to face with a God unlike anything I’ve ever known.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
All around,
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found, in You
Beautiful Things, Gungor

Death looks beautiful on the face of Jesus.

I had been parched so that I would learn to long for Living Water. I had been undone to become like His Son.

Suddenly, after months of observing a seemingly barren garden, green sprouts came gasping through the soil, in search of water. My cup was running over.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 36:26


“For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
Colossians 3:3