Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding My Way Home, Part 2: Searching

When I last left you, I had planned to finish telling the story of how I found my faith home within the next 48 hours.  Instead, our family of 8 took a month-long detour into sleepless nights and general misery which shall henceforth be known as the plague of 2017.  When our health was finally restored, it seemed a little selfish to skulk off to my closet with my kids' math computer for three hours to finish typing the rest up, leaving them to fend for themselves like feral little Mowglis without the benefit of a benevolent panther or lovable bear to keep them out of trouble.

So, you get me when you get me, and probably not at my best here, so let's let the Holy Spirit come in and do with it what He will.

The problem with a denominational crisis is that your faith has been formed by someone or something in your past.  My Evangelical friends would point to this as a fatal flaw in having anything besides a Bible teach you about faith.  But for me, there wasn't an option to go back to my childhood and change.  But what did that really matter?  At the age of 22, standing in the hallway of my childhood church, talking to my priest in the moment of my crisis of denomination, I was the most non-denominational Catholic in the world.  I didn't really have a Catholic faith life outside of Mass, making the sign of the cross for prayer, and receiving Communion.  You could literally watch a movie of my faith life to that point and not be able to tell which kind of Christian I was.

But along came Britt.  On our first date, when we were both 21, I felt this huge wave of relief when he told me he was Catholic.  It seemed like so much of the tension of my previous relationship had started from the differences in religion, though the reality was that God just had much better people picked out for us.  As we got to talking, I found out that he had been baptized in elementary school, but his family hadn't been able to swing the cost of catechism classes, so they didn't go to church or go to classes, and he had never done his First Communion or been Confirmed (the last two Sacraments of Initiation most cradle Catholics complete by the end of high school).

This struck me as a real flaw in the Catholic church.  All this money stuff.  The story of the old priest in the Caddy and my granny.  Mom bristling at my sister saying loudly "you put $20 in the basket?!" when we visited a church where the ushers brought the baskets around.  And now they were keeping people's kids out if they didn't have the money?  That just seemed wrong.  In college someone had mentioned to me that the Vatican was sitting on piles of gold, which I envisioned as Scrooge McDuck's money vault.  How could they be doing Jesus' work if they were keeping their treasures on earth hidden away?

I started to get a little testy about this whole thing.  I had questions, and no one to answer them.  Britt and I were going to be married soon, but I wasn't about to go off half-cocked and get a minister off the internet.  We were going to do this respectably, in the church.  Besides, I went to the wedding of a non-denominational friend in the beautiful outdoors.  I was late getting out of work, and pulled up 3 minutes late.  I missed half the service, and they were walking back down the aisle by the time I had made it to the back row of chairs.  What the heck?  An $800 dress, and only 6 minutes of people staring at it?  Oh, I wanted a whole hour-long Mass and to receive Communion together.  Besides, the person I was going to marry shouldn't be a baby Catholic.  He should be ALL Catholic and bitter.  Like me.

So, when we moved to East Lansing to go to grad school, in our separate apartments, Britt began the process to receive his first Communion and Confirmation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, RCIA.  I would be a co-sponsor to him, so I attended all of the meetings, too.

At last. Sitting in that basement all-purpose room each week, I began to hear about what the Catholic Church believed and taught, and got a taste of what all the sacraments meant as an adult.  In the process, I began to chew on just how very angry I was.  I was angry that I was as ignorant as the candidates in that room.  I was angry that I had spent 10 years going to PSR as a kid and had learned only that Jesus loved me.  I was angry at the people who couldn't answer my questions.  I was angry that I had no good explanations for why the church did what it did, and angry that the adultier adults around me were still ticked about Vatican II and lamented the loss of the Baltimore Catechism, while also saying they hated it.

I realized I was in a lost generation, being taught by an abandoned generation, who was raised by a fearful generation.

My Catholic upbringing was nothing short of dysfunctional, and I needed therapy.

Acting the angry adolescent, I aggressively fished for answers in that RCIA class.  If our instructor wanted to offer us an overview, I took the whole 20 minute question and answer period.  Sure, there were books and the internet, but they don't fight back.  I justified my rudeness by saying that the best thing we could do for new Catholics was to give them the tools to understand their faith well enough to defend it.  Interestingly enough, I have heard recently that the Catholics who have the best Catechism (knowledge of the sacred tradition and teachings of the Church) are those people who were once RCIA candidates.  I see why.  These adults had such a huge leg up on understanding their faith than I ever had.

So, Britt completed RCIA, and received the sacraments.  I had stopped attending classes with him at the end because my angry was all worn-out.  We got married that summer at the small, modern country church I was baptized in, and made the radical decision not to use birth control, or actually learn anything about Natural Family Planning either.  Part of this was because I had dropped out of grad school and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  I was applying for vet school when I got pregnant, and realized I didn't want it enough to do it while pregnant and then with a baby.  I started tutoring part time.  We usually went to Mass.  We had a beautiful baby a few weeks after our first anniversary.  We used contraception for the first 6 months after she was born.  Then we didn't want to mess with it because we didn't want to be in flagrant violation of the church's teaching, which we didn't really understand, but Britt at least knew about.

The one bright spot was one of the priests at our church, Father Joe.  Listening to him felt like listening to Jesus--you understood why the disciples dropped their nets and just said "I want to do what you're doing."  The man oozes humor, wisdom, and love.  I truly experienced the heaven-connection in the sacraments for the first time at the Student Parish of that college town.  I experienced Eucharistic Adoration (venerating Christ in the Eucharist with song and prayer and meditation) for the first time, and began to sense Communion with the saints (connection to other believers for the past 2,000 years) was maybe a real thing.    
But, there were downsides.  This church was within walking distance of campus and was designed to meet the needs of single college students without families.  There was a nursery at church that was never staffed, because people kept no-showing, but hey, that was part of the song and dance, right? Wiggly kids at Mass was a rite of passage.

That year, I got pregnant again.  And this baby would be born before his sister was two years old.  I was 26 when he was born.  We had 20 more years of fertility in front of us and a grad student salary, with no end of grad school in sight.  I got a little panicky.  I had a bit of PTSD from the complicated second pregnancy.  I didn't want another baby before grad school ended.  And Jedi was so, so naughty.  We began to desperately need the nursery room.  Britt and I were going to Mass and spending the whole time in the entryway. Two other young grad school moms and I tried to start a playgroup, but we found no reason to get together in the church, where we had to pay for parking, when going to each other's houses was easier.

One of those moms (who will be our newest baby's Godmother in a few weeks) was going to a Mothers of Preschoolers (MoPs) group in a big non-denominational church on the south side of town.  She said there was childcare and time to talk to other moms.  I was in.  Walking into that church was like a balm to my dang soul.  Everything, from the coffee, to the childcare, to the 70 moms just like me--for a woman with no family nearby and a husband working 100+ hours a week, made this my safe place.  It was heaven.

It didn't take long before I began to say to Britt that we can't keep up our Sunday routine without eventually hating Jedi for being hard to manage at Mass.  Maybe we could just try the MoPs church for a few months, and see what happened.  The words on the door said their Sunday EVENING service started at "7ish."  We could sleep in and bring the kids in their jammies if we wanted to.  The kids club seemed good enough, and taught the kids basically what I had learned growing up, just without making the sign of the cross, which we could toss back in any old time.  Britt and I dropped the kids off, got our coffees, sat in the darkened theater, and sang catchy songs I hadn't heard since college.  And the teaching--sweet manna from heaven!  It was nothing short of the best history lecture I had ever attended in college.  Each time our pager went off, saying that Jedi was having a hard time, the nursery team (there were more than 20 of them and the kids were sorted into age groups) actually apologized to me that they couldn't soothe him!  No dirty looks here.

Well, those few months turned into a few years.  We had another baby, and even though we hadn't really attended Mass in a year, we took her home to the church we were married in to be baptized.  It was a strange thing, but we just told people our son couldn't handle Mass, so we were going to the non-denominational church rather than staying home.  I just couldn't admit to the world that I couldn't reconcile the unanswered questions of the Catholic faith, as my husband was the neophyte, and I was just tired of making my own place to rest.  We decided we should probably just join the non-denom church as members.

Then things started to come up.  My kids started calling our new place "play church."  Mom, are we going to play church today or the other church?  Should our kids be thinking of the word play as the way they describe their church?  It is a child's work...but hey, ok, they like it there, right?

The other concerns weren't as easy to dismiss.  Maybe we were attending too inconsistently, but beyond baptism and marriage, there was no regular connection to a sacramental life.  There was nothing that made this warm building a place of worship except our desire to make it so.  The pastors all had wives and kids and I guess had gone to seminary.  As far as I knew, their job was to write sermons and marry people and baptize people and dedicate babies.  I used to say that they probably were much better at counseling marriage troubles than a priest because they were actually married.  But, there was no sacramental connection every week--an experience with the divine was about feeling the Holy Spirit in the music or seeing a connection to your own life in the teaching.  Many folks I knew well served at the coffee stations, or as ushers, or in the kids' ministry, but didn't actually attend the service.  They watched it online later in the week.  I kind of wondered if we should be doing that, too.  It seemed the service was for the newbies, maybe?  Well, I liked it, and we were still pretty new.

But still.  I sat on the overflow risers in the back, singing beautiful worship songs being led by basically professional musicians, and I began to focus on the same thing every week: if only I could be allowed to make my perfect church.  If only I could bring Christ's presence in the Eucharist to the heart of this passionate singing.  If I could bring the pastor's teaching to the priests who joked about how short their homilies would be when I was so dang hungry for more context, more history, more understanding.  If I could only bring a childcare program to parents hungry for Mass AND the respite.  I always ended just a little deeper in despair that such things were not possible on earth.

The final death knell came when I caught one of the pastors between services (this is a pattern for me, as I know the clergy are too busy to be my personal Google) and asked him the questions constantly firing in the back of my mind those early years of our marriage.  I knew Dave Ramsey was approved to teach us about finances, so there must be a church-recommended resource for me.  I asked him "What does this church teach about our fertility?  We are producing kids at an alarming rate here, and I don't really know what God wants us to do.  Is it wrong to use birth control?"  And he looked at me like I had six heads to expect him to interfere with that, and said that the church has no teaching on family size or birth control, but asks each believer to pray with God about it and do what's right for their family.  But they did believe believers shouldn't live together before marriage.  And they did believe abortion was wrong.  Why no teaching on something so important to married believers?

And in that moment, I knew.  As clearly as I knew in that hallway of my childhood church with my priest eight years before.

I was a Catholic.

I suck at discerning what God wants for me.  I am amazing at knowing what I want for me, and doing it, and asking God to get in line.  And that wasn't leading to the radical life of faith that I had been hungering for all those years.  It was wrapping me up in my own circles and struggles and life.  And I had questions.  Deep,"why are we here and is my life ok right now?" questions.  I didn't know what the Catholic church was teaching, but I knew they weren't afraid of saying what was right and what was wrong.  I didn't know why they thought birth control was wrong, but I knew they stood for something that I was obsessively worrying about.

After that conversation, I began to see that when people were telling me that I must go by what is written in the Bible alone (they used the term "Bible-based faith" to mean non-Catholic, Non-Mormon, etc.) they were saying that if God doesn't reveal His will for me in prayer, He must not have a preference.  Someone named Bill Hybels wrote a book called Too Busy Not to Pray that was hailed as a must-read when I tried to get through it in college.  In it he said that when we cannot determine which way God wants us to go, we should assume He's leaving it up to us to pick.  Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing marring the picture, but that seemed crazy to apply that to fundamental issues of faith.

I felt the pressure again to figure out, how does God speak to everyone else?  Good vibes, excitement, dreams, and feelings had led me astray before.  Consulting the Bible seemed a good next step, if I had an exhaustive knowledge of the context and language of the times, which I didn't.  I had heard people use the words "The Lord spoke to me," more times than I can count, and was always careful not to use those words myself, much like you will never catch me typing LOL, because I hate dishonesty. If I didn't hear a voice in the clouds, I should't say that, though I am sure those words have crossed my lips.  It made such an impression of personal failure on me that if I tell you I thought I discerned something from God, I am going to tell you in the same breath exactly how I knew.  

The closest I had come to discerning God's will at that point was an idea that wouldn't let go that I knew would probably tick off the Devil, so that wouldn't disappoint God, right?  Solid.


The anger I had felt from never finding answers concerning puzzles unraveled and explained as a Catholic was now surfacing in my new church, but without the history of neglect.  I would sit and think about a guy I went to college with who just loved the Eucharist.  He said it was the one thing that made us Catholic, and said this was being carried on as Jesus asked only one place: in the Mass.  When I was at the new church, I began to get the feeling not that I was in the wrong place, but instead found fault in their teachings, or non-teachings.  I grew distracted ruminating on the idea that they are denying the ONE thing I knew to be a fundamental truth at the core of my being--that when Jesus told his disciples "take this all of you and eat it.  This is my Body, given up for you," (from the Catholic Mass, taken from Luke 22:19) he wasn't being metaphorical.  It was in the Bible, but its literal interpretation was being rejected by people who believed the Earth was created in 7 days, because the Bible is absolute truth.

A person holier than me might have just started shaking writing this, because I see it now all here in one place for the first time.  The Presence of Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist brought me back to the Church--and I mean that in the fluffy way AND in that heady mystical way.  I AM so Catholic...

The most important theme of my time worshiping with Christian believers who weren't Catholic was decidedly protesting Catholicism in this one regard--they reminded us time and again that Christians should believe only in what the Bible teaches.  But, I began to see that their faiths were no less formed and influenced by their churches than the Catholic church was derisively described as being.  No one thought it was strange to read modern authors, whose books are really just one-person Catechism.  A friend or pastor's recommendation was enough to put it on our bookshelves and into the cannon of our faith.

The acceptable historical texts were the Pilgrim's Progress, and I knew people read the founders of the major sects, though I didn't, but definitely nothing before Luther.  What bothered me then that I couldn't put words to was the accidental hypocrisy.  That if God is actively speaking to believers in modern times, why shouldn't we be listening to what He was actively speaking to believers for the past 2,000 years?  What if someone had written those things down?  Were the writings of the Saints only relevant to the believers of their time?  Was there an expiration date on those truths revealed that with enough faith I could tap into heaven and discern?  For example, The Shack was a beautiful allegory that made me weep when a friend got me to buy it in 2008 or so, and was held as a beacon of beauty every believer should read.  I had written my own prayerful imagining of heaven that sounded very similar. Today, just ten years later, I see posts all over Facebook that this book and newly released film adaptation is a heresy, a travesty of modern Christian writing that violates the Bible at every turn. (Octavia Spencer is in it, though, representing a motherly version of God, so I am naturally disinclined to agree with them.) What other books would we be ripping off our shelves in ten years?

Once I pulled one of these threads, the whole thing began to unravel for me.  The Bible was written by early Christian believers, as I was told many times.  But, those early Christian believers were from one Apostle-sanctioned, holy Catholic church.  The Bible was divinely compiled through these early Catholics.  Who had a Pope.  Who believed in the true presence in the Eucharist and infant baptism.  Who convened a council to create the Bible.  The Bible which is now the foundation of all Christian churches, even Protestant and Mormon ones.  Why were we not saying that?  If we were Protestant (though I sense most non-Catholics seem to dislike that word), why not pinpoint exactly when the Catholic Church was no longer under the protection of the Holy Spirit, and then reappeared in the hearts and sanctuaries of the newly Protestant believers?  The salvation of people who wrote and compiled that holy book would be questioned by hundreds of thousands of mainstream Protestants, because they were Catholics.  Except Bible-believing Christians don't say that.  Or believe that. They focus instead on beliefs that we don't need a priest as an intermediary and God cannot transubstantiate the work of human hands into Christ's body and blood simply because Peter (the rock on whom Jesus built his church and first Pope) established it to be so.  And this is why I don't understand the disunity of the body of Christ.

No one was talking to me about those questions, because they just didn't see the conflict I did.  I was alone in straddling the divide between Catholicism and non-denominational Christianity, but not ready to reject the church that caused my hurt.  This uncertainty was rare despite the fact that 2/3 of the Catholics who leave the church to go to a different denomination choose an Evangelical (non-denominational) church.  Most Catholics are fine leaving for a place that better met their spiritual needs, and are attending more faithfully than people who never left the church.  Why was I alone wrestling so hard with that surrender?

Was I that hard-up for community and coffee and the most lovely, generous friends a person could hope to meet?  Because what my non-denominational church lacked in doctrine, it had an abundance of in believers seeking to do good things for God.  People were adopting, changing oil, volunteering, going on mission trips, putting together fun-runs, and pouring thousands upon thousands of dollars into a new sanctuary to accommodate the growing church.

And this is the problem.  3/4 of the folks reading this may think I am ragging on the beloved church we both attended, or where they find their home now, or any path that differs from mine.  But that isn't my aim.  I simply cannot explain my path back to the Catholic church in a way that doesn't mention my view of the doctrinal shortcomings of these non-denominational churches who know how to SERVE their fellow believers in community.  The did is effortlessly it seemed, with the love and time of other believers, sacrificially and lovingly given.  There is no question.  They do it beautifully, and better than Catholics, whose churches are rarely set up to be the center of a community life.  Who scrap, beg, and plead for just 6 people to teach Sunday school to more than 100 kids in our church.

I remember sitting in bed and asking Britt one night, could it be that we were being called to change all that?  Can you change the Catholic Church?  Not their teachings, what cloudy understanding we knew of them, but the communities?  Is that even possible?  Is it sacrilegious to think that?

The one thing I am not defending here though, is denominational relativism (you do what works for you).  Ecumenism (embracing what different denominations hold in common), definitely.  There is a brutal rift in the body of Christ, one that is currently masquerading as a good thing, as a choice to worship at a place that meets our needs.  That provides freedom to find a place that teaches what we believe.  For whatever reason that I won't know until God tells me Himself, I feel a strong burden that I do not have enough faith to pull that together--me and my Bible pulling out God's will and getting it right.  And I am so emboldened to think my fellow believers don't have it, either.  Knowing with certainty God's will is the exception, not the rule.

At the time, I had just an inkling of the desire to let my life be Mack-truck run over, and taken over by God's will, by conforming mine to His.  I am fearful of a church that springs from nowhere, guided by their faith and lovingly used by God to do many good things.  What makes me fearful is that it is too proud and sure, with no resemblance of the awe and reverence that defined our Jewish heritage.  I fear that it has no use for the old ways and reshapes God and worship in its own image.  When I visit the older denominations--Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, I see something I recognize in the predictability of format in their services, and it surprises me I never sought them out more.  They say the Our Father together every week.  The one thing we know we can't get wrong, because Jesus gave us those words himself.

What I began to fear was that with our coffees in hand, and the electric guitars, and the "3 song, 45 minute sermon, 2 song closer" format, with the lights dimmed and not a window in sight...we were no longer in communion with those who trembled to speak the name of God except on high holy days.  We were living with the New Covenant Jesus gave, yes, but did we lose all our reverence that we would no longer tremble at the thought of being near to the Holy of Holies?    

I never resolved those questions, but we were sad to leave that church all the same.  We certainly had nothing but love and respect for the faith and generosity and community we had found at that church.  I still miss that community, the music, the Bible-teaching sermons, the friendships I made.  After seven long years of grad school, we moved to our new hometown in 2010.  Just like rearranging your grocery store makes you question if you really like that place that much after all, we couldn't find a good fit for any of the non-denominational churches up here.  After a few months of church hopping, we hit on a church half an hour away.  We had made a decision that our spiritual questions were just not being answered by other faiths.  I called all the churches in the area before we visited one.  It had a preschool program during Mass.  We were going back to the Catholic church.

The second week we were there, the priest received a squirt blaster for his birthday, and used it to bless us all with Holy Water rather than the traditional mini whisk broom at the end of the service.  Unusual?  Definitely.  But a sure sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore.  If we were going to do this, we would have to commit to becoming Catholic when I wasn't angry.  Maybe I could even make it not all about me, and see if Britt wanted to take the reins of spiritual leadership of our family for a while.  If this church had enough community to pull off a preschool program during Mass, a sense of humor enough to sprinkle holy water with a super soaker, but reverent enough to kneel in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then maybe we could make this work.

It was a new town, a new life, new friends, and a chance to find a new church home.  In hindsight alone I can see that God led us to stop searching for a church made in our image, and instead settle for a church made imperfectly in His.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Finding My Way Home, Part 1: Getting Lost

In the previous blog post, I talked a little bit about why some of my dear friends are not going to church.  This post is the story of why I stopped going to church.  I can't say that I am proud of it, but I want you to know that I take full responsibility for how it all went down.  Reading it through just now, I think I actually owe my family a huge apology for making them answer for my confusion.

I am going to start by alienating a good portion of you who are going to hear one fact, and probably tune me out.  I am a Catholic.  A Papist.  A brain-washed Christian who really does believe in all that crazy stuff about Jesus's body and blood and Eucharist, who is no longer ashamed to say that I strive to be in communion with the Vatican and believe my priest before I question him.  It's about as en vogue as saying you want to obey your husband in your wedding vows.

Why would I start this blog post with that polarizing fact?  Shouldn't I try to lure you in with my siren-song of a lost-gets-found faith journey and THEN spring the big C-word on you?  No.  I don't want you to read a word of this under false pretenses.  You need to know the outcome of this story because I don't want you to waste energy in trying to figure out if you can believe me, if you should pick apart my beliefs, if you should question my salvation, if you will end up at the same destination as me.  I really just want you to hear the story of a person who was lost to church and faith, and how she found her way back.  How I found my way back.  

So, am I speaking for the church or all "reverted" Catholics?  No, I am simply trying to do my best to live this tenet of my faith, quoted in context so you can see that I am taking a little creative license with this post, as I am clearly not suffering because of my righteousness:
"Now who is going to harm you if you are enthusiastic for what is good?
But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them,
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame."  --1 Peter 3:13-16

I was raised in the low-catechism world of post-Vatican II Catholicism.  In layman's terms, I never learned that the Catholic Church had opinions on things, had been recording them and refining them for 2,000 years.  I only learned that Jesus loves me, how to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary, to put my bad feelings into a rock that symbolized Jesus and drop it into a punch bowl of water, to go to Confession, that my First communion was really Jesus's body, and that my Confirmation with the Bishop meant I intended to be a Catholic for the rest of my life.  (I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that at my Confirmation, I was covered in head-to-toe poison oak, but the Bishop anointed me anyway--a real close encounter with a leper experience for him, I'm sure, which he passed with flying colors.  Good on him.)

I never learned that people didn't believe Catholics really loved Jesus.  I didn't know what the rosary was for. I didn't know why people liked the saints.

Let's start at the beginning.  When I was three years old, one day after church the priest put his hand on my head and I looked stunned.  My mom asked what was wrong, and I said "Mom, God touched me."  I thought our little old priest was God. Something really must have cooled off for me in the intervening years of making life miserable during Mass for my mother.  When I was 5 years old, I remember hating Church so much I would lay in bed on Saturday nights and think "I will go to church and kill the priest so I don't have to go to church anymore."  Not a cute story, and yes, we did watch WWF wrestling, but more than dramatic imitation, I really was a very angry little person.  Yes, I am a little ashamed of my 5-year-old self...even now.  But, honesty, huh?

The only other memory I have of that early church experience is our catechism class.  We were handed a little dish of salt and a matching dish of sugar and were told to taste it.  I was angry when they wouldn't let me rinse my mouth out from the salt, and refused to try the sugar.  Oh the symbolism!  Once the teachers took us for a walk around church to observe what was man made and what was God-made.  I proudly raised my hand and said "Cars are God-made."  They gently corrected me, and I argued my case: "God made people, and people made cars, so a car is God-made." I have nothing to learn from these people who couldn't figure this out.  Mic drop.

I lasted a whole year in a Kindergarten taught by nuns.  My mom decided it wasn't a good fit when I came home with three welts on my arm.  My mom went up to school to talk to Sister Justin.  She said she hit me because I wouldn't stop talking.  My mom was like "Yes, that's Jaime, but please do not hit her."  I remember lots of things from that school, but don't remember that.

In third grade, we had moved from our little country church, and were in the suburbs.  I can really only recall from Sunday school that a girl had actually gone on a pilgrimage to a holy site somewhere, and while they were there, her silver rosary chain had transformed from silver into gold.  I thought this was crazy-town, but hey, I saw the rosary myself.  Rosary alchemy is something that comes your way when you go to Europe.  My faith was tarnished somewhat when my silver Irish charm necklace turned gold, too, when I wore it in the shower at a house with well water.

Now, I don't want you thinking that we only experienced faith at church.  My Dad, for instance, told the story of an old-school priest driving a new Caddy to his house as a child (in the 30's).  The priest sat at the table until his mother handed over their grocery money for the week, and scrounged up every penny in the house.  I tried to imagine any of our priests shaking my mother down for her last $20, but couldn't.  My mom said they don't do that anymore because of Vatican II.  Ohhhhhh... huh?  Needless to say, my father only came to church on Christmas and Easter.

My mom, however, busted her hump to get us to Mass and Sunday school for a good portion of our childhood.  She picked our church because the collection baskets were at the entrances and not passed around, the music was pretty good, there were no kneelers, they used pita instead of wafers, and they always had cookies after Mass.  These seemed like good enough reasons to drive 20 minutes to get to church for me, too.  Plus, she could go to the nearby K-Mart while we were in class.  Win-win-win.

Now, my natural penchant for blasphemy, expressed at young age might lead you to believe I was a somewhat bitter, rebellious teen.  In that nerdy sort of way, yes.  I was frustrated and at odds with my dad almost constantly.  But, a youth group retreat after a particularly nasty blow-up led me into a new part of faith.  Instead of faith being something to you should accept, it became something you could feel.  And I had a lot of feelings.  There were night hikes (glowing moss!  Did you know that was a thing?), and prayer circles, and group trust-fall challenges, and did I mention boys from other schools?  There were suddenly Mikes, Steves, and Jims to add to my ever-growing list of crushes.  But on that retreat, I spilled my guts in prayer, and felt God's comfort as a perfect Father.  Something I hadn't known before.  

The best of all was the 11th grade confirmation retreat.  My mom swears it was when all of her girls stopped being rebellious teenagers and returned to her.  It really did change us.  We listened to talks, heard pop music, went on reflective walks in nature, and every single one of us cried like babies.  By the time I was 17, I had found a lot of unhealthy ways to feel the emotions of life.  That retreat was like a lifeline.  

But then I went to college.

The moment I moved into my dorm, it didn't even occur to me to walk the block and a half to go to the Catholic church down the street.  My life had basically fallen apart.  You know that girl who is like the nerdy queen bee in high school who flops so hard in college?  Oh, that was me.  And did I ever flop.  Apparently, a lot of people plan to do something with their lives by the time they get to college.  I planned on going to high school part 2, and to jump on the first thing that sounded interesting.  That happened to be Anthropology. Studying people?  Religions?  Cultures?  Oh, that is so me!

I joined our Catholic student group, Newman.  And I joined the InterVarsity non-denominational group.  I also chain-smoked through three boyfriends in my first semester.  That and the 15 pounds I put on in THREE months should have been my first clue that things were not going well.

In a class called Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion, I probably got the biggest kick in the pants of my whole time in school in sophomore year.  It was taught by my once-beloved anthropology teacher with whom I had a major falling out when I switched majors to Chemistry.  She stood in front of the class and said that Mexican Catholics are polytheistic.  Their "worship" of saints was their way of shucking off the Spaniard white man's oppression and holding onto the gods of their native religions.  I had had enough, and I called her on it.  And she gave me my first A- in an anthropology class.  Maybe she didn't appreciate my detailed explanation of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist on my final exam.

But that small fight gave me the shaky feeling that maybe I didn't know enough to defend my beliefs. The boy I was dating, and planning to marry, was a Presbyterian.  At our formerly Presbyterian college.  And I was kind of Catholic.  I was most involved in singing at Wednesday night non-denominational worship.  And he told me flat out that he would never be Catholic.  But he would switch to some other kind of Protestant denomination to make an effort.  And I was still going to the Newman club.  And I started bringing questions I had to them.  And not in a nice way.  In a snot-faced, "why didn't anyone ever teach me about (aspect of Catholicism I had previously taken for granted)?"  And they would kind of answer me, but also leave me hanging.  I was getting to be the kind of a jerk you wished wouldn't show up any more.  

But non-denominational had never let me down.  They threw out the crap that seemed to be coming between me and my boyfriend.  If it wasn't in the Bible, then it wasn't from God.  I told my family that I wasn't Catholic anymore.  They went ballistic.  "What are you going to do, Jaime, when your sisters are getting their babies baptized in their beautiful white gowns, and you are sitting there knowing your kids missed out?"  I was attending Bible studies.  I went to different churches, and even took communion with them.  I went to a missions conference, and came back feeling very strongly that I was not supposed to be with that guy.

But, I still had my faith-Jesus died for my sins.  And I still went to Wednesday night worship.  And it did save my butt from being an idiot and dating someone else who was wrong for me.  And I still barely read my Bible outside of an occasional Bible study.  I got a leadership position in the Christian Fellowship--prayer leader, which was really not the right place for me.  And I found deeper, lasting friendships.

And then came Left Behind.          

This part is so hinky, I shudder to tell you about it.  But, hey, go big or go home.  I was feeling kind of lost.  One of the guys in our group decided to hold a screening of Kirk Cameron's Left Behind.  I was blown away.  People were disappearing out of their clothes and soaring up into heaven in the Rapture.  And hokey Kirk Cameron was praying to God for salvation and playing covert games with the UN.  Weird, I know.  But, it sealed the deal for me.  How could I have never heard of such a thing in my entire 20 years of being a Christian?  There was one way to take out my frustrations.  It was the lousy, stinking Catholic Church being so busy with their rosaries and robes, and boring homilies no one had the time to tell me about having a personal relationship with Jesus so I wouldn't get Left behind with Kirk Cameron and his terrible acting, praying the words off a Dungeons and Dragons tract the crazy people passed out at the fair (yes, all in one sentence like that).

And like the self-righteous, idiotic 20-year-old I was, I took it home and showed my family.  I know.   As they sat in stunned silence, I  said "this is real.  Did any of you know about this?"  I know.  Current me wants to kick old me and encourage her to stop speaking.  But, my family's response was to declare our Christian fellowship was a cult.  Meh, in hindsight, I gave them compelling reasons to say that.  May my all-encompassing humiliation now be evidence of my true contrition of this loathsome night.

And these next things happened, too.   I am going to drop on you without context, because I just don't remember the events around them.

-At the non-denominational church I was going to, I sometimes wondered if I should present myself at an altar call, just as a kind of insurance policy against not really being saved.

-A Protestant and Catholic friend had broken up because they couldn't come together on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

-I went on a missions trip to Pittsburgh, and felt I had found my people.  But they were all college students like me.  None of them was strong enough to make a whole church.  There really wasn't an adult leading this hugely influential faith community I was a part of (though we did have advisers, who were all lovely people).

-One faith-filled young man was studying Greek and Hebrew, and would decode the context of scripture from its original translation during Bible studies.  And in hindsight, that knowledge he offered us seemed to be the most authentic experience of faith I had during my college years.

-One day during Lent, feeling the internal confusion, I went to the Catholic Church and sat way in the back, in the choir loft.  The entire homily consisted of the priest walking to the middle of the church, picking up the wine and nearly yelling "This is NOT (pause, pause, pause) a SYMBOL!"  And again with the bread, "This is NOT (pause, pause, pause) a SYMBOL!"  Then he sat down.  He was removed from the parish when accusations came to light about sexual abuse.

As you can see, things were coming apart at the seams for me.  Dropping the faith of my childhood for a purer, unfiltered Christianity became the solace I sought.  Protestantism was the solution.

I should also mention that during a good portion of this time, my dad was ill.  I went and found our home parish priest, begging for a grown-up's insight into the rest of eternity.  Begging him to take me seriously.  I stopped him in the hallway and told him that I was worried about my dad's salvation.  He asked me if my dad was baptized.  I said he was.  He told me not to worry.  "He's ok," he said.  I wanted to believe him.  I called him a few weeks later to come administer the Last Rites, and my Dad received that sacrament before his death.  I remember hoping that was enough, because I knew things my dad had said and done that the priest was ignorant of.  He needed deathbed salvation, and he got a sacrament that asked nothing more than a "yes" from him.    

And it seemed like none of it was about God, contrition, or forgiveness.  It was everything my Evangelical friends had warned me about, and I had not offered him enough to know for sure my dad was going to heaven.

And that's when I stopped being Catholic.              



Coming Home on Sundays

At a big family dinner, I have one goal as a cook.  I want everyone to eat.  And not just a nibble.  I want them to come hungry, try everything, take seconds, and talk about their lives, struggles, funny stories, and compliment the food.  I want the food to be homemade and to have taken just a little more effort than someone regularly expends on dinner.  I want everyone to wait to eat until all the dishes have been served and the food has been blessed.  And I want everyone to break into smaller groups for cleanup.  It's not that I can't clean up, it's that we all talk better when we are working on a project.

Yesterday morning, while I was getting Daisy ready for school, I put on a podcast like I usually do.  Music isn't enough to get me up, but learning something generally makes it tolerable.  A friend had recommended Father John Riccardo of Detroit to me, and I politely turned it on, expecting very little from recorded sermons.  He started with a question, and a loaded one at that: Why are you at church today?  What are your expectations of this service?

Was he going to accuse his parishoners of attending under false pretenses?  Tell us that we were selfish for coming to get something for ourselves?  He didn't.  He spoke instead about a kind of miracle that so many of us were attending church when we really expected to get nothing out of it.  And we have needs, but those needs are going unaddressed.  Those most hurt are coming late and leaving early...on purpose. They are lost in life, and lost in church.

I knew that feeling so well.  It perfectly described who I used to be.  So, then I did what any stay at home mom actively nursing a baby with a phone in her hand would do: I asked the same question on Facebook.  In minutes, I had 15 responses and 4 private messages running.  From many different Christian denominations, and one friend who is Jewish.  They kept coming as the day went on, not because I am cool or popular, but because people are hurting. That question--why are you here with me--brings hurt out in unexpected ways.  Those who had an answer were firm in their reasons--the sacraments, the community, the programming.

At its simplest purpose, the church and synagogue have a mission to teach others that God exists, evil has come into the world, and He has a plan for what to do about it.  If our place of worship isn't growing, teaching more, doing more, it is dying.  At least that's how I see it, or have heard it described and agree.

The responses I received show that we ask so much more of our churches, and for better or worse, they ask more from us.  A few ladies mentioned they serve at the exclusion of Sunday worship because other people need it more.  They will catch the sermons online.  The equivalent of getting everyone's plate ready, but eating after everyone else is done.  As a host, that stresses me to no end. If dinner is complex, and requires a kid's table, and has new guests, it is a huge gift to have someone who deals just in hospitality.  While one volunteer thrives in the service, another struggles to give so sacrificially without any acknowledgement of the sacrifice it is to serve on Sundays.

When people are hurt by their church, or feel their needs aren't being met, they express it in the same terms I do when my mom says something that upsets me.  Why is that?  Because I know my mom so well, I think I know who she is intimately, and how she will react in every circumstance, that it's like I AM my mom.  But when the response is less than my idea of perfect, it means I must not know anything about anything.  There is real despair in that conclusion.  It's me saying, yelling, that this is not fair, and life does not make sense, and my mom must not be everything I think she is.

The place that is supposed to define our purpose in life, well it should be in sync with the rest of our life.  And often, it isn't.  The worship service is boring, or just entertainment.  The teaching is amazing, but the expectations on your time are unrealistic for your family.  If all your conversations are superficial, and there is no sacramental aspect, there is no reason for your physical attendance--you can hear the sermon online.  Or the people have closed ranks against you, and searching out a new place when you are running on simply too exhausting to contemplate.

There are two possible responses for the family rift: my mom is lost and no longer who she once was, or I am lost and no longer understand who my mother is.  Do I believe anything she taught me?

My church is lost and no longer who she once was, or I am lost and no longer understand my faith.  Do I believe in anything?   Why are some people happy in their church and I am so different?  I experience equal parts self-loathing and righteous indignation.

These are the same emotions my friends expressed yesterday when they were no longer in communion with their place of faith.  The reasons were all over the map:
the political leanings of every sermon, 
the pastor who didn't come visit in a crisis, 
the unrealistic expectations of volunteers, 
being afraid of what grief you might uncover sitting in the pews,
hypocrisy of fellow believers,
being loaded with obligations the rest of the week,
wanting quiet time at home,
not experiencing God there,
it doesn't change my faith to be there,
no real sense of community,
it is the same thing every week and I am bored,
having no anonymity, 
being ignored.

These are family grievances.  These are the very individual hurts that seem unresolvable when each side is talking, and look petty to the outsider.  But when you are living them, they consume you. Every moment is spent fighting your side in your head.

Who are the people who never get in these fights?  Goody two shoes sisters who don't think the way you do.  Simple minded brothers who never think for themselves.  Your mom's best friend who always takes her side anyhow.  Well, that's who these people are at first.  After a while, after the anger goes away, and the loss of this relationship becomes a quiet sadness, these people become something worse--strangers.  You no longer know how people who are happy with their church think, what their lives are like, or don't care to be one anymore.  You are a person without a mother, and without a church.  And the company is good.  A new person you meet today is less likely to go to church than they are to go, or to say they are a spiritual person, but without a spiritual home.

But, deep down, that probably feels like a loss.  It did for me.  And not because we were so good about getting to church my whole life.  The people who do go to church or synagogue seem desperate for you to come back.  Instead of feeling nice, it feels like they don't understand your grievances at all.

What I didn't take time to see in this extended metaphor is that my mom is hurting, too.  She is not the same when one of her daughters doesn't check in, when I am too busy (and ticked) to come to visit, when I tell her everything she taught me was too narrow, too small, and not how I think.  A mom is an identity that exists based on a relationship.  Without me, my mom is not the same person. Without my children, even one lost, I am not the same mother.  But as an estranged believer, I cannot deny what I know is right and join back in communion with a church who is simply not on the right track.  This is the dilemma of our separated churches.  We have the freedom, and the burden, of discerning what is doctrinally important, and what answers our church has the authority to answer on behalf of God.

Because if my church is wrong, or I am wrong, where do I find God?  Where do I go to learn more about Him, or go to meet Him?  Should I attend a church where I don't experience Him?  Where I am too much for them--my kids too loud, my questions too bitter, my needs too great?  What if I am the one who needs to grow?  Do I really want to be a part of a church that has changed so much over the years, that I am not challenged by it, because they haven't formed my conscience, but has been formed by mine?  Is there a major problem that I tried to address, and the resolution means I can no longer ethically be a part of that church?  Why am I even here, or why should I even go anymore?

These questions of our earthly and heavenly churches become issues of our faith.  

And if you are hoping I am going to tie this all up in a little bow right now, like I had a plan for what direction this post was going to take before I started writing it, well, then you clearly never watched Lost.  Just like JJ Abrams deceived us all with semi-understandable hatches and human cages with giant fish-cookie dispensers, I have led you into a dilemma I don't have a way to make right for you.

All I can do is tell you why I am a formerly hostile believer who has found a way home.  It's going to take a few posts to tell you my story, so stick around.  I hope there is an answer for you somewhere in my ticked off faith and frustrated surrender that is nothing like a conversion story, but also incredibly like one.  I won't be able to fix things for you, but I promise I can be honest, and not take the easy way out in describing this.  And I promise you are always welcome at this table.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Five Years of Grace

Five years ago, a little girl was born a few weeks early on the other side of the world.  We don't know much about the first 17 months of her life.  We know she was sick a lot.  And that no one came to visit her except a college student volunteer who acted as her Godmother.  This 20 year old woman was not permitted to hold her.  I can't imagine what that was like for our girl, who craves movement and closeness.  But it was hard for her enamored visitor to be artificially separated from holding her close.

Today that little girl is still tiny in size, but has grown in so many other ways.  She opens drawers to find favorite toys this year.  She splashes in the bathtub.  She is walking, and almost running. She gives kisses, and responds to the word "gentle."  She goes upstairs, and can put a spoonful of food into her mouth on her own.  I can't explain these victories to you unless you have truly internalized just how lost this little girl once was to herself.  

But now she is found, directly because of who God is and what He has done in our selfish, one-sided lives. Tonight we'll have cheesecake and ice cream and celebrate that God gave our "yes" to her.  He has refined our whole family through Daisy in her needs and her accomplishments.

Many people have made the mistake of thinking that because they know people with Down syndrome or know someone with autism, that they are ready for Daisy.  But they always get straightened around pretty fast, with no judgement from me.  She is just very different from what you are expecting. Our entire culture is focused on intelligence, and praises it heavily, particularly in girls, and even in kids with special needs.  We hold ourselves virtuous for destroying the old cultural barriers to future academic and occupational success. 

But what happens when you meet a child whose defining characteristic is not her brain's processing capacity?  What if it is her ability to seek out someone who needs a hug and put her arms out to him?  

That is the thing about our toddler-sized five year old.  Her life is marked not by autism, her intelligence, her growth, or an extra chromosome.  It is marked by the eternal state of Grace in which she exists.  It is what she offers and expects from everyone who meets her.  We say her unfiltered hugs are her purpose in life.  That is normally (and appropriately) taboo in the typical world of Down syndrome parenting.  A 20 year old woman can't go hugging every stranger she meets.  Daisy's lack of receptive and expressive communication, however, means that, unlike other children with Down syndrome, every interaction she has in her life will be with a responsible caregiver by her side to help guide her.  That seems daunting, but it is really just about surrendering what I think I deserve out of life: A huge, HGTV-ready house and a travel-filled retirement.  

Britt and I have let those things go so we can be this close to God's Grace.  It is in the refinement I receive when after three years, I no longer rage internally when I get some cold pureed food on the back of my hand. It is when we interrupt the day to bathe a toxic poop and I don't feel ruined, but am glad Daisy gets some sensory bath time play during a busy day.  For Daisy, it means she never complains when trips take too long, when we move her into a stroller, or don't feed her on time.  Her fits are loud, but easily addressed.  At the library yesterday, I watched Britt struggle to hold Daisy in one arm while chasing our two year old who wriggled out of his hand.  I explained that he got it backwards, you need to hold Seabee while you offer Daisy your hand.  She will go anywhere you go.  You just need to show her.

And isn't that our precious, wonderful little girl all summed up?

She will go anywhere we go.  We just need to show her.

She is opinionated about therapy, pinches with the finger strength of a professional rock climber, and takes forever to feed.  But her greatest desire in life is to be with us.  We have done nothing to deserve her in our lives.  The moment the nanny at her orphanage placed her in my arms, it was like bringing my newborn out of the water onto my chest, reassuring her and me over and over that it will be ok.  And like birth, there came the realization that we had not done enough to deserve her.  People often say "the baby made the labor worth it" or "she made the paperwork all worth it."  I have never connected my feelings to that sentiment.  For me it is "that labor was not payment enough for this gift," and "that paperwork wasn't enough for her to be ours."  

Yes, our Daisy is marked by the undeserved gifts she brings to this world.  She is defined by our knowledge that, when she goes to receive the Sacraments, she has not be separated from the holiness of what she is partaking in.  She cannot sin, does not harbor anger, or doubt.  She does not filter her gifts to the world through selfishness or fear.  She offers them as they were offered to her.  


At five years old, my daughter has mastered what I do imperfectly at 36 years old.  When I am near to her, if I stop thinking about our endless to-do list, is being near to that singularity of purpose.  Sometimes that is easy to forget when we have to sit in the car 15 extra minutes to spoon feed her a bland Gerber lunch my other kids would have tossed back at me at any age.  And in those moments of excruciating schedule interruption, I know one thing.  We are not late.  We owe no one more than we owe this little one a full belly.  My other children are not being harmed to learn patience, to run for diapers and bibs, and even to try offering a few spoonfuls themselves.  There is nothing wrong in those drawn-out moments of caring for her.  We are a family certain in our mission, and marked by the Grace her presence gifts to our lives.

We may not always see this big picture of her gifts every day, but we will always find them again.  Because she is our gift.

Daisy, though you may never understand the words, I hope there is a moment in every day we return the Grace you give so freely.  We are so grateful for another year of you in our lives. 

In a perfect world, I would have done photos from your whole life, instead of just getting you ready for school this morning.  And I would have made a beautiful photo montage to this song,  Just too busy doing life to choreograph it to music, though, so let's call it good: 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gotcha Day Anniversary: We Got You, Nugget

One year ago today we met the little boy who had been on our hearts for three years.  He was shell-shocked, walking expressionless into a rented office and eating a really smelly bag of chocolate cereal.   He was wearing a jacket that said "attractive girl."  He was impossibly tiny, but also looked so much older than the last photos we had seen of him.  I think all adoptive parents see that on gotcha day--it's a good reminder that there is so much of their lives we haven't seen.

The details are all I remember.  Mechanical.  Required.  Directed by others.  He came over to us, Britt and I got down low and kept our hands to ourselves.  The nannies said who we were.  He nodded and whispered our names.  We wanted to call him Nugget, but have never used the nickname once since meeting him in that moment.  This was not Nugget.  This was a boy we did not know.  A familiar stranger.  We awkwardly whispered his Chinese name back.  Cal and Jedi sat on a couch across the room, and the nannies wanted to show us the things they had sent with him.  I offered him my hand so we could walk over to them.  He took it.

The couch was small, so I offered my hands, and he let me put him on my lap between Britt and me.
Looking at his photo book together.

It was a few minutes later, and we were ready to leave.  I felt less like a mom walking out with her son, and more like a camp counselor bringing a sweet, shy kid to overnight camp while his parents had dropped him and run at the front gate.  Just "don't worry yet, buddy.  We're going to make this alright."  It was very different than with Daisy, whose first moments in our arms may as well have been the first few moments after I gave birth to her.

Adopting an almost-seven year old from a Hague country with no gentle transition into our care... I am so grateful we had the previous two years of reading what our friends had gone through in older child adoption.  Even now, I don't know what name to call the child in these pictures.  He was somewhere lost between orphan and son.
Our translator asked him to smile, and she cheered when he did.

Walking out of our gotcha appointment, shell shock back.
We went to a grocery store with our translator after 5 minutes in the car (when most people buy formula, and not my idea at all).  He was overwhelmed.  We spent a lot of time staring and saying nothing.  He asked for a few things, which we got.  Ming Ming spoke to him in the car and said he was very polite, and knew who we were, and was happy to have a mom and dad.

When Ming Ming dropped us at the hotel, though, I think our real gotcha moment happened.  She said goodbye, and the sliding doors to the beautiful 5 star lobby closed, and then like a dramatic TV shot, the whole world zoomed in on the loudest voice in the world: a child who needed someone to say he was ok.

Our polite, intentionally chilled-out hand holding was done.  I scooped up the little baby, with daddy's hand on his back, and in that moment he became our son.  Cal and Jedi just knew, and came close, and we moved in that clump all together to the elevator.  We all had tears in our eyes.

When we got to the hotel room, there were cleaning ladies there.  They tried to speak to him, but I just wanted them to leave.  But then they did, and I wished they would stick around and talk to him, because I couldn't say anything useful.

And when they closed the door, we all began a new part of life together.
The iPhone was his safety blanket.

Happy gotcha day, Nugget.  If we had all known how much work we would do to become a family this past year, well, we would have done it anyway.

This was pretty much what we meant by "shell shocked."
But, when I see the photos of this dazed and lost little boy, I don't see a year ago.  I see a lifetime. And we are all living the better life now, my son.  What was lost cannot hold a candle to what has been gained.

We love you, Nugget.  And we got this.  We got you.
Abraham Lincoln's birthplace tour, Summer 2016

Nugget's all-time favorite shirt.  It reads "I am the pot of Gold at the end of Reece's Rainbow." Yes.  Yes you are.

Nugget's church "gotcha day." Baptism, May 2016

Beloved son.  Chosen.  Wanted.  Fought for.  And ours.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Large Family Laundry Experiment-Part 2: Hypothesis and Experimental Design

I have decided to face the reality that when it comes to housework suggestions, I have a good excuse for why everything will not work in my home.  I am usually right about it, but I must surely, sometimes be wrong.  So, after a few months of ruminating on this list of suggestions for large family laundry problems, Large Family Laundry Experiment-Part 1, I have decided that we are indeed, fixable.

We do not have to always do laundry the way we have done it, because that is what we do.  I am not managing laundry in a sustainable way.  Some people are.  And I am blowing off all their suggestions because our home is too small, my storage space in too minimal, and my children are too hard on their clothes.  Our budget is too tight, and my kids are barely tamed heathens.

But, the reality is a far cry from imagination.  Here's a blanket assessment of our laundry woes.  We end up washing a ton of clothes that got dirty by association.  We have clothes all over our property.  I have a personal need to sort reds, lights, darks, jeans, towels, sheets, and tablecloths separately so I can only have a monster laundry day and I mourn if I find one red shirt tucked into a hoodie when the reds have already gone through.  Seabee, my two year old, is clothing terrorist and hunts folded clothing down wherever it is out of place, even for a moment.  I feel like I can only fold when she is asleep.  She shrieks incessantly at being restricted from touching the laundry.  She will also get into everyone else's drawers because she can.

In terms of the kids themselves, we like the idea of wearing clothes a second day, but don't want to put those clothes back in the same spot the fresh clothes are.  The problem is that this means jammies never make it to the dirty clothes basket, nor do they make it back onto a kid's body.  They adorn the ends of beds and door handles for a day, then slump gracefully to the floor.  We all have two color-coded towels that we are supposed to use three times before grabbing a new one, but the bathroom doesn't have wall space to hang them all.  Sometimes you hop right in the shower when covered in mud, baby poo, or life, and you don't make the pitstop to your room first, so you grab a fresh towel.  That makes 18 towels plus really yucky swim towels to wash every week.

We do store of-sized clothing, and out of season clothing, but somehow we never quite catch it all, and end up with 25% of last season's clothing lurking in drawers.  I also like to stock the kids' dressers with every single thing that fits them at this size as a kind of "laundry emergency" insurance.  This way, if I get too behind on laundry, they can dig to the bottom of their drawers and still find something to wear.

These are just some of our issues.  So, I have designed a hypothesis to test in the Open Hands Acres Large Family Laundry Experiment.

Hypothesis: Our family's painful laundry woes can be solved by reducing our volume of laundry, minimizing sorting, and reusing technically-clean clothing.         

In order to test this hypothesis, I propose the following Experimental Design:

1) In order to accomplish anything lasting, we need to have an easy-to rotate system.  We need to stay out of stores when at all possible, and update the contents of our bins sorted by size and gender.

2)  All children will be pared down to a reasonable number of outfits.  For now, this looks like 8 pairs of shorts, 8 shirts, 2 church outfits, 3 pairs of jammies, 2 hoodies, 2 pairs of jeans.

3) The clothes that can be worn again need a home.  I will provide each child with a miniature laundry basket which we shall name "The Wear-A-Gin Bin."* I will train 9- and 10-year-olds to use the bin and look there first for jammies and tomorrow's clothes.  I will ask them every morning, "Did you pick from your Wear-A-Gin Bin first?"

4) The two 7-year-olds and the 5-year-old are simply not capable of learning and using any system for more than three days independently.  Just like the hospitals that do scrubs vending machines for their residents, my middle three must turn in their dirty clothes to receive fresh ones.  I will consider this long-term training with every outfit change.  Their dressers and closets will be emptied, and their small collections of clothes and Wear-A-Gin Bins will be in my room.  Any inconvenience will be balanced by the reduced time digging through dirty clothes for clean and extra laundry folding.

5) The towels are getting out of hand.  Instead of storing the fresh towels in the bathroom, we will store the fresh towels out of reach in the kids' rooms.  We will take down the useless towel rods and hang 9 Command hooks* along the entire perimeter of our bathroom.

6) Our current system of having a laundry bin in every room is working to keep a lot of clothes off the floor.  Our current system of placing high-priority wet clothes and kitchen towels directly in the wet things bucket (an old frosting bucket from Walmart bakery we use for storing bulk food) in the laundry room is working.

7) Socks are not a major problem for us right now.  Sometimes we have the kids fold their age in socks to watch a TV show.  Sometimes we don't match socks for a month.  Let sleeping dogs lie.

8)  Reduce all sorting to the things that really matter to me: textures.  The colors never actually bleed (except that ninja shirt from China).  But, nothing ruins clothes so fast as washing rough things with smooth things.  I will now only sort towels with tablecloths, jeans, and sheets.  Everything else can go through the wash together.  Deep breaths.  Your sanity or the reds, Jaime...your sanity or the reds.  This will allow for more frequent, smaller loads to be run through the week.

9)  I will stop folding clothes on our couch, even though it has six perfect sorting cushions (two babies are in the same size) and a lounger that is perfectly designed for folding clothes and we only have one TV with recorded Hallmark movies.  I will instead switch to folding laundry on our bed, with the door closed, while Seabee watches Sesame Street.  And we only have 20 gigs of data a month on our home rural connection so I can't stream TV, but the old Pride and Prejudice DVDs still spin ok.  Little sob.  This is probably an invitation to pray for each of my children as I fold their things, isn't it?  Feels like giving up chocolate, though.

10) Cal will continue to switch the laundry and fold the towels.  I will continue to sort and start new loads.  We will still wear jammies because it helps the children settle every night, and I can't stand the thought of sleeping in jeans.


It is going to take some serious work on the front end to implement this system, but no more than the work to maintain the current system.  Let's get this party started.

*We are continuing to raise funds for the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, so this post contains affiliate links.  If you click the link and make a purchase from Amazon in the next 24 hours, we receive a portion of the commission.  Thank you for helping us support ROOF!

Large Family Laundry Experiment- Part 1: Researching a Hypothesis

As long as there have been mommy blogs, there have been posts about laundry.  Here is my contribution, and a grand laundry experiment.

My dear friends and blog readers, as you know I have been posting very little on this blog since our Nugget came home.  Trust me when I say the silence will only benefit our cognitively typical son as he goes on in life, when no one can google what a challenging stink he has been at times (many of these times) these first six months home.  It wasn't pretty, but we are getting there.  I'm really starting to like this little dude I love so much, which we know is a wonderful bonus to any parenting of a challenging, traumatized child.

This emotionally draining time was compounded by a misguided attempt to restore order by sending the kids to school.  I ended up driving all day and only had 3 divided hours (and two interrupted baby naps) at home a day to show for it.  We were exhausted, and so were the kids.  And our housework was falling further and further behind.

About two months ago, I realized we had two issues.  One was laundry and the other was toys.  In the summer, my kids almost never play with toys.  They are outside, reading inside, building huge couch forts, playing dress-up, or watching TV (go ahead and judge--I really don't mind).  So three weeks ago, I brought 3 contractor bags into the house, and told the kids "bring me every toy you never want to clean up again," and they tossed it all in.  The bags are sitting in the garage, untouched and unmissed.

This left the laundry, which was not to be tackled so easily.

Post in any large family group, or ask at a Catholic or Mormon potluck, and you will hear from the people who have lived the laundry nightmare.  There are many solutions people cling to out of desperation, or embrace in victory.  Let's discuss the ones I have heard time and again, along with my immediate reaction to the suggestions:

1) Stop matching socks.  Kids think this is cool anyway.
This is still a civilized society.
2) Buy everyone the same socks.  There is very little difference between toddler and preteen sock sizes anyway.
I just can't do it.  The thought of those grimy bottoms appearing up the calf of my cute little two year old...
3) Stop folding kids' clothes. Keep church clothes separate if you want, but really who cares if the playclothes are wrinkled?
Are you telling me all my folding is for nothing?  No.  I simply cannot have it.  
4) Hang up all shirts.  The kids are less likely to paw through them, and it takes no more time to hang than to fold.
This was my first laundry concession.  We have been doing this for years now.  The big kids are great at it, and the little kids are just as good at throwing all the shirts off hangars as they are out of drawers.
5) Stop folding jammies.  Really, no one ever sees them.
But I will know.  And something about Proverbs 31 and rising with the sun and doing things well to show people you love them.  Oh my, my excuses are starting to sound desperate.
6) Stop wearing jammies.  Dress your kids in the clothes they will wear the next day.  They are sleeping in clean clothes still.
Jaime shakes head, rocking back and forth, chanting lines from Forrest Gump and turning into a bird to fly far, far away. 
7) Stop using towels and start using bathrobes exclusively to dry off after showers.  It is a lot harder to dump your single bathrobe and grab a fresh one...when you only have one.
Have these people ever attempted to dry off with a robe?  Even the good kind made of real Egyptians?  I could also skip towels altogether and have them drip dry.  I feel clammy.
8) Create a family laundry room.  The loose clothes never leave the room except on a body, so adults have more control over the distribution of clothes.  Also useful for ease of putting away.
This one is appealing, but we don't have the room in our sweet 8 square foot combo laundry room and half bath.  Also, I see this one falling to the wolves and the lowest common denominator, meaning our five year old, takes down not just his clothes, but the whole family's clothes.  Someone get me a paper bag.
9) Stop sorting clothes.  Have one laundry basket and empty it and wash every single day.  That kind of persistence is bound to have its rewards of no major laundry days.
Um, does this mean my pristine bedsheets, which have never been washed with towels so as to avoid the pilling that plagues lesser-lovely bedscapes...would suddenly be tossed in with tablecloths and blue jeans?  And how would this cut down on the overall volume of laundry--I would just be washing clean clothes every day instead of once a week.  And pig poop clothes with the baby clothes?  Oh, Martha Stewart, where are you when I need you?!
10) Stop storing ALL clothes.  It is worth your time and money to go rebuy them at Goodwill when the time comes that another kid needs it.
This is someone who clearly has the luxury of going shopping without 7 children 10 and under in tow.  I have under 7 minutes before I pull out a "we have to leave.  NOW."  Who are these large families with wonderfully behaved children?
11) Wash clothes only by person.  It makes putting the clothes back so much easier.
Oh boy, that's a good one!  What wonderful, motivated children who put their dirty clothes in individual, labeled by name, dirty clothes bins.  Whoo-ee, bless their precious hearts!  For real.  That is a gift, and you hold onto it, mi compadre!  I bet there are monograms that would make this system more successful, LL Bean.
12) Make your kids do their own laundry.  They gain responsibility and it takes the load off you.  Literally.
Yes, but how is the nagging associated with having my kids switch and fold their own laundry going to reduce stress?
13) Perfect storage makes for perfect laundry solutions.  You just need to visit Ikea and make space for the clothes.  Both seasons.  In their bedrooms.
Oh Ikea, you vixen.  I ask your blue facade once again, at what point does it end?  Is there a time when even you say "No more Ikea in this house!  Less stuff, not more storage for stuff!"  Because I hit that point about 2 years ago when we moved into a house that has about 230 square feet of living space per person. 
14) Quit your complaining and pray for your children as you fold their clothes.  Some people don't have little people to fold for.
There is really nothing bad to say about this one.  But, I really like to watch Hallmark movies while I fold, so...  I am the worst.
15) Get two or more sets of washers and dryers.  More volume through.  More laundry done.
Does this option come with two people to man the folding every day?  Oh, and a live-in nanny, because I like naps.  A lot.
16) Pay your kids per load they fold.  Keeps them motivated and is cheaper than hiring help.
Will I be expected to keep track of that?  Because it sounds like a big-kid sticker chart system, and I am garbage at that.
17) Downsize to 10 outfits per kid.  That way there is only so much potential laundry to make.
Are you aware that my children consider 10 outfits a 2-day ration of wardrobe?  I have more outfits than that sprinkled from the barn to the house right now.
Yet, a few days ago, I decided that despite the immediate pessimism laundry suggestions inspire in me, the answer must be in here somewhere.  I am instinctively throwing out a baby with the bathwater.  Because people who are doing this well are suggesting these solutions.  Alright, I was in.  If these are my only solutions, I need to find the least offensive ones and make them work for us.  These people aren't out to get me.  They are just trying to fix 17 different problems.  I am technically a trained scientist.  I have a problem.  It's time to experiment and find the solution.  What I needed to do was decide which problems were our problems, and get to work.

In the next post, I will discuss my proposed hypothesis and offer an experimental design and setup.  Read Part II here.

What are the top laundry suggestions you have heard or tried?  Comment below or at my Facebook page.