31 Days for the Ladies: Soul Food

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Gentle Reader,

There’s something about a group of women gathered around a table laden with carbs  and calories. Baked chicken and mounds of buttery mashed potatoes. Cheesy, dripping casseroles. The veggie tray that nobody really wants but everyone feels obliged to sample. And dessert. Glorious, chocolatey dessert.

That food and those smiling faces – it’s a little glimpse of Heaven.

Ladies. I need you to listen to me.

We have got to stop obsessing over what we eat.

Yes, some of us have very real medical restrictions. Allergies are real. Surgeries and illness alter the body. I can’t eat red meat and have to keep the grease intake low. (Goodbye, my beloved French fries). Yes, we all have preferences. We all have things we like and things we don’t like. Certain ways we like to prepare our food. (If you’re like me, you like it prepared by someone else). Yes, we should be aware of how food affects our health. Yes, we should exercise.

But ladies.

Just eat the cookie. (Gluten-free if that’s what you need).

I’ve had it with the pursuit of “skinny.” You get that all those pictures are run through the ringer of airbrushing, lighting and photoshopping, right? You understand that it’s impossible for the span of your hips to be smaller than the span of your shoulders, right? You know that the woman in that spread is an amalgamation of several different, possibly entirely fabricated, people, right?

Of course you know all of that. We know all of that.

So why don’t we believe it?

I’m starting to think that it’s not a matter of not knowing or believing the facts. There are too many documentaries and articles about the beauty industry. It’s also not about being healthy; I will always applaud the efforts of all women to take care of themselves. But “skinny” is different. Something else completely. I think we continue to chase after “skinny” because we want to feel superior.

I know a woman who is at a point in her life where she should be comfortable in her own skin. Youth is long past and middle age is wrapping up. She shouldn’t care about this stuff anymore. But she takes every opportunity to discuss what she does and doesn’t eat and what size she wears. The look on her face says it all.

Is that really how we want to be? Do we really want to spend our whole lives both mourning the size we are and feeling “better than” people who are larger than us? Are we seriously going to continue to buy into the lie that the number on the tag means anything at all? That it impacts our value?

I have days when I feel bad about my body. Almost a year after surgery my abdomen remains lumpy. The left side of my waist feels completely different from the right. Because of my health problems I am never, ever going to be “skinny,” even if I switched to a vegan, organic, gluten-free diet. Currently I carry about 10-15 extra pounds (depending on the day and how easily accessible the chocolate is) and wear a size 12. Sometimes I get bummed out knowing that I don’t have the “perfect” (whatever that is) body.

And then I think: Who freaking cares?

Here’s the thing. I used to be “skinny.” When I graduated high school I was a size four. Sometimes a two. When I got married, I was a four/six. And I wasn’t happier or more fulfilled. I wasn’t more successful or beloved. I wasn’t better than anyone else.

“Skinny” means nothing.

I refuse to believe that my value and beauty rest on that itchy and always weirdly-placed tag. I’m not going to play this stupid, soul-sucking game of comparing myself to others. If you want to feel better because you weigh less than I do, that’s fine. Just don’t expect me to feel bad or skulk around in mumus in order to contribute to your sense of awesomeness. Don’t expect me to feed your ego. (I’d rather poke it with a stick, to be honest).

My friends, we have better things to do. Maybe, just maybe, if we would stop caring so much about our pants and cared a little more about the world around us, we could really shake things up. Perhaps if we took all that energy and poured it into loving others, we could make a difference. If we stopped believing men’s words about our worth and started believing God’s word, we could be unstoppable.

So just eat the cookie.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.

31 Days for the Ladies: Neta Jackson

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Gentle Reader,

“Musical chairs. Except I thought, when God’s providing the music, everyone gets a chair.” – Who is My Shelter?

I am drawn to authors who are unafraid to tackle difficult topics with honesty. Rarely do our real-life stories end in neat packages tied up with pretty bows. We are not perfect. We make stupid decisions. Bad things happen to us. We navigate choppy, messy waters, dependent upon a big, gracious, faithful God to see us safely home.

Neta Jackson has been telling stories all of her life. A self-described bookworm, she experienced the thrill of publishing while just a senior in high school, when her short story about a mountain lion was published in Scholastic Magazine. Neta met her husband Dave while at Multnomah College; when she transferred to Wheaton during her sophomore year, they wrote letters back and forth two or three times a week. This began the literary collaboration that has stretched across the 46 years of their marriage and 120 books in several genres.

Though Neta and Dave do not always function as coauthors, they are each others cheerleaders, brain storming buddies and first editors. It was out of this supportive creative environment that Neta’s hit series, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, was born. Set in Chicago, the Yada Yada books trace several years in the lives of 12 cross-cultural women who are initially thrown together at a Christian conference. The main character, Jodi Baxter, is a mother of two teenagers and an elementary school teacher who, at first, can’t see what she’ll have in common with the others in the group. She is a “good Christian girl” from white suburbia whose world is forever changed as she develops relationships with black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, older and younger women.

neta-jackson-tino-5The seven Yada Yada books spawned several sub-series linked together by common characters and setting. The House of Hope novels follow Gabby Fairbanks as her marriage falls apart and she learns how to rely on God. The Harry Bentley duo, written by Dave Jackson, tells the story of a middle-aged black man who takes in his grandson while embarking on a new relationship and grappling with the fallout from his former job as a cop. The SouledOut Sisters invite us into the life of Avis Douglass, the leader of the Yada Yada group, during a crisis point in her faith-life – a point that coincides with her meeting the spirited Kat Davies. The Windy City Neighbors, which Neta and Dave are currently writing together, trace a season in the lives of those living on Beecham Street.

Throughout each novel run themes of forgiveness, grace and racial reconciliation. Neta does not shy away from highlighting the very real problems that arise in cross-cultural relationships. Mistrust and misunderstanding arise frequently. Assumptions are made. Each character is forced to admit to her prejudices and decide if its worth working through the differences. This alone is brave and real storytelling, but Neta takes it a step farther. She includes characters who have done time in prison and who have been in and out of homeless shelters. She forces the protagonists – and the readers – to confront and dismantle the boundaries they have placed on the Gospel. She declares that the mercy of God runs deeper and wider than we truly realize.

Novels in the Christian market typically fall into a formula, which usually includes: girl meets boy, crisis, girl and boy are separated, crisis resolved, girl and boy live happily ever after. All very safe and sanitized (and often set in Amish country). Neta shuns that model. Her characters are flawed people who argue with their spouses, say stupid things to their friends, make bad decisions and aren’t the most stellar of parents. They are people exactly like you and me.

Neta manages to share the Gospel in each of her books without sounding falsely pious or preachy. Because her characters grapple with real issues, it is natural for them to wrestle with faith, ask questions and have doubts. It makes sense for them to speak of God. These scenes are not contrived or forced. Neta does not force God into the story to make it palatable for evangelical readers. He is there from the first page to the last page.

And He is good.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.

31 Days for the Ladies: The SAHMs

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Gentle Reader,

Appointment-maker.

Chaser of children. Chauffeur. Chef. Chief diaper-changer.

Hemmer of pants that were too long yesterday but now are too short even after ripping out every stitch. Homework enforcer.

She who prays for naptime. Social director. Snack negotiator. Stylist.

Tear-dryer. Tickle monster.

There are days when you feel overlooked, devalued and certainly under-payed. Sometimes you want to strangle those dear little darlings who smashed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in between the couch cushions. Again. You wonder if you will ever again experience the wonders of adult conversation, beyond gritted-teeth exchanges with your husband when he asks, “What did you do all day?” (Will he just shut up). You wonder if the cartoons your children love were created by someone in a cocaine frenzy. You “lost” the Frozen soundtrack because, no, you cannot let it go.

You sit up nights with the kid who just won’t quit vomiting. You make last-minute costumes from blue tarps, duct tape and colanders. You scrub and vacuum and put all the laundry away – and then the sweet angel barges through the door covered in mud holding something that might be a bird, except it doesn’t appear to have a head. You shop on a budget and make meals as tasty and nutritious as possible, only to have the dearest wee one refuse to eat and the battle of wills commences and you bite your tongue to keep from screaming, “Just eat the freaking tomato soup!”

You wake up at 3:17 a.m. convinced that the baby has ceased breathing and you have to check and then you cry because everything is fine except she’s got poop all the way up to her neck and you just really don’t want to deal with it but you have to because who really wants to sleep in footie pajamas filled with fecal material but obviously she does because she screams bloody murder when you wake her up even though you performed ninja stealth moves in the process of cleaning her up and you know that she will never, ever forgive you and will probably have to have years of therapy as an adult because you are the worst mother ever.

You see red when someone suggests that your husband “babysit” the kids for an evening so you can have a break. You want the break. You need the break. But he’s not a babysitter. He’s a flipping parent, half-responsible for the honey children currently hanging all over you, clamoring for candy. In fact, where is he? He can take them all. Right now.

You wonder if you are all going to make it. You wonder if you are insane. They must be driving you there. And then a pudgy little hand pulls on your shirt hem and you look down into a face covered in snot and other unidentified substances. “Mommy,” the tiny overlord says, “I love you.”

Stay-at-home moms, I salute thee.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.

31 Days for the Ladies: Katherine Parr

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Gentle Reader,

Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded.

Survived.

So goes the school child’s rhyme detailing the brutal marital record of King Henry VIII. There simply is no romanticizing this monarch or this period, fascinating as both the man and the times are. Henry VIII may have considered himself a suave suitor (evidence does suggest that he was highly sentimental) but ultimately he married and schemed and slept around and divorced and killed all in the name of one goal: the production of male heirs. England had torn itself apart over the succession for 30 years during the Wars of the Roses; Henry VII had usurped the crown at Bosworth Field to bring those wars to an end – but his claim rested on very thin ice indeed. Boy babies were in short supply among the Tudors, and so desperately needed to shore up the dynasty.

Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, was born around 1512 to Sir Thomas, a descendant of Edward III, and his wife Maud. Though not wealthy, as Northern family, situated at Kendal in Westmorland (part of modern Cumbria), they were connected to the important people of that area, including the Nevilles. Thus, as Katherine grew, she did not lack for suitors.

She did, however, lack a father. Sir Thomas died in 1517, leaving Lady Parr, only around 22 years old, to raise Katherine and her siblings. She took her task seriously, refusing to remarry and focusing all of her attention on her children. Lady Parr was marked as a very religious woman in an age when such a title did not come easy given the permeation of spirituality throughout every aspect of daily life. It is no surprise, then, that her children were educated not only in reading and writing, but were guided into a very simple yet fervent love for God.

By the time Katherine was 31, she had been widowed twice. Both marriages had been with much older men and produced no children. Her second husband, Lord Latimer, provided for her in his will and she became an independent woman of substantial means. Around this time she began a relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Queen Jane (who had given Henry VIII the son he wanted). It was not long before she began to contemplate a third marriage, this time for love.

Then Henry VIII stepped in.

To our modern eyes, it makes little sense that Katherine would turn away from Seymour and agree to marry Henry VIII, a man she did not love. We must not cast our sensibilities onto people who lived in a very different era. The king was absolute master of his realm. To go against his wishes was to invite major consequences for oneself and one’s family, up to and including death. And so, in 1543, she became his wife.

Katherine was not praised for her looks, though there is no indication that she was unattractive. It appears that she was not a conventional (for that time) beauty, and what drew Henry VIII and others to her was her personality. She was warm, witty, amiable and enjoyed good conversation. She worked hard to reconcile the king to his three children. Above all, she was intelligent.

The love of God that Katherine developed as a child matured and sustained her in adulthood. Her chief interest was theology and she came down on the side of the Reformers. Though Henry VIII had broken with Rome during the Catherine of Aaragon/Anne Boleyn years, he remained largely Catholic in his spiritual outlook. He also grew increasingly unstable, prone to sudden shifts of mood and changes of mind, as he aged. For Katherine to take a decided stance on any subject, let alone theology, was dangerous indeed.

in November 1545, an arrest warrant for Queen Katherine was drawn up. The king signed it. Bishop Stephen Gardiner, opposed to nearly all reform of the church, had made his play. He knew that the queen was zealous in her views. He knew that she invited what were considered radical preachers, among them Anne Askew, into her rooms for teaching and discussion. He knew her ladies often occupied themselves with Scripture study and translation.

He also knew that Henry VIII hated to be lectured by anyone. Gardiner began to cast the lively theological debates between the king and queen as just that: lectures from a wife to her husband. It was the order of life turned on its head.

The arrest warrant was providentially dropped on the floor and discovered by a servant loyal to the queen. Katherine took to her bed in terror, which likely saved her life. Henry VIII was moved by her distress and visited her himself, despite his lifelong fear of illness. That same evening, she went to the king, unsure of what awaited her. She threw herself upon his mercy, claiming to be only a weak and feeble woman, whose only desire had been to distract Henry VIII from his pain (due to a festering leg wound).

Again, this makes little sense to us. Why would a powerful and intelligent woman be so quick to conform to stereotypes? Why would she not defend herself? We must understand that Katherine’s display was a masterstroke. She preserved not only her own life but that of the Church of England. Bishop Gardiner and the other traditionalists were disgraced. Henry VIII’s heir, Prince Edward, would continue to be educated in the Protestant fashion. Men and women who longed to be free to worship God without the restraints of ritual would live to fight another day.

Her advocacy for and preservation of the Protestant cause would have made Katherine a great, if not showy, queen, but this is not her real legacy. That distinction belongs to the three books she wrote: Psalms or Prayers, Prayers or Meditations and The Lamentations of a Sinner. For the first time, a queen of England dared to publish in her own name. This alone was radical enough, but consider that she was a woman writing on theological topics. Realize that she spent many hours translating Scripture from one language to another. There are many men today who find the idea of women doing such things abhorrent.

Sadly, Katherine Parr outlived Henry VIII by only a year and eight months. She married Sir Thomas Seymour as soon as she could and the couple was overjoyed when she discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1548. Katherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary, on August 30 and died six days later of childbed fever. (Puerperal sepsis, a common killer of women due to lack of hygiene and proper medical care). Mary Seymour disappears from the historical record in 1550, leading to the conclusion that she did not live past toddlerhood.

In her short 35 years, Katherine was a queen, a loving stepmother, a gifted intellectual, a shrewd politician and a champion of reform. May we learn from her example and take every opportunity available to serve God and others.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.

Sources

Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, (New York: Grove Press, 1991), 483-571.