Wednesday, June 28, 2017

amazing grace.



Eva woke up in the middle of the night, maybe from a nightmare. I rocked her and hummed all the songs I sing her, and I found myself humming 'Amazing Grace'. 

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..."


This season of marriage for us is being stretched by grace. I've written about this already. We are learning and re-learning how to be good forgivers.  

The thing about grace is that is causes us to see everything in a new light. When I peer through the lens of grace, suddenly I'm not standing tall and I don't have the upper hand, I am a wretch who was saved. And through the lens of grace, my husband who moments earlier looked wretched to me in his pride, is no longer the wrong-doer, he is something else entirely. Grace shows me the truth and the truth is that my husband is a son of God, redeemed and right and spilling over with something holy. 


If you were raised in the church, grace is something you've been singing about and hanging on your walls since before you could possibly understand it's meaning. I've always said I want to be like Christ, full of grace towards other people. That's what was coming out of my mouth. What's been flowing from my heart is a different story entirely. God is showing me what grace should look like for real and he's using my marriage to do it. 



And here's something they won't put in cursive and sell at Hobby Lobby: Grace can be fucking hard. I want badly to hold a record of wrongs, to dig my heels in when I feel justified, to dole out grace only when it feels deserved. I want to forgive when it's comfortable, when it doesn't cost me anything. I want to sing about grace and I want to be offered grace without conditions, but give it out freely? No thanks. 


God is doing a new thing here in my marriage, here in my heart. He's inviting me into the upside down world of the gospel, where the first are last and the last are first and grace given freely sets me free. He's inviting me to look at my husband differently, with more compassion and with a gentler gaze. He's inviting me to examine my own heart differently, to check my pride and lay down my rights in exchange for something holy. 

It's not easy. I get it wrong more times than I get it right. But I'm slowly, reluctantly accepting the invitation and something is happening. My marriage and my heart feel different than before. There is growth here that we couldn't have conjured up on our own if we'd tried. There's communication and understanding in places where there used to be assumptions and hurt feelings. There's gratitude where there used to be selfishness. 

I'm more convinced than ever that it's grace that will carry our marriage from this season into the decades ahead of us. God is stretching me in grace and it's amazing indeed. 


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

when grace blows in.


When we were engaged, I made a habit of asking other married couples for a bit of advice. "What's one thing we should know about marriage?" I would ask. We got all the typical advice, "Don't go to bed angry." "Say I love you every day." It was all a bit generic, if well-meaning. But I realize now that even if these older couples had given it to me straight, I wouldn't have heard them. Much like youth is wasted on the young, marital advice was mostly wasted on me. I was 22 and energized by love and arrogance and I didn't need advice. I knew we might encounter 'for better or worse and sickness or health', but I thought our love was so strong it was exempt from the work of marriage.

Imagine my surprise then when I came to find myself eight years later, standing in my kitchen, eyes red from crying and completely exhausted by the work of my marriage. We were deep into an argument about coffee that wasn't about coffee at all. You probably know the kind I mean. It wasn't about coffee; it was about trust and sacrifices and the little hurts we had inflicted on each other over the years that we thought we had forgiven, but really we were holding on to, collecting like little stones. The weight of them had added up and suddenly the argument about coffee laid bare the real issues and our frustration and pain was bursting at the seams.

I have to imagine every relationship finds itself at this crossroads, perhaps many times in the course of a marriage that spans decades, the moment when you see past the coffee and into the heart of the matter. You make a choice to keep fighting about the thing that's not really the thing, or you make the choice to address the heart of the matter. We both knew we had to drop it about the coffee and go deeper.

And perhaps what happens next is what makes or breaks us all.

We started to wade into the murky waters of pain, into the things we've said and done to each other, usually subtle and usually without realizing our wrong doing. With reluctance and trepidation we each held our hearts up to the other, showing just where the stones had bruised and cracked. We untangled the mess of things that hadn't been said and unpacked the assumptions that had left both of us protecting our hearts with iron gates. As we waded deeper, I could feel the temptation to hold on to the hurts, to declare 'my right' to be angry, demand the absolution I thought I deserved. 'Protect yourself!' my heart cried out.

But I didn't. I did the harder thing.

I asked for forgiveness. I named my wrongs, both seen and unseen. I laid out those little stones one by one and repented for each one. I left the watch over my own heart to tend to his. But he did the other hard thing- he forgave me wholly and completely. He assured me he wouldn't keep a record of these wrongs. He let down the gates around his heart to let mine in.

Where there had been pain and hurt, words unspoken and resentments piled on top of one another, there was now release. Grace blew in like a cool breeze.

And it was a victory for our marriage. It was victory for every marriage.

Maybe after eight years I'm starting to realize why no one gave me the hard hitting advice I was looking for at 22. Maybe they could see the youthful arrogance in my eyes and they thought, "Better to let this one figure it out on her own."

Because I know now that if I had the ear to hear it, anyone who has been married longer than five minutes would have said, "Your love is so special. But that doesn't mean you're exempt from the work of marriage, it means you need to work harder to protect what you've got." Maybe they would have looked me in the eye and said the thing that is true, that the real work of marriage is grace. Grace is monumental. So much hangs in the balance in those moments when we choose to do the hard thing of apologizing and forgiving. Maybe they would have told me that marriages are forged in the fires of forgiveness, galvanized not by standing firm on the high ground of pride, but in laying down low, apologizing first, erasing the score. 

Maybe they knew that until I had a few years of marriage under my belt, the posture of grace wouldn't feel as significant. Maybe that's why they settled on "Don't go to bed angry."

To the naked eye, there was nothing special about what happened in our kitchen when we stopped fighting about coffee and let grace blow in, but we knew something big happened. We knew we'd come across a piece of wisdom that will change our marriage for the better. 


Friday, March 24, 2017

the five stages of friend dating


I wrote a post a while back about the essential friends for every new mom. Every word of that post is still as true as ever, however, that post was written when I was knee-deep in an awesome tribe that included a lot of my Jax friends. I'm busy building my tribe in VA and I'm more like toes-deep in my tribe here, so I've been busy doing a little something I like to call Friend Dating.

I've been meeting moms at the park and church and just generally playing the field all over my new city. (Don't hate the player, hate the game.) This isn't my first rodeo. I'm an extrovert and I'm all about community, and I know my time here is limited, so I take Friend Dating pretty seriously.

And after five (!) moves, I've given a lot of thought to the awkward dance that is meeting new friends. So, I've broken down the process of meeting new friends in a new city to these Five Stages of Friend Dating. Consider this your helpful guide if you're the new kid in town.

The Intro- Now, if you're lucky, this usually happens on common ground. Maybe you're meeting people at work or your neighbors or for us military folks, a spouses club. Lots of times, it's the built in places that we wind up in after a move. But, I'm particularly sensitive to the plight of stay at home moms because lots of times we have to get creative and step out of our comfort zones and create places. (That's why, if you're all #nonewfriends, you should probably steer clear of me right now. While I build my tribe here, I'm on the hunt and everyone is fair game. Playground mom? Yup. Church ladies? Bring em! Honestly, if you have a stroller and you look like you're playing with a full deck of cards, I'm probably gonna ask you for your number.) But usually, where ever you meet people, you'll zero in on a few girls who seem like your kind of people. Then it's on to the good stuff.

The Ask- So, you've narrowed down that chick that looks like you'd get along. You've thrown out a few lines to see if she'll bite and you discover you're kindred spirits in such important matters as celebrity gossip and champagne being appropriate for any occasion. You want to hang out outside of library story time, so you silence the 6th grader inside your head and ask if she wants to maybe get the kids together for a playdate. You wait nervously for her to throw you some shade and hustle out of there as fast as she can, but instead she says she'd love to! Whew! This is one of the hardest parts of meeting new people. [True Story: The idea for this post was born in the awkward moments right before I gathered the courage to ask another mom for her number a few weeks ago. I thought to myself, "God, this has to be the most awkward I've felt since I was 12." Followed by a mental tantrum fit for a tween wherein I decided I hate the Navy and I hate moving and new cities are, like, so stupid. Then I snapped out of it and asked homegirl for her number and now we're friends, so trust me I'm an expert.]

The First Date- This truly is the most awkward thing about friend dating. You've mustered up the guts to ask a total stranger to hang out with you and now you are both doing the dance to see if you're actually compatible. Maybe you guys have kids the same age and you crushed it with small talk, but really you don't have much more in common. That's okay. Some friendships can live right here in the Playdate Zone. There's nothing wrong with that. I like to think of my tribe as an onion. I've got my childhood friends and my sisters way down deep in the center, but every new move and new city and new chapter of life brings friends that make up the other layers, even the outer ones. If you've made a Playdate Friend, congrats! She'll probably help this new city feel a little less lonely. But if you and this girl click and you think it might be time to get a little more serious, read on.

The Kid-less Date- This is an important DTR moment in a mom friendship. Getting together without your kids truly says, "I want to take this thing to the next level." Kids are a distraction and a safety net and without them, you're likely going to have an actual grown up conversation free of distractions and repeated Goldfish requests and you're going to get to see (and reveal) some of the pre-mom woman that's living deep inside you, under the messy bun and the athleisure. That woman is dying to see some sunlight, so you deserve a friend to ditch the littles with and go be adults for a while. If you've made it here, then go dust off your cute shoes and swipe on some lipstick, girl, cause you are rocking this new friend thing!

The Sweatpants Phase- I'm gonna be honest here, this is kind of the Holy Grail of Friendship phases in my humble opinion. This is the blessed time in a friendship when the small talk has faded away and we can be real. This is when you're gonna start to hear my trucker mouth and see a lot more of my undone eyebrows and dry shampoo. This is when you're going to hear me admit my kid is sometimes the worst and I will not follow it up with a nicety about what a blessing she is to avoid judgement. This is the place in friendship where we don't necessarily need "plans" to hang out and I will not frantically clean my kitchen prior to your arrival. I love this phase because this little slice of friendship heaven is part of what makes being a woman fun and what makes motherhood bearable. It's definitely okay if every friendship doesn't reach this point, because these friends are about quality, not quantity, but if you're sticking around your city for any length of time, I'd suggesting letting at least one worthy girl into your Inner Sweatpants Circle.

So go! Gather that tribe, lady! And if you're reading this and you live in my new city and the intensity of my making a guide to Friend Dating doesn't completely freak you out? Well then what are you waiting for? Hit me up!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

reasons why my toddler is upset.

This emoji sums up my face a lot these days.

We are entering Toddler World over here and that means the beginnings of tantrums. My precious little angel baby is usually an easy to please lady. Keep her fed with a constant flow of animal crackers and pick her up whenever she raises her chubby little arms and generally she'll be a happy camper. 

But sometimes she makes requests that I simply have to deny, mostly because I'm mean and cruel, but also sometimes for her safety and whatnot. Thankfully, we're not at full on tantrums yet, but she still lets me know when I've disappointed her with some tears and a little protest. 

Here are a few reasons why Her Majesty has been upset with me lately:

Because I wouldn't let her eat dirty tissues out of the trash. 

Because I pulled her sleeves up. 

Because the dog ate the cracker that she handed to him. 

Because I insisted we cook the oatmeal and I didn't give her a bowl of dry oatmeal. 

Because I wouldn't let her get into someone else's stroller at the park. 

Because after she dumped all her lunch off her plate, I refused to put it all back on her plate and hand it back to her so she could dump it all off again.

Because she wasn't allowed to pull tampons out of a box and unwrap them and discard them all over the house. She was legitimately angry about this. 

Because I didn't share my wine. Seriously. 

So cheers to you if you're also making your kid cry these days. We're in this together, comrades. 


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

a letter to myself at 21.

Dear 21 Year Old Me- 

You think you have a lot figured out. You think you're a pretty wise old soul. You still have a lot to learn. 

Especially about love. At 21, you've been with R long enough to be taken seriously but not long enough to relax and stop white-knuckling your way through love. It's a common theme for you and in ten years you'll still be trying to master the art of just letting that man be and learning to love him right where he's at. You will, somewhere along the way, figure out though, to stop grasping for the grandiose love story from the movies and somewhere in the failures and stumbles and the mundane, you'll find a love that feels solid to stand on. It won't be perfect, not in ten years and maybe not ever, but it will feel more and more like home with every new season. 

Guess what else? Your life is not going to look anything like what you think it will in ten years. You think you are going to be changing the world at a non-profit, maybe working with kids in the inner city or feeding the homeless, but that's not how it shakes down. In fact, your career which will barely advance in fits and starts, will feel like the most unfair lot in life, At 21, you have big hopes for the kind of career and life that people will look at and be impressed with. You've written it in your journals and whispered it in your prayers, "Let me be someone important." And you are, just not the way you imagined. In ten years, instead of being someone who people ooh and ahh over, you're going to be changing the world by changing diapers and no one is going to see it but you and Jesus. And in ten years, you'll only just be starting to come around to the great mystery that somehow the things no one sees are the most important things there are. 

Do you want to hear something really good? At 21, you're still in Milwaukee and your world hasn't expanded too much yet. Your crew is still the same girls you skipped class with in high school and your dilemmas are still pretty minor league. A decade later, those girls are still your crew. And the ten years of marriages and  births and deaths and distance between you all has only made those friendships sweeter and more priceless than you could have ever imagined. You grew up together and you're still around to cheer each other on. And there's even better news? In the ten years between your 21st and your 31st birthday, you add even more girls to your tribe. College friends and Navy wives, co-workers and mama friends- you do a good job of choosing quality over quantity and they make every tough season sweeter. 

Here's some advice from someone who knows you better than you know yourself. 

Stop worrying so much. Stop caring so much what other people think. Stop striving for things that don't matter. And stop buying cheap trendy clothes from Forever 21. 

You're going to be just fine.

Happy Birthday!

Love, 31 Year Old Me

Saturday, February 11, 2017

to the mama who is praying.


This post is close to my heart.

My mother, Patti, is a woman of audacious faith. She has been praying for me and my three siblings since before we were even born. Every morning, even this morning, you can find my Mom sitting on the couch in her living room, talking to God like an old friend. As I have become a mother, and as I wade into the mystery of prayer myself, I've seen my Mom's morning prayer time with new eyes.

I wrote this first as a letter to her, but as I wrote it, I thought of myself and all the moms who are praying for their children. Whether in quiet hours before they wake, or in the car during your commute home from work, or in journals or on iPads, if you've been praying for your sons and daughters, this one is for you.  

Being a mama is hard work, isn’t it?

Maybe you've been at this gig for just a few months. Maybe you've been at it so long that your babies have babies. No matter how long you've been mothering, you've done some hard work.  Your heart has swelled and broken and been kicked and then dusted off and loved deeply as only a child can do.

You are doing the hard work today.

You've nurtured your kids moment by moment, day by day, from the moment you knew their little hearts were beating, nestled deep down inside you, to this very day. You've nursed and diapered, cleaned up messes and washed bodies; you've fed meals and listened to stories, swept the floors and washed the sheets, creating homes and safe places for your kids to grow. The unseen work of mothering, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year until suddenly there are decades behind you.

But you have done more than this, if it's possible.

You've been praying.

You've whispered their names in the hours before dawn to a listening God. You've sat on your couch, your scribbled-in Bible on your lap, and spoken ancient Scriptures over them, with hope in your heart and faith on your lips. You have offered each of them up in earnest prayers of protection and safety and blessing. You have surrendered in faith these people who you love more than you love yourself to the Father.

And it is making all the difference.

Mama, listen closely to what I know is true- these children we pray for? They are the arrows in the hand of the warrior that the Psalmistis writing about. You aren't just speaking to the ceiling in those hours before the house is awake.

You are sharpening arrows.

Prayer by prayer, year by year, you are filing, grinding, sharpening. Affixing them to the arrow with prayers still.

Arrows to be thrown out in to the world to pierce the darkness, to lay bare the liar. Your prayers, thought in silence, written in journals, whispered like a song to El Roi, the God Who Sees, have been heard and they are being answered.

And don't believe for a second the liar who tells you that these prayers are useless. Don't fool yourself by thinking you could be doing more, should be doing more. What a gift you are giving them! What a love you are showing them. To pray for your children, ask for the most intimate of requests, spoken in such humility at the foot of the throne of the God of the Stars and Sun and Moon. "Who am I to ask you of these things?" We often think when we pray. "Who am I that you would hear me and listen?" But we are Mothers, wearing the crown and the robe that we received as royal daughters of God, can walk boldly to him to ask that he usher in heaven on earth by way of our children. And make no mistake, he will.

Oh Mama, how pleased God must be with you. How he must delight when he hears your footsteps approaching. "Do you see her? This is a daughter after my own heart! Look how she takes after me in her love for her children! See how she understands me when she lays down her life for them! Oh, how she makes me proud when she sees them as I see them. Look at my daughter, mothering hard. Who is like her in all the earth?"

So go on, Mama. Keep praying.

You are doing the hard work, the kingdom work, the eternal work. I know it is breaking your heart wide open. But please, keep sharpening those arrows. And in it, in the quiet sacrifice of prayer and in the hard work of mothering, I hope you are filled up and fed well by the knowledge that it matters.

The hard work isn't over yet, but it's making all the difference.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

the giving

In this old house I can hear everything. I hear her coughing sometime after 3am. It's persistent and I can hear her trying to get settled after each bout. I finally decide to make some warm milk and go in sometime around 4. I don't know if warm milk will help but it seems like the kind of thing a mom who knows what she's doing would do. I come in silently. In the room, illuminated only by the street lights outside, I can see her smile at me. She reaches for me without a sound and I pull her from her crib and we sit on the rocker and she drinks her milk. We rock and sip silently for a long time. 

It's quiet except for her sound machine. In the whir of white noise, she leans into me and I feel the weight of her body and marvel at how long it's been since I was up with her like this. She was a baby the last time I soothed her back to sleep in the middle of the night and now she's a toddler, a wriggly, busy toddler. As we rock quietly, her taking sips of her milk, then feeling around for her lovey and settling back into me, I think about the nights I used to do this several times before the sun came up. 

I've become a mother in the hours after midnight. Days and weeks after the pain of labor was gone, a new labor was beginning and I was being born a mother. Needs arise all day long for every parent but it seems to me that after midnight is when the need of this other person seems to pierce me and demand more of me. Maybe it's because no one is around to see it or probably it's because I'd rather be meeting my own need for sleep, but the simple act of getting out of bed and padding across a house in the middle of the night is a kind of sacrifice that aches. I wish I could say I'm the kind of mother who gives selflessly to my daughter no matter what the hour, but I'd be lying through my teeth. Sometimes I give selflessly, but lots of times, especially in the dead of night, the giving feels more like taking. 

Tonight I'm giving though. I stand and rock her, my arms holding her growing weight and my hips swaying in a slow dance that parents the world over know by heart. Her fingers are at my collarbone, she's gently toying with the neck of my shirt. I feel her breath getting slower and deeper and her cough has calmed for now. Her hair, fine and wispy and smelling of baby shampoo, brushes my lips and I press her into me closer still, taking in this moment with each of my five senses, not rushing despite my own heavy eyelids. It feels like time is standing still around us and tears are welling up in my tired eyes. My arms are tired as she drifts into sleep while I hold her, but I keep swaying. It feels like I can't give enough tonight. The giving feels holy tonight. 

Oh, how I love you, my girl. 


I am selfish beyond reason most of the time, but you, my little love, have tapped into a well of self-sacrifice that runs deeper in me than I could have imagined. I will wake in the night for you. I have fed you from my breasts and let my belly swell and my hips soften for you. My bones cracked open and I bled for you. And I will do it a thousand times over. I will wake in the night for you even when I am tired and you've taken from me all day long and I feel empty. I'll wake in the night despite the ache of selfishness that nags me, because in these moments, when I give once more, even when it aches, I see the face of God. He's in the giving. 


He fills me up while I pour myself out and when I press you close, I press into Him, and hear him whisper so true that I can feel it in the marrow of my bones, "Oh, how I love you, my girl.



Nicole Piper Photography