The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

The Problem with Expectation

This week, I started my 22nd year as a writing teacher, my fourteenth full time at George Fox University.

Given my first day’s performance in 1992, no one could have predicted I might last this long. I began that morning by marching into a University of Missouri-St. Louis classroom slick with sweat (from the humidity and fear); I arrived far too early, paced in front of the chalkboard, began class before the right time. On the verge of tears, I handed out the syllabi, shaking so fiercely students must have wondered just who they had standing in front of them. I definitely felt like an imposture, someone too stupid and too shy to be teaching college students.

I was beyond scared.

But only a little less so than when I started college six years earlier, my parents making the one-hour drive with me to my new home, where we unloaded my meager belongings and made the fear-filled trek up the dorm stairs to my second-story room.

My roommate had already claimed her side of the room and unpacked her stuff: an interesting array of kitty posters and pictures of balloons and rainbows. A floral-patterned spread covered her bed; she was wearing a t-shirt with a giant heart on it.  I imagine a Sandi Patty cassette was playing in the background, but this is one memory I don’t fully trust. Sandi Patty was always playing in our room, so surely she was singing Jesus’ praise on the first day, too.

Anyone who knows me—or has any inkling of my tastes—knows that I had reasons to fear my roommate. I endeavored to be game, though, since I’d already been told that I should be excited about college, that it would be the best years of my life!  So, I hugged my parents a fast goodbye, akin to peeling a Band Aid off quickly to avoid any pain. Holding back tears, I began unpacking my own décor: running posters, pictures of high school teammates, several athletic awards.

This was not going to be a match made in heaven, and I didn’t really think I belonged there, anyway. I felt like an imposture then, too, not really interested in college even though I was somehow supposed to be excited about studying and about living with a stranger who was, it seemed to me, also quite strange.

As I embark on another school year, I’ve been thinking of these two selves, and of the nearly all-consuming fear that characterized those new beginnings. That fear was fueled in great part by the unknown. On my first day of college, I wondered what it would be like. How would it feel to live with a complete stranger—and a kitty-loving one at that? How would I survive without my family, without my high school friends? How could I ever succeed in college, when high school was so much of a struggle?

Later, when I began teaching, I again wondered what it would be like. What kind of students would I be facing? How would I answer their questions? Would I be capable of managing a classroom of first-year students, hostile to writing? (I have similar questions even now, 22 years into my teaching endeavor.)

To be honest, though, expectations placed on me by myself and by others also stoked me fears. I’d never been much of a student before college, preferring sports to studies, television to books. My SAT scores were abysmal; I struggled to complete assignments through middle and high school. The middle school principal and I were fast company, in great part because I spent so much time in her office on detention. Though I fared a little better behavior-wise in high school, I wasn’t coming to college as a stellar student, and was certain the life of the mind—whatever that was—could not be for me.

Although I became a successful student in college, and decided to pursue an advanced degree in English, those same uncertainties also dogged me when I began teaching, concurrent to my graduate school classes. I obviously wasn’t the brightest graduate student on campus, couldn’t quote lines of Yeats (who I called “Yeets” for the first year of studies, a definite taboo) and consistently spelled grammar wrong (grammer) in my first graduate school paper. How could I ever, ever teach, when everyone else seemed more committed to that life of the mind than did I? At heart, I was still a dumb jock, posing as an English graduate student.

So here’s the thing about expectations, even those that are self-imposed: they can keep you in a box, limiting your potential, making it almost impossible to be all God created you to be. But thank God for people who refused to see those boxes, and who challenged me to move beyond those expectations:

  • A high school English teacher who saw me as more than a struggling student, and who encouraged my writing; her kindness allowed me to begin seeing myself as capable, at least a little bit.
  • A college professor who believed me as more than “just an athlete,” and whose encouragement allowed me to begin seeing myself as an academic, not just a dumb jock whose studies didn’t matter.
  • A graduate school advisor who saw me as more than an incapable teacher, stuttering through her first classes; her support and guidance sustained me successfully through my first year of teaching, reminding me that I belonged in the classroom, that I wasn’t the imposture I believed myself to be.

Sometimes it’s easy to force people into the boxes we’ve built, compelling them to play the roles we’ve defined for them. As Kendra and I have written often in the last few years, we see clearly—over and over again—the ways that women are crammed into small spaces labeled “biblical womanhood” and “godly woman.” I’ve bristled against those expectations as well, knowing that I could not be the presumably “godly” woman defined by Christian culture, and that when I did act in that way, I felt like a fake.

As we start yet another year, I’m thinking again about the ways expectations can be problematic, how they complicate our journeys toward becoming all God intends for us to be. And I’m thinking about those folks who did not compel me to be something I could not be, but inspired me to be more than I thought I could be. Such people still exist in my life, and I am grateful for those who don’t tie me to any expectations about what it means to be a college professor, or a middle-aged woman, or a mother of boys, or a million other things.

One week into another year of teaching—and of feeling grateful for this amazing vocation I’ve been given—I think of those people most, those who saw me as different than I even saw myself, and who helped me become who I am.  My hope is that this year, I can be especially mindful of the boxes I create for others, and also, aware that those boxes can limit others—and myself—from being what God created us to be.

It’s not entirely Mark Driscoll’s fault

Give the guy a break!

What began as a trickle—an occasional criticism of Seattle’s Mars Hill mega-church pastor, Mark Driscoll—has now become a veritable flood. So much so that even those he originally assisted (Acts 29) have join the ranks of piling on Driscoll and he has been stricken from headlining big evangelical gatherings such as the upcoming Gateway conference in Dallas, Texas.

I, for one, think it has been too much already. Come on, let’s just relax a little and quit being so whiney over his mostly inconsequential failings.

Besides, what’s the big deal?

So, Driscoll perhaps plagiarized some material in his books and maybe used a little of his own marketing strategies to bolster his sales. Who in his position wouldn’t do the same? For goodness sake: he is the pastor of a mega-church. How much time do we think he has to write a book on the side without getting help somewhere? And, have you noticed how little pastors get paid? (Ok, probably all mega-church pastors make plenty but who wouldn’t decry the guy from getting a little extra?) Maybe something on top of a generous salary would send the message about how valuable he is to the congregation; to their reputation.

In defense of his naysayers, Dricsoll did say some pretty nasty things about homosexuals and men who aren’t necessarily “manly” and feminists (who, most likely deserve it since we have pretty much destroyed civilization with crazy ideas about everyone being equal), but he did his best to apologize. If he went a little over the line by asking a group of pastor’s wives what sexual positions they favor, isn’t that just part of being a little “edgy,” the kind of shocking thing parishioners want to hear so they keep coming back for more?

Besides, who among us is perfect enough that we should cast the first stone?

Rather than jumping on the Bash Driscoll bandwagon I think we should step back, maybe send a little love his way. His world is crumbling around him and he probably could use a little extra support these days.

Besides, why should he, the pastor of a church he created, be held to such high standards? Like, for instance, being theologically trained (as in earning a Master’s of Divinity degree from an accredited seminary). Isn’t this part of the allure of many mega-churches? Pastors are hip precisely because they aren’t ruined by an education. They rely on the Holy Spirit to guide their paths and also what they say instead of going through the rigors of learning irrelevant things like the history of Christianity or methods of theological inquiry, or God-forbid, learning to consider biblical context when discerning what the Bible could possibly say to contemporary Christians.

Furthermore, aren’t mega-churches designed to be nimble and therefore do not have the encumbrances of oversight? The United Methodist Church, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians and others have too much organizational weight; for them to respond to new changes or developments takes an act of God and about two-hundred years, but the genius of mega-churches is that the pastor can essentially do what he likes (and I do mean “he” because how many mega-churches have female pastors?). The freedom of mega-churches to act independently is part of why people are attracted to them.

Of course this autonomy comes with a price.

When a pastor or leader goes astray, perhaps not unlike Driscoll, Ted Haggard, Doug Phillips, Bob Coy, David Loveless, Jack Schaap (there are more; many more, but you get the point) isn’t he just falling into the trap the congregation has unthinkingly created? Pastors are supposed to be magnetic and cool, able to attract not just hundreds, but thousands on any given Sunday morning (ok, with the help of a hip worship band, a big screen, plenty of video clips, and the enticing aroma of fair-trade coffee in the air). And despite their elevated positions, the demand for success which means packing people into huge warehouses, and the expectation that pastors all over the country will be clamoring to “go and do likewise,” they are not required to have the very tools they desperately need: a theological education, an accountability system that extends beyond the local church, and an unrelenting conviction that the people are to be the ministers of the gospel.

Instead of hurling accusations at Driscoll, maybe it is time for mega-church consumers to reconsider the problems they create by demanding entertainment-driven mega-churches, relying on a charismatic individual rather than the call of the gospel.

It’s not just Driscoll’s fault. Mars Hill helped create him, warts and all.

Being Feminist and Christian

August always feels like a whirlwind. A tornado of birthdays greets me as I turn the calendar from July to August—my mother’s and father’s spaced a mere five days apart plus a good friend’s right in the middle—and then anniversaries—for my husband and I as well as my parents’ whose anniversary we share. In the space of about a week, August has the ability to knock me off my feet.

And if I have any inkling of getting up, I’m hit with the shocking realization that summer is essentially over and I’m suddenly scurrying around hoping to be ready for the first day of school. Which is why instead of writing syllabi, checking rosters, or working on Blackboard, I’m writing this.

You see, I woke up this morning knowing that my day will entail brainstorming and writing, planning and revising, planning some more. But in the midst of the pressure to get these things done, I feel tremendous gratefulness for those who made this work possible for me.

The last few years it seems the popular thing to do is to reject the label of feminist. Rock stars and writers, business leaders and a host of others have refused to align themselves with feminism, claiming, somehow that they are not feminists because they do not hate men (a prevalent misnomer), or they do not feel oppressed (a problem with awareness, perhaps?) and cannot figure out why feminists still think there is a problem (hmm, why are women still not paid on par with men?).

And yet, the very positions they hold either as popular media figures or CEOs or authors would not be possible without feminism.

Contemporary Christianity has been especially harsh on feminism, telling scores and scores of women that they must choose one or the other, but they certainly cannot be a Christian and a feminist. Of course such claims are historically invalid as many women in the late 1800s and early 1900s changed American society because of not in spite of their religious commitments. Intrepid women worked for the abolition of slaves, for better work conditions for factory workers, to alleviate poverty and prostitution, to secure a public voice for women by gaining the right to vote. For many, their commitments to changing society were based upon their faith.

In other words, many of the early feminists were feminists because they were Christians. As it turns out, taking seriously the idea that we are all made in the image of God means a radical thing: there can be no oppression, no second-class status, no subjugation of any group for any reason.

As someone whose work involves education and religion, I am enormously indebted to these feminist pioneers who made my livelihood possible. Without them I would not be educated; I would not have the ability to vote; I would not have the plethora of options I enjoy today.

So even as I lament the passing of another summer and I’m feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the mountain I face, the Fall semester looming over me so heavily I can hardly breathe, I remain thankful for the feminists before me who made my path possible.

And because of them I hold my head high when I say I am a feminist and a Christian.

Another school year: bring it!

Finishing a Book, and a Summer, Too

My summer as a faculty member at George Fox University has gone something like this:

  • In early May, we commemorated the end of another school year with graduation, at which several faculty peers and I enjoyed taking selfies marking the transition to summer. We were happy: four months without grading essays! graduation
  • A few days later, give or take, my own children were off for the summer, and I began fretting about how I was going to keep them busy while also working on our book project.


  • And then it was July. Emails started arriving about faculty meetings and some kind of “retreat” that really was no retreat, just meetings that last a little longer than normal, with better snacks than usual.
  • After two or three more days, it will be August 15, and we will be back on contract, preparing like mad women for the start of classes, another batch of first-year students, and a return to grading essays, along with the renewed resolve to do better! and grade faster! and avoid naps under the desk!

sadness Oh, and while our summer was flashing by at warp speed, Kendra and I were working on a book, the August 1 deadline for our manuscript looming large over our shoulder. I thought especially about that deadline whenever I loaded up another episode of “Orange is the New Black” for viewing. (“Shouldn’t you be writing?” I might ask myself. “Just a little bit more of the show, please,” I would beg. Usually the self-lacking-delayed-gratification won out.)

When we were awarded a book contract in early February, August 1 seemed so far away, and also, not very far away at all. After our initial celebratory phone calls, we got to work, developing a plan of action that would help us finish on deadline. Thank goodness we have similar work habits, avoid procrastination, and prefer getting projects completed with time to spare. This made our collaboration easier on both of us, I’m sure. And easier on me, definitely, because Kendra is a grace-filled woman, kind and encouraging.

We’ve been writing ever since February, then: that is, when we haven’t been teaching classes, leading trips to Ireland and hosting German exchange students (in Kendra’s case) or trying to keep preteens busy (in mine). We’ve gone through moments of despair, when we were sure no one would read or understand what we were saying. Minutes later, we would feel absolutely positive that our book would win the Pulitzer Prize, for sure. Or at least, find a few interested readers. Luckily, we didn’t journey through the cycle of despair and hopefulness at the same speed, and usually one of us could talk the other out of a deep funk, one of a thousand reasons having a writing partner can be a good, good thing.

And then, after reading through our entire manuscript far too many times, we were done. Before our deadline, in fact. We celebrated in our own ways, 2000 miles apart from each other, but grateful for an amazing partnership that has kept us connected and together. (My celebration included watching the last episode of season one’s “Orange is the New Black” with a friend and enjoyed all the junk food she bought for the occasion.)

In my job as a writing teacher, I often hear students compare how long their finished essays are, as if length alone might be a marker for a work’s goodness, or for a writer’s efforts. Yet I felt a little bit of pride (but only a little: I’m Mennonite, after all) when we sent our publisher a manuscript 370 pages long. Those 370 pages represent a lot of thinking, a lot of work, and a lot of missed episodes of reality television. They also represent a rich experience of working with a really smart collaborator, for which I’m grateful. Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 9.51.24 PM Hopefully, now we can get back to blogging more regularly. And also, you know, getting ready for our fall classes, which seem now to be only a few hours away.

Singing my Faith

I’ve been humming a tune all day. From the moment I woke up this morning to each time I stopped my writing to water the plants or to play with Pippi, my mind has quickly returned to the events of last weekend and automatically my humming ensued.

Having just returned from a weekend in St. Louis, Missouri, with the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus—Christian Feminism Today, my spirit is full. I mean, really full. There are no words to convey the feeling of deep kinship with others who are also on this journey of what it means to be a feminist and a Christian. To join with them in worship and study is a blessing; one that sustains me throughout long desert moments.

During the three-day conference celebrating our 40 years of justice work, we heard from numerous speakers who inspired and challenged us. From Sharon Groves of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to Mary Hunt of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) to Susan Campbell author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl, we were invited to consider the experiences of others and how we can more fully participate in the work of gender justice.

There was much more: students who shared their research and energy, yoga, workshops on LGBTQ relationships and Bible studies.

And, there was singing. One of the most important aspects of bringing together feminism and Christian faith has to do with our hearts. While we may think creatively and deeply about the Bible, theology, history, and a host of other necessary aspects of our lives, it is also important to be able to worship in spirit and truth. For those who have come to understand the problem of exclusive language—the kind practiced in almost all of our churches—the presence of a worshipping community is what must be left behind.

Feminist Christians often find going to church the most painful and problematic part of our journeys and it isn’t without a tremendous amount of regret that many of us simply stop attending church. It is not that we no longer value the relationships of people or the importance of a worshipping community. It is, rather, that participating in worship that excludes us becomes more detrimental to our faith than dropping out.

The loss of singing our faith is powerfully overcome each time EEWC-CFT meets. Thanks to the gifted hymnody of Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, we are restored and nourished by inclusive lyrics that lift up the female images of God.

As someone with fond childhood memories of singing hymns, I am grateful beyond measure for the work of Jann Aldredge-Clanton and am already looking forward to our next Gathering.

Now, back to humming the refrain:

Where She Dwells (Where She Dwells), There is love (There is Love).

Where She Dwells, Where She Dwells, There is love. (to the tune of “It is Well with my Soul”)

Leadership Journal Publishes Sexual Predator’s Confessions

In case you haven’t heard, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal recently published “From Youth Minister to Felon,” an article that has caused a considerable kerfuffle in the Evangelical world. Written by a former youth pastor who is now serving a prison sentence for statutory rape, the article according to Leadership Journal editors was to educate the church on the prevalent problem of sexual misconduct. That they misjudged how this article may or may not be received speaks volumes about how little they understand the depth of the problem.

To their credit, Editor Marshall Shelley and President and CEO Harold B. Smith offered an apology for publishing the article and it was removed from their website. Since then the Leadership Journal has published another post this time written by a woman who was sexually abused as a young girl. Her voice brings to light the ongoing consequences of abuse hopefully enabling predators and church members responsible for the care of children and youth to understand the gravity of the sexual predator problem.

One of the criticisms of the Leadership Journal  in light of this incident is its lack of women on staff. Many have suggested that if women were part of their editorial team, the possibility of publishing such an offensive article by a sexual predator would be greatly reduced because women bring another voice into the conversation, one that has been affected by oppressive structures, many of them within the church. In many cases, it is difficult for people in power to understand the extensiveness of that power, especially when it is abused and used as a tool against another person.

For this reason, I am glad for the conversation that is now occurring on many websites as a response to the Leadership Journal’s irresponsible initial post. Such a recognition of the power imbalance created by all organizations when only one voice—that of the privileged male—is in the decision-making role is an important step forward to changing the reality of misogyny that lies so fundamentally at the root of many Christian organizations and churches.

But I don’t think real change can occur by adding a female voice here or a woman there. Cultures and viewpoints need to shift and that will not happen as long as those in power read their Bibles as endorsements of that power.

When the Leadership editors admitted to their failure to distinguish between implied consent and disproportionate power, I was reminded of what I was taught about the biblical story of Bathsheba and King David.

As a child and throughout my experiences in youth groups, I was always taught that David and Bathsheba had an affair, one that most likely occurred because Bathsheba enticed David by bathing where she could be seen. She invited his subsequent actions. The application for us, we were instructed, was that women should be very careful about what they wear; always cautious that their clothing indicates how they want to be treated. It was clear: women needed to avoid being another Bathsheba. David, on the other hand, was a man after God’s own heart; he only acted on impulse because Bathsheba made him do it. So, the males in our youth group were told to avoid looking at women, but in the end, the implied message was that they, like David, were essentially helpless because, well, they were men.

But if we had been invited to think deeply and contextually about the sexual act between Bathsheba and David, we would have had seen it not as an affair but as a rape. The power between these two individuals was disproportionate. David was king; Bathsheba a mere subject. To refuse the king anything he wanted was simply not very likely. In fact, Samuel had warned the Israelites generations earlier that if they had a king, the king would abuse his power; he would take what he wanted because he could. Bathsheba had no other legitimate choice.

But I’m not naïve. When I suggest this to my students, they reject this possibility without a second thought subscribing instead to the narrative that Bathsheba tempted David by bathing on the rooftop. Never mind the insight of historians who tells us that in that period, kings went to battle with their men. For David to be home gazing at rooftops rather than with his men is battle means that he was the one out of place. He should not have been there; should not have abused his power.

Nevertheless, to suggest that David raped Bathsheba is, well, pretty much blasphemy. But without such critical examination—of our sacred documents and our faith communities—we will fail to change the structural systems that undergird such sin.

It seems to me the Leadership Journal simply offers the latest in a long line of oppression as a result of limited perspectives. Maybe this is our invitation to listen more intently to the oppressed people in our Bibles (Bathsheba, Tamar, Vashti, and Esther, and a host of others). Perhaps we can begin to realize that God’s dream includes liberation for all people and this doesn’t happen when only half of the human family is given a voice.

The Long and Short of Summer: My End-of-School-Year Angst

School's out, and we're all happy. For now.

School’s out, and we’re all happy. For now.

This morning, my boys put Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” on continuous loop while they got ready for school: their last (half) day of sixth grade. I tried joining in on the party, pulling out a few dance moves I’d recently learned at Zumba. Apparently, my dancing “ruined it” for at least one son, though he kept the music on.

I must admit, too, that I didn’t really feel like celebrating good times because holy crap, my boys are out of school for 2.5 months, and I don’t know what to do with them.

Confessing I’m a little fretful about summer vacation is difficult. I know plenty of other parents are delighted to have their kids home for a few months, back in their care, no schedules, no early morning wake-ups, no nothing.

Admitting my own trepidation about taking care of my own kids for several months also plays easily into stereotypes about feminists: you know, about women who really hate men and children, who are selfish slaves to their careers, who want to rule the world.

These stereotypes are bogus, of course, for me and a zillion other feminists for whom being a mom is their most cherished role, whether they work outside or inside the home. I also don’t really want to rule the world. I’d just like to more successfully manage the chaos my boys can potentially cause over the next 2.5 months.

So I’ve been trying to develop a game plan, something I’ve done every summer since my boys were young. Back then, summers seemed easier, probably because there were numerous Vacation Bible Schools I could send them to, giving them the opportunity to learn about Jesus for weeks on end. And afternoon naps also consumed a good chunk of time, as did earlier bedtimes. They’re too old for VBS now, and don’t need naps—even if I still do. These days, I also go to bed long before they do.

Several weeks ago, I went to Portland for a presentation on things to do with kids for the summer. I mostly attended to hear my awesome friend Beth Woolsey speak, and because the accompanying lunch was good (and cheap!). The mothers who presented, though, filled me with anxiety: they were organizing week-long summer camps in their own homes, with craft projects, activities, field trips, educational lessons. God knows, they probably also made camp t-shirts and nametags. I thought I saw Beth roll her eyes, which made me a little less anxious; maybe mothers in Portland have a different M.O. than those in Newberg.

And then, my friend Heidi posted a link to a blog about how to give your kids a 70s summer. I hesitated opening it, because I didn’t want to read a judgmental screed about lazy kids today, with too much screen time and how back in the day . . .  But the writer actually did have summers similar to mine, watching hours of Gilligan’s Island reruns, eating whole bags of Doritos (sometimes dipped in sugar), and hanging around the neighborhood for hours on end, doing nothing much.

My 70s summers also including going to the outdoor pool for 5-6 unsupervised hours every day, starting when I was eight, and consuming god knows how much Laffy Taffy and Chico Sticks. I imagine letting my boys do something similar today might warrant a house call from protective services, or at least few condemnatory looks from other moms.

So I wonder: did my mom feel the same sense of panic about the blazing hot summers stretching long into the Kansas horizon? Did she fret on the last day of school, steeling herself for those inevitable words—I’m bored—that would come hours after the last bell?

Those summer days are 30 years behind us now. Thirty years: two-thirds of my life ago, if I’m doing the math right (and there are no guarantees on that). Sometimes I’m caught breathless by the thought of so much life already past, so quickly.

And perhaps that’s partly why I’m in no celebratory mood today. It seems like three days ago I was dropping my boys off for their first day of middle school. We were all scared about this transition, all trying to appear brave as I pulled up to the parking lot. Another school year vanished at warp speed, and soon they will be all grown up and gone, my entire summers—and the rest of my life—free to spend as I want, except for the few days my husband will make me go camping.

In my calmer moments, I’m intent on cherishing these last few summers I have with my kids—even when they are whacking each other with sticks, which still seems to be a favorite activity.

I plan to start my summer with them by going to the movies. That will take at least three hours: meaning I only have the rest of a very long—and very short—summer to spend with them.

An Update: Kendra and have not been blogging much lately, though we are both writing a lot, trying to finish a rough draft of our book manuscript, due to the publisher by August 1. We are happy to report that the rough draft is nearly completed (which probably warrants a bit more dancing to “Celebration”). We will also be one of the keynote speakers at the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today bi-annual Gathering in St. Louis on June 26-29. We’re looking forward to seeing each other, creating a revision game plan, and hanging out with a lot of our Christian feminist sisters. I’m also looking forward to some St. Louis heat and humidity.




If my exchange student gave your commencement address…


Soon another academic year will draw to a close (except for all you George Fox students who have already fled Newberg for your summer adventures leaving the rest of us lagging behind for another full week!). Commencement ceremonies will punctuate the end of one season and the beginning of something new. There will be tears of joy, celebrations of accomplishments, and moments to reflect on the road that has been traveled as well as the one that lies ahead.

As much as attending two graduation ceremonies per year are thrilling occasions(ahem)—an opportunity to don colorful regalia and sit through an always inspiring and captivating commencement address followed by the organized chaos of calling each graduate’s name, watching them maneuver across a stage (many on very high heels) to receive a fake diploma and shake the president’s hand while some family members and friends hoot and holler over their graduate’s accomplishments—I’m mostly focused this time around on my personal horizon.

My year of mothering is about to come to an abrupt end as our German exchange student prepares to return to his home in Germany.

It hardly seems like it has been more than a couple of months since David joined us last August. Since then we have watched him learn to play American football and baseball; marveled at his musical abilities, enjoying several hours of listening to him practice his clarinet; witnessed his English language improvement; and most recently have shared in his anticipation over his upcoming prom (and also first date).

A full year it has been; one of great joy and new experiences. From the day I picked him up and he was hesitant to speak afraid he would say the wrong word to the evening he was awarded the most valuable defensive player on the Junior Varsity football team, David has been a wonderful addition to our family.

His unmitigated excitement the day we took him to see the Dallas Cowboys play the St. Louis Rams is something I’ll never forget. And his beaming smile while standing in the Paluxy Riverbed looking down at dinosaur tracks still reminds me of his potential for wonder and amazement. Food, too, is an experience David relished evident in his journal where each day he wrote not only what he did but what he ate. New kinds of fruit we found at a local Asian market gave us plenty of interesting options: dragon eyeballs, passion fruit, and lychee, became a few of our favorites. He even didn’t hesitate when I offered him an order of mountain oysters from a local diner in Dodge City, Kansas.

Truthfully there has been little mothering to do this year. Perhaps a rare gem, David did not need to be told to do his homework or pick-up his clothes, or stop watching too much television. He helped me cook our meals and clean the dishes. There were a few late nights when after falling asleep on the sofa I had to wrestle myself awake to stumble into the car and pick him up from a friends’ house. But these were miniscule sacrifices to make.

And, even though this year is primarily about David’s experiences, of providing an avenue to positively affect a young person’s life from another part of our shrinking world, I know he has changed me, too.

Because of him, I have been reminded of my gratefulness to my parents for the work they did to shape me. I am more cognizant of how easily I fall into old patterns of living and being when instead there are infinite possibilities to be explored if I will only be open to them. And his infectious laugh has taught me that while life can be serious and often needs to be taken seriously, there are appropriate limits. Really.

No one has asked me to make a graduation speech, and probably never will. But, if I were the one tasked with saying something meaningful to a bunch of eager graduates excited to throw their caps in the air, I’d encourage them to take a page out of David’s journal:

  • Seek out new experiences, making the most of every opportunity to get because you probably won’t get them again.
  • Laugh a lot as you relish the amazing gift of life.
  • Create relationships, knowing that friendships are stronger than walls or borders.

In other words, don’t just let life happen to you; go out and live it.