John Adams

In honor of our upcoming national holiday on July 4th, celebrating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America from Great Britain for now 236 years, I thought it appropriate to review one of my all-time favorite films/mini-series. If you haven’t seen the HBO series John Adams, see it. It’s on Netflix to rent (although not streaming, unfortunately), but I am a huge advocate of making this a part of your home movie library. There are seven episodes, each about an hour long, and well worth the time!

Also, if you haven’t read John Adams by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, David McCullough, it’s also excellent. For a history buff, it’s a must-read. For those who might find reading a biography a little taxing, the movie will suffice, as it follows McCullough’s book pretty accurately. I found, however, that reading the book was extremely enlightening, and McCullough is a fantastic historian and writer.

The HBO mini-series, which won dozens of awards and nominations, takes viewers through the life of John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, as well as its second president. It’s not a documentary, but a drama with an all-star cast: Paul Giamatti as John Adams, Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, David Morse as George Washington, Danny Huston as Samuel Adams, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, and on and on. The acting was absolutely superb, the sets were magnificent, the history was well-followed; I was blown away.

In this series, we are taken to the times and places where the founding of our nation took place, in all of its rudimentary ways and brutality, in all of its excitement and challenges. I am infinitely grateful to be born in the time that I have been (particularly for medical reasons!), but what a thrill to be a part of the birth of a nation, and a democracy that will be a legacy for all time.

The series shows us the personality of John Adams – proud, outspoken, highly intelligent, pessimistic, brilliant; the relationship with his wife – intimate, loving, honoring, respectful; his relationships with the other Founding Fathers – which were greatly nuanced and fascinating to me. We see the Boston Massacre the way it actually happened, as the story is told when you visit the location in Boston where it took place (now a busy intersection), and how John Adams (who was a lawyer) defended the British soldiers accused in the massacre. We are taken through the process of representatives from each state being assembled and voting on various ways to handle the tyranny of Britain, including going to war in 1775, and ultimately how they drafted the Declaration, and the great struggles they went through to pass it, in 1776. Of course then there is the matter of forming the new government and deciding how it will be led (can you even imagine?!), with the institution of the office of President, taken first by George Washington, and second by John Adams. We see the various Founding Fathers, including Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, serving as delegates overseas, creating relationships with other countries as a country in its infancy.

I had the privilege of visiting the birthplace of John Adams, as well as the Adams home (called Peacefield) in Braintree/Quincy, Massachusetts last month, and it was so fascinating to see how the show replicated the place so well – particularly Peacefield. Countless letters between John and Abigail have been preserved, and standing on those sites gave so much perspective as they described their surroundings, including where Abigail described seeing smoke from the Battle at Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War.

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, but just for kicks, here are a couple pictures from the visit:

The front/side of Peacfield
The rose bush we’re standing in front of was planted by Abigail Adams!
Debbie Tawlks (Steph’s mom!) and me at John Adams’s library!

Criticisms of the series? I personally have none. However, my husband watched it once, and was glad he did, but won’t watch it with me every year like I want him to. He says there’s not enough action in it. Aparently the thrill of birthing an entire country isn’t enough for him (hehe).

I just wish there were other series like it on other Founding Fathers. That’s my one complaint. With that said, go watch it!

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Posted in History, Movies, Politics | 3 Comments

Doing Love

So often growing up, I learned that love is more than just a feeling. Whether it was in a children’s church message, the tunes of DC Talk blaring throughout my home that “love is a verb”, or Michael W. Smith reminding me that, “love isn’t love till you give it away” . . . it was ingrained in me. Someone, please . . . admit that you can relate!

I was reading this reflection by Henri Nouwen (below) this week. It was so beautifully written, and very simple. Henri focuses on actions, but it preserves the reality of emotions. If we didn’t have emotion, we would not feel the need to act. Actually, we would not be human. Action and emotion go hand in hand.

Saturday June 16, 2012

Doing Love

“Often we speak about love as if it is a feeling.  But if we wait for a feeling of love before loving, we may never learn to love well.  The feeling of love is beautiful and life-giving, but our loving cannot be based in that feeling.  To love is to think, speak, and act according to the spiritual knowledge that we are infinitely loved by God and called to make that love visible in this world.

Mostly we know what the loving thing to do is.  When we ‘do’ love, even if others are not able to respond with love, we will discover that our feelings catch up with our acts.”

- Henri J. M. Nouwen

When you read this reflection, there are many things you can think of: doing love by serving the needy, doing love by caring about social justice issues, doing love by interacting with friends or someone in your church. But, when I read this, I reflected on its core principle in the light of conflicts in relationships. What made me think of this was the line that said, “Mostly we know what the loving thing to do is. When we “do” love, even if others are not able to respond with love, we will discover that our feelings catch up with our acts.” It made me think of the times when I didn’t feel like doing love (acting) toward a co-worker, a friend, my husband. But when I did it anyway, my heart changed. When I didn’t do it, my heart wouldn’t change . . . I would stay annoyed and cranky . . . and, well, selfish.

Sometimes I hear my friends say, “I’m trying to not take it personal” when they are hurt or in the midst of a conflict. I’m not suggesting that we should be uber-sensitive, but when you’re dealing with people . . . it is personal. But sometimes our emotions overwhelm us and we don’t know how to speak (action) without being emotional. And sometimes we don’t know how to handle our emotions, so we act out negatively (exploding, saying things we don’t mean, etc).

We don’t have to sacrifice our “emotions” in order to feel that we are being rational. And we don’t have to sacrifice being rational in order to express our emotions. In doing so, you are admitting that your emotions are not rational. We must learn to not let our desire to be rational nor our emotions to rule us or become our idol. We need to take these two beautiful gifts that the Lord has given us, and learn how to use them as God intended.

When we are able to use these two gifts (doing and feeling) to love our friends, spouses, co-workers, etc. . . . we seek to love, and love brings peace and restoration. We might not feel like facing a difficult conflict, but as Henri says, “When we ‘do’ love, even if others are not able to respond with love, we will discover that our feelings catch up with our acts.” I genuinely believe this to be true. As Jesus took our sins upon himself on the cross, I am glad he didn’t wait until he felt like doing  it. He did it in obedience that was fueled by His love toward us. That said, let us do love, even if we don’t feel it yet.

This is a topic that has many facets . . . I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Meditations on Forgiveness

Few actions in life are more unnatural to human nature than forgiveness. For me there is nothing so beautiful, so arresting as when I see unconditional forgiveness extended in life.

Several years ago, a person in my life wronged me, and when I spoke with her about it, she did not respond as I had hoped. I was left struggling to forgive her and not quite able to let it go. I found myself having to decide to forgive her again—over and over—every day, for months on end. What I really wanted was a confrontation. I wanted to tell her face-to-face how much she had hurt me. I wanted to hear why she would behave as she had. I wanted to know she understood my pain.

One day as I was praying about it, I felt God ask me a question: “Natalie, do you love her unconditionally?”

“Yes, Lord,” I said.

“Then I want you to forgive her unconditionally.”

Working things out is a luxury in life. Sometimes due to lack of repentance, or miscommunication, or woundings, or anger, or a physical distance, or even a death, we don’t have the ability to talk things through, but we can forgive anyway and experience the same measure of freedom without the other party participating in a more helpful way.

In my life I have spent far too much time treating forgiveness like it is a package deal with something else: Forgiveness + Working Things Out; Forgiveness + Reconciliation; Forgiveness + Restoration of Trust. Increasingly I am learning that it is not.

The Bible gives a beautiful image of God’s forgiveness of us. When God forgives, He sends our sin—the ways we wrong Him—as far away from us as possible; as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). On earth, north and south meet at fixed places. It’s possible to walk so far north you end up going south again without changing direction. East and west, on the other hand, never meet. To send my sin away from me as far as the east is from the west means to send it infinitely away; every day it is farther from God’s mind than the last.

I found myself wondering how I—who call myself a Christian, literally a small visage of Christ on earth—could embrace the unconditional forgiveness of God and yet not extend it to others? So I chose to forgive her, unconditionally this time, and in doing so I gave up the hope or the desire to ever talk about it with her. I don’t need to talk about it again, because there is nothing to talk about. I love her. I forgave her. When I look at her I no longer see the way she wronged me. In my eyes it is as far away from her as the east is from the west, thus I am able to interact with her just as though the offense never happened.

The truth is: we can only forgive because God first forgave us. True forgiveness is an extension of pure, unconditional love.

To paraphrase Luke 7:47, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much, but he who has been forgiven little, loves little.” I think you could also read that: “He who has been forgiven much, forgives much, but he who has forgiven little, forgives little.”

God does not expect us to model what we have not experienced. I know I would not have been able to forgive others if I hadn’t first experienced forgiveness—particularly God’s forgiveness. If you are struggling with forgiving a person, ask God for a new revelation of the forgiveness He extends you.

I am sure there are people out there who are naturally gracious and feel like extending forgiveness right away, but I am not one of them. Forgiveness is a choice. I would never forgive anyone if I waited to do so whenever I felt like it. Personally, I never feel like forgiving a person, at least not at the beginning. Every single time I start the forgiveness process it is despite my feelings, but God is honored by my obedience. The act of forgiveness is an act of worship.

It is important to remember that forgiveness is not the same as trust. Forgiveness is a gift that can only be freely given; trust must be earned. There are people in our lives who are unsafe because of their inability to control themselves—they may be alcoholics, addicts, abusers, molesters, angry, controlling, or another dangerous behavior. It is good to forgive the wrongs they have done—even the heinous ones. It is unwise, however, to then treat the unsafe person as though he or she will never be unsafe again. I have friends who were molested and yet, by a miracle of God, were able to forgive completely, but they would never leave a child alone with that person in the future.

The act of forgiveness does not validate the wrongdoing; it does not call evil “good”. When God forgave me, He didn’t put a gold star on each of my sins and pretend they were something other than wretched and depraved. When we forgive others who have hurt us, we are not denying that they sinned, or that their sin against us wasn’t hurtful or evil. We are simply releasing them because God asked us to do so; because if we don’t, the unforgiveness will eat us alive like a vicious cancer.

Forgiveness is a deeply personal and individual response; there is no set formula. It is possible to extend complete forgiveness to another, to get to the point where the wound in our heart to be so healed it’s easy to forget it’s even there. But that is no more valid a response than the person who is still choosing to forgive minute by minute and hour by hour.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the forgiveness process—experiencing God’s forgiveness, choosing to forgive despite your feelings, laying down your offense daily—as long as you stay in the process. God is faithful, and somehow, in a great mystery, He will bind up your heart and set you free. All He cares about is your heart. If you choose to forgive, He will take care of the rest.

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Posted in Adversity, Relationships | 2 Comments

Book Review: No Greater Love

No Greater Love by Levi Benkert and Candy Chand

I loved this book.


Not just because I have met Levi and he is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. Not just because their youngest daughter has an awesome name (but that is true).

But because this story is amazing.

Reading this memoir was like reading Levi’s journal, but with really great writing.

Levi is a man struggling to keep his business, his identity, and the life he has built for his family as the economy takes a downturn. He receives an offer to go help orphans in Ethiopia who are being murdered by the same family that should be protecting them. What follows next changes Levi and his family’s lives.

Instead of saying that they were just answering a call to go to Africa, Levi becomes very transparent and admits that he was essentially walking away from his financial failures (which were not his fault) and looking for a fresh start.

Levi was broken and going through his midlife crisis at twenty-nine years old.

He never says he was selfless or that he is just a big-hearted saint, but a man looking for a way out and God answered. Levi looked into the face of children who had been in the best cases abandoned, and in the worst, almost murdered and decided that he could not walk away. He had to do something. Even though it was VERY hard.

This book showed me that sometimes our victories and God’s victories are not always the same. Levi thought he was “called” to be financially successful and influential in the marketplace, and it turned out that wasn’t what God wanted at the time. God wanted Levi broken, running, and at the end of his rope. That is when He called Levi to the orphans. And even though it took Levi a long time to realize that God wanted him running, Levi ran to Him.

The biggest hero of this book is Levi’s wife, Jessie. Jessie is amazing. She should change her name to Grace. It is clear in Levi’s account that Jessie is his biggest support. She takes the changes in stride, always encouraging her kids, loving others, and above all, supporting her husband at every turn. She is my hero. What a great example of a Proverbs 31 woman. And so practical. It’s not that she doesn’t have an opinion, or that she never has a breakdown. It’s hard and she knows it, but she rises to the occasion the way a partner should.

I longed for Africa, reading this book. I even longed to be “Africa slapped” (which might be crass, but I LOVE it) — to watch my kids build bonds without expensive toys and video games, living a life that would require us to selflessly serve others. It makes me think . . . who am I serving? Myself, by providing my child with all of these distractions? Whose life is more full? Mine, with all of my comforts? Or theirs with their lack of a working stove?

My only complaint about the book was that I desperately wanted it to be longer. I wanted to sit at Levi and Jessie’s feet and listen to them tell me more of Africa, of their love of Ethiopia and how God changed their lives so drastically.

When the book ended I carried around the ache in my heart that only comes from the end of a good book. One that is making room in your heart so that you will never forget it. One that you will think about over and over again. One that shows you no greater love.

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Posted in Books!, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Thing I Don’t Want to Write

Is this what “having it all” looks like?

Last week, several friends forwarded me Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article from The Atlantic, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  (I’m guessing that many of you had similar experiences.) In this heartfelt and thoughtful article, Slaughter details her decision to leave a high-level State Department job in order to spend more time with her adolescent sons (and to return to her full-time job teaching at Princeton University). She goes on to confess that she and other women of her generation have perhaps been too glib in telling younger women that they can “have it all”: a successful career and a satisfying family life. At this point, I started getting hopeful that maybe we were in for a truly honest, realistic assessment of what it’s like to be a woman in America today.

But then Slaughter laid out her thesis: “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

The rest of the lengthy article focuses on the various social and economic factors that Slaughter believes need to change before America’s women really can “have it all.”

I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the same way that I read other articles on this same topic: reluctantly, not because I wanted to, but because, as a woman, I felt like I should. After reading it, I felt impossibly old and tired, with a heavy gray cloud of “There is nothing new under the sun” hanging over my head.

Slaughter’s article revisits an argument that’s been ongoing for at least half a century. I believe many people would pinpoint as its origin the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminist Mystique (which I have also read), in which Friedan revealed the unhappiness of many traditional American housewives and encouraged women to look for fulfillment beyond the home front. This touched off what’s become known as “The Mommy Wars,” with working mothers pitted against stay-at-home mothers, each side vying for recognition and respect.

Given the amount of attention it’s already garnered, Slaughter’s article may signal that we’re about to have another surge in The Mommy Wars. As I recall, the last surge happened around 2005, when I was still childless. That year, Linda Hirshman published an article in The American Prospect lamenting the fact that many well-off, well-educated women were choosing to forego careers and stay home with their children. Her article and subsequent appearance on Good Morning America caused each side in The Mommy Wars to dig themselves deeper into their trenches.

Because I feel old and tired when it comes to this topic, and because all I’ve seen result from these discussions is vitriol, and because I feel secure in my own choices and don’t want to be perceived as telling anybody else what choices they should make, I really don’t want to write this.

So why am I writing this? I’m writing because writing is usually how I do my best thinking, and I feel like I need to sort out my thoughts on this topic, because this resurgence of The Mommy Wars dialogue has left me . . . confused. Maybe you are, too? Maybe we can think this through together?

Here’s where I’m coming from:

I worked for nearly a decade prior to the birth of our first child, and I continued working part-time for three years afterward. This was made possible largely by a fairytale-like situation in which we had retired grandparents within easy driving distance, who cared for our daughters while I worked. I stopped working when our third child was born, because by then we were preparing for a cross-country move for my husband’s job. A year into that move, I’m still at home full-time. We have three children under the age of five, my husband has an academic job that requires him to make tenure in order to be assured employment, and there are no grandparents in sight; this didn’t seem like my season to be working outside the home, and I had the luxury to make that decision.

Do I love being at home full-time with my children? Most days; like any vocation — even one you love — there are ups and downs.  But I’d take this time with my children over a high-powered career track any day.

Do I sometimes worry that I’m squandering a $200,000 education? Definitely.

Do I plan to re-enter the workforce? Tricky question: I certainly believe it’s important to have outlets other than parenting — like writing this. And as my children get older, I plan to tap into more of these outlets. Whether that looks like a full-time job, a part-time job, volunteering, creative endeavors, or some combination thereof, I just don’t know.

Did I make the right choice? Absolutely. This was the right choice for me, and for our family, at this particular time. No regrets.

So, that’s me. Nice to meet you.

Now, here’s why I’m confused:

1. I feel like the bar keeps getting raised when it comes to what’s expected of American women today.

As far as I understand it, the original goal of feminism was to give women equal opportunity to make life choices. No longer is it taken for granted that women should get married and stay home with the kids right after high school; now women can get as many graduate degrees as they want, they can work full-time, they can work part-time, and they can choose whether or not to be mothers. For the record, I think that’s all a very good thing. Most women I know have cobbled together some kind of life that works for them, some manageable balance of family and vocation. It may be that I don’t know a very representative sample of women, but those I do know have been free to make choices about education, work, and motherhood.

But when I read articles like Slaughter’s, or books like Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (which made the rounds on my email earlier this year), or interviews with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, they appear to be saying that it’s no longer sufficient for women to be free to make choices about education, work, and family. No, these women all seem disappointed that more females aren’t represented at the VERY HIGHEST LEVELS of their professions.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for powerful female role models. And I completely agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter that society and the economy should adjust as much as possible so that women (and men) can continue to advance in their careers and also have time for a family life. But I don’t understand why it’s suddenly not enough to be a working woman, or a working mother, and to have the freedom to make those choices; the implication is that unless you’re CEO, or President, or Prime Minister, feminism has failed.

Anne-Marie Slaughter apparently felt like a failure (or was made to feel like a failure by other women) for choosing to leave a high-level government job — a job that required her to travel from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. for most of each week — in favor of a slightly less high-level job teaching at Princeton University. I happen to be married to a professor, and while it’s true that the academic world does provide some greater flexibility than many other professions, it’s not a slacker job. Especially not for the seven years when you’re trying to make tenure. My husband works from 8-6 (yes, even during the summer), and then continues to work from home on nights and weekends. He travels to other countries for research, and to conferences to present his research. To suggest that Anne-Marie Slaughter is somehow not living up to her full potential by holding down this type of job while also parenting two teenage sons is simply ludicrous.

Why are we women doing this to ourselves?

2. What’s up with this idea of “Having it all?”

I’m honestly not quite sure what Slaughter and other women mean when they refer to “having it all.” Slaughter never exactly defines this phrase, but her goal seems to be some sort of ideal work-life balance: workplaces in which women are able to ascend the ranks as readily as men, while also having the flexibility to be available for their children whenever needed.

It sounds wonderful, but like most ideals, I don’t think that this situation exists or ever will. Note that, when I said that most women I know have cobbled together some sort of manageable work-family balance, I never said ideal; most women I know also wish they could spend more time with their kids, or more time working on their careers, or both. But it’s not society and the economy that are to blame; it’s that life requires making choices. Back to the choices again! If feminism gave women equal freedom to make choices, that still means we have to choose. Choosing involves many factors, including number and age of children, career goals, and income requirements. And when we choose, we are necessarily selecting one thing over or instead of another, or prioritizing in a certain order.

A friend of mine used to quote her grandmother, who said: “Somebody has to watch the kids.” I’ve come to realize in a deeper way how true that is since becoming a mother, and how important a guide it is for my decisions. The kids can’t take care of themselves: somebody has to watch the kids. It’s impossible to have a full-time career and be a full-time mother simultaneously; no matter how amazing you are at multitasking, everyone only has 24 hours in each day. So we all make choices, about when to work and when to be with the kids and who’s going to watch the kids.

To me, that seems like common sense; that’s just life. It’s true for all women, and it’s true for all men, too. My husband certainly doesn’t “have it all.” He made a choice to work full-time, so he misses things like check-ups and preschool conferences and fun activities. There’s no job flexible enough to allow him to be present for every important moment of our children’s lives.

When these intelligent, accomplished, amazing women start talking about “having it all,” they remind me of my preschool-aged daughters, who spend all day piling on the demands: “Fix my ponytail!” “I need some milk!” “Can you read me this book?” I walk around all day long repeating this refrain: “One thing at a time. I’m only one person. I can’t do everything all at once.”

My daughters are two and four, so they don’t yet understand that one person can’t do it all, be it all, have it all. Why are brilliant grown women still having trouble with this concept?

The worst thing about The Mommy Wars is that it pits women against each other. I’m even uncomfortable with the amount of critique I’ve given to Anne-Marie Slaughter and her cohorts in the above paragraphs, because I passionately believe we women need to stand together and support each other. Motherhood is hard, work is hard, choices are hard, LIFE is hard. We all make choices, and we have to live with all the blessings and consequences of those choices. When external circumstances, like inflexible hours or unrealistic performance expectations, interfere with our ability to make good choices, by all means let’s band together to change things.

But please, let’s not hurt each other with the expectation that all women should choose to ascend to the highest levels of their professions, or by throwing around vague and unrealistic concepts like “having it all.”

Instead, let’s applaud the women (and men) who achieve great success in their fields, and let’s make sure that it’s possible for other women to choose to follow them. Let’s also applaud the women (and men) who choose to “watch the kids,” and affirm the invaluable and essential nature of their work. Let’s be grateful for the freedom we have to make a full range of choices about motherhood and career. But let’s be grown-up and acknowledge that great success in any area will almost certainly require sacrifice in other areas.

Finally, let’s admit that the real enemy on both sides of The Mommy Wars isn’t working mothers, or stay-at-home mothers, or society, or the economy: it’s guilt. Guilt that, deep down, we all know that it’s impossible to “have it all.” And that neither dedicated motherhood, nor great career achievement, will ever really be enough to satisfy our hearts’ deepest needs. A little less guilt, a little more grace for ourselves and others, and maybe we won’t have to keep reading (and writing) these articles.

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Posted in Being a Woman, Culture & Media, Family, Parenting, Theology & Philosophy, Uncategorized | 8 Comments