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A Golden Thread Through Grief

 

From Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter

“I began to know my story then.  Like everybody’s it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead.  What is the thread that holds it all together?  Grief, I thought for a while.  And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through…But grief is not a force and has no power to hold.  You can only bear it.  Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

 

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When the World Broke

As our family drove home last night we passed the engorged parking lot of Target and it was then that my world cracked wide open.

I thought about the men that we’d sat with around the table a few hours earlier.  Having no car themselves, these men had been driven in a stranger’s car to the church.  They’d been offered toothbrushes and soap, a place to put their laundry if they wanted their clothes washed. Passing by the cots that would be their guaranteed bed for one night, they sat down at the tables we’d set up.

We started bringing dishes out.  “That looks good,” one man said. And the empty plates were filled.

Here were the men we’d been preparing for all week.  Making christmas cards, decorations, and gift bags with things as simple as a hat, a stamped letter to get in touch with a family member.  Unlike so much of America’s shoppers, we hadn’t purchased Ipods or Kindles  (how would they connect those) or a large screen TV since, unlike everyone else I knew, they didn’t have a wall to hang it on.

All week we’d had a project.

We read all the right verses about how Jesus said what we do for the least of these we do for him and how he came for the hungry, lost, and oppressed.  (All truth.)

But until we sat down with these men, it had remained a project with a whole lot of unknown.  This was the part we’d been nervous about.

But then we saw what this meal, a meal that we could have any night at our house, meant to them.

We saw the toiletries and the laundry bags and watched them stand in a circle and listen to a list of rules for their one night at the church.  Were they just glad to have a bed, or was their self-respect brought even lower by the dependency on a bunch of strangers just to eat and sleep comfortably?

Now we had faces.  Now we saw hunger. Now we saw them at the mercy of a bunch of strangers.

Suddenly each object we placed in their gift bags was no longer theoretical-we saw one gentleman put his new hat on before he headed out for a smoke.

We were past “family christmas project” and stressed out mom who had worked hard to get things done that day, to privilege.

What a privilege.

And the glowing sign of Target flashed in my head again and we continued to drive through the crack between two worlds.  There was the world getting all of their last minute shopping done and there were these men who were back at the church getting ready for their one night before they were driven somewhere else the next morning.

In the back the kids were asking, “Can we do this again, can we please do this again?”

But the elation of pulling off the whole evening had dissipated and I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that these men weren’t a project.  Tomorrow their day was going to be just as challenging as this one.  We served them one meal out of how many that they need to eat in a year?  And it made me sad that it was privilege.  It made me sad that one meal or one bit of kindness should be a big deal for them at all.

We live in a small home, our kids share rooms, we don’t own big gadgets, and yet we are so rich.  I think if we have enough food to complain about what we’re eating for breakfast, or be annoyed by the pile of stuff blocking the door, or the ability to depend only on our own selves for what we need, then we’re stinking rich, actually.

But this isn’t a post about guilt.  I’m not asking the question, “how can we all feel bad enough about our stuff?”.

It’s a post about how we weren’t designed for this world.  This isn’t our home.  This is a place of pain, hunger, longing and brokenness.  We were made for a perfect world, but sin changed all of that.  The world actually broke a long time ago but we’re pretty good at being blind.

We’re all just pitching our tents here in this world, but this world is like the cots those men slept in last night. Temporary.  The more time I spend here, the more I realize it doesn’t have anything I’m really looking for.  The more time I spend in the nursing home with my Dad and the others who live there, the more I long to pitch my tent in heaven.

Until then, yes, we’ll try really hard with the help of the Holy Spirit to discern between the lies of this world (success, money, keeping up with the Jones’, it’s all about you, everyone man for himself), and we’ll try really hard to fill the brokenness with food, kindness and love.  But we already know it’s only a patch, because this broken world will always be broken.

Thank goodness God in the flesh came to save us all.  I can’t wait til we all go home.

 

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An Act of Love

 

There is a husband leaving on business.

There is a mama in denial,

hoping for better than the worst.

 

There is throw-up all over the wall.

There is a mama who texts a picture to the husband.

There are more emergencies,

there is the last straw.

 

There is,

finally,

quiet.

 

There is a peaceful corner calling with its orange and yellow view to the outside.

There is a sketch book, pens, paints and brushes.

There is mama, caught in an act

Of creating.

There is prayer through painting.

There is painting that is prayer.

There is a gift.

Not what is brought to the page,

no,

the gift He gave of my enjoyment

in the act and of His delight in me,

enjoying.

A gift that doesn’t feel like

love through discipline

but rather love

for love’s sake.

The painting is done and then

there is more life.

 

There are groans and the Holy Spirit moving.

There is the Word, living and active.

There is the hand that delivers trials

and then delivers His people from them.

There is (a little more) faith.

From the throw-up

To the panic

To the paint

and the prayer

To the Spirit

and the Word

to the peace,

It is all Love.

 

Unfailing,

Unceasing.

(for more about His unfailing love read Psalm 107)

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What I Thought I was Teaching My Kids

If I made a list of character traits I hope we’ve instilled in our kids by the time they’re eighteen (at least the foundation of these traits), it would look something like this:

Wise, Loving, Graceful, Creative, Joyful.

All admirable things to pray for and work toward, right?  That’s what I thought, until this week.

I thought I wanted to teach my kids to “make good choices” and avoid some of the crap I’ve been through from my own sin or the sin of someone near me.

I thought I wanted to teach my kids what it means to love other people well and live for a purpose beyond their own needs and wants.

I thought I wanted to teach my kids they are and will always can be creative, to prevent that from being taken from them, and to watch them use their gifts to the glory of God.

I thought I wanted to teach my kids to know joy-not a just a life of seeking happiness, the shallowest (and most easily lost) form of joy.  Joy in the small moments.  Joy in the imperfect, messy moments.  Joy that originates and ends in the knowledge of the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth.

I do want all of those things.  But I don’t think it’s the Lord’s goal to make them feel like “pretty good Christians”.

One day when they’re 34, like me, they might get one heck of a reminder of their sinfulness (pretty much a guarantee, right?).  It will come along right when they are feeling a bit wise, a bit removed from their old self, and the reminder might not even be because of something they’ve done.

But no matter what, they will be stunned, probably angry at the interruption to what they viewed as their growth and maturity.

Later, by the grace of God, they might look beneath the anger and realize they’re angry because they’ve turned being wise and “a pretty good Christian” into an idol, and someone just messed with their idol.

And from it, like me, they might realize that all of their wisdom, love, grace and joy is completely imperfect and forever will be until the very end.  When that happens I hope they already know that all they really need to is to desperately know their need for the Lord. And accept that they’ll need Him forever.  And to have their hope in Him, only Him, and not in their own anything.

Then, like me, they can stumble along, a little stunned, but also thankful for the reminder.  Thankful beyond words.  For it was his His love that brought the reminder.

So I take another look at my list.  And think about what I can say to them when they are not 34, but still measuring below my chin.

I can say, “Do better, do better.  Get it right.  Make better choices.  Be wiser.  Stop loving so imperfectly.  Don’t mess up so much.”

or

I can say, “Grace to you.  It’s okay.  Call to the Lord.   You need him.  You’ll always need him.  Don’t try to stop needing him. You’re not trying to get it perfect.  You can’t get it perfect. So receive love and grace instead.  Let Him do His work. And you-you hope.”

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him so that you my overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

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What If I Could Have Done It Better?

I’m moving into my 34th year of anticipating fall. Inevitably, without any permission from me, the days move on-quickly.  And although my point is not that I am so very old, indulge me just for a minute.  A sampling of three recent experiences that have brought my attention to age:

First, the birthday card from my children last week included a proverb about gray hair, based, I will add, on their actual observation of the silver weaving through my brown.

Second, as we crossed the college campus last week for choir, my four ducks in a row behind me, I realized we were walking through Freshman Week.  Food, beach balls, inflatable slides,  and young, pink, new adults spread out like a new crop of awkward saplings.  I walked the campus as an invisible woman (I know I was non-existant because I didn’t even glance at people who were married with children when I was freshman). And yet the memories of my first week at college danced across my thoughts, rising with every sense of smell and taste and color. And then I did a little math to recall the year of those memories and I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so old!”

And a final, third reminder in this month of my birthday arrived through a sweet nurse that takes care of my Dad.

“I’m getting married in three weeks!” she announced with flushed cheeks.

“How old are you?” I asked after a few other comments.

“Twenty four,” she answered.  “I’ve been living with my parents and now I have to go live with a boy!” She exclaimed with equal parts excitement and concern.

After, as I sat with my Dad, my mind traveled through the decade that stood between the nurse and myself.

That’s a lot of life, I thought. Lessons of love, losing and finding identity as a parent and wife, unexpected surgeries with our second child, the six years of caring for my Dad, becoming a teacher-that’s a lot of life and lot of journey.

Oh, I realize to anyone who’s older than me, I sound like a baby mewling.  But for now I can only talk about my thirty four years and more specifically the last ten or so.

I’m thankful for the wisdom gained through experience and it makes parenting our fourth child much less stressful.  But there is pain in knowing that I can’t go back and apply anything I’ve learned to the early years.  I have to accept all of the mistakes and the hurt I’ve lived and caused during the learning of the lessons.

But I still go there.

What if I had known more about God’s grace when my first born was two?  What if I had snuggled her more and dumped the books in the garbage?

What if I had known, in the early years of our second child, that each child would be different and therefore, need different parenting?

What if I had been less angry?

What if we had seen different doctors, asked different questions, been at the hospital more in the spring of 2010, could we have kept my Dad from disappearing before our eyes?

There are both gifts and pain in knowledge.

A few weeks ago I listened to an older friend.  A friend with a decade and a half added on to my 34 years.  A friend, who now in the peak years of teenage parenting, is learning the difficult lessons that she knows will help her parent child three and four differently but can do nothing to prevent the hard road that has begun with her eldest son.

I received her words as an early birthday gift.

“I don’t spend time second-guessing and wondering how I could have done things differently.  I’ve never struggled with that.  I know that almost every day of my life I’ve gotten up and given my very best to the day with what I had at the time.  And that’s enough.”

On the drive home from my Dad, the what-ifs fill my mind, louder than the radio meant for distraction.  And as I look at the treasure of my eldest daughter: beautful on the outside, filled with gems of love and God inside, I worry “what if I had….?”

On the good days I can stop myself and think:

On all of the days I was making mistakes and laying the ground for the wisdom I’ve gained, I was doing the best, always giving the most I had to give with what I had.  Yes, the effort was broken, because I am broken, but I was giving my best effort. And that’s enough.

All of the empty spaces I’ve left in my family are the ones that God will need to come in and fill, just as He’s doing in my own empty spaces.

On those other days, the almost days where I may have gotten out of bed but my heart, my mind, my prayers, my hope all stayed under the covers, I have real regrets and I made big mistakes.  So how do I answer to the days that I can’t say I tried my best?  I can only let God answer, the same answer He’s given me through friends, through my husband, through His word:

“There is now no condemnation for those who are  in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1)

Do you feel the peace and grace trying to edge in?

 

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Extraordinary Example of Perseverance

It’s a night of feeling overwhelmed.

Of wondering about those care-free pool days that I hear about each summer.

Of stepping near the cliff that will only take me to self-pity and away from the word of truth that gives life.

I find myself again questioning God’s hand in suffering, and how to walk through these weeks with any measure of grace.

I thought of my pastor’s words, how there are times we need to be gently rebuked and reminded of the truth and promises of God’s word.  I needed someone to throw a shoe at me.

And then I thought about my daughter.

My extraordinary daughter.

The one we called mountain goat (the literal meaning of her name), princess, stubborn, and named after the girl who put a tent peg in a guy’s head (see the book of Judges).   The Lord gave her a name of beauty and strength and she’s demonstrated at least one of those attributes each day of her life.

(Just a brief note on Jellyfish.  She was born with a heart defect and underwent heart surgery when she was four days old. She was also missing a bone and finger on her left arm.  I don’t often describe her so specifically because it’s a very limited view of her as a person, but in this case it helps tell her story.)

Early on, as she learned to crawl with an arm cast and then walk with a cast, and then walk with a cast and hold about ten toys in her hands, we had a pretty good view of her determination.

When she learned to tie her shoes, ride a bike, rollerblade, and swim, my awe of this particular character trait enlarged.  It wasn’t in the moment of accomplishment, it was watching her in the process. Her eye on the goal, come what may.

In the last year she’s also fallen in love with God’s word, which has only expanded her beauty and determination.

On the before side of this last surgery I told friends she was going to go through it fighting, pushing forward, surprising us all.

And she did.

And as I look back over the past few weeks I realize I can take a few cues from her on how to walk through the next few weeks.

When she was scared, she asked me to pray.  I can ask people who care for me to pray for me.

When she was in pain, she breathed slowly, in and out, through the pain. She could have competed with the best of mamas in labor. I can ask God to help me endure the pain but not spend my time running to escape it.

When she needed peace and rest she listened to our church worship CD.  I can worship God despite my circumstances as He remains the same each day.

When she came home to face three weeks using her non-dominant (and structurally challenged) hand, she wrote, drew and ate, and climbed trees with that hand.  Let me add here that she’s also a perfectionist.  So normally she wouldn’t stand for wobbly letters and drawings, but her determination overtook her perfectionism.  I can keep walking forward instead of letting fear paralyze me.

When the physical therapist assigned homework, Jellyfish did twice the number of exercises without once needing a reminder.  I can be strong because He who made me has already given me everything I need for every good work.

And after a challenging session today, she told the therapist, “That was satisfying”.  I can move with God instead of against His hand. For “how much more should I submit to the father of our spirits and live.” (Hebrews 12:9)

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

-Hebrews 12:12 (The twelfth chapter of Hebrews is a great place to turn for encouragement and truth during a difficult trial.)

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Mama Help from Mama Blogs

I knew the bickering was an inevitable fate.

As a homeschool family we’re home all the time together, so that’s not a new element for summer.

But now we’re at home together, with no goals or forward motion.

We have a cast on one child, so no pools.

We have a two year old which adds limitations that some of my friends with a five year old and up have left behind.

That means during the summer I often feel left behind.  And with too much time inside, and a couple of siblings who have a constant opinion about every movement or word uttered by another sibling, well, kaboom.

And kaboom for Mama!

By tuesday even kind words were leading to explosions.

Mookie is unhappy with her piece of art.  “This just isn’t right!

Her sister approaches and I hold my breath since her instinct is usually to give specific insight of what would improve someone else’s art.

“I think it’s great,” she encouraged.

I let my breath out.

Mookie rolls her eyes and gives her sister the death stare, assuming that the compliment was only a cover for a hidden criticism.

Kaboom, I explode.

A few nights ago I was aimlessly wandering through blogland in an attempt to ignore the challenges that awaited me the next day, and I found a couple of weapons, well, wisdom, well, life jackets, that lifted me up for the rest of the week.

After the first minutes of exploring the blog Inspired to Action, I’d already decided that all of the encouragement I’d ever wanted to give to mamas had already been written, with more wisdom and more wit and more skill than I had in me, so I better just stop blogging and maybe take up a new hobby.  Something non-computer or writing related, such as fly fishing.

I’m so glad she is such a great writer and passionate mom because watching the video she’s recorded about motherhood and skimming her ebook about how to get a better start to my morning reminded me that my purpose as a mother is greater than just to survive.

I’d started to forget this week.

Some of the inspiring resources on her site that you need to check out:

In the same session of late night perusal, I found some new resources on Quiet Times for Kids.

  • Check out their video blogs with tips on parenting.
  • Go to their Free Printables Page to print a Yield Sign with Scripture designed to slow down sibling rivalry.
  • Print out the blessing jar coupons to reward your children for yielding with their mouths, attitudes, and hearts.
  • Buy their new Bible Study on the Armor of God and receive two dollars off (coupon code is “twodollarsoff”)

I’ve been going back to all of these resources over the past few days.  I’ve started to change my morning routine, waking up just a bit earlier in order to be ready to greet my kids.  We’ve also introduced the yield signs and the blessing jar starts monday.

Thank goodness for moms who share their wisdom and their imperfection.

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When the Unknown Arrives

It’s the unknown factors that make the waiting period before an event (particularly a dreaded event) so torturous.  The imagination is open wide to all scenarios.  I always hope, as I’m sure you do, that once reality arrives it will be so much better than the hypothetical.

For several years we’ve postponed elective surgery of Jellybean’s hand until, after much thought and prayer, it became clear that we needed to do the surgery.

In the weeks leading up to the event, I couldn’t really plan for post-surgery, because so many of the variables remained unknown.  Would she be in much pain? How would she be able to eat and do daily tasks with her left hand (which has undergone past reconstructive surgeries)? What, if any, summer activities would we be able to participate in? I certainly didn’t linger on how I would take care of her extra needs and the normal needs of her siblings.

Now the unknown has become known, and unfortunately the last five days have fit perfectly into my pre-surgery imagined scenario (the worse case version).

Here is a collage of moments, those I hope to remember about my brave daughter, those that make me want to cry, those that helped us laugh, and few that I’d welcome into the well of lost memories.

The best moment: When the surgeon came out to speak to us and we knew she had come through surgery. Any mom or dad who has placed their child into the hands of a surgeon would understand that moment.

The moment to make us laugh and then cry: Seeing her incredibly huge cast (starting just below her shoulder and extending down her arm and enclosing her entire hand in a bulbous peak). It was an unanticipated problem, hilarious in a “take your breathe away with surprise and horror”. And then less so when they told us that the ridiculous thing was correct.  And heartbreaking as she saw through sleepy eyes something so much more than what she feared.

The moment when causing someone pain in order to get her pain relieved seemed like a reasonable idea to consider: She cried, “I can’t bear it, mommy”. Seven hours home from the hospital and we got in the car to head to the E.R. Two hours later she still cried in pain before anyone gave her medicine. Three doses of morhpine after that before she was finally out of pain.  Anger at a new level.

One of the (many)moments I watched her with awe: At the E.R., the third time they tried for an I.V., after trying twice in the foot, still experiencing the pain from her arm because the medicine she’s yet to get is going to come through the i.v.. She didn’t cry, she breathed in and out deeply, and listened to her music. The second time we checked into the E.R.(five minutes after we were discharged from the E.R. because she was crying in pain by the time we got to the car) and another I.V. was needed. Again no crying, just a lot of breathing (she even started to appreciate that the I.V meant less needles in the long run and that it delivered good medicine).

When I most wanted to give a wake-up call to the nurses: Before surgery, when my daughter who does not like to be treated like a baby, was spoken to like an infant(she’s 8 and half) and offered bubbles as a distraction. “Look how this lights up your finger,” the nurse cooed as she took her vitals. If Jellybean hadn’t been so scared, she would have growled at them.

One of moments when we laughed: “I wish we could take this medicine home with us, Mommy”, she said calmly and peacefully after many rounds of morphine.

When I remembered to be thankful: Five hours into the E.R. visit gone bad, and I remembered my original fear that she wouldn’t even be with us after the surgery, and I thought, “I’ll take this, I’m just glad to be with her, right here.”

The sweet part: Jellybean is my most independent, my least talkative about heart matters, the one who can go days without really seeming to need her mama. With all of the kids tucked away with friends and family, I got to be her constant comforter and she wanted me to be just that. She told me I should be a nurse and she never wanted me to be away for any time. It’s already changed because the rest of the crew is back in the house and I’m sliced into smaller quarter mamas, but I’m so thankful I could comfort her when she needed it.

Another laughing moment: When she said Froggy’s shirt would be her sleeping mask (like in surgery) and she wrapped the no longer pink shirt of her very favorite animal over her nose and proceeded to “breathe in” the smelly comfort only a long time stuffed friend can give.

When Netflix instant play became the ultimate pain medicine: Despite the lack of t.v. and video love we have in our family, I am firmly convinced that the ready appearance of the Backyardigans and the Cosby show with the push of a button saved us further trips back to the E.R.(and gave mama and daddy a few hours of sleep). In the middle of the night, when it’s still an hour and half before she can have more pain medicine, it’s the only thing that can take her focus completely away from her hand. And for now, that is a beautiful thing.

The best laughing moment: when I walked in to find her introducing Froggy to Mr. Cast.

There are many tough things about today, and the next few weeks, and the unknown of how her hand will be when the results of the surgery are revealed when Mr. Cast is removed.  An endless list of moments, some of which are better remembered than lived.

Right now we’re one tired family and all we know is that we have one very brave girl.  Of course, that was the one known before we ever entered the hospital.

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