Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On This Foundation

Looking for that one last Christmas present for the avid reader in your life?  Lynn Austin's third book On This Foundation in her "The Restoration Chronicles" series is a definite "yes" for anyone wanting to see the sparse words of Scripture come alive in historical fiction. 

In the first book Return to Me, Austin follows a family living in Babylon at the time when King Cyrus takes over the nation and decrees the Jewish exiles can return to their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.  The pages track the struggles and persecutions those exiles endured upon their return. 

The second book in the series Keepers of the Covenant tracks the life of the prophet Ezra as he must lead the Jewish remnant living in Babylon back home to Jerusalem.

This third book continues forward in time, this time with the prophet Nehemiah and his quest to rebuild the fire-burned gates and stone walls of Jerusalem, which were destroyed when the Babylonians lay siege to the city before the people's exile.

As expected, Nehemiah meets with fierce opposition from the surrounding nations' leaders, some of whom want to rule Jerusalem, themselves.  What Nehemiah doesn't expect, though, is opposition from within, and he quickly learns he cannot even trust his own people, some of whom are related by marriage to his enemies.

As the wall rapidly takes shape, the reader follows the background story of a nation-wide drought and subsequent famine that leaves the poorer families with no choice but to sell their own blood as bond servants to the richer landholders in order to survive.

Austin's bringing to life the pages of Nehemiah in Scripture is, as always, enthralling and so very real.  The themes of forgiveness, perseverance, obedience to all of God's laws, and prayer intertwine into one fluid story. 

For instance, in one passage, the bondservant Nava bucks against her plight, her words sounding so similar to ones I've felt myself at times.  She says, "Sometimes I wonder if God is angry with me.  Why else would He put my family and me through all this hardship?  He could send rain, make our crops grow--He can do anything.  But he doesn't" (p. 323).   

Simon responds, "So you do believe in Him.  You just don't trust Him.  And you want your own way....These goats sometimes kick and fight and want their own way.  When we take them out to graze and make them walk through the hot, dry wilderness, they don't like it.  But we know it's for their own good to go up into those hills.  They'll find what they  need there.  You can either trust the Good Shepherd, girlie, or kick and fight.  Seems to me you're kicking" (p. 323).

Powerful words to ponder...

Thursday, August 27, 2015

When the Mighty Fall

I'm standing at the back window watching a forest die.  This is the fourth day I have awakened at grainy daylight to the noise of death.

You'd think it would be quieter.  But in our modern age, trees don't fall one by one, axe slowly dropping the mighty to their knees.  In our world, they fall by the thousands, cold machines felling in a single hour what once took a team of men from sunrise to sunset on a single day.

Have you thought of how much death can happen with just the flick of a switch? The push of a button? A single word?

 The posting of a single stolen data file?

In a fully mechanized, electronically connected world like ours, the slice of death can come in an instant, leveling hundreds, thousands of trees...and by late afternoon, everybody will know it.

Even in my sorrow, I must bow my head in awe to the seamless mechanized dance playing out before me.  The music starts and steel claws grab the giraffe-like trunk while the ever-whirling saw blade edges forward and separates the body from life-giving roots.

You would think that would be it.  Dance over.  But even when the blade has retracted, when that thin line between life and death has been breached, still, the tree doesn't fall.

For a few seconds, it is held in place by the giant hand with its death grip, the trunk still standing just as tall as if it has somehow managed to avoid the unavoidable, as if of all the trees in the forest, it, alone, has managed to escape this invincible power that has swept great and small from the landscape.

And then as all creation seems to hold its breath in pause, the operator pushes a lever and the machine dances backwards in a circle away from a newly-exposed stump, mighty trunk still towering in hand, spinning left then right as if in a waltz graceful across the forest floor towards the pile of others who were lay to earth only moments before.
The music continues onward as if there are still more steps to be remembered, and indeed there are, but the hand lets go of its partner, and this tree, too, falls with a swoosh of pine needles and an audible thump as it comes to rest with the other fallen. The dance, though, does not stop; the machine simply turns its back and grabs the next partner it finds to repeat this never-ending waltz.

In the digital age, the death of even one tree echoes across the land, across the world.  But a forest?  A forest does not go gently....a forest does not go quietly.

The sounds reverberate from sunup and sundown. Yet, even after death has stopped for the day? Sometimes, I catch myself thinking I hear it again.  Even in the silence of an inky, moonless night, my head flies upwards in surprise every now and then, the four-day-old sound of death now so familiar to me that I hear it even when it is not there--the slice of the blade, the grinding resistance of pulpy flesh, the limbs scraping downwards, the heavy beat of finality in the dirt.

In those moments, I long will it take me before I don't hear this song anymore? 

How many mornings and evenings before it, too, dies in a memory prone to forgetfulness?

Today, the fallen nearest my home still lay where they fell, each trunk's rings exposed for all to see, their formerly-hidden life stories printed in alternating black and white, stories the curious, the vindictive, the judgmental, the proud clamor to read.

I refuse to read their rings, the little bit of knowledge I have glimpsed through the barbed wire fence already too sorrowful for me to bear.

The waltz plays on, but these fallen lay silently waiting for the coroner to pronounce their death and truck them away where they will be stripped, shredded, ground into a mere shadow of their former selves before finding new life in a new purpose...the smaller ones, though, I fear will be left to rot back into the dust from whence they came, never again finding new life...never finding redemption or restoration.

I mourn.  Not just for the trees, though.  Their names may be the ones that come to my lips, but I have no idea the throngs that have been affected in the past four many still will be affected by their deaths in the days to come.  The death of a forest displaces a host of both the gentle and the strong, the predator and the prey.

I look for signs of life, but there are none.  I wonder how many escaped during the night to try and find protection elsewhere.  How many died along with the fallen trees? How many are among the living dead, in total shock from the destruction of everything around them, still hiding beneath the fallen branches in hopes that if they just wait long enough, everything will be as it once was?  

But it won't be.  It will never be just as it was.  

Even if our neighbor replanted seedlings today...even if every single one grew into a strong sapling... Still..still, it would be 20 years before that new forest grew up healthy and strong enough to provide shelter and sustenance for all who had been laid bare and exposed by the loss of the fallen. 

I'm not the only one mourning for a forest today, multiple generations of trees cut off and laid on the ground, their rings exposed for all to see.

We will continue to feel their loss.  Our children will feel their loss.

Like those towering trunks lay before me, I, too, fall.

On my knees, face to the earth, I cry and beg the Lord for repentance. for forgiveness. for mercy. for restoration.

 Please, Father.  For the sake of this generation and the generations to us from ourselves.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Changing Rings

Today I am not wearing the wedding band husband slipped on my finger when we promised each other forever.  Most days, that glittering symbol of our mutual devotion sits safely in my jewelry chest, far from the dirt and grime of farm life. 

There was a time when I thought I would never take it off.  One lazy Sunday afternoon not too long after my engagement, I sat daydreaming in the warmth of a Louisiana autumn sun.  My head hovered high above in the clouds as I imagined my upcoming wedding and held up the pear-shaped diamond engagement ring to catch the light.

With one tilt of my hand, my heart did a nosedive.  Something new was inside my diamond— a dark crack now ran its inner length.  Somehow, I had managed to crack the hardest natural stone on earth.

Moments later on the swivel chair in the back room, I lay my head atop my mother’s sewing machine and sobbed uncontrollably into the phone.  My then fiancĂ© thought someone had died until I managed to choke out the words “I broke your ring!” before I dissolved again.

With all the seriousness a 24-year-old could muster, my younger self vowed that if the insurance company couldn’t get a replacement ring back on my finger in time for the wedding ceremony, I would simply live with a cracked diamond for the rest of my life.

A month later, a relieved fiancé slipped a second engagement ring on my finger.

Today, though, a simple $10 silver band adorns that same digit.

“I love you” is stamped crudely along its outer run.  When I take it off, the second half of the phrase stares back at me…”to the moon and back.”

As a wife and mother living on an active hay farm, much of my time is spent cooking, washing dishes, picking up after three children, and digging in the dirt.  In March 2014, my father lost and found his ring while working outside.  It was then that I realized I was just asking for the same to happen to me, especially when at day’s end, I sometimes couldn’t even see the brightness on my finger for the dirt caked on top.

I didn’t want to go naked. I couldn’t imagine giving anyone the idea that I was free—or that I wanted to be free--from my marriage covenant, even if the likelihood of anyone seeing my ring-less hand here on the farm was super slim. I even hinted to husband of my fears, hoping he’d offer me some bubble gum machine replacement.  But, he didn’t.  So, I did. 

When I would go off the farm, I’d slip on husband’s ring again.  But at home, I grew more comfortable with the simple band I didn’t have to worry about losing, cracking, or coating with last fall’s horse manure now turned rich garden soil.

Still, I felt guilty about what I’d done.  For a solid year, I felt as if I were betraying my husband’s love every time I slipped off my wedding band and replaced it with the silver band. 

Then, one night, husband mentioned the ring in passing, saying, “I like to see you digging in the dirt.”

That simple, honest statement gave me a voice to reveal how guilty I’d felt about wearing it, my mind spilling over dozens of words to his nine. 

His response was, as always, quiet and level to my nervous noise.  “I liked that you still wanted everyone to know you were still married.”

I slipped my hand in his, thankful for this man who would rather be involved in the being married than in the mere trappings of what our marriage once was in the beginning. 

This must be what it is to grow old together, to get to a point where the symbols of our marriage are still sweet but the daily working side by side together among the weeds, gardens, sick children, chicken coops, and homemade swing sets…the actions we do as one because we are married are even sweeter.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Willing Exchange: Training for My First Half Marathon

 This is the photo that shows who I am more than any others taken in the last few months.  It shows a mother stooping down from the towering height of adulthood to join the lower sphere of childhood, a physical act that never fails to immediately communicate to my children their importance to me. You have mommy's full attention. Go!

In this moment, I listen intently to my oldest son's proud retelling of his first 5K, all while I make sure shoelaces are tight on the little ones for their mile fun run.  Wyatt's younger brother listens with great excitement, bubbling over to ask if he can run the "big" race next year.  His younger sister ignores everything but the sparkles on his medal as she talks over him to say how warm she is wearing big brother's coat.

A short half hour before, Wyatt was all nerves, thin smiling at the camera even as I tucked my cell phone into a waist-pack and secured it with huge safety pins around his slim waist.

My arms held onto his until he looked me in the eyes.  "You are safe. I will be able to see you on daddy's phone at every moment."  If he ever felt lost, there would be police everywhere.  They would be blocking every intersection to protect him.

The night before, I had even drawn him a rough map that he rattled back to me on the drive into the city:  "Past the tree from last year's race, over the hill, then turn around when a lot of other people do and come back." 

Still, he was a bundle of nerves whether from the idea of running the longer race or from running it alone.

I can identify with his face.  It's accompanied with a gnawing fear in your gut that no matter how well you've trained, you're going to fail, you know, the "is-this-the-stomach-flu-or-am-I-just-really-nervous" kind of nauseous feeling.

It has been two months since I last wrote here on this blog, not because I've lacked the words to say but because I've either lacked the time or the heavenly permission to pen the words while still following the "do no harm" rule of blogging.  

Since May, I have been day-to-day "raising" a 21-year-old adopted daughter, attempting to pour 21 years of love, knowledge, and wisdom into her within the course of a single year.  Love is a time-intensive, trust-establishing endeavor, its intricacies too delicate for even the electronic publishing world. 

But what stopped me in my writing tracks quite literally was illness that attacked our family from before Thanksgiving until Christmas. It started with the children having a chest cold that was then followed by this mommy going down hard with the flu only to fall again to the stomach flu two weeks later.

All the while, I was training for my first half marathon, a 13.1 mile Mt. Everest to this non-athletic woman who only ran her first 5K the year before. In January 2014, I had felt God leading me to commit to this insanity, an urging that was confirmed time and time again throughout the year whenever I questioned the call.

I began training in August starting with a simple half mile. I even enlisted a close friend Connie to be my prayer/accountability partner to keep me on my toes.  Despite my inability, I felt God's presence in my journey; I was making good progress, running up to eight miles without suffering the usual debilitating allergy attacks.  In October, I even ran my first 10K.  Two lost toenails later, I was well on my way.

Then came a full week of bed-ridden flu along with a full week's recovery afterwards.  I remember sitting beneath my mother's Christmas tree as the children swirled around me--my body and mind were weak, weary, and defeated.  Four weeks out from the race, it felt like I was starting over.  Three mile runs felt like ten. Six miles felt like my chest was going to burst. And the allergy attacks were back.

Mrs. Connie received a barrage of texts petitioning her almost daily to pray for me strength, courage, and steadfastness.  She prayed. She encouraged.  My strength did return, and I attacked my training with renewed diligence.  To keep away the guilt of feeling like I was stealing time from my children who were off on holiday, I staggered their 2-3 mile runs so that they would have "individual" time with mommy for at least 7 miles of my 10 mile runs.

Last Sunday, January 18, I ran (not walked) the race set before me--13.1 miles in The Louisiana Half Marathon in 2 hours 41 minutes. Those of you with a calculator will see I'm not a fast runner at a little over 12 minutes a mile, but I'm ok with that. As difficult as it was at times, I enjoyed the training, especially running with my children and the alone worship time with God; I even enjoyed the race itself.

Later that same day as I went to show my 91-year-old grandmother my medal, she asked me how many miles that was.  Her eyes widened in surprise as they met mine.  "I didn't know you could do that," she said.

Yes, I can do a whole lot more than I ever thought I could .  But everything has a cost.  It's all about whether I'm willing to give something up in exchange for doing whatever that something else may be.

Giving up my personal time to train up a 21-year-old to be a light for Jesus in the world?  That's an exchange I'm willing to make.  But training for a full marathon would require me to take more time away from my family.  As much as I really enjoy running, that's just  not an exchange I'm willing to make right now.  For now, I'm working to pick back up everything that got set aside during my training, including this blog. 

More than anything, I want to continue being that mother in the first picture, stooping to the earth to hear my children's voices.  Whatever I do, it will be with them, whether that is training together for a 5K or walking ever so slowly down the driveway to Oma's house.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Meets Monster Bots

I live in a boy-centered household.  Sure, my daughter and I bring a good level of estrogen into the mix, but with two boys, we girls often find ourselves drawing pictures of monsters, playing imaginary games centered around dragons (and monsters), and designing monsters or (surprise!) monster traps.

How a fluffy pink and purple cat named Moon Star Kitty can transform into a monster in the hands of the boys is definitely a masculine leap of the imagination.  But, both Amelia and I have learned to enter into their world while sprinkling it with some feminine princess sparkles and plots about becoming a sous chef or veterinarian.

When it comes to finding reading material for these imaginative six and eight year-olds, I find myself working overtime to find books that appeal to both genders.  Thankfully, I have achieved success thus far with the Magic Tree House, Berenstain Bears, and A to Z Mysteries book series, all of which have both male and female main characters. 

However, as my oldest son edges ever closer to a middle school reading level, I am conscious of how many books are not age appropriate when it comes to their content.
Ron Bates' newest How to Survive Middle School & Monster Bots--a sequel to book one in the series entitled How to Make Friends & Monsters--is fun for the tween set without being crude, inappropriate, or espousing values like laziness, deceitfulness, and selfishness as does the ever-popular and hilarious Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

The book series' premise is that Howard Boward is a super-smart middle school boy who is constantly picked on by mischievous-spirited bullies.  The books do a good job demonstrating  typical middle school environment with first crushes, first dances, wedgies, snowballs, and alienation from the in-crowd.

Bates' second novel focuses on Howard realizing that his academic rival is part of a science club sponsored by his favorite teacher at school.  Unbeknownst to him, for months, the club members have been building robots, and when Howard finds out, he thinks he can just put one together overnight in his garage's secret lab. 

When things don't work out as expected, Howard decides to use monster goo, which got him in trouble in the first book of the series.  A robot literally pops out overnight, and Howard decides to enter it into the contest, which is the equivalent of cheating.  Along the way, he struggles to understand how the other club members can want to help each other, even when they are competing.  He also learns that a quiet guy in his class actually is hearing impaired (not a super spy or an alien) and quite a good friend.

Of course, Howard's robot is comically uncontrollable and begins stealing parts from around town as it replicates itself to build a robot army.  The result is part mystery, part comedy, part real-life drama.

Overall, the novel does a good job of teaching--but not preaching--about the value of hard work, of helping others, of not judging based on appearances, of trying new things, and of not getting even with your bully enemies even if you have the robot-power to do so.

My only critique is that it takes over half of the book for Howard to start learning these lessons so that the conclusion feels rushed.  Still, my boys love anything with Monsters, and this definitely fits the bill to make them and mom happy.

Friday, October 31, 2014

When A Beloved Soldier Comes Home

It's been almost a year since my mother, sister-in-love, and I found three identical boxes under the Christmas tree.  Each contained a multi-corded bracelet made out of caramel and walnut leather ending in a simple, silver anchor.

Ten months ago when my brother, Johnathan, left home, we three put them on as a reminder to pray throughout each day for a son, husband, and brother deployed halfway around the world with a thousand other men and women on the U.S.S. Bataan. 

I faithfully wrapped the bracelet around my wrist every morning after dressing, set it on the bedside table with my wedding band every night.

And in between, I prayed.

When I pushed the circle higher up my forearm to keep it out of the greasy pots-and-pans dishwater after every meal, I prayed.

When I picked flakes of dried mud from the leather after weeding another runaway flower bed, I prayed.

When the silver anchor twirled round my wrist to hang invisible by my pulse for the umpteenth time, I swirled it back to the top again...and I prayed.   

When the hard metal continuously beat time on my wrist as I trained for my half marathon in January, I prayed.

When my husband unconsciously rotated the bracelet with his rough fingers during worship service, I prayed.

When I closed the lid to the washing machine, when I sat to read a book on the kindle, when I watched television with my adopted daughter, when I sat waiting for the school bus, when I reached to help my three young ones with their homework--it didn't matter what I was doing.  I Prayed.  

Whether or not I found time that day to make a post office run, to make the children write a story, or to shoot an email across the seas, my bracelet was a physical reminder to make sure I never went more than a few hours without thinking of my brother and sending up a prayer to the Lord for his safety, health, and peace.

By the end of last week, we received word that this past Sunday was the day we had been longing for with anticipation.  By noon, Johnathan would return home to his wife, Liza, in North Carolina.  She put it best when she said the anticipation felt like Christmas and her wedding day all rolled into one.

That morning, I told husband I couldn't bring my cell phone into church because I was sure I would be repeatedly checking it just for word that Johnathan's shoes had touched down on American soil again. Less than half an hour after we finished worship, there he and Liza were, smiling back at me from the phone.

Although I couldn't be there to see him come back to us, I still feel like I was.  And it did feel like Christmas. still does.  I can't suppress a silly grin of face-glowing happiness as I write this and feel my chest warm and swell just from looking at this photo of two of my favorite people.

That was Sunday.  On Tuesday, although it felt strange, I took off the bracelet and set it in the top drawer of my jewelry chest.  It had served its purpose. 

Today is Friday, and the bracelet is back on my wrist. 

While my brother is no longer in the Middle East where he needs to be surrounded by prayer so intensely, the past few weeks have brought me an increase in prayer needs like I haven't seen in years. 

My Grandma in Michigan fell and broke her collar bone.  My Aunt broke seven ribs when she was slammed into by another vehicle. My pastor's father is in the last stages of cancer, and the family has called in hospice.  My husband's cousin just down the road from us has also called in hospice for his mother with Alzheimer's. 

A seemingly healthy friend has been overnight diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.  Another dear friend is broken over a wayward daughter who is suffering depression as she reaps the consequences of sin.  My adopted daughter is struggling with her internship and her own set of personal prayer needs. Another dear friend is having surgery in a couple weeks to remove scar tissue.

The needs are so many.  They are so serious.  They are so personal, burdening my heart not simply for the afflicted but for their families as well.

I find I cannot simply pray in my limited quiet time or with our family at night and then go do my own thing throughout the rest of the day.  It just doesn't seem sufficient. 

I will think of my brother each time I look at this bracelet.  Yes.  But more than that, now when I feel the cool metal of the silver anchor or when I rotate its rough interwoven cords around my wrist, I am reminded to be that anchor of prayer for others. 

I want to be that prayer warrior--the one who doesn't forget, the one whose life is affected throughout the day by true concern.  I want my daily life to be interrupted by these needs instead of compartmentalizing them in what feels more like a token prayer during my quiet time.

It is my desire to be just such a warrior...even if I do need a constant reminder on my wrist to make it happen.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

If You Don't Have Much To Offer

With no traffic and no children to chew up the clock, I arrive at the nursing home too early.  Stacks of cafeteria-style plastic breakfast dishes still clutter all the tables in the main dining room, and up front, a row of residents is in the middle of exercising from their wheel chairs.

I quietly slip in the back door, hoping to not interrupt the lifting of arms and legs, but several faces light up in recognition as they turn my way.  It's indescribable how welcomed and loved I feel in this moment.

The man who was born with several holes in his heart raises his arms to wave me towards him.  I call him by name and grab the trembling hand he holds out to me.  Unless I focus really hard on reading lips, I never know what he's trying to communicate, but it doesn't matter.  All he wants is someone to reach out to him, to enter his lonely world, even if it's just for a few short minutes.

Today, we "talk" about the gold LSU hat he is sporting, the frozen coke in his hands, the cooler autumn weather outside.

When I glance across the room, another lady tries to catch my eye.  She doesn't call me over, but it's obvious from her tight smile and intense gaze that she is hoping I will lavish a little attention on her, too.

She's been here for several years.  I know her face but not her name.  Still, I notice that her countenance is so changed from the closed-off woman I saw last month.  I offer a hug, kiss her cheek, and ask how she's doing today.

"A lot better than the last time you were here," she responds.

We talk of my twins who are in kindergarten, and I realize this is only the second trip I've ever made without my children.  Before, I felt I could at least offer my children up as a gift to these residents.  Now, I have only myself.

To my left, another lady holds out her hand to me.  Hers is the color of deep, burnished bronze, mine of caramel creamer.  Today, though, she holds on to me like a newborn babe, her grip tight and firm.

 "Oh Jesus..." she murmurs.  "Oh Father..."

It's obvious she's in pain.  When I ask her name, I learn it is Ms. Buela, and my heart feels a sadness, remembering the Ms. Buela who used to talk with me about her crocheting projects  each month.  I always looked forward to her loud-printed muumuus and soft, grandmotherly roundness.  Without her, the room seems that much more drained of color, of life.

This Ms. Buela before me is thin like the willow tree, walnut-hard angles where the other had milky, flowing curves.  Yet, there is strength in her wiry frame.  She will not let me go, and I wonder if just the touch of another person is enough to help stem the pain she feels, even if just for a few minutes.

Still tight in her grasp, I bend down and speak aloud a prayer over her.  

It is all I have to offer.

The faces in this dining hall are the same but are always changing, too.  Each month, I come to them with not much to give--I can't heal them; I can't take away their pain or restore their youth; I can't offer them a better place to spend their last days.

I can only give a bit of myself--a touch of affection, a friendly smile, a greeting full of love and kindness.

No, it's not enough.  It's not world changing.  But it is a gift freely given out of love and compassion, something our world needs so much more of.

And in return, in their own way, they give what they can, too--a smile, a handshake, a word of greeting.

When I leave for the day, I am the one who feels loved.