Friday, July 29, 2011

Daily Sufficient Grace

We're down to the end of the month I dreaded thirty days before flipping the calendar over. Even though the page was thick and opaque, I knew what lay beneath, that the minor league structured chaos of June was only a warm up for the major leagues of July.

To anyone but me, the tiny boxes engraved with cryptic notations appeared innocent enough. Yet, the simple shorthand was deceptive, a "BR-A#1DB" requiring two hours of my time while a SL-A#2 would mean at least four hours labor.

To have a job where I can stay home with my young children is a glorious blessing...but overwhelming at times. The sun sees me teaching oldest son to do crossword puzzles, mazes, and to read; helping toddler twins learn to paint, play board games, sit still for more than one book at a time, and put together puzzles. The moon sees me camped in front of a computer, many times working 7-hour shifts that only begin at 8 pm.

As I said--overwhelming.

Several years ago when I worked with at-risk students, I learned how short-term goal-setting has a considerable psychological effect on the way people feel about their progress. Merely visualizing the end goal wasn't as important as seeing the baby steps along the way.

With the month's turning, I felt a sense of panic, much like my students, as I looked at a sea of letters and numbers scrunched in little boxes. So, at each day's end, I placed an X atop those activities. It wasn't long before there were more squares with X's than without.

Today marked the end of the summer semester, all grades tallied and submitted. As I leaned back in the office chair, I glanced at the wall and realized in the intensity of completing end-of-the-semester paperwork last night, I had forgotten to put my X.

Searching always-cluttered office desk for red marker, my mind had already slowed its incessant chattering of lists and things to be done. And in that stillness of mind, I caught that glimpse of God--I saw.

How could I have been blind, so deaf? He has been literally yelling the past week, through my own children, but I have been both mute and dumb.

The past two days, Wyatt and Emerson have been adamant about bringing me a board-book Bible to read. I read the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Passover twice just this morning. Even last night, listening to the Word and Song Bible, Wyatt said, "Listen, mommy. This is the same story of the Israelites! You're going to miss it!"

I did almost miss it. Before me on the wall, I see not X's but red crosses covering each day's work.

I bow low. Yes, yes. The blood of that Passover lamb--His grace has covered each day, has given me strength sufficient to do what I could not do on my own, has sustained me each moment.

I give thanks to Him who is the true author, perfector and finisher of all my labors.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Death of Civility

Husband and I have a long list of topics we don't agree upon--some political, but most concerning Scripture. In the early years of our marriage, we hashed them all out, bringing to the metaphorical table our best arguments. Those were the days when we would sit in front of the computer to more rapidly find our evidence as the debate proceeded, the flipping of Bible-thin pages much too slow in finding the verses our minds knew in part but not in whole or context.

There was no name calling, but sometimes, the debates were heated, blood pressure spiking and cheeks flushing with heat; other times, tense frustration reigned when the other couldn't seem to even consider a different stance. Yet, in the end? I'm not sure he changed his mind on much of anything...or that I did, either.

Most every debate ended with heart rates back to normal, an acknowledgement that we could each see the other's sub-points, agreeing that there was no way to know for sure who was correct yet disagreeing about which side of the argument we fell. More importantly, we agreed that these were rib issues, not make-or-break spine issues.

But, this isn't the normal reaction I see around me.

Over the past decade, I've noticed a shift toward anger, hatred, hostility directed at any idea, group, or person who thinks differently than ourselves. In mainstream America, it seems everything is a spine issue. Any disagreement and you'll find yourself de-friended on Facebook, labelled a cult, a hater, stupid, racist, narrow-minded, homophobe.

A few years ago, our church even split over disagreements concerning some of these rib issues husband and I live quite contentedly in disagreement with each day. The breaking--it's something I'm still not over. But the breaking wasn't as bad as the after, a year later having my Grandmother draw me in close to whisper in my ear, telling me her Sunday School class had been told my church was actually a cult.

When did we lose the ability to agree to disagree? When did intellectual debate become uncivilized, focusing more on emotion, inflammatory language and slander than on the issues?

Allister McGrath's newest book, Why God Won't Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty, shows one group in a long line that is taking this path of hostility. His text seeks to define who the major players in New Atheism are; what they believe; how those beliefs stack up in the face of reason, science, and Christianity; and why this movement has, at best, stagnated.

McGrath presents New Atheism as a radical off-shoot of the culturally respectful atheism of indifference. Unlike their predecessors, New Atheists seem to rely on shock value in their emotional outbursts of hatred against religion more so than on serious, intellectual argument that would contribute to the debate.

According to McGrath's concise summary of three major New Atheist texts, this sect's primary tenet conflates religion and belief in God, claiming both are irrational and necessarily evil. In short, New Atheists believe that since religion cannot prove itself with reason, it seeks to impose its beliefs on others, is oppressive, and serves as the root of all violence. The solution to all evil, oppression and violence in the world? Eradicate religion and belief in God.

McGrath offers rebuttal to each line of thought, concluding at one point that "Maybe it's not that religion corrupts humanity but that a corrupt humanity creates a look-alike religion" (92).

Where I grew interested were in his critiques of these New Atheists. In one part, he says, "Believing that the rest of humanity is deluded does, I fear, generate a certain unpleasant smugness on the part of these 'true believers'" (97). In another, he explored how followers of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins don't know much about what their hallowed leader believes.

I know I was reading a text about New Atheism, but I could just as easily have been reading a book about Christians or Mormons or Muslims who demonstrate the same smugness, believing they have God all nailed-down, who demonstrate the same ignorance when it comes to knowing what their religion really believes and why. Not much difference here.

What surprised me most was how accessible the book was. With the words "historian, theologian, and scholar" before his name, I anticipated a tough, high-brow read. Instead, I found McGrath to give serious, intellectual argument in an easy-to-follow and understand style, quite unusual and refreshing in a sea of theological texts that talk above the heads of most readers.

It should be easy to see how the New Atheist line of thinking is dangerous and regressive in terms of human tolerance. But, I'd go further and say that society's thinking in general is regressing. Differences untolerated are just holocausts waiting to happen.

*I receive no compensation for my review other than a complementary copy of the book from Thomas Nelson.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mischief Managed

Amelia met me at the door with her baby blanket, the one she carries around like the Peanuts' character Linus, except this one is patterned with girlish pastel hearts and was made by her Grand Mama when infant girl refused to sleep if not tightly swaddled.

With both hands, she held the crumpled blob of cloth out to me. "Wyatt put my blanket in the fish tank. Can you wash it?"

The fish tank!?

Eyes struggling to adjust to inside light, I saw the blanket wasn't just a little wet. Tiny rivulets of water streamed onto the tile beneath, a puddle growing between us with my every passing second of indecision.

Beyond her lay a path of similar puddles that dripped straight across the full length of the house to the thirty gallon fish tank in the living room.

Emerson and I had only been outside fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, weeding a rose bed, getting eaten by ants, and chopping dead limbs off a tree that fell in last month's wind storm. It was like I had an 18-month old again with the creative intellect of a 4-year-old, unable to be left alone for a second because of what he might dream up to do.

"Wyatt!!!!!" I screamed, grabbing towels and hurriedly starting the cleanup before the water damaged the floor. "Where are you!?"

Silence. Then, guilty little boy peeked his head out of the sun room, his down-cast face a mixture of pleased-with-himself mischief and penitence over the mess, too much the former for this mother already on soaked towel number three.

"What happened? What in the world were you thinking, son!?"

He squirmed, twisting around the door frame. "I was trying to catch a fish."


Speechless. What does a mother say in the face of such a statement? I surely didn't know. So, I sent him to his room.

As I cleaned on hands and knees, sounds of the twins murmuring came from the sun room. Every few mumbled words, I'd catch the word "Wyatt." Then, each came towards me with chubby fingers carrying apples, red delicious still cold from their home in the bottom refrigerator drawer.

One apple, two, three...they grinned at the gift-giving and Wyatt-tattling, bringing me two at a time until there were twelve sitting amidst the crayons scattered on the dining room table. Only one had two bites taken out of its side.

First deep sea fishing and now hoarding apples?

Once upstairs, I sat cross-legged on Emerson's bed and looked across at boy hiding under John Deere blanket, eyes peeking out at me as he waited to see how mommy would react to finding an ocean on her floor.

As the story unfolded, it was obvious he thought his actions quite logical. After all, mommy never said he couldn't catch a fish. I listened, biting my lip at times to keep from grinning at the crazy logic that resulted in such a mess.

Apparently, Wyatt put the apples in the sun room so he would have food to eat during rest time. Amelia caught him in the act and said she was hungry.

So....he did what any good brother would do, said no.

He was pretty earnest in defending the fishing expedition. "But she was hungry. So, I was trying to catch her a fish."

A goldfish. With a baby blanket net.

I'm still shaking my head. And laughing.

Last week, Amelia sneaked into my bathroom to shave her legs like she has seen mommy do. It's obviously not as easy as it looks. Hopefully, she won't have a scar. My daddy suggested writing in her baby book, "Age 2: Started shaving."

Children. They can make us parents feel like we are losing our minds! There's no way I can predict what the children will do next. But the creativity of the mischief astounds me, shows me they're spreading their wings in a kind of exploring, a satisfying of curiosity, an application of critical thinking skills, which is something I've taught them to do.

Perhaps they've taken to heart all too well their favorite Miss Frizzle and her mantra: "Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy." Perhaps we need to put away the VeggieTales Jonah movie for awhile.

Rudeness, defiance, impatience, disrespect--it can drive me crazy. But this? It just makes me shake my head and laugh.

Tuesday was crazy.

Today was laughter. Such a good way to end a week.

Photo: Late afternoon running to get out some of that pent-up energy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Insufficient for the Battle

I hear his sobs over my head, that unmistakable sound of grief echoing down the open stairwell to where I sit, intentionally sitting cross-armed far away. He has no idea how my chest seizes with his, measured rising and falling in anguish as held-back tears beg for release in the same pool.

In his red-rimmed eyes, saying sorry, so sorry, should make everything better, stitch together rifts seamlessly so they are mended invisible. Isn't that what this forgiveness I strive to teach all about? Casting our sins into a pool of forgetfulness and remembering them no more?

Were it that simple.

After words pierce and actions destroy, the nature of the human heart exposed, the damage doesn't magically disappear . God's forgiveness, my forgiveness--it doesn't mean no consequences. It never has, not for me anyway.

This is the pain of motherhood, disciplining to show love and affection. This is hard, sending this child born of miracle and overflowing prayers to a few hours of solitude when all I want to do is hold him tightly to me, read a few books together, and listen to him spin stories laced with heavy questions.

I move to the unlit hall, shadows falling heavier with the setting sun as adrenaline plummets. My head rests against the wall. Where did I go wrong?

I look up, weary, to husband ushering twins out doors. "I've never seem him like this before. He's never seen anyone act like this either. Where did this come from?" Husband's answer is simple and matter of fact, no finger pointing here. This is every man and woman's willful heart unrestrained, no teaching required.

I silently hope he's getting sick, that maybe this evening's uncharacteristic tantrum is the result of his feeling poorly and not a reflection of his heart, the one I've been striving with my everything to mold from birth to seek after the One who can transform that heart to love, patience, kindness, and compassion.

Knees pressed against prayer closet's red leather kneeler helps lift some of the burden. But Wyatt is only four and a half. This isn't going to get any easier.

By now, he's not crying anymore, sounds of tinkling Legos and footsteps drifting downstairs to tell me he's building, constructing another zoo or too-tall tower in his solitude. Calm.

Were these mere battles of words or flesh, it would be so much easier. Yet, all are really of the spirit.

In these moments, I see just how insufficient I am to mother this soul loaned to me for the training. What was God thinking? I can do only one thing well, and sometimes not even this: seek the One who is and pray.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Choosing a Different Role

Husband moved out the first part of last week. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, hair gel, PJs, and next day's clothing all relocated to the guest room for nine days, him choosing to be a guest in his own house.

At the tail end of two weeks worth of sleepless, fevered days and nights, husband finally succumbed to the cold all three children and I were conquering. He knew I needed restorative mending, the kind only found in sleep. He also knew sleep was not something his wakes-at-the-slightest-noise wife could have with him beside her, upper respiratory infection making his sleep fitful at best, constant tossing interrupted by congested coughing fits.

And so, he left our marriage bed, choosing the much-less comfortable twin daybed on the floor beneath. The first night, I slipped down the stairs and peeked in at him, continuing my servant's role just as I had been doing the two weeks prior with children, now checking husband's fever and making sure he had taken his medicine.

At over 6 feet tall and of German ancestry, he looked more like a large grizzly bear folded accordion style in a too-small cave. Beneath him lay a stack of four crocheted afghans and a couple fleece blankets, his attempt to make the mattress more comfortable. Instead, the tableau emphasized how uncomfortable he truly was, seeming to depict some post-modern adaptation of "The Princess and the Pea."

I protested, assured husband this act of kindness wasn't necessary, to please just come upstairs. Stubborn in glassy-eyed sickness, he refused and hunkered shoulder down more tightly between the bed's ends to hibernate.

Even in the early years of our marriage when we two struggled to become one, not even then did we sleep in separate beds. There were certainly nights when we slept teetering on our respective edges, but the same quilt still covered us both. No matter how unresolved the issue, how heated the argument had risen. No matter how far apart our day had taken us... at night, we were still we.

This time, though, I returned upstairs alone. Funny thing about ten years of sharing restricted bed space with one's mate--it makes the absence all the more absent. In half-emptiness, I slept, cold pillows from head to foot where warm husband should be. With every night-time waking, I missed his presence, but my tired body did get rest.

We choose these roles, the ones that show greatest love in self-sacrifice--to be the guest in one's own house, to be the servant to one's own family. Being the hands and feet of Christ to one's own family is sometimes more difficult than showing the same love and respect to strangers. But especially between a husband and wife, these daily acts of demoting self knit the two pieces together all the more strongly, perhaps even more so because the actions are chosen versus required.

This past Tuesday, hands full of toiletries, a much better husband stopped me mid-cleaning in the guest room, that mischievous twinkle I know so well making me smile.

"Well, I guess I'm moving back in," he grinned.

Hours later in bed's fullness, I listened to the cadence of his still-congested breathing, moved my pillow a little closer to his side until my knees rested against him, and pulled the queen-sized quilt up over us both.

Photo: Husband's souvenir for me from his recent business trip to California. I had to laugh; he knows me so well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thanks for Enough Time

The house is filled with sounds of the dryer whirring, washer churning a few late-night loads of laundry that I haven't yet done. In truth, I haven't really tried, intentionally choosing during the daylight hours to ignore the thick mantle of dust quilting table tops, the tiny blue-chalked crime scene footprints leading in from the door. In the office down the hall, there are paper-grading deadlines penciled in all seven squares of this week, these less-ignorable tasks to be done.

The second hand moves round all too quickly, half a week gone with the turning. This Martha-type personality must decide to sit, choose the better part. Then, there will be time enough.

I pull cleaned yet unfolded clothes from the basket to dress little ones, giving thanks for the cleanness while choosing to brush away guilt and shift eyes away from the wrinkles. Oldest son and I cook a couple hours together on Monday, homemade casserole and dessert to last for a whole week's suppers. And it is good.

For now, my recuperating children need a mother not splintered by a dozen or more tasks, one focused enough to prod them kicking and screaming back into the comfortable routines of kindness, respect, and patience necessary for peace to exist in family living. It's always hard, sanity-grinding, this pursuit to restore those pleasantries that are lost and need relearning after an it's-all-about-me lengthy illness.

Amidst the whines, tears, and moments of contemplation on the naughty bench, we've squealed giggles over pulling the equivalent to an old maid card in "Win By a Whisker," put together that extra puzzle, read the new princess book for the thousandth time, gathered round the dining room table to color yet another picture for the fridge.

Poet Theodore Roethke said, "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow." After two weeks of sickness, the children and I have done just that this week, all of us too easily tired from the simple acts of living, from mere waking.

But even in this sheltered quasi-paradise of slowness, busyness still lurks, impatiently waiting its turn as soon as the lights click off, white noise makers filling the air. Still sick husband sleeps fitfully on the sunroom day bed while I work deep into the night grading papers.

As I work, our two kittens leap at windows lit by outdoor flood lights shining through lace-curtained windows, an ever-present reminder to rotate sprinklers from back to front yard. In silky flowered PJ's and clean bare feet, I walk into the evening's cool amidst mosquito-seeking frogs plastered to window glass and crickets that skitter before me down the porch.

Outside, the moon and I whisper friendship, our faces nodding silently each night, co-conspirators in living while others slumber.

Though dust bunnies presently outnumber people in my house, toy/book-cluttered floor spaces more the norm than clean-walking ones, this chaos is a choice. My weekly Bible study goals were met, and I finished two prayer shawls, twenty hours of the better part to send Christ's love cross-country to hurting sister and nephew of my friend.

I give thanks. There has been time enough for what's important.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When it Seems God Has Removed the Hedge From Around You

"Can we go dig it up?" he asked, literally bouncing at the thought as only a four year old can.

Cheerios still lay uneaten in three breakfast bowls, and my thoughts were already racing far ahead to washing bedclothes, watering drought-stressed plants, and cleaning out the spoiled food in the fridge from this family's two week fast due to illness. Last night's excitement? Not even on my radar.

But for oldest son, this was worth remembering first. Mommy had promised to dig it up tomorrow, and promises meant "yes" even if she had to be reminded.

"Sure," I replied. "You have to find me a shovel first."

Late yesterday afternoon with just a trace of misty rain falling like heavy dew, I sent my children outdoors. I'm sure my grandmother would not have approved. She probably would have told me another story of one of my aunts playing in the rain and then getting quite ill, the kind of story where you just smile and say "yes ma'am" because it's no use arguing by repeating discoveries of modern science she won't remember tomorrow and doesn't need to know anyway.

Besides, all three children had already been running fevers for well over a week anyway. So, I sent them out...actually, I forced them out of this house holding in a week of sweaty sickness, no choice for little girl who constantly complained she was getting wet.

Five minutes of drizzle, maybe ten, enough to leave that post-storm scent in the air, to make my shirt damp enough to send back through the clothes dryer another five minutes. While boys spent their time crying over who should have the shovel and throwing dirt in each other's hair, Amelia "helped" me weed the front flower bed, both of us casually pulling three foot long runners of trespassing grass from around still-blooming roses and clumps of dead-headed verbena.

"Is this a weed?" Amelia asked as she gripped another trailing verbena stem. I crossed back and forth across the long bed that stretches the length of our home, just passing time, needing to be out versus in. When I reached the bed's end, I walked around versus cutting across between the roses as I had been doing. No real reason.

As as I turned the corner, a yellow jacket flew past and disappeared less than a foot from where I stood. Then came another. As Amelia and I cautiously took a few steps back and stooped down, we watched twenty or more yellow jackets return home for the night, one after another almost evenly spaced in time like they were on some invisible conveyor belt.

It was another nest, tucked invisibly under a mound of grass clippings, a slight indentation in the mulch's straight edge the only evidence of a hole going straight down to a five-story high rise complex for housing and raising more yellow jackets.

After dark when the nest was full again of its inhabitants, husband poured it full of gasoline.

And this morning? I dug it up. With an excited audience of three and a small trowel, I tried to not make the same mistake I did last fall after finding another nest, slicing straight through it and destroying most of the evidence.It might have been an inch beneath the red clay's surface, a work of serious labor in a 12" x 10" hole. While most of its swirled outer paper shell fell apart as I cupped the nest with gloved hands, all five tiers remained together as one unit. At the bottom of the now empty hole lay at least a full measuring cup's worth of dead yellow jackets.

When I turned the nest over, it was an instant pushing/shoving match to see what we had just read about a few weeks ago in a book about bees--cells with tiny white pin-head-sized eggs laid by the queen, cells with fully-exposed larva that would have been fed regularly by the "nurse bees,"and then those white-capped cells where others were undergoing the final metamorphosis into black and yellow striped flight.Our Magic School Bus book turned real before my children's very eyes...and it was all I could do to keep them from touching. It was one of those light bulb amazing moments where pictures on paper become real, an indescribable light sparking in their eyes.

My daddy is the one who taught me how to dig and discover. But even he says he's never seen one this big.

Two weekends ago, I re-mulched this very bed, arranging grass clippings right on top. Several times a week throughout the summer, I've mindlessly pulled weeds there as I watered. These yellow jackets have been there all along, silently building, so close to the surface, I would have crushed the nest had I simply put my weight on it with one foot, unleashing its fury.

Only God knows how many times He's protected me from an angry swarm.

As I held it, excited myself at the find, I also was and am chastened, humbled. In all my whining and moaning about the sickness that has descended on my house this year, so much so that we've met our yearly insurance deductible and half a year isn't even over...I sometimes get so caught up in the struggles God allows to come into my life that I'm blind to the ones He keeps away.

I forget there is a hedge He has around me.

I don't see what lies beneath the surface that is ready to consume me, yet He keeps away. I don't see the possible car accident avoided because of a five minute frustrated delay with children not being able to find their shoes. I don't see the possible illness avoided because I'm stuck at home with another, less serious illness.

My vision is so limited. This, He knows well. Why else would He stick a five-tier nest in my front yard, His creation to live and die without incident?

For an instant, I catch a flash of that hedge...and I feel His protection.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

When You Feel Like the Trial is Too Much

I don't do this well...

this hustling back and forth an hour away to town so I can lift one child after another atop the blue exam table for a doctor to shine lights in little ears and throats, put stethoscope to rising and falling chests. All the while, I rattle off every blurry textbook detail of the past five days since we last saw him.

He is a solemn one, this doctor...good poker face as he looks, listens, and nods about wet coughs, fevers above 105, and oldest son talking dazed gibberish when heat makes brain synapses misfire. When all three have had their turn, he writes another script for medicine, but not because he knows much more than I do about this mystery illness that has survived round one of antibiotics. Words "drug resistant" resonate as we set out for home, me fighting traffic while two in the back slump in exhaustion from their battles.

I don't do this well...

these nights spent with alarm clock set every four hours, a reminder for this also sick mother who would otherwise sleep soundly until well past the early lights of dawn, even while her children sweated feverishly a few feet away in their rooms, making wide puddles on bedsheets.

I sleep on hall couch, a sentinel with two kittens curled atop my toes, night guard against fever-wandering children who have lost their way.

At best, I wake with the four-hour siren for a soft shaking of little shoulders to wake just long enough to suck down a dose of Ibuprofen, my pen recording temperatures that this mommy's fogged brain will soon forget, just like I once did with feeding schedules for newborn twins.

At worst, fevers spike early, oldest gags on the medicine so that last night's supper coats PJ's and bedclothes. Midnight sees me giving a second cooling bath and the washer whirring rhythmically.

I don't do this well.

My mother in law tells me she used to almost enjoy when my husband was sick, because that was the one time she was sure to get in all the close in-her-arms lovings he was usually too busy to give. I shake my head in agreement, all the while feeling like a lousy mother because the busyness of three children sick at once just doesn't allow for getting a love-bank full of long cuddles I'd love to receive.

What's worse, I remember earlier in the day, Emerson asking me to rock him (again) but I didn't get around to it this last time, what with the checking fevers; shoving tissues under pouring, snotty, sneezy noses and saying "blow;" putting cleaned sheets on the beds; praying sentence prayers aloud; administering unwanted medicine; and encouraging each to drink more or eat something!

And then I slow to read about storms and symbols of hope, of mercy in a trial. Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary says, "The rainbow appears when the clouds are most disposed to wet, and returns after the rain; when we have most reason to fear the rain prevailing, then God shows this seal of the promise that it shall not prevail. Thus God obviates our fears with such encouragements as are both suitable and seasonable. The thicker the cloud the brighter the bow in the cloud. Thus, as threatening afflictions abound, encouraging consolations much more abound."

The thicker the cloud, the brighter the bow. No matter how well I'm not walking through this thick cloud, He is here with me. His encouragement abounds in rainbows of consolation...if I can only remember to look up.

Photo: One sick boy perches atop couch while another temporarily fever-free boy looks in surprise that mommy has brought out the camera again.