Thursday, December 29, 2011

What "Every Good and Perfect Gift" Includes

This man with crisp white shirt and tie, the one who sits to the side, in the back of most every social event or party, his head tucked down in silent humility, realizing he doesn't know more than he knows and what he does know isn't as important as what he doesn't know.This man who spends an afternoon lifting our youngest son high over his head to do what Emerson would otherwise be unable to do--make that basket. Son grins, giggles, and runs after the ball before running back to his daddy who lifts him once again.
This man whose shirt bleeds red with sweat mingled clay as he chips through Louisiana concrete late into the night, trench only lit by lanterns as he works on an outside office so he can spend less time commuting and more time home with his wife and children.
This is the man God wrapped in a simple college desk and sent me fifteen years ago. Four years later, this is the man I swore before God and family to love and cherish.

Even now, after, in the midst of the everything of life, when I can't lift myself off my knees, can't even lift my eyes from the wood is then that I am in awe, once again, at the man my heavenly Father has given me to serve as my helpmate.

When I said "I do," my younger self really had no idea of what it meant for the man she loved to be created for her. I had no idea how he would step up where I lacked, how my flaws would be tempered by his strengths, how he would be what I needed without my even knowing there was a something as silly as his love of my feet was just part of God's overall plan to help me, the woman whom the masseuse says holds tension in her feet.

Tonight I stand in awe of my Father who created this man for me, a Father who gives me every good and perfect gift.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Breaking Through: When Flesh and Spirit Battle

The Friday before Christmas, that clay jar of sadness I'd stuck way back on the shelf somehow developed a crack, overnight seeped the dark bile into every unfilled soul recess so that Christmas Day found me just going through the motions for my children, my family.

Serve the leftover ham. Take the photos. Help assemble the Lego fortress. Smile.

To have a deep soul sadness at Christmas isn't something Christians own up to, much less think. We aren't supposed to feel this way. We are Easter people full of joy, hope, peace, and thankfulness over the babe in the manger, knowing He was born for one purpose--to die. For my worthlessness. My unrighteousness.

And yet, what I'm continuing to learn is that down here, flesh still clashes with spirit; vapors of the body's sadness can still pierce through the soul's everlasting peace and joy.

I had prepared my heart for Christmas. I made sure of it this year. Focus. Christ is coming. We lit the Advent candles, read the daily devotionals for the Jesse tree, spent less to give more of ourselves.

But in the midst of my preparedness came what I hadn't prepared for...or what I only thought I was prepared for. Family unexpectedly left to spend Christmas in heaven. Other family came for an early visit yet left mid-week to spend Christmas at their home up north.
In the fullness of the Christ child's birth, there was a still emptiness.

Perhaps it's that I thought if I prayed hard enough, if I focused on the Christ child hard enough, the flesh wouldn't matter at all, wouldn't hurt.

Not until the evening of Christmas Day when I began replacing reminders of His birth with reminders of His love could I whisper true thanks to Him for coming, feel the genuine gratitude well up through the sadness and lift higher than the ceiling.

This living in the flesh but not by the flesh is hard. Even in the promise of eternity, the long goodbyes of the present are hard. The continued absence is hard.

In this season, the only thing that makes it bearable is Him.

Nothing but my Father's loving presence is enough.

Photos: A few parting love moments with my brother and his wife last Thursday morning.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bucking Stereotypes: The Not So Boring Christian

The term Christian doesn't flood the mind with images of someone who would be first on a A-lister's party-of-the-year guest list.

For the most part, Christians tend to have a reputation for being stick in the muds, what with the list of "thou shalt not's" carved into rock first by Moses in the Old Testament and then onto our hearts by Christ in the New Testament's Sermon on the Mount.

No gossiping. No drunkenness. No gossiping. No adultery even in our daydreams. No murderous thoughts about that guy who just cut us off in traffic. Scripture might as well have said, "no least by the world's standards"

Definitely not the like the life of a party. Boring. Safe. Unadventurous.

But appearances are often deceiving, and this is one of those times.

I would love to transport you into my family's Christmas gatherings, a group of Christians having the kind of fun all in attendance will remember, laugh about for years to come.

After the fudge, cheese balls, shrimp dip, and dirty rice--our fun? It's found in an unusual place--a rollicking good game of Bible Trivia. My family rattles the windows with joy. Literally, as in we talk about how much fireproofing is in the walls between us and the next town house because our laughter is so loud and frequent.

It's been six years since we played last. Not since my Grandfather's passing months before my sister in law Liza's "I do" to my brother, not since my three children, and not since cousin's new boyfriend added to the head-count have we unfolded the rainbow board.

My face tightens and cracks as I write this and remember watching the boyfriend's surprise at how much fun a bunch of older Christians playing a boring old game about the oldest book on earth could actually be.Somehow, the game has always pitted the men against the women. An outsider would think that couldn't possibly be fair, what with the men having three seminary degrees amongst them and the women nothing but a personal dedication to ladies' Bible study.

Still, until this past Tuesday, the overall score over the years was women: 4 , men: 3. The women lost by one point, so now we're tied again. Love of the Word, luck of the draw, and a good memory are all that's required.

Taunting the opponent with good-natured ribbing is pretty much a given, as are a few running jokes (such as answering "Belshazzar" to every not-a-clue name of an obscure Bible character) or poking fun at the game's impossible questions by crafting our own like "What is the name of Methuselah's turtle?" (No, don't look; he didn't have one)Although he's too young now, my five-year-old, Wyatt, seems like a Trivia guru in the making. Just tonight, I doubled over with stifled giggles as I listened to him replay with the Little People a few of this afternoon's passages from the already-much-loved The Story for Children.

I laughed as I heard him recount "Wyatt's version" of the Bible stories where Abraham and Moses are contemporaries of King Herod. Husband and I knocked heads in laughter when we hear him rename King Herod (the one who killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem) "Herod the Cutter." Yep--I can see that being useful in a future round of Bible Trivia.

Side splitting wake-the-children laughter. Heart joy. The Word at the center of our gathering.

Now that's the best kind of fun Christmas party around. You don't know what you're missing unless you've been there, too.

Photos: All 21 of my family together for pre-Christmas fun (minus boyfriend taking the photo)
My cousin, Kimberly (who needs a Christian husband with something more than "the personality of paste.")

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas in Heaven

The occasional burst of wind shook long tendrils of moss, as if the tree were bowing its head in sadness, its thick wavy mane lowering to hide its weeping.

It is Christmas, the season of birth, of joy. Perhaps that is why the gray skies and sadness that cover our farm seem to clash, jarring against the happiness found in the manger's babe with peaceful smile, God made flesh resting in the glow of tiny white lights along our stair rail.

Most mornings, I pass the family graveyard, not really noticing the simple gray-white tombstone jutting up out of the grass. Husband mows the "hill" all summer, bleaches the tombstone once or twice a year to push back the humidity-loving black mildew.

Other than that, the graveyard never occupies my thoughts. It is not spooky or creepy or nightmare inducing. It just is. My body will lie there one day, the body of my husband, too, maybe even my children.

But we are Easter people, children of the eternal King. Death is not where we dwell.

Still, it comes.

Saturday afternoon, God decided our Maw Maw needed to spend Christmas in heaven. She died while in prayer with her daughter, Jesus' name on her heart, mind, and lips.

And so on this early morning, I kneel down in the grass to capture just a few images for my children to remember when they forget. With each shutter click, the heavy dew soaks through. More dampness.

To escape this fleshly cocoon to find find real life. In a way, I envy her escape. While I tend to struggle to daily learn in part through that dark glass, I believe Maw Maw has finally grasped the full meaning of the babe in the manger, has finally truly understood how precious and perfect was God's gift to mankind oh those two thousand years ago.

What a precious Christmas gift for her.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Eyes on the Father

I can imagine Jesus as a baby. It's not that hard. Look at any department store, and there he is--cute little bundle, no tear streaked cheeks or mouth agape in screams as he lays serene and warm in a sterile bed of white rags and wood. He is the perfect baby--always cooing, always smiling, always napping on schedule and sleeping through the night from birth.

Mind you, I never had one of these perfect infants, but many a mom has testified they do still exist. And so, I imagine the perfection of a Holy Savior trickling down to a perfectly content disposition in the flesh like these other wonder-children (again, not mine).

The problem comes when I try to imagine Jesus as a little boy. Perhaps it's because I have two preschool boys born under the curse, boys who overtly disobey, throw the occasional tantrum, talk back, and walk with little feet as close as possible to every line I draw in the red Louisiana clay.

This afternoon, I caught a glimpse of my sons in Christ when I read the story of the child Jesus' worrying his poor earthly parents frazzled when he went missing from the caravan.

There is a long day of frantic searching, of traveling the long road back to Jerusalem. Then came a second long day of searching, checking in with relatives, moving throughout the city shops and homes.

I've only been in Mary's shoes for a few minutes when I couldn't find my child. In the first few seconds, every worst case scenario flashes through a parent's mind. Thirty seconds into the search, this mother was literally begging God to find her son. Honestly, I can't imagine two days, two nights.

Surely, Mary wept in prayerful anguish, tears choking out the words. Sleep must have been near impossible. What if she never saw her child again? What if the angel had misled them about Him being the Messiah? What if...?

Then came day three, and there he was. Sitting. Calm. In the temple. Teaching.

Mary's words may sound archaic, but the emotion of a distraught mother screams through the text: "Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You" (Lk. 2:48).

What were you thinking, Jesus? Do you know how many days we have been searching for you? We worried you may be dead. Kidnapped. Enslaved. And you're just sitting there calmly instead of leaping up in apology?

Jesus responded with the answer of a child: "Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?" (v. 49).

Such a literal matter of fact answer, a "well, of course I'm here. What did you expect me to be?" answer I've heard so often from my own children.

If I blink, I might miss it. But for an instant, here, I see the connection between this Holy Son and my sons.

And in that flash, it directs me to a connection I notice almost daily between the Christ child and my sons.

A love of their father.

The grown man Jesus was always slipping away to spend time with His heavenly Father. In my mind's eye, I can see Him doing the same thing with his earthly father...something my own sons do no matter how hot or cold it is outdoors. Where daddy is is where they want to be.

Perhaps the young Jesus went to the carpentry shop to sit at His earthly father's feet, watch the planer curl thin strips of wood into ribbons and fall to the pile of sawdusty shavings on the floor. Or maybe, as many scholars have suggested because of Israel's lack of lumber, a carpenter would have worked more with stone so that the child Jesus would have spent hot days outdoors watching Joseph with chisel and hammer, chip away slowly to mold stone.

Like my sons, Jesus would have stood to the side to watch, eyes glued on his father's every movement. Then, he would have gained enough courage to pick up a tool much too heavy for his small hands before wielding it clumsily in effort to mimic His earthly father. At times, maybe the young Jesus was like my sons, doing more harm than good, breaking that stone with too hard a tap or crushing one he only intended to smooth.

But I imagine his father looked on him with love, with patience that fathers seem to have more than mothers at times. And yes, even though Joseph's blood didn't run through the boy's veins, I am sure his heart swelled with pride as he watched that little boy Jesus mimic his he saw a little bit of himself in him.

Photos: Emerson and Wyatt helping their daddy dig / fill in a water line trench.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Changing of the Guard

The cross came down this morning. It's a right of passage, I guess, when the long-proven veteran steps aside to make way for the new who come to try their mettle, be refined by the fires that will come.

Until I married, I lived almost twenty years in the shadow of my home church's steeple, its cross rising above the trees as a beacon for all to come to the cross. Playing badminton in the backyard, swimming in the above-ground pool each summer, fishing for crawfish in the cow pasture's "pond," finding a stunned bat beneath a fallen tree's bark--I lived life with a church for my neighbor. From my bedroom window each night, I could always look out and see its black triangle against the misty orange glow of security lights.

Although I didn't understand the significance of the image back then, no matter what I did at my home, I was always under the watchful eye of the cross. And like most young people, I took for granted that I could always turn north and see a white, cross-tipped spire piercing through the sky toward heaven.

God. Christ. The cross. It would always be there if and when I needed it.I didn't know today was the day she was coming down. My parents didn't even know until today.

But God knew.

And He knew I'd want to see her off, this friend of my childhood.

This morning, I drove to my parent's home for free babysitting while I hot glued my fingers together to make hair bows for my daughter. I've had the yards of ribbon for over a month, but just yesterday evening felt compelled that today was the day. Now I know why.

When I drove past the church, there sat the crane to hoist the new cross into place. Minutes later, I doubled back and parked the van so my children could see.

She lay on her side--paint-chipped, mildewed, covered in lichen, leaking droves of red wasps who had made her their summer home.

I walked around the already-loaded Gooseneck trailer. What do you do with a retired cross? It seems almost disrespectful, somehow wrong to just send her to the scrapyard.

Those who didn't drive past this church building today will likely never know of the changing of the guard that took place between sunup to sundown. The new steeple is the same size, same shape as the old one. Without a critical eye that would detect her missing scars and back lit by the same blue sky, the new steeple looks pretty much the same for us earthbound viewers.
As the afternoon wore on, I didn't stay to see the crane that lowered the old lift the new into place. It almost seems fitting, this cross changing with a new generation growing up.

Tomorrow, when I again drive to my parents' and look up, I'll see a new soldier in God's army, one to weather more of life's storms and one that will once again welcome another generation who seeks the cross.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Season of Prayer

We parents pray for our children, many times not knowing what to ask for more than protection, for God to work The miracle of salvation and transform broken jars of clay into lighthouses for His glory.

I must admit that I am a poor mother when it comes to praying for my own children. I do pray for them--for their hearts, their health, their future spouses...but never as much as I should, and never as much as I do when they are injured, sick, hurting, gone astray.

This second week of December has been one for praying instead of writing in this space, not praying for my own children but for others' precious gifts from God.

This past Wednesday, my friends' one year old daughter in North Carolina underwent surgery for craniosynostosis, a condition where the bones of her skull fuse together due to inadequate growth space in the womb. Little Ivi Grace's skull was surgically taken apart and reassembled, a path her music minister father never thought God would ask him to walk in faith.

On the same day, a ten year old daughter (Abbie) of an old high school friend underwent surgery to remove kidney stones caused by her struggle with continued medical issues. The doctors inserted stents in both kidneys in an attempt to alleviate blockages.

Wednesday night with reports of success coming back from both girls, one of my former students sent out a request for prayer. On November 15, his third child was born 2 1/2 months too soon. On Thursday of this week, baby Camden underwent surgery for excess fluid on the brain. Hydrocephalus. Big name for such a small boy.

Since Tuesday, my mind has been filled with no words for this blog. God has, instead, filled my mind with reminders to pray, pray, pray for the ones whom I promised to pray for.

And so I did, not knowing I would be the one next reaching out for others' prayers.

On Tuesday morning, Emerson fell off his bike, knocked his head hard against the concrete. By the time my mother came over to watch the children while I cleaned house, I was scared; it was the biggest goose egg I'd ever seen. I held an ice pack to his head for half an hour, then passed him off to his Grand Mama for some more TLC.

I watched him vigilantly through the night. I dusted and prayed. I folded clothes and prayed. I slept and prayed.

Tuesday and Wednesday came and went with no problems. Even his small "concrete burn" scabs were drying up. By Thursday afternoon, though, his face suddenly started swelling until his left eye was almond shaped like a little Asian child.A rushed trip to After Hours, a cool X ray sticker, and a grape sucker later, two doctors both agreed that his X rays showed what looked like a chip on his maxillary. "Not a nose bone. A bone in the sinuses." Un hunh.

That meant a drive into town to the E.R. for a C.T. scan--too many acronyms and words I didn't know (maxillary?) for a confused, scared "what do I do?" mother.

As Emerson and I sat in radiology while Grand daddy sat in the E.R. waiting room, I held my little boy tighter than I have since the last time I was scared of losing him--when he had pneumonia this past February. I held him tighter than the time before that when he tumbled off sister's bed, spilling a pool of blood from a head cut so deep that I could see the bone of his skull through the skin.

My parents and husband and his parents were already praying. I was praying. Still, I texted the only number I had in the phone for a church friend.

Please. Pray. Tell our pastor. Don't come. Just pray.

Five hours from the time I ran out of the house without my coat, the CT scan came back negative. No brain swelling. No chip. No broken bones. Nothing.

Did the first two doctors make a mistake? Did God heal the chip? My mom thinks the first is more likely...but until I reach the other side, there will always be that lingering "maybe" for this woman who believes in God's continued miracles in the mundane.

Adrenaline rush now flushed from my system, all I wanted to do was cry and thank God. Hand in hand, my son and I exited the E.R. into the 36 degree weather. He was mine for a little longer.

Unlike my son, Abbie, Camden, and Ivi Grace have a long road of recovery ahead of them. Even though this may be your busiest time of the year, drop to your knees and say a prayer for each of these children. Bring their names to our Father in heaven, the Creator and Sustainer of all life.

You never know when that one extra prayer may overflow God's blessings down and change a life.

Photo: Emerson riding his bike on a better day. All three children have been banned from bike riding until Christmas brings them the dragon / kitty bicycle helmets hidden in my closet. (When Santa asked my son today what he wanted for Christmas, Emerson stated very clearly, "A helmet." Maybe he's learned his lesson.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Unlikely Adoption

It's been a year since her funeral. Husband remembered, knowing I would forget, me the number challenged woman who can't mindlessly rattle off her wedding anniversary or her children's exact birth dates, weights, or time of birth.

I felt guilty anyway. I should have remembered the death of my first cat, Mia, the calico-Siamese mix who was my child through the years of infertility when husband and I couldn't have children.

This feline with the diesel engine purr was my companion during the lonely years when husband attended school by day and studied by night. Every night, she would come to the bath tub and drink the water I would intentionally let trickle down the sides. And every time I sat at the computer, she would sit at my feet until I picked her up for warm lap-time.
I thought she was irreplaceable. And what's more, when she died, I didn't want to replace her.

Yet, this week, I have realized the emptiness, that cavernous void I expected to follow me after her death has been filled. Why? It's no coincidence. Instead, it's one of those "God-Incidences" Jennifer @ Getting Down with Jesus has been talking about in community on her blog.

The God-incidence started this May, six months after Mia's death, when my father in law deposited a three week old grey kitten on my doorstep. Thrown away in a Wal-Mart bag, Micah needed to be fed with a syringe every two hours if he had a chance at survival. Eleven days we poured life into his too small body. It wasn't enough.

I was beyond crushed, told my husband to pass on the word to his father--no more strays. Period. As far as I was concerned, I wasn't doing this again.

My oldest son, Wyatt, had different ideas; he rejected the sadness and emptiness I wept into the sofa. By the following morning, he had decided we simply needed another kitten. Now. Faced with the persistence of a child on a mission, I began looking online at photos from local animal rescue shelters. By bedtime, I had fallen in love with an image of a tiny orange and white, long-haired fluffball named Hope.

Hope. Her name seemed to be God speaking.

The following morning, I called to make sure she was still available. Sure enough, she was and would be at PetsMart in an hour. The children and I hurriedly loaded up and drove forty minutes to the pet store. There she was in the cage with her two other siblings. We watched them play together. Precious. Perfect. Amelia said she loved her. It was a "yes."

When the worker finally greeted me, I nodded at the cage. "We want the long-haired one."

He frowned, then pointed to a lady and her husband sitting beside him. They were in the process of filling out the adoption papers for that very cat. We were literally ten minutes too late.

My heart fell in disappointment. There were no other kittens there that said "adopt me," but the worker suggested I drive down the street to PetCo where there were more waiting for a home. As I broke the bad news that "our" kitten had already been adopted, the children began to complain. I told the children God had said "no," but that we would look at this other store. No promises.

As soon as I walked through the door, I saw the calico. At ten weeks, she was older than the other kittens, composed and still while the other younger ones rolled and played. When I held her in my arms, her motor roared to life, not quite a diesel but pretty loud. It was like looking at a mirror image of Mia.

Taped to her cage was her history: "I went through baling equipment at a recycling center and then [was] discovered." Much like Abraham's wife who couldn't contain her laughter at Isaac's birth, mine erupted in audible joy as well. As a woman who lives on a farm that bales thousands of square hay bales each year, I knew only God could send me a cat who had been literally "baled" up.

This was God.

We decided to call her Hannah, a name that means grace.Six months later, I am constantly amazed at how similar Hannah is to her predecessor. Her ever-rumbling motor, her love for bath tub water, her insistence that my chest is the best place to sit each evening--she's a younger version of the cat God sent to comfort me in the early years of marriage, now here to comfort me during those trying days of raising young children.

To know that my God cares enough about me to supernaturally arrange the cosmos for something as simple and silly as a pet adoption--it's mind blowing.

But there's too many "if X didn't happen then Y" coincidences to believe differently. It's a God-incidence.

Photos: Mia and her brother, Ming, back in 2002.

Mia knocking her toys downstairs (her favorite game)
Hannah and her adoption papers

Thursday, December 1, 2011

To Catch a Monster

Monsters aren't easy to catch. Just ask Winnie the Pooh. Or my son. They'll tell you.

Heffalumps and Woozles lurk all around us, just waiting to steal any honey pots left unattended in the night. And so, you need to dig a hole, create a trap, prepare to catch one.

It's amazing how children have an innate sense that the world is composed of both good and evil, this almost intrinsic knowing that there are evil monsters among us, even if they are invisible, indescribable phantoms of the creative mind.

Before my oldest, Wyatt, could even talk, I knew I didn't want nights of him waking in tears over a monster under his bed or in his closet. So, I avoided anything with monsters--movies, books, music, toys. I even avoided using the word monster.

But somehow in the fifteen books a week from the library over the past five years and a few G rated movies meant to show the silliness of being afraid of the unknown, he was introduced to the concept anyway. When he finally heard the term "monster," he latched onto it, at last a word to put with the fully formed ideas already inside his head.

Perhaps it was one of a thousand books depicting knights, swords, and dragons. Perhaps it was his love of all things Pooh Bear and The Great Adventure movie. Or maybe it was How to Catch a Heffalump where the gang is afraid of the unknown adorable Lumpy character only to learn how silly their fear was.

But that's not how Wyatt perceived it. No, he'd never seen a monster in real life. No, Pooh Bear and Piglet hadn't seen one either. But logic was pointless. Wyatt was sure they existed. And so, he needed to set a trap.

For months, my counter tops have been filled with page after page of schematics for monster traps, intricate line drawings with our house, my in laws' house, and some elaborate contraption-of-the-day made of hay string, boards, nails, and sometimes tar (which he said I could just "get from Wal-mart).

Around the farm, every remnant of rope, crochet yarn, dental floss, or hay string were conscripted for monster trap duty...tricycles, trowels, Tonka trucks all tied together in a messy conglomeration.

Today was his best yet. Serious business. Brow-sweating labor of rolling large boulders of red clay up the newest dirt pile, stacking them on top of a long piece of string left over from pouring the garage's foundation a few months back.
And then there was the sign that he came bouncing in the house to ask for help with. Could I help him spell the words? Could I nail it on? Unable to hammer the stake into the ground, himself, he'd simply piled small dirt boulders around its base. Two staples later, he was in business--one gen-u-ine monster trap.
I'm not sure who the sign is for, maybe me? Supposedly, the monster will pull the string, and the clay boulders will fall on top of him. (Monsters are incredibly stupid, you know...obviously illiterate, too.)

When he wakes tomorrow, I know the first thing he'll do is run down the stairs and out the side door to see if something tripped the trap or (better still) is lying there tied up in the string.

With a little pinch of motherly magic, who knows what his imagination might find.