Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Slaughtering Trees for a Good Cause

 Each year, I look forward to receiving that very first Christmas card.  It doesn't matter the sender, the artistic design, or the poetry within.  Each brings a warm feeling to my heart.

Each card represents love. 

In this day and age of rapid-fire point and click, people rarely have the spare time to undertake such an antiquated tradition like mailing cards at Christmastime.  Yet, many still do, not for tradition's sake, but to say I love you without ever speaking those exact words.

While I'm usually pro-reducing my carbon footprint, in this case, I find the trees' sacrifice is worth it tenfold.  There is just something about knowing that somebody, somewhere took the time to hand write warm wishes to my family in this very tangible form.

I affix all of them to a closet door near our foyer, a surface I will see numerous times each day as I work around the house.  Quite often, I catch my children stooped before the door, small hands opening the cards and reading the names within.  They, too, know the value in receiving mail such as this.

There are those that have been enhanced with metallic foil accents and those attacked by glitter that continues to drip upon my floor all season long with each touch.  Then, there are those with the heavily lacquered surfaces hanging beside others frosted iridescent with Southern pipe dreams of a white Christmas.
I love them all.  The angels, the flocked trees, the ornaments, the Happy Holidays, and the Merry Christmases.  Their colors and messages delight until after the new year has come.

The simple things of the season sometimes have the most long-lasting impact.  An envelope, a store-bought card, and a stamp--here's betting I'm not the only one who appreciates this little offering of love this season.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Un-Fashionable Christmas Tree

Take away all the arguments about how Christmas should or shouldn't be celebrated, all the talk about calories, and even the self-imposed drama...and still, I absolutely love this season of the year, if for no other reason that because I appreciate beauty.   Walk into any florist or department store, and you will be confronted with an artistic vision of loveliness packaged in at least one Christmas tree.

You know the trees I’m talking about, the kind where everything matches from tree skirt to topper, where there are no ugly paper "ornaments" young children made in school, none awkwardly glued back together after an altercation with said child (or maybe the family pet).

Over the past few years, I’ve watched Facebook photos depict a trend shifting away from angels hovering from on high to decadent ribbon bows that weave glittery trails down from that uppermost perch.  I’ve also watched the family tree turn into little more than a generic decoration, one that could be stuffed in the van, transported down the street to the neighbor’s house, and plopped down in that new space, all without anyone knowing the difference.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love those trees.  I drool over your perfectly spaced ornaments all in perfect ombre gradations of blues and silvers.  I longingly gaze at the rolls of ribbon woven sparkling throughout your branches and think how perfectly they would accent my own home’s decor.  Sometimes, I even grow a bit envious of your well-lit branches that shine a pristine glow of bright white through your front door as I pass by.

But when it comes time to erect my own family's tree each year, I don’t go out and buy the seven foot green pre-lit one I always said I’d own whenever I had a house of my own.  I don’t buy the perfectly matched ornaments of fashion that I still give a wistful glance each time I ever so slowly stroll by that aisle of the store.

No.  Instead, I pull out the same retro pink tinsel tree and with eyes aglow, open the treasure box that houses so many priceless gems from years gone by.

There are the dozens of crocheted snowflakes my mother stitched and starched, the beaded snowflakes, angels, soldiers, and candy canes she I made in bulk, many with fellow GA's and Acteens at church.
There is the yo yo candy cane I used for my "how to" speech in that 3:15 pm college speech class on Tuesday/Thursday, the one with the uber-feminist teacher who scared me speechless.  On the same branch hang the blue mittens one of my Bible study ladies knitted and the African cloth-covered ball from a WMU meeting, ever reminding me each year to pray for a people group I will likely never meet face to face this side of heaven.
Close near the bottom is the hand painted reminder of Mia, as well as both her well-worn collar and that of her brother, Ming, my first two adopted cats who filled my heart when I could not yet fill that hole with the children I longed for.
Then come a friend's gift of crocheted wreaths, all bearing images of my babies in years past.  The baby's first Christmas ornaments.  The Lenox bells celebrating husband's first Christmas together with me in marriage.  They join together with dozens of others, an eclectic blend of the handmade hung beside a purple cross, Scripture-glittered balls, the Poky Little Puppy, Cat in the Hat, and John Deere, each which has its own story to tell.
At the top go those most precious, those I still want far out of my children's reach.  But "precious" doesn't mean "fashionable" or even worth anything at all.  Always out of reach is the gingerbread with the gnawed off arm along with the face and buttons carefully picked off by tiny little fingers--my tiny little fingers that couldn't imagine a world where what looked like a cookie wasn't actually a cookie.
Nearby is the tiny angel formed of glitter-rimmed tulle, a dented Styrofoam head, age-yellowed cotton ball hair, and crinkled aluminum foil wings--a craft my mother created so many years ago in her youth.

These are the treasures that decorate our tree, each telling part of our story, each revealing something about each of us five individuals who live together collectively as a family beneath this roof.

These are the stories we tell year after year as we decorate, tales so oft repeated that they knit together to form the very tapestry of our family that shines, albeit with a different kind of beauty each Christmas.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Color of Money: Fiscal Responsibility and Our Children

It all started when my daughter's late October birthday left us with a perfectly-coiffed American Girl doll in the house. The book-like magazines had been littering our tables since before her birth but had only recently become a big deal when a few friends received dolls from their Grandma...and especially when a few other friends started bringing their dolls to church. 

As those dolls sat quietly in worship, we sang hymns and read the Scriptures.  All the while, Amelia took notes, but not on the sermon.  Instead, she gazed longingly down the pew and across the aisle at Josephina and Felicity.  That's when my Samantha doll--who had thus far lived virtually unnoticed in the glass-paned hall cabinet--became a constant topic of conversation. 

Didn't I ever change her clothes? Brush her hair? Take her out to play with?  As I wiped the satsuma-sticky fingerprints from the glass for the umpteenth time, I couldn't help but think, "Sure. Before I had three living dolls to dress each day!" 

I received my one and only American Girl doll for my Sweet Sixteen birthday.  Turning sixteen wasn't the big deal.  But receiving the doll sure was.  I had waited a lifetime of years until that "big" birthday, probably the only one where I received a gift costing $100, such an extravagance for my family who never spent that much on gifts.  Back then, a party meant mama's homemade chocolate cake with the boiled pink marshmallow icing, a quart of ice cream from K&B, one or two friends, and whatever family was within driving distance.

Back then, Pleasant Company only produced the historical dolls.  Kit. Molly. Felicity. Samantha.  I loved them all and knew my daughter would, too, even if the company had changed hands and gone off into what I considered a more narcissistic versus an educational direction with their "Just Like Me" line.  So, for Amelia's fifth birthday, I picked out the newer period doll, a brunette Jewish girl, as a gift from Oma and Opa.

Just like that, Rebecca was part of the family.  Overnight she had become a fixture at the breakfast table, a captive audience on the sofa when we read books (to her, of course), and emotional support on the trip to the doctor's office for the annual checkup.  That's when this mom put her foot down--no, she could not come in the germ infested place.  Yes, she really must stay in the van. Period. 

Wasn't she beautiful? (Yes.) 
Could we read another chapter in her book? (Yes.)
Didn't I want to change her clothes for the tenth time this morning? (Uh....not really, but yes.)
Could she wear some of Samantha's clothes? (Sure.  She can wear the outfits Grandmama made long ago.)

And then came the biggie:  "When can I get some more American Girl stuff?

This was a problem.

Birthdays come but once a year, Christmas gifts are always bought months in advance, and my children don't start earning an allowance until they start Kindergarten.  What's worse, for some reason, money doesn't grow on trees at this hay farm.  All this I made quite clear to the frowny face that stood watching me put on my morning make up.

Then, I had an idea.  That toy kitchen she really didn't play with much anymore?  I'd been wanting to get rid of it.  Why, she could sell it on Craigslist.

"And use the money to buy American Girl doll stuff!?" she screamed.  "Yes! Yes! Oh, thank you, Mommy!"

She ran from the bathroom and began yelling down the stairs, "Oh, Emerson!  I'm going to get more American Girl doll stuff for Rebecca!"

That Sunday evening, out the door went the kitchen and in her "expense account" went $150.  As expected, it wasn't long before the boys decided they, too, would be willing to sell an unused toy to earn a little money.  What about that Lego table that they no longer used?  Everybody built on the dining room table or floor anyway, and it was just taking up space.
Husband grinned as he watched me haul the Lego table outdoors for a pickup the next day.  "I better be careful.  If it's not nailed down, my wife is selling it." I rolled my eyes at him but still couldn't help but smile.

The boys smartly decided to sit on their money and wait to buy some new Angry Birds game for the I-pad when it came out in mid-December.  But Amelia's money was burning a hole in her pocket.  The next few weeks were a whirlwind of this five year old girl having a crash course in how to use her money wisely. 

If you have X dollars but want A, B, C, D, and E, what can you do?  I watched, a little proud, as Amelia would choose something, shake her head, then put it back.  Since it was now her money and not Mommy's cash, she was suddenly unsure if this was what she really wanted.  After two trips to the store, Little Miss Indecisive still hadn't bought a thing.  The doll kitchen at Target she was so sure about?  No.  Too expensive.  The frilly dresses?  Nope.

Finally, she settled on an Our Generation pink stable (A.K.A. "pony house") from Target, a velvety purple Christmas dress with a white fuzzy muff, and a black cloth-covered foal she named "Diamond" from Wal-mart.

Just like that, she was broke again.  This mother was never more thankful to see an empty pocketbook.

Since then, Amelia has asked me a few times if I'm sure she has no more money left.  Yes, I'm always sure.  She sighs, but there is no more fretting over toys when we go to the store.  She now routinely asks me how much items cost and whether that's a lot or "a little money."  And she's already looking forward to next August when she can start earning her allowance to save for what she wants.

Selling their no-longer-used toys on Craigslist and then guiding them to make wise decisions with "their" money has been a great lesson for all three of my children, but it's also been good for their parents as well. 

Like most parents who grew up with much less than children typically have today, husband and I want to give our children everything their little hearts desire, but we know that's neither good for them nor is it financially possible.  The I-pad the boys want?  Sorry.  They'll still have to continue using dad's when he comes in from work.  This little exercise, though, has allowed us to talk about giving (or selling) to others those things we no longer use, earning money because everything is expensive in this world, and being wise stewards of what money God gives us.

And the best thing?  This mother didn't even have to use her preachy voice when explaining these truths.  They lived it. They learned it. And just yesterday, I caught them giving each other financial advice in the back of the van.  Now that's what I call success.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Paper Ornaments of Love

It’s been well over a month since the familiar trill of a text message from my pastor masked a message both serious and heart troubling—a priceless friend of mine had been in an out-of-state car accident.  She had a punctured lung; the ball in her shoulder was shattered to where a full shoulder replacement would be necessary. 

Over the next few days, her condition grew more serious.  A blood clot developed in the injured lung, which kept her oxygen levels low.  I heard the news and felt that familiar cold well of fear, the kind accompanied by the draining wash of all feeling from my shoulders to my toes.  Would I lose one of my best friends?

A week later, I was privileged enough to be a part of a group of warriors who prayed this recovering friend the five hours of pothole-laden roads home.  I wanted nothing more than the chance to become Jesus’ hands and feet for her.

The first step was to line up church members and friends to bring hot meals to her and her husband.  Within 12 hours of my emailing a request, an entire month of dates was already spoken for. 

I did a double take as I scrolled down the long list on the screen before me, choking back emotions of gratitude to be a part of such a group as well as some awe at how far our church had come in learning to support the rest of the body.  This was not the same church who had brought my family a single meal over the course of a six weeks period when I was on full bed rest before the birth of my twins and then an eight-week recovery period after their emergency delivery.  This was a different church, one that exhibited God’s love in not merely word but also in deed.    

“Look,” I pointed to my husband as my voice broke.  Look how they love!

But how could I teach my children to love like this?  How to teach them gratitude and selflessness so that these attitudes would come more easily than greed and self-centeredness, especially now that we were so close to the season that tends to afflict even usually generous children with a sudden case of the galloping gimmes?

We visited, brought soup, picked pink chrysanthemums, and shared boiled peanuts from our farm's garden, but still, there wasn’t much tangible for the children to “do” to show Jesus’ love to her.

That’s when we learned there would be no Christmas tree this year in my friend’s home.  With her injuries, she wasn’t able to decorate, and besides, her family would be celebrating at others’ homes for the season.  There was no need. It was ok.

I recalled those few years husband and I hadn’t put up the tree to celebrate the season.  No, the decorations weren’t necessary.  Christmas was a joyful season no matter the tinsel, holly, or gifts present in our home.  All we needed was the true reason for our celebration—Jesus—and each other.  Still, though, I remember those years as being full of heart twinges when I relived vivid memories of happy Christmases past, those complete with all the family traditions. I remember already looking forward to the next year when I would bring out the traditional ornaments from my childhood and erect the snow village.

Secretly, the children and I planned to color some decorative paper ornaments with the different names of Jesus and use them to adorn the two foot tall tree we use to mark the days of advent as we march to the Savior's birth.  The tree wasn’t much, just a glimmer of too-broadly spaced red tinsel branches.  It was the kind of tree that reminded you of the pitiful specimen Charlie Brown once chose, but it was always beautiful, nonetheless, when decorated with the paper images reminding us of Christ as shown from Genesis to Revelation. 

This past Tuesday, my three children happily worked together on this project.  My two sons were even unusually careful as they chose colors and then slowly stayed in between the lines before affixing a John Hancock on the back of each ornament and passing it to me for the cutting, taping, and string part of the project.  This one was pink, because, well, my daughter thinks pink is perfect.  Then came the rainbow, the LSU themed purple and gold, and the blue snowflakes that looked like ice.  Didn't I like this one that looked like the scales on Rainbow Fish?
That’s when my daughter Amelia decided she wanted to let our sick friend borrow her personal tree, the tiny pink tinsel one she had been so proud to put up in her room this year for the very first time. 

Was she sure?  Our friend would love our red one just as well.  We would simply find a branch to put in a vase and hang the advent ornaments on that.  It would be fine.

She shook her head.  No, she was sure.  “I want to be kind,” she told me repeatedly.

I couldn't tell her no.  Wasn't this what I had been asking for?  What I had been trying to instill in those children of mine? 

She proudly held onto the top all the way to our friend's home.  "Don't worry, mommy.  It won't fall over," she assured me when I turned around to check.

My three children are noisy.  They don't always listen.  They speak when they should be silent.  They are too boisterous and impatient and grumpy and ungrateful...and flat out mean at times.  In short, they are five and seven.

But sometimes, when I look at them, I catch glimpses that don't look like my little ones.  Instead, they look like His hands and His feet.  And for that, I give thanks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Marathon #2: Same Race, New Attitude

What looks like a tragic murder scene from CSI is merely last year's photo of my two boys at the end of a short half mile race down the gravel drive to the bluebird box beside Oma's garden and then back again to our carport.

Perhaps it was because my oldest insisted on running in his cowboy boots (!!!) instead of the more appropriate tennis shoes.  Or maybe it was because he and his siblings had only recently re-entered the world of the un-sick.  Whatever the case, Wyatt fell mock-panting at my feet, unable to stop his face from cracking a smile as he gasped out complaints of exhaustion.

A few steps behind him, younger brother watched the theatrics.  Even from that distance, I could see Emerson's face brighten with an instant grin that showed he loved the idea.  Sure enough, he stopped, dropped, and honed his acting skills as well.

If it isn't obvious, I live in a house full of drama queens....and kings. 

Last winter, our family ran in the Louisiana Kids' Marathon wherein we ran together the full 26.2 miles over a nine week period, the same race that the super men and women ran all at once in mid January.

What started as a way to encourage my children to begin (at the young ages of four and six) to enjoy exercise and make healthy choices ended up teaching this mother more life lessons than she thought possible.  It was difficult; it seemed impossible at times; and yet, it was also exhilarating.

A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh could have been speaking directly to me and my children when he said, "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

Those statements all proved true over the course of our 26.2 mile journey.

One year later, I still bear the physical scars from last year's final leg of the marathon.  I see those dark indentions each time I wash my knees. And yet, by June, I had signed our family up for the 2014 version of the same race.

The children have waited an entire year for this moment when we would once again start training for the big day, when we would run together with several hundred other children and their parents, when we would cross the finish line to the sounds of cheers from people we had never met and likely never would.  And of course, they have waited for another chance to earn a medal, a tangible reminder of the value of persistence and hard work.
Monday was our first day back into race day training.

Now at five and almost seven, my children are stronger.  After completing last year's marathon, we had not continued our running, but we had spent the past ten months walking and riding our bicycles up and down the gravel drive.  If there weren't a marked path before, there would surely be one now with all the miles and hours we've clocked along the way.

As soon as Wyatt leapt off the school bus, the air was full of too-loud conversations about socks, tennis shoes, and reminders of where the starting line and turn-around points were.  Last year's training began with a quarter mile run, then stayed at half a mile for a few weeks before moving up to three-quarters of a mile and finally the whole mile.  This time, though, I decided we would start out at the one mile mark.

Two days into this training, I have already noticed how all our attitudes have changed from this same time last year.

Before, I neither believed in their ability or in my own.  I feared we would not finish.  I feared I couldn't run the entire 1.2 miles without pausing to walk some of it.  This time, though, I came out of the starting box believing with my entire being that we could do this.  And we did.

Even on this second day when I expected whining about being sore, no one said anything to that effect.  Sure, there were the usual exclamations of "I'm tired!" because all three children were having to re-learn the art of pacing themselves versus running in fast "spurts" as children are wont to do.  But, there was no real complaining.  What's more, Amelia and I have already beat our individual best times from last year, and the boys are already close to their race day best times.

As Amelia rounded the final bend, she held up her hand to wave at us who were already back at the finish line, waiting on her.  Without even being told to do so, Wyatt began not taunting her for how slow she was (like he did last year) but, rather, yelling encouragement to her.  Those words elicited a bright grin, spurring her to sprint the final few yards.

All together again, we exchanged laughter and high fives.

Success.  We could do this.  Together.  As a family.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Loving Our Children Like We Do When They're Sick

There are no clammy brows, flushed cheeks, or glazed eyes in my house this week.  No nights spent listening for the sound of tears outside my bedroom door or for feet padding to the bathroom at alarming hours.  No nocturnal barking cough that only slows when suppressed in a codeine-induced sleep.  No sheets, blankets, and towels reeking with the noxious odor of last night's supper revisited, fumes that make me want to just burn everything rather than rinse it off outdoors before placing load upon load in my washer and dryer.

This week has been calm on the health front.

After two weeks of one virus after another, this road-weary mother is quite thankful to be hanging up her Florence Nightingale hat and returning to the regularly scheduled programming wherein she dons the usual hats of wife, mother, and teacher. 

There's something inexplicably wonderful about returning to the monotonous routine of daily life after an illness.  In those moments of calm after the storm, I always find that the repetition I chafed at days before (and will, again, I know) suddenly seems so sweet.  The cadence of rote hours, the fluid dance of a perfectly working household wherein I wind up the time piece at the rising of the sun and move through the automated routine until slowly pirouetting to a halt at day's end--it is all beautiful.

I have been perfectly content these past two days as I've sought to reestablish a sense of normalcy, to reclaim what ground was lost and move forward.  Progress.  My daughter, however, has sought to pull me back into the patterns we fall into during illness. 

"Can we watch another movie today?"

"Sorry.  We don't need a movie. You're well again and can play."

"Am I going to read to you tonight?"

"Sure.  You're well again.  Besides, I love it when you read to me."

"Are we having soup for lunch?"

"No.  We're having our usual peanut butter.  But would you like jelly instead of honey?"

All throughout the day, we repeat this dance with her asking to return to the lifestyle we led when she was sick and me drawing her back into the present, always, it seems, giving the answer she doesn't want and drawing her frown.

In late afternoon after big brother Wyatt and I finish up his homework, she comes to me again.

"Can you come lay down with me?"

She is remembering back to last week when she really needed a nap but wouldn't take one, as usual.   Instead of letting her fall asleep on the floor somewhere mid-play, I had turned on the white noise machine in her room, closed the door and curtains tight to block out the piercing daylight, and crawled beneath the covers with her.

Together, we had shared one pink pillow, our foreheads touching as she curled into me, her hand gently rubbing along my arm that wrapped around to draw her close.  Slowly, her body grew heavy with her breathing's deepening. There, we snuggled together until I unlaced myself from her embrace and crept quietly out the door.

Today, she was asking for that moment repeated more than she was admitting to being tired.

Supper was still a ways off.  Why not?

Amelia's smile spread to her eyes as I took her hand and walked up the stairs to her room.  Again in the mommy-created darkness, she drew up the covers beneath our chins and turned into my shoulder, repeating that moment of comfort and love I'd lavished upon her when she needed it most. 

All those questions throughout the day--all my daughter was really after was that extra bit of love I shower her with when she's ill.  Once well, she knew that "something extra" her mother pauses to give during times of crisis would vanish, and in her own way, she was begging for me to continue loving her like that, to continue loving her more.

What difference might it make in my children's lives if in the midst of training them up in the Lord, I kept pausing to say "yes" to their requests, to love them as much as I do when they are sick? To simply stop in the lessons, explanations, and detailed reasonings to just love?

A 15 minute non-nap snuggle between mother and daughter.  That's something I can still continue to give.

Even if we do all have a clean bill of health.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Running to Beat the Rain

The skies were already rolling deep folds of darkness nearer as I hurried four little legs beside me into Wal-mart.  My father had called earlier that morning to warn of the early afternoon storms to come, but here we were anyway, completing a weekly chore that should have been finished hours ago.

Into the limousine buggy went my youngest son with the sinus infection and his ever-mothering twin sister, both of whom knew to hold on tight as I rounded the first turn and flew down the straightaway to the back of the store.  Today wasn't one of those times when mommy could be persuaded to take a leisurely tour down Lego land Lane or Beautiful Princess Boulevard.  No, today was an "if-it's-not-on-the-list-then-don't-look-at-it" kind of shopping trip.

Marked-up competitors' sale ads in hand, this mother was on a mission to get in, get out, and get home, all before the rains hit.

Into the buggy dropped the cans of cat food, soap, and two week's supply of bite-sized apples.  Then came fifteen cans of Sunday afternoon snack soup for husband's winter stockpile, a half dozen cans of chili, and a cart-load of other items to price match.  Stocking up on the sale items was the purpose of the trip; the cashier was going to roll her eyes when she saw me, I was sure. 

By the time we entered the home stretch back down front, I glanced at my watch and sighed slightly in relief.  Not quite 11:30.  That's when I realized there were only two long lanes open other than the 20 or less lanes, which I was definitely not.  But these two lines weren't just "long."  They were Thanksgiving-Day crazy long, with my limo sticking so far back into the wide front aisle that everyone had to squeeze just to get between me and the rows of merchandise immediately at my back.

It quickly became evident that it was going to take as long to check out as it had to do all my shopping.

I know these are the times when we as Christians are supposed to have joy in our circumstances, but in all honesty, I. Did. Not.  Instead, my mind played reels of crying, soaked children and plastic bags bursting as their contents scattered and rolled across the parking lot, only stopping in the deepest of puddles.

Arms crossed, I let out an audible huff and glared directly overhead into the black void of the video camera globes as if the people working in security would somehow get my message to management that one of the dozens of persons stuffing the store full for Christmas needed to come help out with the currently-paying customers. 

Twenty minutes of idling in the slower of two lanes, and another lane did finally open up.  I maneuvered my nitro-powered limo into place, praised the cashier for her help, wished her a blessed day, and turned to go.

"Mommy?  I need to go to the bathroom?"

Now!?!?  It had taken forty-five minutes just to check out. I could almost hear the threatening winds warning of the coming rain.  Couldn't she wait just a little bit longer until we got home?   It was only a ten minute drive?

No.  Of course not. Dumb mommy.

Again, I waited.  Do you know how long it takes a five-year-old to wash her hands?  Sing the Alphabet song as you scrub your palms (not your fingers, palms only) with soap.  Forget what letter you're on.  Then, start over again.  Now forget your place a second time.  Yes.  That long

By some miracle, it wasn't yet raining as I pushed my heavy load down the slight hill to the van.  I whispered a thanks to God and asked for us to make it both home and inside with all my bags before the bad storms hit.  As if in response, a couple drops spattered on my face, reminding me that I really did need to hurry.

My buggy was almost empty when a truck pulled in next to me.

"Is that one of those buggies that kids can sit in?"

The question caught me off guard.  Wasn't it obvious? Why else would anyone drive this behemoth?

It was then that I looked past the dad to the kid hobbling down from the back seat of the truck.  I stopped still in my rush as I recognized the precious freckled face and bright red hair of a child from my oldest son's kindergarten class last year.

"Hey, Christopher.  You not feeling well today?  Remember Wyatt from kindergarten?  I'm his mom."

The panicked "how-does-she-know-my-name" look vanished, and he nodded, limping forward a few steps.  His father stopped and told me how the little boy had simply awakened one morning unable to walk, something with his hip that didn't show up on x-rays.

I pushed my buggy towards him and thought how this could be my own son.  Same age.  Same grade.  Same long, lanky frame.  Same easy, goofy smile.    

I joked with him about jumping out of trees and was rewarded with a shy smile, then added, "I hope you feel better, Christopher.  I will be praying for you."

And that was it. As he turned to leave, I heard him tell his dad, "That's Wyatt's mom."

Those words brought me to tears then and do again now as I remember how they triggered a realization.  Suddenly, I knew why I was late going to the store.I knew why I had to wait in line forty-five minutes just to check out.  I knew why Amelia had taken forever to wash her hands. 

It was never about me.  It was all about this little boy and his father.

All those delays in my day were so that I could bring that particular buggy to that particular place in the parking lot at that particular time for this seemingly clueless dad to lovingly care for his son.  All those delays in my day were so that I could be given an opportunity to plant a seed for God in that young boy's mind with the knowledge that some near-stranger was praying for him. 

Right there inside my van with the rain drops plopping more steadily around me each minute,  I dropped my head onto the steering wheel and prayed out loud for Christopher. 

That was a week ago, and I'm not sure if that little boy has been miraculously healed or if he continues to suffer.  But in this week when my own household has suffered from three separate viruses that have left me weary, somehow I can take comfort in not knowing why.

It's not always about us, about you and me.  God rarely reveals Himself like he did in that Wal-Mart parking lot.  Yet, I wonder just how often those things that cause us frustration, those delays that make us impatient, those interruptions we'd rather avoid--how often are they not really about us? But about someone else? 

And how often would it make a difference if we perceived those inconveniences, those interruptions, or those frustrations as for someone else versus against us?

Image: Awesome rain photo by Audrey Merwin.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Real Treasure

Where was my gold chain?  There was the cross husband had given me years ago for an anniversary and the enamel ladybug that matched the Avon earrings and bracelet from my Grandmother, but the thin, gold chain I used for all my pendants was missing.

Hurriedly, I pushed around the clutter on the bathroom cabinet, then simply grabbed the gold-plated chain with the single pearl that my daddy had brought back from one of his business trips when I was a young girl.  There was no time for search and rescue, and besides, my treasure was likely hiding in one of the jewelry chest's cubbies or in the ring holder by the kitchen sink.

I exchanged the grungy painting clothes for the vibrant maxi dress before rushing with my daughter to a dainty little girl tea party a half hour away, me not giving another thought to the maybe crisis I had just discovered but hadn't realized as of yet.

The following morning was Sunday.  Again, I reached for the gold chain and remembered its absence.  Unconcerned, I went to the jewelry box and sifted through each compartment. Nothing.

I ran down to my office, remembering that I had taken earrings off at my desk one late night as I sat working on the computer. Not there either.

Then came the kitchen, the other bathroom, and the end tables in the living room.  Still nothing.

By this point, I could feel those first pinpricks of anxious concern at the back of my neck, but again, I couldn't imagine it was really missing since I'm so careful with my treasures, always putting them in their place.  I continued with the Sunday morning routine like normal--dressing children, feeding children, and teaching Sunday School.  It wasn't until the middle of the sermon that I remembered the missing necklace again.   

As I tried to mentally back track to the last time I'd worn it, I suddenly realized it wasn't just the chain that was missing.  That morning in my search, I also hadn't seen the heart husband had given me for Valentines' Day that year early in our marriage when he had to be away in Jackson.

And right there in the pew, I felt the blood drain from my face and the panic set in. 

As soon as the service ended and we reached the house, I began a frantic sprint from room to room.  Then came the confession that my daughter "might" have been playing with it but "didn't remember" where it was.

My heart sunk.  I'd never find it.   Still, I continued to search, all the while giving myself an internal pep talk: "It's just a necklace and pendant, no big deal.  It's just a 'thing.'" But in all honesty, my heart still felt tight; it wasn't the tangible object I was upset about losing.  It was the memory associated with it.

A half hour later when husband came up to see me, he found a crazy woman dismantling our bedroom. 

Then, just when I had given up all hope, I caught a thin glimmer of light at the bottom of a woven basket.  Sure enough, my daughter (or some other guilty party not confessing) had been playing with the necklace as it lay on top of the jewelry chest.  She had either accidentally knocked it off or had dropped it to the floor as she fled the scene of the crime where it settled invisible into a pile of pink and purple Hawaiian leis. 

Jubilant, I yelled down the good news to my husband.  My children ran up the stairs to rejoice with me, all of us happy with finding this one lost necklace among many.    Then, I called my mother, sharing my excitement even further away.

Even as I stood in the doorway of my bedroom, I remembered the woman in Scripture who lost a single coin and then turned her own house upside down to find it:

"Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:8-10).
Here I was, over two thousand years later, repeating much the same search for a necklace as valuable to me as the coin was to her.  What's more, I realized I had just run the gambit of emotions God feels each time a lost child enters His kingdom.

I had felt the the anxiety, the heart pains, the huge sense of loss, the determination that I would not give up,  the hope against hope even when there seemed to be no hope, and the overflowing, radiant joy that could not be contained or kept to myself.

It's those last few that struck me so deeply.   

I serve a God who hopes against hope even when there seems to be no hope...because there always IS hope in His Son.   

I serve a God who never gave up on me.  I serve a God still determined, persistent, the One who will not let me go.

I serve a God who couldn't keep His rejoicing to Himself on that day I gave my heart to Him.

That level of sorrow, of commitment, and of rejoicing--all for just me...all for just you.

All for JUST ONE.

It is beyond humbling, beyond gracious, beyond precious.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fiction Worth Reading

I don't read much fiction anymore.  It's not that I still don't drool over the brightly colored dust jackets and crave the time to transport myself into another time and place.  It's simply that for me, reading for pleasure can become a sin.  Yep, you heard me right--a sin.

I love reading historical fiction, suspense novels, and mysteries with such an intensity that I've been known to simply drop everything as I gobble up the pages like a half-starved animal.  Ask my mother.  She'll tell you about my days in middle school when she forbade me from reading more than one book per week because I wasn't getting anything else done around the house.

Even now as a grown up with oodles of adult responsibilities, I still struggle against ditching my priorities and choosing, instead, to escape into the pages of another book.  I turn down my children's requests for another game; I let the laundry remain unfolded; and I substitute my reading of fiction for the reading of God's Word. 

Knowing this, when I do bring a piece of fiction into my house, it's a big deal.  If it won't support my spiritual walk but draw me from the straight path, I might need to leave that temptation at the library.

This past month, though, I did just that--agreeing to review Lynn Austin's newest novel Return to Me, which begins her new series entitled The Restoration Chronicles.

Having never read Austin's other novels, I was hesitant to commit my time to reading 400+ pages of someone else's imagination, but the front cover's image of a Jewish priest blowing a shofar into the rising sun tipped the scales. 

In 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.

After Cyrus' proclamation is issued, Iddo, his wife Dinah, and their young grandson Zechariah (who will grow to become the minor prophet of Scripture) must choose to return to Jerusalem, even when many of their family and most of the Jewish people refuse to return home.

The characters arrive in Jerusalem and immediately begin facing intense persecution at the hands of the Samaritans and others who remained in the land.  Austin really brings history to life as she paints vivid images of their struggles just to survive, of the constant danger they faced (even to simply go to the well for water!), and of their heart-wrenching discouragement when their efforts to rebuild the temple were stopped.  She also demonstrates quite well how the Babylonian beliefs from their exile followed the remnant back home to Jerusalem and how many of them accepted the pagan ways of their neighbors simply to accomplish peace.

My ladies Bible study group has studied this time period in depth.  We have spent months and years going through each of the prophets as well as the Kings and Chronicles, learning about Judah and Israel's sin leading up to the exile, the two waves of exiles being deported to Babylon, and the return after seventy years.  With this background, I know enough to say Austin's account does a good job of lining up with the historical details of Scripture.

What's interesting is I only thought I understood what happened in history after studying the Scriptures, but after reading this fictionalized account, I feel I can empathize with the returning exiles' struggles to remain pure and holy in the face of constant idol worship around them, to follow God's commands even in the face of such great opposition, to fear God instead of man, and to be broken hearted over the tearing in their families when some chose to follow God and others did not.  Sounds like the same struggles Christians encounter today, huh?

This book receives my wholehearted recommendation as a "must read."  I can hardly wait for the second book in the series, Keepers of the Covenant, scheduled to release Fall 2014.  As with most historical fiction books, expect this one to start out slow, but once you figure out the who's who and become invested in your characters' lives, it's a page turner that teaches without preaching about following God as it tells the story.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Motherhood: Being the Bad Guy

Sin has gripped our household this past week, blindsiding husband and me in its persistence and reminding us of how lost is the human state without saving grace.  He and I have been following Jesus for so many years that we forget what it is like to walk through this world without the Holy Spirit guiding our steps, holding back our hands from temptation, and convicting us to immediate repentance when we stray.

Yet, all we need do is look at our children to get a glimpse of the soul without the Spirit's indwelling.  In their young actions, I see a sincere desire to follow God's law in order to show Jesus their love for Him but an inability to control their sinful impulses.  I see attempts at purity but an inability to be righteous on their own.  In short, I get a front row seat to the war within their spirits, with the flesh repeatedly winning out in one area or another. 

And when flesh does prevail, husband and I must do what we abhor--create consequences that hurt us to enforce simply because there is nothing good parents want more than to give their children everything in this life.  Withholding mercy and open-handed benevolence simply doesn't come naturally to us who have drunk so freely from Christ's endless ocean of mercy and grace.

As I pen these words, one son is angry with me for the chosen punishment--our withdrawing family fellowship from him for a set period.  As he spends the day alone in his room, he draws on the yellow legal pad an image of lightening bolts aimed at my head and grumbles to anyone who'll listen, blaming me (not his father) for catching him in the act, then enforcing the punishment.

He doesn't see me, but I cry when I hear that.

Until he grows tall, sees himself reflected in the eyes of his own children, and realizes how much this God-given task of being a parent requires, there is no way he can understand how much I would rather love than give punishment, hold tight versus push away.  He has no idea how hard it is to say "no" when he asks for cuddles, "no" when he asks me to come play a game with him.
The rubber ball bounces hard against the wood planks over my head again, another attempt at drawing attention to self.  At meals together, he can't stop the chatter about nothing, anything, and everything--it's really just white noise filled with nonsense questions meant to engage me. 

Husband said last night, "He's scared of the silence."   Yes...because if you stop playing, talking, explaining, blaming...you might have to admit you screwed up big time; you might have to take responsibility for your actions; you may experience heart-breaking sorrow over your sin rather than the self-righteous anger that you've coated yourself with as tough as steel-plated armor.

One crack in the facade, and all you'll be left with is that sinking feeling you'd do most anything to avoid.  This I know too well.

Last night while he slept, I crept in his room and lay down beside this tow-headed child who snored loudly in the dark.  Instinctively, he rolled towards me, snuggling tight under my chin as I put my arm around him, holding him close and praying for this child whom I love more than life, itself.

I prayed against the self-reliance, the self-righteousness and the lack of repentance that I fear may blossom in his heart and bear fruit of eternal self-destruction.  I prayed for his heart to grow tender to God's Word and for My Savior to become his Savior.

Then, I smoothed back his hair, kissed his brow, and silently slipped from the room. 

A mother's love is boundless--in kindness, in mercy, and in strength as she teaches through consequences.

Image: A sad little boy writing a note of apology (over a month ago.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Value of the True Friend

It's hard to believe that one week ago today, the world fell away beneath my feet as I discovered I would lose most of my part-time employment come January 1.  Since then, life has been a slow-motion sprint to line up a replacement job for the spring. 

Husband and I have done this sort of free fall before, back when we didn't have three extra mouths to feed, when surviving on my retirement-benefits-and-insurance-blessed salary alone was relatively easy.  I would go out to work each day while husband stayed home faxing resumes, making cold calls, and cooking dinner.

Three months' worth of new recipes later, he finally found a job.  I look back on that time period as both miserable and blessed--blessed because we had time together and miserable because of the circumstances we were going through made it impossible to enjoy that time since we had no inkling of where this rabbit hole might take us or when we might reach the other side.

What I remember most about this season, though, was the sudden silence.  Friends and colleagues whom we regularly interacted with socially vanished without a trace, virtually overnight.  Even the "friends" my husband had faithfully mowed the lawn for after they moved away months before their house sold suddenly stopped calling, stopped sending Christmas cards, stopped responding to emails.

Overnight, the doors shut, the backs turned.  We were modern-day lepers.

Today, the circumstances aren't the same, but still, when I learned of my job loss, all those memories and feelings of abandonment came flooding back to the forefront.  I re-lived when friends proved false and close friends proved more so, when our expanding network shrank back to just our two families supporting us with prayer and love.

Back then, I had sworn I would never be that invested in someone outside my family again so if it came back down to just husband and me in the end, it wouldn't matter.  And here I was, not even a decade later, realizing how invested I had allowed myself to become since then.  I was both fearful and grieving at the thought of our inner circle being reduced to just us for a second time.

Then, the emails, texts, and phone calls started.

Instead of silence and an empty inbox, I would awaken each day to find someone praying for me, a boss going above and beyond to help explore other options, an old friend offering to have her contact hand deliver my resume, and still another two writing a recommendation for me within hours of the asking.

I wasn't being abandoned.  I was being loved.  I was learning the value of true friendship in spades.

No, my circumstances have still not changed, although I'm still seeking and praying, ever-believing that He will provide.  Even so, it feels like they have changed, simply because I've been blessed with so many who have chosen to reach out to me versus to turn and walk away.

It's a not so subtle reminder of just how important it is for me to continue doing the same, reaching out to others so they, too, can know they're not alone, no matter what they're going through.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Twelve Weeks Notice

I've always known my employment was uncertain.   My title, itself--adjunct--just screams dispensable, insignificant. 

In academia, adjuncts are the third world sweat shop employees toiling away invisible in the dark corners of every college and university basement.  This part-time employee is offered no health benefits, no retirement, and no promise of future employment beyond the present term.  What's more, full time professors look down their nose at adjuncts as second rate educators not sold out to the craft.  Consciously or not, in the eyes of the full timer, quantity of courses taught determines an educator's quality.

I know this...because I once sat on the mighty throne of the full time instructor.  I, too, discarded the opinions of most adjuncts because they were less impacted by departmental decisions and didn't understand what a real teaching load required.

Then after the birth of my son in 2006, I turned in my throne to join the ranks of the lowly and downtrodden.  And there?  In all honesty? Despite the hours I have to work while others sleep and the hats I must juggle as a stay at home mother, here, I have continued to thrive.

My decision to leave full time employment was one I'd always known I would make.  Even before husband and I married, I communicated that God had called me to stay home with my children.  When I was hired at my first secure full-time position, my boss knew I was 101% dedicated to him, the college, and my students...until I had a child, and then, I was a goner.

Yet, by the time our first son was born, husband had already lost his career, so my decision to be a stay at home mom was more an act of love for my child and of obedience to God than a preferred choice.  I was giving up a fulfilling job I truly loved, a fabulous camaraderie with my peers, a retirement plan, insurance, and a steady paycheck complete with merit raises and the possibility for advancement.

It was a giant leap of faith, but I squeezed my eyes tight shut and stepped off the cliff into the waiting hands of my God.  Since 2006, I have watched His finger tracing a seemingly insane path for me to follow as He has opened doors for me.  The result is that I've been able to earn a good living as a part time adjunct for three community colleges around the state--all online, all at night while staying home with my young children during the daylight hours.

Sure, my employment has always been contingent upon student enrollment, which is dependent upon the economy.  Some semesters have made me feel like Jack Sprat's wife.  Others have been lean. In fact, just this past Spring saw the door close on one of my three jobs.  Even with that river dammed up for two semesters, God made way for a stream of other smaller opportunities to flow towards me...and taught me how I could survive with much less.

Yesterday, though, I found my faith being tested once again.  A two minute phone call left me without two of my part time jobs, effective January 1.  In short, I was receiving my twelve weeks' notice.  And this time, I couldn't just wait for the system's new rule to change, couldn't just find ways to squeeze that much money from the family budget.  I would need to find a new job.

I sobbed with my husband, prayed, planned, questioned, and sobbed some more.

Twenty four hours later, I see shadows that God's hand is not idle, even if when I look a second time, there's nothing there yet to fill the void.  When applying last night to a job posting at a Christian online university, I suddenly found myself faced with an empty java box and a simple request for me to write my statement of faith, no fewer than two paragraphs, please.

I couldn't help but smile at the irony.   My statement of faith.

I've learned to not have faith in my connections, my education, and my experience; they simply aren't enough.  Here I am with nothing but faith, knowing no one who can provide for my family's needs except God, Himself.  All I can do at this point is walk by faith for if I walk by sight, the oppressive despair of the situation will keep me firmly sunk into my sofa. 

One foot in front of the other (even if sometimes, those steps look more like tear-laden stumbles) I walk. Waiting. Anticipating. All the while believing my help comes from the Lord.

There is no other choice but to believe and wait...even when the road looks so very dark ahead.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Modern Mother's Scarlet Letter

Last week found this mother approaching a nervous breakdown of sorts, you know, the kind all mothers entertain on those days when everything needs a do-over yet there's no time for such frivolous things.

It started when my oldest, Wyatt, left one of his two homework folders at school for the umpteenth time this year, then confessed that his reading textbook was also "missing."  This fact was confirmed not an hour later when I received an email from the teacher.  Did I have the book at home?  Uh...no. And yes...I was sure.

Then came that son's continued inability to remember to practice his typing each afternoon, even when I reminded him.  Since school started, he'd gone from 17 word per minute back down to 13, all because he kept "forgetting."

But the straw that broke the camel's back was yet another pair of stinky socks left on the living room floor.  These were the white tube socks with the emerald green writing on the toe, identical to the pair I'd found earlier that day in his bedroom...along with the other pair in the Egyptian bathroom...and the third pair on the washroom floor.

Socks, it seems, had a mind of their own and a deep desire to avoid the dark recesses of the clothes hamper so they could, instead, frolic in freedom around my house.

And in that moment of pure insanity when I would have gone screaming out the backdoor had I only been able to muster the energy, the daily activity chart was born.  X's were bad.  Check marks were good.  Peer pressure from siblings was golden.

Yet, days later, here I was again, marking another "X" on Wyatt's chart.  I sighed deep, knowing it wasn't that he intended to be disobedient.  He is just my absentminded child, so much like his father in that regard.

Still, with a lost textbook, homework unable to be completed, and a chart full of X's, I felt like sewing a scarlet "F" for "failure" on my maternal chest.  Add to that a twin sister who wanted to whine or lie about everything and a twin brother who kept being intentionally mean to his sister, and I closed my eyes to a vision of myself standing on the scaffold of shame like a modern-day Hester Prynne as other mothers averted their eyes and shook their heads at my bad mothering skills.

This mother was obviously doing everything wrong.

My scarlet failure blazed brighter at suppertime when, as usual, two out of three children were less than thrilled with what I had cooked.  The evening conversation whirled around me in tones better suited for outside than the gathering table.  The children and husband were happy, completely oblivious to the strain that had tugged at my temples all week and that even now threatened to spill over in tears.

Then, Emerson began reciting his Bible verse that sat in the center of our table.  Not be outdone, Amelia did the same.  Somewhere along the way, Wyatt spoke up, saying we needed to pray for his friend at school whose grandmother was in the hospital.  He described how she had broken her arms when she had fallen.  We could pray for her tonight, right?

My breath caught, remembering my friend telling me a similar tale about Wyatt just a few weeks prior.  After her middle daughter had requested prayer for both my friend and a younger sister's "attitude," Wyatt had offered to pray, then apparently prayed heaven down in a mighty way, unconcerned about what others might think as he spoke aloud.

This boy so oblivious and absentminded at times showed a deep concern for others, a commitment to remembering their needs, and a willingness to call upon the Lord in prayer for them.

Maybe my pinning on that scarlet "F" was a bit premature.  Perhaps I'd  tuck it in my drawer for another day.  This wasn't the progress I'd been looking for, but perhaps I'd just been looking in the wrong place. 
A week later, Wyatt's textbook has reappeared in his school desk (see this mom rolling her eyes), his typing speed is approaching what it was before, and we're starting to have more checks than X's on everyone's activity chart, even without this mother's constant pestering.

There are no sudden miracles with raising children.  Nothing is overnight.  Everything is a process.  Some moments are joyful.  Some send me to my knees.  Others send me to my bed to pull the covers over my head.

But even if I can't bring my children up to always be the brightest, the most responsible, or the least absentminded--if I can just raise them up to live for the Lord, to love Him with their whole heart, and to love others in return, I will have done my job. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What to Do When Your Usual is Already Unusual

My oldest son's skip was a little lighter than usual as he ran down the gravel drive and into my arms for the always-loving but ever-brief hug.

"Guess what!!?!!" he asked, what was obviously a rhetorical question since he didn't even pause a breath for me to reply. "We don't have any homework today.  The Principal says so."

I raised my eyebrows at that one, knowing full well he would have a vocabulary and spelling test on Friday.  Special day or not, we'd be spending time with those two "activities."

He pushed the purple and black tiger striped booksack into my hands and headed off to the hen house to collect the day's brown offering.  Instinctively, I glanced down at the orange laces on his tennis shoes.  Since he'd learned to tie them himself, more days than not, he returns to me with the bunny ears drooping long in the dirt.  Today at least, they weren't dragging the ground. 

I followed behind to help unlock the trapdoor that kept the hens in the yard and waited for him to raid their nests.  Even behind the solid wood door, he kept talking.  "The Principal says we're to do something with our family tonight.....so what are we going to do?"

The school had sent home the brochure a week earlier announcing Monday, September 26 was National Family Day, a CASA supported initiative to promote parents being engaged with their children. 

I smiled at this boy whom I suddenly realized didn't have a clue.  He didn't understand the need for a Family Day because he has no idea what life was like for many families who had no time to spend together.  He didn't understand the need for conversation starters or even the need to encourage eating meals together.  These were just integral parts of his everyday life, not something to be taught, added, or even questioned. 

He and I both knew that as the sun began to dip low in the sky, we would hop on our bicycles and take the short trek a quarter mile down the driveway to the other end of the farm where Oma and Opa would be waiting with the usual Monday night family supper.  Oma, Opa, husband, me, and the three children would eat, talk, pray, laugh, and share of ourselves, forgetting how unusual was our usual in this modern world.

Afterwards, he and the twins would beg for a dip in the swimming pool, even if it were only for twenty minutes, and husband would oblige.  Then would come bathtime followed by each child having his turn both having a parent read him a book and also reading a book to husband or me.  Finally would come that precious time at day's end when daddy would pray individually with each child in turn.

This is our usual.  It is the expected.  So, I was to do something less than usual.

After homework (yes, we did it anyway), I gave the children the opportunity to watch a couple episodes of The Berenstain Bears, something we rarely do in our house.  Instead of going off as usual and catching up on my never-ending pile of housework while they were entertained, I chose to simply sit in the recliner with Wyatt, the two of us barely fitting in that cramped space.

Initially, he wiggled and squirmed as if this wasn't a good choice.  Still, I relished in the few comforting minutes of loving on my boy who is quickly becoming a man.  He might not enjoy my presence, but I would enjoy his.  Yet, when I stood up to go move the clothes from the washer to the dryer, Wyatt suddenly looked away from the screen and asked, "You're coming back to sit with me...right?"

Of course.

I snuggled back down next to him, wrapped my arm around his shoulder, and pulled him close.  Without a word, he lifted that hand and moved it to rub his hair and forehead, a silent request for mommy's loving touch.

In a couple years, we'll have to move to the love seat if we want to watch a show together.  As they turn into tweens and teens, I know it will get more difficult to encourage my children to engage with me, more difficult to continue coming up with creative ways to show them that they are special to our family.

That just means no matter how unusual our family's usual is, I'm still in the same boat as every other parent seeking to make a difference in the life of a child. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When Nobody Will Ever Know the Difference

For the second time in a week, I was standing at the checkout counter of the dentist office.  Instead of two children full of pent-up energy, this time, all three were with me.  A deep sigh escaped my chest as I looked at my watch.  It was nearing 5:00 and I wanted nothing more than to drive home before the rush hour traffic hit. 

There I stood with my wallet open, credit card in my hand, waiting on the lady at the counter who seemed to be in no rush.   She punched in all the appropriate codes while I listened to the familiar click of her computer keys and the giggle of joyous play taking place just around the corner.  Behind me, the twins giggled and danced in circles, only stopping when I bent forward my head and shot them "the look."  Even my oldest was jittery and kept bouncing his new goldfish ball from the treasure chest.  Without fail, he would not quite catch the rubber sphere and stumbled into a sea of legs to track it down.

After what seemed like an eternity, the brunette handed me a piece of paper hot off the printer.  "Thank you," she said.  "You don't owe anything today."

The punch to my gut was instant.  Yes, I did.  While the dental discount program we are a part of covers the exam, x-rays, and bite wings, I knew it didn't cover Wyatt's fluoride treatment.  I had just paid for the twins' fluoride paint job the previous Friday.  Today, I should be paying another $25 for my oldest son.

A few seconds passed while I reviewed the statement.  Everything checked out right, but that initial punch was slowly transforming into a nauseous feeling, the kind I always get when I know something is wrong but also know I'm not legally bound to correct someone's mistake.  I know I have a choice to make--do the ethical thing or do the legal thing.

In those times, it's like I have a little devil sitting on my right shoulder.  "No one will ever know," he grins.  "It's their fault, not yours.  It's their mistake. Plus, you could really use the extra cash.  Maybe this is just God's way of giving it to you."

I want to just walk away.  I really do.  But I know myself well enough to know that nauseous feeling won't leave me until I set things right.  I'd experienced the same feeling months earlier when the cashier at Hobby Lobby forgot to type in an extra zero when ringing up a price.  I knew then that I'd never be able to enjoy that furniture if I didn't correct her mistake.  Every time I saw it in my house, I'd remember that I'd cheated the store...even if it was their mistake.

I slid the paper back across the counter to her.  "No," I said.  "I owe you for the fluoride treatment.  I paid for it last week for my twins, so I know I owe you today, too."

Another woman in the background heard me and instantly approached the counter.  Apparently, "I owe you more money than you're charging" isn't a concept she's heard much.  The brunette kept clicking, frowning, and scrolling down her computer screen as the other woman leaned over her shoulder and gave directions that sounded more like code than English. 

Finally, the woman in charge looked up and said, "No. You don't owe us.  In the program, the treatment is included free of charge for children under the age of 14.  We owe you.  Can we put the difference back on your card?"

Minutes later, I left the office $51 richer than when I went in.  More importantly, I felt a soul sweetness of peace that spread through all my limbs and made me feel almost weightless.  I couldn't help but smile as I prayed a quick word of thanks for the Spirit prompting me to do what I knew to be right.

Had I chosen to not correct her "mistake," it would likely have never been uncovered, and I would have missed that financial blessing.  Yet, even if the coding mistake later were uncovered and I were refunded the money, I still would have missed out on the soul blessing.

Doing the right thing is always worth it, but God rarely shows us just how "worth it" our morally upright actions are, at least not in such a literal dollars and sense way.  I am thankful that sometimes, He gives me a glimpse of the war going on invisible around me and the difference my one action can make in my life and in the lives of others.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Different Faces of Love

Two weeks after I said "I do," I learned that I didn't really like my husband.

It was shortly after New Year's and some big football game was on television, so husband had invited my brother over to watch several hours of  grown men throwing around the pigskin.  In preparation for this big game with his new brother-in-law, husband had gone all out with the game-day food and Barq's root beer.

Several hours later, the game was over, and husband began to feel ill, so he marched upstairs and went to bed, leaving our tiny kitchenette a wreck.  The sink was mounded high with dirty dishes; empty bottles and bowls of congealed cheese dip cluttered what little counter space we had; and on the sofa were open bags of chips growing more stale by the second.

The honeymoon was officially over.  

As I cleaned up the mess, I grumbled to myself over how lazy my new spouse was.  I didn't feel my best either, but someone had to clean up his mess.  Within 24 hours, though, I, too, understood why he went to bed without helping.  We both had a bad case of the flu.

Husbands and wives don't always like each other.  And, honestly, why should they?  Even when God mysteriously transforms the two into one being at the start of their marriage, still, they are two individuals, each crafted uniquely by our Creator.

At their best, husband and wife are two halves, one complementing the other as they both struggle through this life.  At their worst, the two halves work against each other or grow frustrated in a failed attempt to make the other half into a mirror image of themselves instead of an equal, but different, counterpart.

In my own marriage, husband and I know each other better than anyone else does.  We routinely see each other at our worst and at our best.  We can finish each other's sentences and even laugh silly at our own private jokes that leave my oldest son grinning in ignorance, begging, "What!?  What's so funny!? Tell me!"

And yet, there are days when we struggle to communicate, when miscommunication or lack of communication is more prevalent than the cozy intimate speech of young lovers.  Sometimes, it's simply hard to be understood.  I would swear we're both speaking English, but it's still not the same language.

Without Jesus and without an understanding that marriage is designed to make us holy versus happy, there's no telling how many miles would separate us by this point.  Yet, that doesn't mean our marriage or any other Christian marriage is easy sailing through untroubled waters.

We suffer from marital stressors caused by lack of sleep, little "down" or "alone" time as a couple, or simply the frustration from an inability to escape a bad job into a more financially secure and less draining place of employment.

In these tough times, what makes the difference in a marriage is the ability to see opportunities for acts of love--to both be open to receive and to give love in return.  And yes, that's even true for those moments when we may not necessarily like each other.

Love is a simple note of apology to a wife (attached to chocolate, of course).

Love is an insulation-covered husband, sweating in hundred degree heat as he tries to finish an office so he can work more from home, spend less time on the road, and, ultimately, take more time with his family.

Love is taking your son to school every morning while your wife cares for the two little ones.  Love is honoring that commitment, even on those days when you've worked the whole night before on an emergency project, driven back home simply to spend this time with your child...and then driven back in to work for a full day.

This is what love looks like.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Learning to Include Others in Your Labors

The clink of glass bowls in my kitchen has an effect similar to the bell Ivan Pavlov used on his kennel of dogs.  As I quietly slide out the largest of the translucent cobalt vessels from the bottom of the stack, I know it won't be long before the house will ring with the sound of bare feet slapping on wood plank floors.

Emerson is the first to arrive and start investigating all the supplies I've laid upon the counter top.  A quick survey of the clutter makes it obvious I'm about to cook something.  He looks up into my face and asks that oft repeated question.  "Can I help, mommy?"

"Me, too!?" my daughter's shrill voice echoes as she rounds the corner.  She grabs the wooden spoon from her twin brother and moves in on the melted butter and sugar I've started to cream together.  Down the hall, the third child wakes up from his book-induced fog and realizes he's missing out on something exciting.  Moments later, all three children are circled 'round the gathering table, all arguing over who is going to do what to "help" mommy.

Every measurement must pass through a second pair of hands before it's dumped into the bowl.  Child #1 dumps one cup of flour.  Child #2 dumps the second cup of self-rising.  Child #3 pours in the old-fashioned oats.  Then, I start the cycle again, working to give everyone a turn, to not show favoritism, to give deference to their already-keen sense of fairness and equality.

All three get to take a turn pushing the "PULSE" button on the food processor, each face breaking into a grin as the whirling metal disk shreds the carrots into a stringy mound at the bottom of the bowl.  Then, each must have a turn stirring the mixture.

While one stirs, the other two give advice: don't stir too quickly or you'll stir the flour out of the bowl; don't hold the spoon so high up or you won't have good control; don't forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl so everything is mixed thoroughly.  I have to smile as I listen to Wyatt and Amelia giving poor Emerson the same directions I've given them before.

Satisfied that there is nothing more to do but wait for the yummy bars to come out of the oven, all three once again disperse to the four corners of the house--Wyatt back to living in another world found in his books, Amelia to mothering her dolls, and Emerson to laying train track across the upstairs foyer.

Later at the lunch table when Grandmama asks if they helped cook, they each sit up a little taller and puff out their chests with pride as they take credit.  Despite what I've read in magazines, just because they cook it does not mean they're more likely to eat it...but they're always proud of it.

It would be so much easier to just do this by myself. Instead, I continuously let them help me cook, wash, vacuum, clean--not because I need their particular brand of help but rather because I understand that burning desire to be of use...and I want to encourage them to take pride in their labors, to associate hard work with this sense of accomplishment, to continue offering to help others.

Just yesterday, my mother and I worked to insulate and put up the vapor barrier in the front half of husband's outside office while husband and my daddy worked to hang sheetrock in the back half.  It took two women the same amount of time it took one man to do the same task in the back half of the office.

Was it as neat a job?  Not hardly.  Did I have to ask a lot of (stupid) questions?  Sure.  Did I use more staples than I should have?  Uh....yeah.  (The staple gun and I had compatibility issues.)  Was our vapor barrier hung straight?  Well, it looked more like a bunny slope.

In the end, though, my mother and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment that we had helped our men, freeing them up to do another task we couldn't.  Besides, no one would ever see the zillion staples or the crooked vapor barrier.  That didn't matter.  What was important would be the finished product and the knowledge that we helped make his office into what it will become.

Whether we're four years old or forty or even sixty, we all want to feel useful, to feel needed.  Maybe it is easier to just do it all ourselves.  Honestly, most things are.  But many times, when we deny someone the opportunity to help us, we're also denying them the blessing that comes from their giving of themselves, denying them a sense of pride in their labors and a healthy sense of accomplishment.

Think about it.  If someone keeps being rejected each time he offers to help someone else, one day, he's just going to stop asking.  Is that the kind of world we want to live in?  The kind of household we want to live in?

Had my husband done the work all himself versus having us other three help him, only one man could have felt the pride in looking at the work of his hands and saying "well done."  Likewise, had I chosen to cook by myself, I would have been the only one with a sense of fulfillment at what I had accomplished.  In both situations, by allowing others to help, that meant four people went away filled and blessed, knowing they had helped someone else.

Four versus one.  I call that a pretty good return on the few extra minutes it took to bring the three extras on board for the project.