Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Writing New Lyrics to an Old Song

Today found me on bruised knees, digging out the roots from long Alicia Bermuda runners that have spent the winter slowly creeping across the hay field and wrapping themselves around the trunk of my blueberry bushes.

The weather was beautiful, as it has been for the past two weeks--in the 70s with a breeze strong enough to cause my daughter to yell out loud, "Thank you God for the breeze!"

Yet, in the midst of this beauty, I was grumbling in my spirit, frustrated as I hacked at the tenacious roots with an instrument referred to by my children as "the bull thistle puller."  Two years, and I was still failing to push back the hay field, to establish a proper yard with neat, hay-free flower beds and well-defined edges.

As I trudged through this silent chore, up and over the house's rooftop suddenly drifted the sound of vocals loud enough to have come from a radio being switched on.  I couldn't help but smile, knowing what had happened.

Deep in the backyard, my daughter knelt alone in the grass and picked another hand full of  weed-flowers that cover our hay fields with a purple haze in early spring.  Little in life makes Amelia happier than when there is a field of flowers ripe for the plucking.  And in the security of that solitude, her heart burst forth in a song of pure, unabashed praise.

Yes, even with Valentines Day approaching, she belted out her version of last Christmas' favorite-- Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Three-fourths of the lyrics were replaced with ideas nowhere near what the original author intended.  Some verses were even filled with nonsensical words that merely imitated the sounds she heard but couldn't make fit with her four-year-old understanding and vocabulary.

I've heard this version many times over.  So has my kindergartner son Wyatt, who, having just this December learned the correct words, himself, can no longer stand to hear her mangle the original.

To him, right is right and wrong is wrong, which is why just last week, my car was filled with him loudly chastising her from the backseat. "No, no, NO! Amelia.  That's not how it goes.  Listen to ME...."  The more he criticized, the louder she sang.

If she could have vocalized her thoughts instead of trying to drown him out, I'm sure they would have sounded something like, "No, YOU don't get it.  Praise is praise.  And that's always right."

Yet now in her back yard retreat, no one would criticize her word choices, her simple sounds.  She could sing anything her heart desired.

"Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king
Peace on earth and mercy wild, God has sent a bless-ed child..."

The first time she sang the verse, I thought I had misheard her, but each time, I listened closely and it was the same word.


It's wrong, of course.  But in so many ways, it's so right.  I can't sing the song anymore without thinking of God this way, as a God not with "mercy mild" but with "mercy wild."

His love for us, in sending down a Savior to die for our sin--that is some wild mercy.

When her song ended, the air was silent again.  A few minutes later, she appeared, rounding the corner of the house to find her mother in the dirt.  There she was--my happy, carefree daughter with disheveled hair swinging in the breeze, arms full of wild flowers, and heart bursting with even wilder love.

And what's more? All that wildness was just for me.

Yes.  We live in a world with mercy wild.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Keeping The Love Letter Alive

Ours was a romance begun before the age of texting, before spam outnumbered actual messages in an email Inbox, and before cell phones stopped passing for enormous Art History textbooks on the front seat of your car.

It was a transitional age when technology was present but not oppressive, used but not central to daily existence.  As we hurtled towards the end of the twentieth century, the art of the love letter was quite alive and well.  

Back then, husband won my heart not with lavish gifts and dates at fancy restaurants but with blue-lined college rule paper and a ball point ink pen. 

By the time we married, the blue linen box of those letters had long since spilled over into several tipsy stacks, and we had moved on with the rest of society, sending more emails than hand-written notes. 

Still, the occasional masterpiece would cross my desk, flooding me with loving memories of those first hesitant scrawls exchanged between two fairly shy people.

I've often wondered about the upcoming generations.  Would they, too, experience the flush of finding a hand-penned note in their lockers or on their car windows?  Or would all that emotion and deep pensive thought be lost to the speed of LOL?

Last Fall, I started writing love letters again, this time to my oldest son.  I tucked a small note in Wyatt's lunch box, just a small reminder that mommy loved him and wished him a good day.  A month later, I wrote him another and left it on his backpack, this note  apologizing for being angry at him and asking his forgiveness.

Apparently, something clicked in that moment in Wyatt's young mind. Letters were about relationships--establishing them and continuing them.

Ever since, my kindergartner has been writing his own letters to anyone who will read them--me, his daddy, grandparents, aunt and uncle, as well as school teacher.  He even wrote one to another unknown teacher at recess, asking her to be his friend.  To his utter delight, she wrote a short note back with a pink heart drawn in the middle.

A pleased child has no poker face.  He was radiant.

No, his phonetic spelling is not always easy to read (he's six), and sometimes, I can't figure out the pictures.  But I have come to look forward to the little notes shoved in my face, left on my desk--especially when he knows he has done wrong and wants to mend the relationship with me.

Aside from "LOVe," "PLees FGiV" is the most frequently used phrase in his notes.

Forgiveness.  That's what his love notes ask me for--continued love and forgiveness.  What mother could not forgive?

Last night's missive was waiting for me when I arrived home.  The "Dear Mommy" letter was concluded with crudely drawn hearts beside a few X's and O's.

"Did you see them?" he asked this morning as I poured the milk.  "The X's are hugs and the O's are kisses."

"Yes," I smiled back, taking in his eager face.  "I love you, too."

We hug; I kiss his hair; and all is forgiven.

A low-tech love is sometimes the best.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When a Family Shows Love

My children were excited at the thought of another birthday.  At their age, the day of their birth holds great significance, is cause for anticipation weeks and months in advance leading up to the big day with all its great pomp and circumstance.  As Emerson says of days such as this, "Today is a good day."

But this was my birthday.  Mommy's.  The one who typically bakes the cakes, buys the presents, sends the invitations, and arranges all the festivities.  Such extravagance for a thirty-six-year-old seems almost silly, not to mention labor intensive without the payout of being able to revel in the limitless happiness found only in children.

Besides, my birthday was falling just two days after I lost another part-time job to the economy.  By Thursday morning, I was at peace with God's choice even if I didn't understand it or know what long-term effects it would have on our family, but throughout the day, there was still a fragile numbness that could lead to crumbling.

The children were aghast.  No cake? No candles? No presents?

"Aren't you at least going to have cupcakes," Wyatt asked.  His tone was clear--the bare minimum any birthday should have is cupcakes. 

I smiled thin.  No cupcakes.

My arm wrapped around husband's waist, and I willed my voice to lilt with happiness, smiled deep.  "Daddy is taking off work for my birthday.  That's his present to me.  It's what I asked for."

The boys looked at me like I'd just asked for toilet paper for my birthday, but Amelia smiled that proud smile I see when she understands and approves.

It was what I had asked for--extra time with the one I promised to love forever.

Husband joined me on our weekly morning prayer walk through the neighborhoods.  He played games with me and the twins as well as completed a honey-do project that had been on the list since we moved into the house over two years ago

At lunch, my parents popped in with a box of chicken and half gallon of Blue Bunny, a sharing 'round the kitchen table that the twins instantly dubbed "my party."

Later, as I went to teach ESL to a small group of four refugees, my friend passed me a gift card to a local restaurant, a gift from someone anonymous in my church.

It was all I could do to hold it all together, to not just sit in her living room and cry at God's gracious mercy and love expressed first through my husband, then through my parents, and now through my extended church family.  This last love was almost too much--love from someone who neither was predisposed to love me from birth nor had promised to love me in front of God and a sea of witnesses.

My thirty-sixth birthday may not have had streamers, a large gathering, or even a cake.  But I can't remember another when I have felt God's love expressed to me through the people in my life.

Image: Pooh in his honey pot, cupcakes from our Autumn Harvest Festival last year.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Unintended Lessons Parents Teach

When our family set out to run 26.2 miles over a nine week period, I knew this would be a great opportunity to begin instilling in my young children's minds ideas like endurance, persistence, and healthy living.

This program would show them that not just mommy needed to daily exercise and make healthy choices to take care of the body God gave us.

I expected our running would lead to lengthy exchanges about choosing foods that would benefit our bodies and give us the right kind of energy.  I expected to teach them about how to breathe properly, how to keep their eyes on the path ahead, how to pace themselves. 

On the "reality check" side, I also anticipated all the whining, fussing, complaining, and laziness that is characteristic of typical four and six year old children.  I even envisioned many days when I would have to push, drag, carry, or roll reluctant children outside into the typical colder temperatures of November, December, and January.

What I didn't expect was how many obstacles our family would need to overcome just to finish a simple race.
Until the first of January, we trained through head colds, chest colds, stomach flu, salmonella poisoning, and "just a virus."  Then, when everyone was finally well, an unusual monsoon season set in, our state seeing over an inch of rain a day for the first two weeks in January.  At that point, our mile-long daily races resembled cross country training, with each of us dodging deep puddles and jumping over small "creeks" that meandered across our path.

Despite the unexpected, last Saturday, the children and I finished the last mile.  As a mother, I was so proud of them.  We had finished what, at times, I thought was an impossible goal.  Yet, in their eyes, it wasn't over until they had the "big race."
Today, our family drove into the concrete jungle to run the final 1.2 mile leg of the marathon alongside a couple hundred other children and their parents.  This was it--the day they would see how the weeks of training had prepared their muscles for the "big race."  I was as excited as they were.

Then, mere minutes before the race started, Amelia tripped on the unfamiliar concrete.  Of course, there was a trace blood on her finger, so I picked her up and tried to stop her wailing.  The crowd kept moving forward toward the starting line, and so did I.  As I wondered how I was going to get her calm enough to run in a few seconds, the unthinkable happened.

Husband's size 13 sneaker caught my heel, and I tumbled forward.  I was going down.  My left arm held tighter to my daughter, my only thought being, "Oh no.  She's going to get hurt.  We'll never finish this race."

To the horror of those around me, both my knees slammed into the hard concrete as the rest of my body kept flying forward.  I put out my right wrist, then rolled involuntarily with Amelia's weight, my left arm still cushioning her so that when we both came to a rest, her head barely hit the ground. 

Had I been at home, I would have put myself on injured reserve for the rest of the day, iced my knees, and turned on the television.  But this was the big race.  And so, even as the blood kept sticking to the inside of my black racing pants, I stood up, wiped the grit off my knees, and took my daughter's hand.

Together, we ran.  Together, we heard the encouraging cheers of strangers on the roadside.  It was truly magical.

Wyatt finished his 1.2 mile jaunt in twelve minutes, Emerson in a little over thirteen.  And Amelia and I came in at sixteen minutes--not fast enough to win anything, for sure, but her best time ever.
We laughed, hugged, cheered, and celebrated our new medals.  I knew they had taken to heart some of the lessons I had been teaching when everyone started asking the same question--"When's the next race?"
Later that night, Amelia sat by the tub and watched as I tended to my war wounds.  My right knee was black, now swollen to the the size of a softball.  My left was still oozing blood, bright red and raw like a mangled piece of beef.  I couldn't help but flinch as I re-cleaned and bandaged the wound.

"You got hurt because you didn't let me get hurt," she said, spouting wisdom well beyond her years.

"Yes, dear," I responded.  "My knees and hands got hurt because I was protecting you so you wouldn't get hurt."

She smiled and went on.

This.  This was not a lesson I consciously thought about teaching her today.  It just happened.  It's just what mothers do out of instinct.

Yet, what I'm learning is that my children take to heart those unintended lessons sometimes more than the intended ones. And in this case?  It was a beautiful one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When Joy Seems Impossible to Keep

Living is hard.  Living joyfully is harder.

If someone tells you it's always easy to find joy, peace, security, and complete happiness, they're either lying to you, lying to themselves...or still living in the blissful innocence of childhood.

Something is always either waiting in the wings to steal your joy, in the act of stealing your joy, or running off with your joy tucked under its arm.

I used to think the trick in life for God's children to be joyful was to just fight harder to be a conquerer in these situations, holding on until my nails were bloody.  Never letting go no matter what.  Yet, that logic only led to me feeling more a failure when I found myself sitting in the midst of a war-torn battlefield, my heart ravaged by the depths of joyless, anxious, hopeless despair.

While I do think it is important to prepare for the thief in the night by staying in the Word of God, in close communion with a church family, and in prayer, I'm learning that the trick in life is not always to keep my joy from being stolen but to know Who to turn to in order to get it back.

I haven't always felt joyful over the past seven years since my life became a living soap opera nightmare. Sure, sometimes it's taken me more days and weeks than at other times, but I've always known Who my joy is and have eventually sought Him out to fill me up again with the joy of His presence.

In the lowest of low times, I've bitterly asked God what Bible character He was going to have us live out next or when He'd get on with the "rest of the story."

My husband and I have lived out the Biblical story of Joseph--experiencing the betrayal, the lies, the false accusations, the false imprisonment, the loss of status and reputation.

We have lived out the Biblical story of Job--losing unborn children, losing wealth, losing a career, losing friends. 

Many days?  I feel like we're still living out the stories of these two men.  To date, we're still waiting for their happy ending, their restoration in to happen in our life.

This past week, the Job part of our life's saga struck again, this time with my employment taking a hit for the entire Spring semester.  I knew it was coming.  I just didn't know how bad it would be until last week.

And then?  I prayed, prayed, prayed for God to fix it miraculously.  I enlisted others to pray. 

Tonight after the children went to bed, I finally received the answer to those prayers.  God said no.

But as I sat in somber silence unable even to put into words my feelings to speak to God, He reminded me of a story I haven't read in years, the one where the prophet Nathan goes to King David, condemns him for hiding his sin of adultery and murder, then prophesies that the son David conceived with Bathsheba would die.

Scripture records the next six days of David's life as a time spent doing little more than praying to God:

David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them (2 Sam. 12:16-17).

Despite those pleas, on day seven, the child died.  When David hears this news, Scripture says,

Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate (2 Sam. 12:20).

My Father told me this evening that this is what I must do.  God had ruled on the subject.  It was time to be like David and live, worship, remember to trust in Him even in this hard time.

In all honesty?  I do still feel sad.  I feel anxious and concerned about financial issues, about taking care of my children. This year will be a difficult one and will require continued prayers for God to open different avenues of help. 

But in the midst of these tears, I am comforted to think my Father took the time to see me in my sorrow.  He stepped down from His throne for me, to send my heart remembrance of a particular Scripture.

Saying no to my prayer does not mean He loves me any less.  Always.  He longs to be my joy and strength, your joy and strength.

Image: Johnny jump ups in my flower bed--true beauty in the midst of the barrenness of winter.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Training Up a Fiscally Responsible Child:Part II

Disaster struck late in the afternoon.  Then again, back to back days of rain + physically active children is an automatic recipe for something bad to happen. It's just a matter of when rather than if.

In the past two days alone, the farm has received eight inches of rain.  Our gravel drive has multiple rivers coursing across it, and the pond has overflowed its banks, covering most of the asphalt ribbon that connects us to civilization.

When the ground is too muddy to walk on and there's no outlet for pent up energy, the no running, no sword fighting, no rough housing, no games of 'tag-you're it,' no outside voices inside the house are rules that struggle to find followers.

It's always an accident, never on purpose, always regretted once the music stops.  They simply forget.  And in that instant, someone or something is broken, bleeding, crying, bruised, inconsolable.

This time, that someone was me.  That something was an odd-sized gold picture frame with royal blue ribbon that held a priceless memory--a hand painted (by me) invitation to our wedding set against a backdrop of red Christmas plaid from the flower girls' dresses and two hand-cut blue butterflies like the ones in the ribbon-rose bouquet mother and I had spent hours on the front porch stitching together.

My sister in law had commented on it just last week during her visit.  Now, here it was on my floor, its frame broken, not simply at the corner where it could be re-glued.

Wyatt was instantly penitent.  He was excited.  He didn't mean to.  He didn't know the picture was there.  He would buy me another one.

I sent him to his room.  Mommy needed a time out to talk with God and think first.

Fifteen minutes later, I was calm enough to go to my son, him hiding beneath a quilt of planets and stars.  I sat cross legged before him and explained how when we make mistakes and don't treat others' property with respect, we have to make them right.  And then, in the calmest voice I could muster, I matter of factly told him he would have to buy me a new picture frame with his own money...even if that meant using his birthday money."

With that news, Wyatt dove beneath his covers and began to sob in solitude, his quaking shoulders shaking the quilt that covered him.  My heart broke along with him as I slowly crossed the room to take him in my arms, hold him as he cried, tell him a story of mommy having to pay for a mistake when she was a little girl, and (most importantly) that mommy still loved and forgave him.

But I didn't relent on my punishment.

Later that night after worship at church and bath time, Wyatt was back to his normal loving, non-pouty self.  When his father's back was turned, he tiptoed downstairs to tell me he had decided he needed a job to pay for the frame.  Surprised and heart-softened, I informed him that wasn't necessary; I would take money out of his allowance each week until it was paid for.

But he was firm and had already worked out the solution in his mind.  "I want to pay it off quicker," he argued seriously.  "It'll take too long if I don't have another job....I'll ask Opa if he has a job for me to do."

That was that. He kissed me as always, said he loved me, and went up to bed.

What hours before I had thought was a disaster and worried would result in him never forgiving me had actually been a chance for my son to learn several lessons and to reason for himself a solution.

Six years old and he has already learned what some adults still haven't figured out--money is to be earned by hard work.  And when bad things happen?  Sometimes that just means you have to work a little bit harder.

(If you missed Part I of this series on training children to be responsible with money, click here).

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Training Up a Fiscally Responsible Child:Part I

Before my children's first heartbeat, I knew I didn't want to be the mother in the checkout line smiling thin while my offspring screamed about the injustice of being denied some purchase.  And so, from the start, each  Wal-mart, grocery store, or mall trip found me with a list.  Never once did I give them a chance to determine even a single purchase.

Thirsty?  Water fountain.  Hungry? Banana in the car.  Toy?  We are blessed with plenty of toys at home.  Book? Library. Candy? Rot your teeth.

For five years, my children knew only the thrift store as a place where they could shop, could ask for a book, puppet, or game without mommy saying "no."  All was well.

Then, before my oldest son started kindergarten last fall, I began teaching him the values of coins and basic addition.  We spent many hot summer afternoons hours playing Monopoly Junior before a megawatt light bulb must have gone off in Wyatt's head.

Suddenly, every trip to any store became a chore.  There were no tantrums, no pouting, no disobedient sulks.  Instead, each trip became a battle of wills.

"Look, mommy!  It's a ______.  Can we buy it?"
"Look at this!  It's neat.  Can we buy it?"
"What about this?"
"Well, what can we buy!?"

Before long, the twins had picked up his cause and began asking for everything from sparkly nail polish to cookies that had not once visited my pantry since before their birth.

I tried using logic, explaining that mommy had X amount of money and must choose between spending it on a toy truck or lunch at Chick-Fil-A.  While they understood this problem and even could make the choice correctly if I gave it to them (fresh apples for a week or a rubber ball?), understanding my wallet did have a bottom didn't slow down their incessant requests for more, more, more!

I was quickly losing the war.

So, I did what my mother did with me and my brother--started giving my five and a half year old son an allowance for his new weekly job of filling the cat feeder with crunchy food.

He was positively giddy as I showed him the newly red spray painted International Coffee cans that read "Spend," "Save," and "Tithe."

I explained that each week, he would first pay God ten percent to show his thanks for God's blessing him with the money.  Then, we would split the rest between the Save and Spend boxes.

Fairly soon, he determined he would save for a Monster Fighters Lego set.  I raised my eyebrows at its $80 price tag and tried to persuade him to choose a smaller set, but he remained firm.

So, I sat back and watched as his requests dwindled.  Every now and then, he would slip up and ask if he could have a new coloring book or candy, but my response was always the same.  "Sure.  But you have to buy it with your own money."

In October, after five l-o-n-g contemplative minutes, he decided to make his first purchase, paying $4 for a pumpkin to make a "scary jack-o-lantern" like we'd seen in a library book.

Later came a Nemo game at the thrift store.  "How many weeks will it take me to earn $3?" he asked.  I smiled, knowing he was starting to understand that money wasn't instant and that one purchase would mean he couldn't have something else or that he would have to wait longer to obtain it.

Thankfully, the one day after Thanksgiving sale at a national toy store chain reduced the price of his much-loved ghost train Lego set to $51.  Since Wyatt had been so diligent in saving his money all summer/autumn and would earn that much by January, I bought it, put it in the closet, and told him he could "buy" it from me when he finished earning his money.

Shortly after Christmas, he was given the last $15 needed for his purchase.  The pleased smile on his face when he made that first "big" purchase showed that he knew all the long months of saving, of denying himself what he had come to call "short time" purchases (i.e., things that wouldn't last like candy bars or cheap plastic toys)--it had all been worth it.


When the twins start kindergarten, I plan to start the same routine with them.  Yet, I'm already seeing their 4-year-old brains starting to compute the same lessons I'm teaching their big brother.

Teaching a five year old to give God His portion back first and then to be responsible with his choices concerning how much to save and spend--a year ago, I would have said not till your child is older.

Now?  I'm learning the opposite is true.

The money he puts in the offering plate isn't just loose change mommy gives him.  It's his offering, his money, his sacrifice to God.

The money he spends on a toy? a book? a pumpkin?  It's not something he's given.  It's something he has earned with hard work.

Both are equally wonderful lessons in being a good steward of the money God blesses him with so that one day, I pray it is only second nature for him to continue doing the same.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Thanks for the Spaces Between

From my absence around here the past two weeks, it may appear I'm no longer among the living.  Yet, blood still pumps warmly through my veins.

My sporadic appearance stems from a different reason. 

When I started this blog over two years ago, I promised myself two things.  First, I would be real in this space.  I wouldn't make up something just for an audience.  I wouldn't paint on a happy face if I felt lost, frustrated, or depressed.  I wouldn't fake an intimacy with God that I didn't feel in the marrow of my bones. 

And secondly, my family would always come before my writing.

Both have played a part in my scarce writing of late.

Since before Thanksgiving, someone has been sick in our home.  After three children with sinus infections came all five of us with the stomach flu.  The Friday after that, I contracted a serious case of salmonella poisoning at a local restaurant, knocking me out of the kitchen for two solid weeks.  Then came the colds in all three children. 

As of today, I'm still wiping snotty noses and rubbing lotion on fever-chapped cheeks and dry, split lips.  When these seasons happen (and they seem to occur every winter), I find myself in a cycle of praying 'round the clock, begging God for relief almost every other sentence--in other words, knocking so loud on heaven's door that I can't hear God over the noise. 

And when I do hear God speak in the details of life, I find the writing about it would take away from my family who needs me or that I am simply too tired to write after pulling up covers for croupy child for the fourth time in one night.

In the midst of all this illness, though, joy still has permeated our lives.  Or perhaps it's because of the incessant illness that joy has abounded so much, for when sickness just won't go away, I find I express love more and receive love more than usual. 

What's more, in those days, hours, or even minutes between the storms, I find I am also more grateful for those spaces between.

Christmas Day was one of those spaces between when I felt my husband's love when he did all the cooking--a killer gumbo and fresh greens from the garden.  We were blessed to have my parents, aunt, and Grandmother break bread with us.  Grandmother will turn 90 this year, so we count ourselves blessed to see her smile.
Saturday, with two still-croupy twins, we celebrated Wyatt's birthday for two hours at the Arts and Science Museum in the city.  After playing with cool science gadgets like this pulley system, my silly husband scared Wyatt screaming out of the mummy's "tomb," so we made a hasty (giggling) retreat away from the frowning employee.

New Year's Eve saw two little ones with fever but also saw those same children giggling with equally joyful adults playing games of Guess Who! with Grandmama and Granddaddy.
And today amidst the Kleenex and sore throats started Christmas for us--yes, I said started.  My brother and his wife arrived just this afternoon for a week's stay, meaning our family is together again for six days of gifts, food, and as much filling up our love tanks as we can stand. 

We will hug, share, hug some more, build Lego's (yep, that's me trying to help Wyatt build a Sphinx), and laugh more in one week than we will in the next six months.
This is what a life of gratitude for all God gives us is like.  It is not without pain, discomfort, sickness, sleep deprivation, financial hardships, or sadness.  Rather, it is a search for the joy, the laughter, the sweetness in the midst of the bad. 

My prayer for your family and mine this upcoming year is that we will always remember to turn away from our circumstances, turn towards Him--even when times are rough--and to give thanks.