Friday, May 30, 2014

"Summer School" Needn't Be a Bad Word

A two-week hiatus from this blog can mean only one thing—summer has returned to the farm.

The cicadas have marched forth for their every thirteenth-year visit, filling our ears with a constant background hum.  Even from inside my house, it sounds like a slowly circling ceiling fan someone forgot to turn off somewhere deep in the forest. 

All flora that is going to wake up from its long winter’s nap has already done so with great flourish, highlighting how hard this past winter’s ice storm was on the land.  I cut these losses and bury more life within the warm earth, praying for the increase.

Then, there are the longer evenings when the coolness accompanying the descending sun re-energizes both old and young, calling us all to after supper tromps through the briar patch in search of luscious blackberries for cobbler and even later dips in the swimming pool. 

In the end, all this summer means the dinner table is oft left until long after we are mere shadows against the failing light and the mosquitoes come hunting, drawn to our sweat.

And in the midst of it all comes a transformation where oldest son’s days become mine again.  We become a round-the-clock family again—always in each other’s way, for better or worse. 

An empty calendar lays before me.  Two short months.  All in the time in the world is given to me as my children’s mother.  It is mine to use or to waste, to choose what has worth and what does not.  It is this choosing that has occupied my extra hours for well over a month now, determining what mommy’s summer school would look like.

However, it’s not so much a filling in of calendar blocks with activities that has consumed me, but slowly putting into place new habits for us to all begin practicing over the summer, habits that we won’t leave behind come August but that we will carry with us over the next year and into the years to come.

Earlier in 2014, our family instituted the evening thankful journal, teaching us all to change the way we look at life, to daily give gratitude to God and find the good even in the bad circumstances.  Those lists have slowly grown over the months so that even my youngest children have listed over 500 things they have been thankful for this year.  It has made a dramatic difference in our household.

This habit was quickly paired with a second one--family prayer time where no longer would the children simply listen to husband and me pray.  Instead, we began giving them a safe place to learn how to pray aloud every day, a place where it’s ok to whisper, “I don’t know what to pray for” and ok to forget somebody’s name and have to stop your prayer until mommy fills in the missing piece.   

Two weeks ago, our family began summer vacation early, adding a few more habits to our summer calendar.  The first involved memorizing Scripture, something I as a mother have always failed miserably at.  Upon looking into my boys’ RoyalAmbassadors troop activities, there was a goal of 75 verses a year.  Let's just say that number was more than a little intimidating for this mother of three young children.  But when I broke it down, I realized that would mean working with my children to memorize less than two Scripture verses a week.  Two.  Surely that was do-able? 
This week marks our third practicing of this new habit, and I’ve been surprised with my children’s youthful ability to memorize.  Starting Monday morning at the breakfast table, we begin practicing our two verses for our "test" each Friday.  I can see in my children's eyes that it means something that their mother is taking the plunge and learning alongside them.  I correct them when they miss a word and they correct me as well.  Together, we hide those words away in our hearts for the tough days this life will bring.

The second habit added to our summer calendar involves activities to help our children think beyond themselves and their immediate sphere of influence, to become more mission minded.  One way we are doing this is by learning and praying about the countries around the world, a different country each week.  Together, the children and I check out and read several books from our local library, cook at least one authentic recipe from There's a Missionary Loose in the Kitchen, and pray specifically for the country's needs as listed in Operation World.  Last week involved playing with a boomerang and watching The Rescuers Down Under as part of our study of Australia.  This week's Mexico theme found us making maracas and dressing up in a sombrero for a photo op.   
It's fun.  It's exciting.  The goal, though, is to develop little hearts that love the nations as Jesus does.

Add in a daily dose of math and English worksheets, VBS at Grandmama's, summer reading programs at the library, and a trip to see Aunt Liza at the beach, and summer will be here and gone before I know it.

In the past, I have struggled with the months of June and July.  Summer has always been about do, do, do...along with the accompanying guilt over "what I didn't get to do."  But this year, I am trying to change the purpose of these months.  It's no longer about squeezing in as much as possible as it is about using that more relaxed space of time to develop life-changing habits, habits that we can take forward as a family throughout the rest of the year.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Finding Grace In the Sorrow

Death is common to children raised on a farm.

Those tiny baby bird eggs that fell out of the nest in today's wind storm?  Yes, it's probably too late, but yes, it's also okay if Opa helps put them back in the nest "just in case."

The football sized bumblebee barely moving on the carport?  Yes, he's really dying, but yes, it's also okay if you make him a comfortable habitat in an empty milk carton until he dies. 

Those two baby chicks crumpled and still in the corner of their pen?  No, they're not sleeping.  They're already dead. That's why God hatches so many.

Although the lady in the feed store tried to shoo my kids to another aisle once she realized there were dead chicks in the pen, I have never shielded my children from death.  To them, death has been presented as simply a part of life, not at all how God intended life to be but just how it is as a consequence of Adam and Eve's choice to sin in the garden. 

When they were still toddlers, I began taking my three children to wakes and funerals with me, not because I couldn't find a babysitter but because I wanted them to encounter death before someone of monumental importance to them died.  I didn't hold them in the far back of the room either, away from the open casket.  Tiny hands gripped tightly in mine, I would march my brood forward, then give them time to look at the shell of the person I had loved and to ask me questions.  By age two, one of my children would explain to anyone who would listen that the person in the coffin wasn't "in there" anymore.  He had "hatched."

As a result of this matter of fact attitude, I routinely find my children having "funerals" in the backyard.  Heaven only knows how many dead beetles, caterpillars, and lizard heads they've buried with my garden trowel in too-shallow graves.

As much as they understand death, though, that doesn't mean we don't cry.  That doesn't mean we aren't sad and sometimes even angry.  That doesn't mean we don't wish death didn't exist.  It simply means we understand just how much different what should be and what is are.  And it makes us long even more for the day when Jesus returns and death is no more.

Today was one of those days when the sting of death hit our whole family hard.  And yet, even in an afternoon of soul-crushing little girl tears and big boy clingy-ness, the children and I were able to see God's mercy and grace.

That heavenly grace started flowing early in the morning when husband decided to go in late to work in order to mow the lawn before the rains hit, something he never does.

An hour later, my daughter and I found Anya, my oldest son's three year old cat.  Although there were no physical marks on her Russian blue fur, it was obvious she was in bad shape, the result of a brief attack by my in-law's dog.

As I sat on the floor and ran my hand down her back, I knew it was too late.  But because he was at home, husband was able to take her to the vet.  There, the doctors were flummoxed over how no external damage could had resulted in such internal damage. 

Two hours later, they took her back to surgery and discovered the reason--her intestines were eaten up with cancer. Just as happened almost four years ago with our first cat, she simply never woke up.

Even amidst an afternoon of tears and Wyatt's sorrowful questions about "who will sleep on my bed with me?," "who will wake me up every morning?," and "who will eat cheese with me?," I was able to communicate how God had allowed this horrible thing to happen in order to save Anya a lot of pain and suffering since we wouldn't have known about the disease until she had suffered greatly.

It is that knowledge of grace and mercy that makes it a little easier even for this mother when the back of the sofa is empty tonight.  In that knowledge was even thankfulness as Amelia gave thanks that we "found Anya" and that she didn't simply disappear without us ever knowing what happened.

When the lights go down for the evening, I snuggle with my big boy and pull the universe beneath our chins.  He speaks of Hannah waking him up this morning, of her already filling Anya's paws.  Right on cue, her hulking calico form leaps onto the bed and comes to sit Sphinx-style on his chest, begging for love and attention in exchange for her rumbling purr and affection.

In that moment, we both can't help but smile and share a giggle, that gaping hole in our hearts taking its first step towards healing.

Images: Anya looking at the window at the birds & happier days with a mound of freshly harvested catnip.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

An Act of Faith

The children are all tucked away in bed when I finally reach into the mail slot by the back door where husband leaves the day's offerings.  

Usually, it's just bills, insurance confusion, and enough junk mail to make me feel guilty about how many forests have been killed on my account.  But today, there's a card addressed to my three children.

I check the return address and pause.  It takes a few seconds, but the synapses finally fire.  It's a card from Liza and Johnathan, my brother and sister in love.  "How sweet," I think, and put it to the side for the children to open tomorrow morning.

Half an hour later, I glance at the unopened envelope again, my brain jolting with the realization of why it took me so long to reconcile the address with my brother and his wife.  This isn't from Liza.  This isn't her large swirling font that always fills each line to capacity.  What's more, where the stamp should be, the word "FREE" is handwritten in purple, something my unconscious recognized as "wrong" enough to make me pause even though my conscious was kept in the dark. 

The tiny, cramped handwriting belongs to Johnathan, my brother tucked halfway around the world on the U.S.S. Bataan. 

I rip open the card, no matter that it's not really addressed to me.  I drink in every word, searching for something in the nothing he's written but still thankful for the words sent our way, only the second piece of mail from him thus far.

Since Johnathan deployed in February, our family has made more trips to the local post office than normal.  In fact, the last time I was on a first name basis with a postal worker was before Johnathan was married during a tour in Iraq.

Each week, the twins and I make the trek down to the beige building with the flag flapping in the breeze overhead.  We give of our time to send love his way, the only thing we can do other than pray, a second gift of love we offer as a family each night. 

In the envelopes, I include a handwritten letter, a story or drawing the children made, and whatever nonsense and goodies can fit to send across the ocean.

Patriotic twizzlers, 400 tootsie pops with Bible verses attached, jelly beans, and 1000 piece puzzles to help pass the time.  I hand it all across the counter, pay the postage, and trust that my package will reach him.

As Oliver O'Toole says in Hallmark's sappy new television show about the dead letter division of the U.S. Postal Service, "Putting a stamp on a letter and sending it out there into the world is an act of faith."

I'd never thought of it that way before, but the quotation has resonated with me ever since.

An act of faith.

It's not just snail mail, though.  My texts and emails require that faith, too, a faith that my words will reach their destination.  I send them out, assume the recipient has read my words, and move forward.

A week before Easter, though, that faith was being tested daily.  My brother hadn't received any of my packages.  It had been two months with my weekly sending of letters, and still, nothing.  That faith in the U.S. Postal service waned a good bit as the children and I (along with my mother and his mother-in-law) wondered where all our mail was going!?

On Good Friday, Johnathan walked into his cabin to find his bunk covered in boxes--all the missing packages we'd sent so far had all arrived at once.  The next day, all our letters arrived in bulk, too....just in time for Easter.

Talk about perfect timing.

It is an act of faith for me to send a letter forth into the world.  But it's not faith in the postal service.  It's faith in the sovereignty of God.

In God's sovereignty, He knew my brother would be most lonely at Easter, a time when we usually celebrate together as a family.  And so, God allowed the mail to be crazy delayed and all arrive at once, at the perfect time to surround my brother at Easter time with the love of His family.

There's another box on my table waiting for me to send it on its way, hopefully in time for my brother's birthday in June.  But if it doesn't reach him by then, that's ok, too.  My faith is in the One who determines when and if it arrives, not in the one who cancels the stamps on my package.