Friday, August 29, 2014

Letting Loose a Blessing

Each afternoon and Saturday mornings, my backyard is alight with more shrieks, screams, and laughter than this farm has ever before seen.  Three generations worth of bottled up happiness has been loosed upon this red clay soil, blessing everyone in its path.

It all started three weeks ago on the morning of August 7.  As my oldest son left on the school bus for his first day of second grade and my twins went for Kindergarten testing, a backhoe sunk its teeth deep in the earth to remove a red mountain. 
Husband and I had only broken the news a few nights before to our three children—in a few short days, they would receive an unexpected early Christmas present from their Oma and Opa—an in-ground pool.

Earlier one summer morning, husband had come home with the secret news.  His eyes danced as I sank down to the mattress, bracing myself for whatever usually not so good surprise he had to tell me.   

Would I be ok with his parents gifting so generously to our family?

I burst into tears.  Just the night before, husband and I had held each other close with hearts heavy.  Counseling our newest “adopted” daughter was requiring both of us to unpack those painful demons and trace the scars of old wounds that hadn’t been mentioned in a decade or more.   

That God was choosing this exact morning to prompt my in-laws’ hearts to share this news was so much an act of redemption of all the struggles we had been through to reach this point in our marriage.  It was as if in that moment, God was showing us the fruits of our commitment to Him and to each other. 

As if He hadn’t already restored so much of what He had stripped away years ago when husband lost his career and when we lost two babies, now God was restoring more of our dreams, those we had boxed up and shoved to the darkest corner of the attic.

Even before we had children, husband and I had built castles in the sky, envisioning our farm to be a safe place in an unsafe world, a haven where our children could bring their friends and where our friends would feel safe bringing their children.  Overnight, that unspoken dream from so long ago was becoming a reality.

Day one ended with the machines digging eight feet into the ground, deep enough to hit water where we didn’t know there was any.  The children were absolutely giddy as they ran up and down the mound of dirt just a few feet away from polymer walls that outlined the future.  
Day two began with men laying concrete around the footings as well as along the bottom of the pool and ended with two hoses pumping 23,000 gallons atop a blue mosaic liner.
By Saturday afternoon, we had a “pool party” where all four proud grandparents gathered ‘round to watch their three grandchildren in a gleeful water ballet.

Three weeks later, my trio of landlubbers has transformed into strong, fearless swimmers who fling themselves with abandon into the deep end, swim its thirty-six foot length, and tread water with ease…all while screaming, shrieking, yelling, and grinning, of course. 
Oma and Opa are the happiest I've ever seen them, driving down most afternoons to sit with me, watch the show of grandchildren, and even this morning taking their first swim together in over thirty-five years.

"I love watching those kids swim," Opa said, grinning like a kid, himself.

I listen to the laughter of two little boys trying to perfect simultaneous jumps into the water.  My daughter’s face remains in a permanent grin as she mermaid-dips beneath the surface and swims with eyes wide open for the ladder. 

This is what blessing feels like.  This is what restoration feels like.

Had my husband not lost his career, we would have been able to install the pool ourselves with our own hard-earned money.  Sure, it would have been a great accomplishment, and we would have enjoyed it immensely, but that pool would have been the product of the work of our own hands, not a product of grace and love, of such unmerited, bountiful blessing.

Since the pool now fixed in my backyard is wholly the product of a blessing from my in-laws, I cannot look at it with pride but with humility and awe, much as Job must have in Scripture when God restored more to him than he lost. 

The biggest blessing, though, is just how many more people have been blessed in the process than ever would have been had there been no need for a blessing—Opa and Oma have been blessed in their giving to my children, our two adopted college girls in their witnessing and enjoying such overwhelming love, my parents in their knowing how much has been both lost and restored, and even my brother overseas in his being able to experience all the children’s joy each week through Skype and email.

The thing about a blessing is how wide it spreads, how deep it reaches.  

Even now, I can still hear the music of young and old laughter in my ears.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Miracle That Is Skype

"Here, mother.  Sit here," my father said, pointing to a wooden chair he had placed a few feet from the extra large television screen.  Grandmother lowered herself onto its wicker seat.  This close, even her ninety-one-year old eyes could see my brother, Johnathan, half a world away in the Middle East.

She drew out the syllables of his name in sing-song familiarity.  "Hi, John-a-than."  Her smile broadened to see his almost life-sized visage in desert fatigues. 

"I don't know how to do this," she chuckled nervously.

"You just talk," my mother said in the background.  "He can see you."

Grandmother has never been one to keep up with modern technology.  She doesn't have an email account, a cell phone, or a GPS; I don't think she even knows how to run a DVD player.  Long after I was married, she still had a beige rotary dial phone by her bed (and probably still would, had the telephone company not made her swap to a more modern device).

But technologically savvy or not, there she sat in the stiff upright chair, proper as ever, Skyping with my brother.  While the rest of our family sat around the room and quietly chatted, Grandmother sat perfectly focused, a loving intimacy in their conversation.  She would ask a question and Johnathan would answer.   Back and forth they talked as if there were no miles separating them, as if he were back home just sitting on the sofa in her living room with a cup of coffee.

Unlike the two weeks prior when we had Skyped him, this time, Johnathan's eyes were bright with happiness, his smile not dampened by exhaustion, illness, or stress from the nearly intolerable heat.  It was obvious how heart-filling it was for him to see her, too.

"How are you liking the ship?" she asked.

My mother spoke up. "He's not on the ship, mother.  He's in a tent."

Grandmother leaned in close and squinted at the screen, trying to look behind Johnathan to get a better view of this white, mega tent he was calling home for a short time.

Daddy turned the volume up louder.  Still, I'm not sure how much she actually heard.  It didn't matter, though.  What was important was for her to see her grandson's face, to at least hear his voice and know he was safe...somewhere she had never been nor would ever go in this lifetime.

At the end of their conversation, Grandmother spoke her love over him.  "I've been praying for you.....It's good to see you, but it's just not the same," she laughed aloud, hands stretching out silly in front of her towards the screen.  "I just want to reach out and grab you."

This isn't the first time our family has felt those same words.  Shortly after the turn of the new millennium, my brother went on his first tour of Iraq.  Back then, he sent home a few handwritten letters and called a handful of times, but the majority of his deployment, my family and I were left with only the silence of wondering how he was doing that day, week, or month. And even when he did call, the conversations were always exceedingly short and mostly one-sided.

When Johnathan deployed this second time aboard the U.S.S. Bataan for destinations unknown in the Middle East, I dreaded the same silence, especially since this time, he had a wife waiting for him back home. 

I forgot how far we have come where technology is concerned--just in a single decade. I forgot the blessing that technology can be.

His wife has been able to text him daily; I can send an email at bedtime and have a response from him by the time I wake up.  But, best of all, my parents and I have been able to Skype with Johnathan throughout the month of August .  Each time, we have drunk the sight of him in as a healing elixir to our hearts.  Even across an ocean, we heard how congested and sick he was that first Sunday, then a little better the next.  When he reached up to play with the kids through the screen, we zeroed in on the thick callouses at the base of each finger, wondering what tales we would hear once he was back home.

Our family is in the final stretch of this nine-month deployment, and I'm starting to get itchy for him to plant two feet on American soil again.  Even so, I am grateful for the technology I take for granted on a daily basis.

The world isn't quite so big anymore.  A grandmother and a grandson having a Sunday afternoon chat--no matter how many oceans are between them, love can always reach that far.

Friday, August 8, 2014

When Generosity is Contagious

Mid summer found my 7 1/2 year old son going through his toys and choosing those he didn't really play with anymore.  Perhaps it was a desire to make room for toys coming this Christmas and his birthday four days later.  Or maybe he finally absorbed those conversations about giving to those who are in need.

Whatever the reason, Wyatt was adamant that the people at the nursing home were sad because they didn't have any toys to play with.  He was going to remedy that problem while off for summer vacation.

I raised more than one skeptical eyebrow, unconvinced a sweet grandma or grandpa would want a plastic Skylander toy from McDonald's.  He would not be swayed, though, pestering me for days with increasing urgency until he finally took a plastic grocery bag and began the process without me.  Younger brother and sister tattled (of course), so I abandoned the kitchen clean-up and climbed the stairs.

There I sat atop a plush universe of stars and planets, watching this unprompted spring cleaning with amusement...and making sure he didn't chunk something precious to this mother.  He prattled on the entire time, picking up each precious item in turn, scrunching his face in concentration as he examined it, then explaining aloud why it should go or stay.  Each time, he glanced over at me for confirmation.

Sure, the Sock Monkey could go.  It had hung from his bed for many years and he loved it, but yes, he didn't play with it.  Why not.  Into the bags followed a glitter ball, numerous plastic kids meal toys, a bracelet, and several cupcake rings.  I shook my head 'no' when he tried to include the yellow dragonfly with its crinkly wings, the one that sang to him in the crib before nap time.

My son then began to count the days till our church's scheduled monthly turn to conduct a worship service at our local nursing home.  By mid July, Wyatt wasn't the only one who had decided to give of his possessions to the residents.   Siblings Emerson and Amelia went through their prized items as well, Emerson choosing a prized puppy that walked when he flipped a switch on its belly and Amelia offering up a small orange bear with the bow ribbon in its hair. 

Giving, it seemed, was contagious.

I have always demonstrated generosity and explained the "why" to my children, but this was the first time I was able to see them give generously of their own possessions without ever having to be told to do so.

On July 15, all three children excitedly chose who would receive their gift.  I watched from my seat on the piano bench as Emerson shyly gave his puppy to a man.  The woman who had received the sock monkey held it tightly in her arms the entire time our pastor preached.  But the biggest blessing was listening to the excitement in one woman's voice when she realized the new stuffed bear matched her own outfit.  All the while, big brother stood by and proudly watched his little sister receive a hug and a kiss.

As we loaded up the van to go back home, Wyatt skipped across the parking lot, his hand finding mine. 

"Do you know how I feel?" he asked, a huge grin lighting up his eyes.  "I feel all warm in my heart."

I had a van full of joy returning back to the farm that day.

A few days later, I learned just how contagious this joy and generosity truly were when a lady from my church said she was touched by how excited the residents were to receive the stuffed animals and had decided to donate her own beanie baby collection.  Would my children be willing to hand them all out to the men and women there?

Last week, we did just that, all of us going down the long halls with two garbage bags full of stuffed sunshine. "This one is so soft," Amelia cooed, rubbing it against her cheek before offering it with a smile to a lady.

We met the man whose room was filled with cat posters, the woman whose ceiling had dozens of wind chimes hanging overhead, the bright-eyed woman with no legs.  In one room, Wyatt carefully lay a bear by a sleeping man so as not to wake him.  In another, we chatted with two women watching The Price is Right.   One woman's speech was slow and labored by a stroke, but her slurred words still ring in my ears.  "Thank you.  I love it."

I continue to be amazed by the simple power of one to make an impact on the least of these.  One small boy's gift turned into three small children's gifts, which snowballed with another lady's gifts.

On those days when I feel insignificant or when I feel I just don't have enough money to make a big enough impact to counter the massive needs and hurting in this world, I need to take a step back and remember how the simple things can sometimes give the most joy to others.

We must learn from a little child just how important it is for us to keep giving of ourselves.  We never know when our solitary actions may lead to someone else coming alongside us, expanding the impact until it reaches so many more than we could have ever reached on our own.