Friday, October 31, 2014

When A Beloved Soldier Comes Home

It's been almost a year since my mother, sister-in-love, and I found three identical boxes under the Christmas tree.  Each contained a multi-corded bracelet made out of caramel and walnut leather ending in a simple, silver anchor.

Ten months ago when my brother, Johnathan, left home, we three put them on as a reminder to pray throughout each day for a son, husband, and brother deployed halfway around the world with a thousand other men and women on the U.S.S. Bataan. 

I faithfully wrapped the bracelet around my wrist every morning after dressing, set it on the bedside table with my wedding band every night.

And in between, I prayed.

When I pushed the circle higher up my forearm to keep it out of the greasy pots-and-pans dishwater after every meal, I prayed.

When I picked flakes of dried mud from the leather after weeding another runaway flower bed, I prayed.

When the silver anchor twirled round my wrist to hang invisible by my pulse for the umpteenth time, I swirled it back to the top again...and I prayed.   

When the hard metal continuously beat time on my wrist as I trained for my half marathon in January, I prayed.

When my husband unconsciously rotated the bracelet with his rough fingers during worship service, I prayed.

When I closed the lid to the washing machine, when I sat to read a book on the kindle, when I watched television with my adopted daughter, when I sat waiting for the school bus, when I reached to help my three young ones with their homework--it didn't matter what I was doing.  I Prayed.  

Whether or not I found time that day to make a post office run, to make the children write a story, or to shoot an email across the seas, my bracelet was a physical reminder to make sure I never went more than a few hours without thinking of my brother and sending up a prayer to the Lord for his safety, health, and peace.

By the end of last week, we received word that this past Sunday was the day we had been longing for with anticipation.  By noon, Johnathan would return home to his wife, Liza, in North Carolina.  She put it best when she said the anticipation felt like Christmas and her wedding day all rolled into one.

That morning, I told husband I couldn't bring my cell phone into church because I was sure I would be repeatedly checking it just for word that Johnathan's shoes had touched down on American soil again. Less than half an hour after we finished worship, there he and Liza were, smiling back at me from the phone.

Although I couldn't be there to see him come back to us, I still feel like I was.  And it did feel like Christmas. still does.  I can't suppress a silly grin of face-glowing happiness as I write this and feel my chest warm and swell just from looking at this photo of two of my favorite people.

That was Sunday.  On Tuesday, although it felt strange, I took off the bracelet and set it in the top drawer of my jewelry chest.  It had served its purpose. 

Today is Friday, and the bracelet is back on my wrist. 

While my brother is no longer in the Middle East where he needs to be surrounded by prayer so intensely, the past few weeks have brought me an increase in prayer needs like I haven't seen in years. 

My Grandma in Michigan fell and broke her collar bone.  My Aunt broke seven ribs when she was slammed into by another vehicle. My pastor's father is in the last stages of cancer, and the family has called in hospice.  My husband's cousin just down the road from us has also called in hospice for his mother with Alzheimer's. 

A seemingly healthy friend has been overnight diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.  Another dear friend is broken over a wayward daughter who is suffering depression as she reaps the consequences of sin.  My adopted daughter is struggling with her internship and her own set of personal prayer needs. Another dear friend is having surgery in a couple weeks to remove scar tissue.

The needs are so many.  They are so serious.  They are so personal, burdening my heart not simply for the afflicted but for their families as well.

I find I cannot simply pray in my limited quiet time or with our family at night and then go do my own thing throughout the rest of the day.  It just doesn't seem sufficient. 

I will think of my brother each time I look at this bracelet.  Yes.  But more than that, now when I feel the cool metal of the silver anchor or when I rotate its rough interwoven cords around my wrist, I am reminded to be that anchor of prayer for others. 

I want to be that prayer warrior--the one who doesn't forget, the one whose life is affected throughout the day by true concern.  I want my daily life to be interrupted by these needs instead of compartmentalizing them in what feels more like a token prayer during my quiet time.

It is my desire to be just such a warrior...even if I do need a constant reminder on my wrist to make it happen.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

If You Don't Have Much To Offer

With no traffic and no children to chew up the clock, I arrive at the nursing home too early.  Stacks of cafeteria-style plastic breakfast dishes still clutter all the tables in the main dining room, and up front, a row of residents is in the middle of exercising from their wheel chairs.

I quietly slip in the back door, hoping to not interrupt the lifting of arms and legs, but several faces light up in recognition as they turn my way.  It's indescribable how welcomed and loved I feel in this moment.

The man who was born with several holes in his heart raises his arms to wave me towards him.  I call him by name and grab the trembling hand he holds out to me.  Unless I focus really hard on reading lips, I never know what he's trying to communicate, but it doesn't matter.  All he wants is someone to reach out to him, to enter his lonely world, even if it's just for a few short minutes.

Today, we "talk" about the gold LSU hat he is sporting, the frozen coke in his hands, the cooler autumn weather outside.

When I glance across the room, another lady tries to catch my eye.  She doesn't call me over, but it's obvious from her tight smile and intense gaze that she is hoping I will lavish a little attention on her, too.

She's been here for several years.  I know her face but not her name.  Still, I notice that her countenance is so changed from the closed-off woman I saw last month.  I offer a hug, kiss her cheek, and ask how she's doing today.

"A lot better than the last time you were here," she responds.

We talk of my twins who are in kindergarten, and I realize this is only the second trip I've ever made without my children.  Before, I felt I could at least offer my children up as a gift to these residents.  Now, I have only myself.

To my left, another lady holds out her hand to me.  Hers is the color of deep, burnished bronze, mine of caramel creamer.  Today, though, she holds on to me like a newborn babe, her grip tight and firm.

 "Oh Jesus..." she murmurs.  "Oh Father..."

It's obvious she's in pain.  When I ask her name, I learn it is Ms. Buela, and my heart feels a sadness, remembering the Ms. Buela who used to talk with me about her crocheting projects  each month.  I always looked forward to her loud-printed muumuus and soft, grandmotherly roundness.  Without her, the room seems that much more drained of color, of life.

This Ms. Buela before me is thin like the willow tree, walnut-hard angles where the other had milky, flowing curves.  Yet, there is strength in her wiry frame.  She will not let me go, and I wonder if just the touch of another person is enough to help stem the pain she feels, even if just for a few minutes.

Still tight in her grasp, I bend down and speak aloud a prayer over her.  

It is all I have to offer.

The faces in this dining hall are the same but are always changing, too.  Each month, I come to them with not much to give--I can't heal them; I can't take away their pain or restore their youth; I can't offer them a better place to spend their last days.

I can only give a bit of myself--a touch of affection, a friendly smile, a greeting full of love and kindness.

No, it's not enough.  It's not world changing.  But it is a gift freely given out of love and compassion, something our world needs so much more of.

And in return, in their own way, they give what they can, too--a smile, a handshake, a word of greeting.

When I leave for the day, I am the one who feels loved. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Who Needs A Change of Scenery?

The dusty patches near the edge of the drive are stamped with overlapping hexagons, proof that I have literally been wearing a path between my house and my in laws' end of the farm.

Each week since late July, I've been slowly increasing my distance, on my way to 13.1 miles for the half marathon in January 2015.

After seriously twisting my ankle and spending the spring recuperating, I began at the beginning--a single mile march five days a week with my three children.  By the time my little trio bounced aboard their first school bus of the year, I had moved up to two miles, three times a week.

That was almost three months ago.  By Monday, I will be up to 10-mile treks, but don't be fooled--I am no athlete--not by a long shot.  I am slow, ever afraid of failing in this task, and hyper-conscious of how other super athletes will look down on me on race day as weak so much so that weeks ago, I enlisted the help of a prayer "accountability" partner.

But in the midst of all these fears, the pain of losing a toenail, and mornings with over 90% humidity, I have come to enjoy these two hour breaks from the noise of life. More importantly, I have come to enjoy this time when it's just me, my praise music, and my God.

Even on the hottest of days, I have discovered that I can meet with God out here in the midst of His creation more easily than inside my well-air conditioned prayer closet. 

Perhaps it's just the sheer length of time without any interruptions that draws me into conversations with Him.  There is no distinctive tinkle of new text messages, no telemarketers, no email, no Internet, no pile of laundry to be folded--in short, no distractions.

Somehow, though, I think I find God more outdoors because of  my surroundings.  Just being in the midst of His creation makes God seem that much more awesome and incomprehensible while at the same time that much closer and approachable.

When I look up, the wind drifts a kaleidoscope of autumn hues through the airy void before me.  They dance and hover to invisible heavenly melodies, occasionally brushing against my shoulders as their Creator draws them to the earth.  With each step, I hear the distinctive crunch of death and am reminded that each breath I take is a gift.

I rapidly plant one foot in front of the other, suddenly noticing mere inches from death a snail who carries his nearly transparent yellow home across the gravel.  His pace is so slow compared to mine that he seems to not even move as I blow past.  Yet, when I come back to the same spot seven minutes later, I am surprised to find no trace of him and am instantly humbled by the thought that my perspective of time cannot be applied to other parts of God's creation.  God's time is fast enough to accomplish His purposes.

Another day, a furred red ant weaves a seemingly chaotic trail before me; yet, I am aware that even in the perceived aimlessness of his God-designed decisions, there is purpose, no matter whether I can see it or not.

Ever present are the brash young red cardinals of spring who have now matured into more careful adults.  One flees from my presence as I round the end of the barn, even when that flight means forsaking a breakfast of grasshopper.  The insect panics at being trapped between me and the bird, leaving behind the gray camouflage of the limestone path and taking flight high into the rising sun.

This mistake born of fear instantly illuminates its presence to the young hawk and blue jay hunting above in the towering pines.  They swoop down together, the small jay quickly breaking off in the pursuit when he sees he is out-winged.  In the time it takes for me to make four steps, the hawk catches the insect midair and flies back to his invisible blind to wait for another, leaving the air empty as it was moments before.

Inside my home, I can become too easily convinced that I am god of my domain.  I control the temperature; create and destroy; change the colors of the season; give life and death within these walls.  Everything does as I command it to do.  In there, it is too easy to not need God because I have it all under control.  Or at least, that it how it seems.

But out here in God's wonderland, I am reminded of how truly small I am, how little I actually control, how dependent I am upon His grace for all things--even for a single breeze to give a moment's mercy from the humid heat  Out here, I am keenly aware of how life and death are separated by a single strand of spider's silk that can snap with the slightest breeze. I see the danger of making rash decisions born out of fear.

A stagnant prayer life suddenly sees flesh form on dry bones by simply moving outdoors, by changing scenery from one place where I feel in complete control to one where I instantly am confronted with the truth that I am anything but.