Day 21 – The Cost of Humor

It’s been 6 days since my last post…..more than I wanted, but I will eventually get to my first goal of 31 days!

In my mind, I keep returning to a little scuffle between my two older kids from last week that I think illustrates something that happens all too often, and leaves us with a question.

Things had gotten silly on the car ride home from school Thursday.  For one part of the ride, we were talking about pug dogs bred with beagles – “puggles.” And then later, after we stopped for my daughter’s half-hour piano lesson, the conversation was still animated but had taken an edgier turn.  I had placated everyone with snacks but all three kids were ready to be home, and there was nothing to do but to wait out the 8 long minutes until we got there.

The atmosphere was different, and it’s hard to tell how or why exactly.  These things just happen when kids are itching to release pent-up energy, and there was a lot of noise in the car. One kid was singing and the other two were taunting each another with verbal barbs.  Things sounded fun but I sensed it might be going too far and wasn’t sure so…I called out, “Quiet Game!”.

No one was to say a word or make a sound until we got home (real coughs and sneezes are allowed).  I looked in the rearview mirror when we pulled into the driveway and saw my daughter’s face turned toward the window, tears rolling down her cheeks. We all got out except her. When the other two kids went inside she told me, “He hurt my feelings.”  I knew he hadn’t meant to, but words have power. We have to remember that.

My oldest son, as usual, had gone up to his room to study.  I came in to talk.

“But, I was kidding!  She takes everything so personally!”

“Yes, and when you know that, you need to be sensitive.  You love your sister, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well.  Is it more important to be right here, or to have a good relationship with her?”

“Have a good relationship.”

Then, of course, because he’s 11 he went on to cite all the ways he wants me to stand up for him more when she bothers him, but that’s for another day….

What this situation made me remember is this question:

Is it more important to be right, or to be rightly related?

 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

– Matthew 5:9

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Day 18 – Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Last night, my preschooler startled me during bedtime prayer. There we were, heads bowed, him saying the traditional ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ which we modify at the end by asking God to bless each member of our little family (including the dogs), when suddenly he added someone else. “And Lord, please make Ava and Charlotte’s* daddy, who is in the hospital, better.”  My eyes shot open. Then, after a big sigh, and squinting his eyes even harder closed, he added the most tender, heartfelt “Amen” I’ve heard in awhile.

‘Amen’ means ‘it is certain.’  I think of this every time I say it. It girds me up, gives me strength and hope, and I picture the worldwide community of believers who trust in the evidence of things unseen. But watching my child say it?  Wow. He was so sincere – totally devoid of any doubt, fear, or distrust.  He reminded me:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,

and do not hinder them,

for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 

— Matthew 19:14

The parallel verses – Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16 – are nearly identical. It must have been quite a moment there with Christ, since children then were not considered as significant as adults, and the gospels vary in accounts of other events, but not this one.

It’s easy for me to think cynically here and say, ‘Oh, but young children…my son – he doesn’t have abstract thought yet. He’s not mature enough. He doesn’t have adult concerns. He can’t see the big picture.’  All true, and yet….

I think of my son’s small hands, folded together.  He remembered to pray for his friends’ dad – someone I don’t even know – because at preschool he heard about this man’s need.

Lord, what are your other plans for how this little one might serve you, and what are you trying to teach me, as you see me watching him?

* Not their real names. 

Day 17 – Saint Report

The big day is finally here and she stands in front of the teacher’s desk,  my bright pink scarf wrapped around her small frame. Her blond hair is styled in a way somewhat reminiscent of the third century, and topped with a small halo of white silk flowers and pearls. She holds in one hand her report, written in cursive on wide-lined paper, and in the other, a homemade gold harp – constructed from a bent piece of metal, duct tape, string and spray paint we found in the garage.  My ‘Saint Cecilia’, patroness of musicians, is beaming with pride. She will tell her audience, with a big smile,  that men sent to behead her struck her on the neck three times, but she did not die immediately, and many centuries later she was the first saint whose unearthed body was found incorrupt.

The Saint Report is a highlight of the year for every 3rd grade student at my children’s school. Each child chooses a saint to research, write a report about, and then portray in costume – before the class and parental paparazzi, of course.  At the end of their presentation, each child shares why he or she chose this particular saint, and the reasons are always interesting and sometimes priceless. My daughter loves music and plays piano, so Saint Cecilia was a logical choice.  Another child recently moved here from Puerto Rico, and left behind her best friend, Lucy.  ‘Lucy’ means light. Ironically, Saint Lucy’s eyes were gouged out (because of her faith), and for display purposes, this little saint had them right here on a clear plastic plate covered in Saran Wrap!   But I think the saint I enjoyed hearing from the most was ‘Saint Roch.’ I had never heard of him before, and truthfully, I don’t remember much from the report except the reason why he was chosen. We were told, “I thought his birthmark was cool.”  It was a mark on his chest, in the perfect shape of a cross.

It’s obvious to me that each child feels a special connection to the saint they portray. Each one is excited to ‘be’ this faithful person for a day.   And me….I’m happy to see my daughter make a connection between her own passions and those of a brave woman who has gone before her, home to the Father.

I was raised in the Protestant tradition and had never given much thought to saints until the Lord called me to the Catholic Church nearly 8 years ago.  In the 9 months of preparation and discernment required, I had a lot of questions, all of which the clergy and lay people who helped with my classes answered fully and unflinchingly.  So, saints?  Once I understood that Catholics are not to pray to saints, but to ask for their prayers just as I would ask a friend here in the flesh, I gained a whole new appreciation for these amazing people.  And a whole new appreciation for what I could learn by hearing their stories.

What occurred to me most as I considered the saints is that they themselves have no special power.  They are no different from me except that we believe they led exceptional lives – staying very, very close to God.  And how did they do it?  Not by force of will; in fact, it’s just the opposite. They did it by humbling themselves to God and His will in every way possible, in every single aspect of this earthly life. In everything they did, these people pointed others toward Christ and kept their gaze on Him. What examples to follow! These are the kinds of superheroes I’m thrilled my kids are thinking about, especially as we approach Halloween.

The class presentations end and later she asks me, “How many saints are there?” The answer – only God knows. We are all called to be saints.  God has left a hole in each of our hearts that only He can fill and we aren’t at peace until we figure that out.  “Is there a Saint with my name?” “You mean that people have heard of? I don’t think so. I haven’t found one recorded, but most saints aren’t recorded anyway.” “Maybe I’ll be the first one.”  That’s my girl.

Day 15 – Keep Him Close

“I love you, Mommy,” he says as he greets me in the morning, still sleepy-eyed and warm from his bed. He wraps his arms around my legs and squeezes. I have to unwrap him to kneel and hug back. Hours later, after he’s the last to be picked up from school and we return home, amidst the noise of his older siblings clamoring through the front door ahead of him, dumping their backpacks on the floor and tossing their shoes to the side, he does it again.  He stops me where I am, and wraps himself around my legs. “Mommy, I love you. I love you SO much.”  And when I bend down to hug him, he’s puckered up for a big kiss – then gives two of them.

My youngest does this all the time. He is extremely affectionate with me, and always has been.  At the advice of the nurses who said he was not breathing well, he spent the very first full day of his life outside the womb pressed to my chest, his skin against mine, listening to my heart. I often wonder if these precious hours set a precedent for our relationship, because our physical closeness is just…different somehow.  As with all my children, I loved him from the beginning, and I will love him forever.

It is amazing to think that for a period of time, not more than five years ago, he was as physically close to me as two souls can get, but I was not aware of his existence.  He had been conceived, but not yet discovered.  His life was known only to his Creator – the genesis of the spark that created my son. My son simply wasn’t. And then he was.  All the later steps of the biological process are just the dynamic unfolding of how a unique soul became encased in a body suited to this world. Scientists are starting to unravel the nuts and bolts of this code. But the true mystery of the entire world comes down to that one divine spark. A person isn’t. Then he is. And the only One there with him, is God.

Not long ago (relatively speaking), St. Paul stood up in a meeting in Athens and spoke to the people concerning the idols he saw in their city.  One bore the inscription “To An Unknown God.”  He explained to the crowd why their worship was incorrect – and far too limited.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  — Acts 17: 24-28 (NIV)

God gave us life so we would seek Him and reach out for Him. We are the Lord’s offspring. Once we were closer than breath to only Him. And if I desire closeness to my dear sweet son, who was once closer than breath to me, I can only imagine how God must feel about those to whom he gave the gift of life.

My son’s love means so much to me because he gives it freely. It is his choice. Our love for God is important to Him because we choose to give it – freely. 

We are at Mass and the priest is preparing to consecrate the Host. I am kneeling, hands folded in prayer, when I feel little arms encircle my neck. In my peripheral vision I see my son’s lips coming and ‘SMACK’ – he plants a loud kiss on my left cheek. Oh – we’re supposed to be quiet here, right? Hmm. Awkward as it is at first, I actually feel more reverent, more joyful, more present to the Almighty now, because of this child’s selfless gift of love. In this uniquely holy moment, I smile, unfold my hands, wrap them around my son’s head, smell his hair, and quietly kiss him back.

Day 14 – Spider-Man

imageI pretend not to notice as he creeps around the side of the kitchen island and aims his little hand at me…his thumb, forefinger, and pinkey sticking out, the other two fingers curved back into his palm. “Gotcha!” he half-whispers, smiling his sly, playful, dimpled smile. “UAAAHH!” I shriek, “Not your web!  You got me again!”  And he giggles with delight, then runs away.  Practice makes perfect, and my little Spider-man’s got two weeks to work on his webs before Halloween.

I like Halloween – when it doesn’t upset my kids or me. And yes, the bar is low for that. I admit it – I hate the dark side of the holiday. If we could get rid of anything associated with blood, gore, violence, scariness, and fascination with anything related to that macabre stuff, it would be wonderful.  But since I know that won’t happen, I just focus on the lighthearted, wholesome aspects which lead to joyful memories of the fall season – trick or treating, pumpkin carving, and of course, innocent kids’ costumes.

Costume selection is always interesting because each year I’m curious to see what appeals to the kids and why. My oldest son (now 11), has, for 6 of the last 7 years been some kind of warrior.  If a costume expresses an inner desire, then perhaps he wants to be tougher than he feels he is.  My 8-year old daughter’s tastes vary. In recent years, she’s been a princess, a cat, a glamorous witch, a female warrior cartoon character, and a pirate. This year, she had trouble deciding between a vampire and an angel. I sensed she just liked the idea of being a vampire, without really understanding its full import. So I showed her costumes and vampire makeup.  The fake blood disgusted her, and she settled on ‘angel,’ and a full-length gown. In the end, it was really about the gold and white dress. But, I was quite happy with her choice.

Whether a person wants to try on a whole new identity, or express some hidden side of themselves, no one ever puts on a Halloween costume and then hangs out at home all alone. The fun is in circulating amongst other people incognito, or somewhat so. Everyone wants to be noticed in their chosen garb, and to have a good time wearing it for a little while. And sometimes a person feels even more brazen in their costume – willing to step out boldly in ways they wouldn’t otherwise – just because the garb gives them added confidence as they “become” the character they portray. I saw this firsthand with my oldest back when he was two and chose to be Buzz Lightyear. His costume had inflatable wings that attached to his back, and I have photos of him walking up to complete strangers with a huge smile, bag out and ready for handfuls of candy.

Why do we do this? Why do we try to be noticed? I actually think we are looking for something divine. We want to experience someone seeing us not only for who we are day-to-day, but also as who we wish we could be, or think we might be – a better or alternate version of ourselves.  No matter how much time we spend with our family, friends, or acquaintances, we sense the truth deep in our souls that none of these people can actually fill our deepest need – to be fully and wholly known.

So, a costume is not merely a covering up – it is also a reaching out. It’s a way of saying, “Will you still love me – like this?”  Too often, the costumed are not yet aware of why they want to be noticed.  The psalmist says it perfectly:

O God, you are my God–

for you I long!

For you my body yearns;

for you my soul thirsts,

Like a land parched, lifeless,

and without water.

–Psalm 63:1-2

Day 5 – Car Line

I’m sitting in car line waiting to pick up my kids, curious to know what they’ll tell me about their day (because, thankfully, they still do that, often without any encouragement from me). What emotions did they feel during their 8 hours away from me?  What are their impressions of the day? Concerns? Comical memories? Will this day have made a lasting mark, or just be one in a long trail that makes up the fall of 2014?

I’m not so naive as to think they’re telling me everything, mind you. I’ve had the heartbreak of catching each child in a lie, and prayed the punishment would be effective enough to make them think twice before lying again. But if as parents we are the first models to our children of how God loves us, I want them to know they can share with me – good and bad – what’s been going on with them. My husband and I try to instill the values we believe will benefit them in their lives, and I’m sure you are doing the same with your children. It’s being conscientious and concerned for their futures.

The thing is – I know that I will fail. On my own I cannot do this. We cannot do this.  I have a short fuse and get impatient with my kids. I have unfair expectations of them.  I hold them to standards that I myself fall short of, and when pressed, I have denied this.  Only in the light of God’s pure love can I really see just how imperfect I really am, and how many times throughout my life I’ve messed up.  I’m blessed to have figured this out before my mothering years are over, so I can apologize to my kids when I make mistakes that I can see hurt them, and hopefully, they’ll become more empathetic to other sinners in the future.

So in car line, while I wait for my babies, I stare up at the gold cross on the top of the church adjacent to their school.  To think that Mary watched her baby die an excruciating death, hanging from a cross. The only way she could have borne such misery was in total surrender to the infinite grace of God. And by clinging to God’s promises of love for the world.  She stood on rock solid faith – belief in the evidence of what she could not see.  As all of mankind’s evil was heaped on the shoulders of her son, she could not have understood in full the Lord’s plan. She must have been confused, in emotional turmoil and wracked with pain. What mother wouldn’t be? But she stayed there with Him. She needed to see her baby through the ordeal, and she knew she could trust Him. I trust Him too. And when I mess that up, I make the choice to trust again.

If there is one lesson I hope to teach my kids it’s this: He is worthy of ALL your trust. NO-THING and NO-ONE you will ever know is so worthy. And he hung there for you because there had to be a penalty for all of the things you’ve done that you want to hide from God, the same way you’d like to hide stuff you’ve done from me or Dad.  Because in Perfect Love, absolute and Pure Light, there’s no room for dirt, no room for darkness. He KNOWS what you’ve done, but he wants you to come to Him, much the same way I want you to come to me – so I can show you again how much I love you and so I can help you see your problems in proper perspective.  Because I want a permanent relationship with you. And so does God. So show HIM the dirt and the ugly stuff and He’ll gladly wash it away forever.  Because he loves you more than you love yourself. And that’s a promise He can only keep, because God CAN’T lie.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life,

neither angels nor demons,

neither the present nor the future,

nor any powers, nor height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation will be able

to separate us from the love of God

that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

— Romans 8:38-39

Day 2 – Thinking About Bats

It’s nearly dusk and I’m navigating an unfamiliar and winding rural road with the help of my GPS when my youngest inquires, “When will the bats come out?” For a split second I marvel at how his new mind and my older one are in such different places as we look at the same stretch of road. I answer – “I don’t know. Soon.” Will this answer suffice?  It doesn’t satisfy me….

He and I have not discussed bats since a summer evening several weeks back, when we watched them flit among the trees behind our home.  Come to think of it, the sky looked much like this one. Perhaps that’s why he thought of this subject?  But who knows with 4-year olds?  Our conversation is short and covers the few basic facts we both know about bats.  They like to eat bugs. This is helpful to us humans. They sleep during the day and come out at night. Together he and I practice the big word – “nocturnal.” When I try to explain echolocation, even in simple, simple terms, I just stop. Eleven years of motherhood down so far, and I know that his ears are turning deaf as he spots horses in a pasture rolling by.  The road is getting darker. I need to concentrate. And besides, now I can reflect on the good things that even darkness can offer.

In this fallen world of ours, where suffering of all kinds is around us every day, it can be so easy to become discouraged.  As I wrote yesterday, it’s been a sad month. It has included the deaths of three women, two in my family.  And each one has left behind people I want to support through encouragement, prayer, and whatever else I can give. My faith keeps me from despair, because I don’t worry about what God is doing or why these things happen.  I love the tapestry analogy so many have used: this life is like the bottom of a tapestry – a jumbled, tangle of knots and string, but when we can look at the other side, we’ll understand and see it was a small section of His masterpiece.

Nevertheless, I’m still asking the worldly question, “What can I do?” Emphasis on me.  I still feel like somehow I need to do more. I want a directive – a clear plan on how to help.  And I’ve been surprised by the depth of my fatigue because, geographically, none of the family and friends I have been concerned about supporting live close to me. Maybe you have this same problem?  Self-centeredness?  The feeling that although you trust God, you should still DO something?

So, in my current darkness, God sent me a question about bats to contemplate. Bats are His creatures, too, of course. Ugly-beautiful things that help keep the ecosystem in balance by doing what they were designed by God to do. They find their nourishment to sustain them by listening to echoes….which may be loud to them….but are hardly above whispers to us. I too am an ugly-beautiful thing.  A sinner washed clean and made new by the blood of the Lamb. I can best do my part for His kingdom by doing what he has designed me to do. Follow Him. This requires listening.  And listening again.  And again and again to whispers and echoes of whispers, repeated again and again, in scripture and in the depths of my heart, when I am still enough to hear His mighty voice.