A New Use for Holiday Cards

A New Use for Holiday Cards

Let me ask you: What did you do with all of the Christmas, holiday, or New Year’s cards you received back in December and January?

If you’re like me, you held onto them for weeks, believing that one cold winter day you would sit down with a big mug of tea and re-read them, save the extra-special ones, and maybe even call or write those super-human individuals who had taken extra time to pen novellas of their lives in the past year. (Those people always impress me; I can barely get my cards mailed by Dec. 22nd, much less tell everyone what we did in the previous 12 months!)

Or maybe you even had grandiose plans of crafting with the cards you received – making a collage or ornaments out of them. Yes – one ambitious year perhaps you even admired all those sweet faces of your friends’ kids and planned to photograph each card, saving them to your hard drive or the cloud! (I actually did this. Precisely ONE time.)

But in all likelihood – you did none of that. You eventually let out a big sigh of co-mingled regret and relief, and recycled the colorful stash, secretly hoping that no one would ever ask you to recall the cards’ contents.

By now, the cards my family received would usually have been appreciated and tossed. But not this year.

This year, we are trying something new: we are making the cards a part of Lent.

In our home, we “say grace” before meals. It’s a good habit – one that’s meant to remind us from Whom we receive our nourishment.

Typically, we say the traditional Catholic blessing:

“Bless us, O Lord,
and these Thy gifts,
which we are about to receive,
from Thy bounty,
through Christ Our Lord,
Amen.”

It covers all the most important points and when said with genuine heartfelt devotion, offers the gratitude that’s due.

There is danger in repetition, however. After awhile, it can be tempting to ignore the words – to just go through the motions of saying them without concentrating on their meaning.

One way to recharge a mealtime prayer with its intended significance is to change it up a bit – not by re-wording it necessarily, but by adding to it.

So at every meal this Lent, we are taking a couple Christmas cards from our stack and praying for the families that sent them. Our prayers are not fancy or flowery, just straightforward expressions from the heart that the One who sees and knows all will grant our friends the virtues and strengths they need most.

If you wonder what that looks like, here’s what I said last night after the basic blessing:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for our dear friends Pete and Amy and their children Brendan, Zach, and Ellie. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen them but we know they are in Your loving hands. Please watch over them and bring them closer to one another in 2018. We pray too for Uncle Bill and Clara. May you bless their new marriage and new home in California. Amen.”

Sharing these cards every night has given my husband and I opportunities tell our kids a bit more about old friends – people with whom we ‘swap’ Christmas cards but rarely see – people we knew long before the kids came along. It’s a side benefit I wouldn’t have considered before starting this Lenten effort.

Remembering people and holding them up….

We can start anytime.

Flip through your phone’s address book, glance over your Facebook friends, make a list of names.

Fold your hands and lift up a friend. Today.

Do You Get Sick of ‘Perfect’ Posts? Me Too.

Do You Get Sick of ‘Perfect’ Posts? Me Too.

Do you ever look at carefully curated Facebook or Instagram posts and think, “These people are making me sick. I can’t take any more of his/her ‘perfect’ life.”

I’m with you. There are days when I have to shut it all down, reminding myself once again that these worlds are a VIRTUAL reality, not life in itself.

Earlier this week, my husband and I posted a huge block of our 2017 summer vacation photos on Facebook, which we use to stay in touch with far-flung family and friends. It’s a helpful vehicle, and the grandparents have learned to download pictures they’d like to save so that I don’t have to print and mail copies. But as I hovered over the ‘post,’ button, I pondered the implications. Every action has a reaction.

What do people think when they see my family so seemingly carefree?

The truth about a family is what’s happening before a photo is taken, and after.

I’m not going to pretend we have major issues, crises, or drama in our home right now. I’m not going to make this more than it is. But little struggles can be stresses – even on vacation – so here’s a story along those lines.

My daughter ran past me in the hallway of our rented beach house, rushing to the garage. “Oh God,” she said, “My retainer. I’ll find it.”

This kid. Age 11. And her retainer is literally holding things in place while we wait between Phase 1 and Phase 2 of who knows how much orthodontia to make big teeth line up in a tiny mouth.

I knew what she’d done. She’d left it in the mesh side pocket of a chair for 5 hours under the beach tent, which had just been folded up and dragged back to the house minutes before. Bad news all around.

I immediately blamed myself for not remembering to have her leave it at the house in the morning before we’d set out for the day. Instead, she’d had to improvise in our sandy shelter, fearful she’d lose it while playing in the surf.

In the garage, tensions were rising as equipment was tossed about and my daughter explained to her dad what had happened.

“Did you find it?” I interrupted.

“No,” my husband said firmly. “We’re going back to the beach. How much is it going to cost when we don’t find it there?!!?”

He let out an exasperated sigh and they left.

After I told our other two kids what was up, I headed out too.

I talk about God a lot in my blog, not because I expect that all of my readers will share my beliefs, but because my experience shows me that He shows up in my day-to-day.

People think faith is about religious doctrine. But it’s not. It’s about opening yourself up to the possibility that God cares about you. You personally.

So as I walked, I approached Him in honest conversation.

Lord?

I felt His presence like a blanket on my shoulders.

‘Here I Am.’

Thank you for being there. For being… here. For always being here. Even when I’m not paying attention. And I know I haven’t been… paying attention. Not for awhile. I’ve been ignoring you this summer. I’m so sorry.

Thank you for not ignoring us. Thank you for this vacation week. For the great time we’ve been having together. For clearing my mind. For the quiet.

As you know, we’re missing this retainer. I don’t know if we’re supposed to find it. I’m ok with your plan if we’re not. But either way, please bring us your peace. Help us all to be ok with whatever happens next.

St. Anthony – my friend – I wonder what it was you lost and found? You know I hate your rhyme – but if you could ask the Lord for help as well that would be great.

Lord, please help. Please help.

By the time I got to the beach my husband and daughter were giving up. They had searched the spot where the tent had been and looked resigned and defeated. I told them I’d be back when I’d completed my own turns through the sand.

After about 5 minutes of shuffling my feet into layer upon layer of hot earth, I looked up to see my own likeness coming toward me – the 40-ish mom from the generic family that had spent the day 20-some yards away from us – tired and concerned in her wet and sandy bathing suit.

“What are you looking for?” she called out.

I explained.

“What color is it?”

No sooner had I uttered the words, “It’s pink, green, and…” then we both looked down, and two feet ahead, half- buried at a 45-degree angle, there it was.

I held it up and looked at her in amazement.

“Oh my gosh,” I said, breaking into relieved laughter. “Wow! Wow!! This is a beach! I mean, I was praying about it, but… It’s a beach!”

She smiled and said, “That’s what I do, too. I pray too.”

I looked at her straight on. “Thank you!!! Really. Thank you.”

“It wasn’t me.”

I nodded appreciatively.

Because we both knew.

It wasn’t her.

The “perfect” in this life isn’t what WE make of it.

It’s what HE makes.

How to Care for a Tummy Ache

How to Care for a Tummy Ache

imageIt was 9:15 this morning and we were sitting in the doctor’s office, hoping to solve the mystery of my daughter’s stomach pain – pain that had driven her to the school nurse’s office every day for the last four days, and noticeable enough that even her little brother had asked if we could pray for her over breakfast.

There had been no fever. No vomiting. No digestion issues. Just some mild nausea, loss of appetite, and pain. Just pain.

After a few long minutes, the quick strep test came back negative. Severe constipation was also ruled out. We were down to “a probable virus,” and “call us next week if it’s still there, the pain moves, or gets worse.”

Hooray. Just the diagnosis I wanted.

I was trying to stay positive as I looked at her downtrodden form. She sat on the examining table, hunched over, somewhat pale, and unshowered. Yesterday, she’d come home from school and climbed straight into her pajamas. But – believe it or not – letting her sit on the couch all day didn’t seem like the right course of action.

Despite the pouring rain outside, I made a suggestion.

“How ’bout we drive over to Rockville and pick up your dress? You’re missing school anyway. We can get some lunch while we’re there.”

Surprisingly, she perked up at the idea of spending two hours in the car (one each way), just to pick up an Irish dance dress that she already owned, but which had been altered to fit her growing pre-teen body.

“Sounds great!” she declared.

We made a detour by home so she could shower (my idea), and headed out.

I indulged her in a few minor ways.

I let her sit up front.

I let her choose the music (and then a comedian) on Spotify.

I didn’t ask her many questions; I let her steer the conversation.

Overall, I did my best to listen well, and by the time we arrived at the seamstress’ shop, my daughter was coming back to me. One tiny smile and wiggle in her seat at a time.

We got the dress and time was passing quickly. So we giggled our way through lunch at a very poorly-serviced and obnoxiously loud Chipotle, and then ran through Starbucks. She asked for a pink cake pop. I gave it to her. Gladly.

Tonight her belly is much better. Since it’s day 5 of this…whatever it is …maybe she was on the mend anyway. And I’m sure her brother’s prayer had something to do with it. But I also think it’s like this….

Sometimes, things just aren’t right. You don’t know why, or what’s really wrong. Stuff just bugs you. Life gets to you (and your body) in ways you can’t understand.

And what you need – maybe all you simply need – is to hang out with your mom for a little while.

Today, my shocking revelation was …I am the Mom.

And my presence was all that was needed.

My daughter confirmed this lesson on our ride back to Annapolis, when she glanced over at me and said, “Today was the best. Thanks, Mom.”

Today? The best? A doctor’s appointment? Torrential rain? A long drive for a fairly boring reason? A mediocre lunch in a fast-food place?

To all the Moms out there who – like me – think you’re not doing enough: Most of the time, all that’s needed is for us to Show Up. And you can do that. And they love you for it. So much more than you know. 

Happy Mother’s Day.

I Forgot a Necessary Thing

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Every waking moment is an opportunity to find peace.

I rediscovered this last night, when I was awake from 2:30 to 5:30 a.m.

I know why it happened – the insomnia. I made the mistake of looking at the computer, and then the iPad, for the few hours before bed. I let myself be sucked into the black hole of cyberspace, and I lost my way in there.

Then, I didn’t pray before dropping my head to the pillow.

You’d think I’d have learned by now, because I know that this is necessary for me. I even wrote a post about that awhile back – How to Sleep Well. But we are all stubborn and slow learners, and we often fail to follow through on what we’ve learned. 

So at 2:30 I woke up – head churning with to-do lists and plans for today. After 45 minutes of trying to fall back to sleep, I gave up, went downstairs, drank some milk, made the kids’ lunches, organized clutter, and read a magazine. For another two hours.

In my meditations this morning, I heard the question, ‘What does it mean for me to have freedom within, and obedience to, God?’

The One who has taught me so lovingly was there waiting for me last night. And until the very end of my restless wakefulness, I didn’t trade my burdened mind for the light load He was offering me.

Small trials like a lack of sleep can remind us of our dependence on the routines we were designed to keep. Obedience to the deepest needs of my body and spirit enable me to have the life I want. The good life intended for me.

And in that good life comes the peace of understanding that is beyond my capabilities. In flutterings, wisdom and direction are showered on me like soft petals.

When I go it alone, I doom myself to unnecessary suffering.

“So now, O children, listen to me;

instruction and wisdom do not reject!

Happy the man who obeys me,

and happy those who keep my ways,

Happy the man watching daily at my gates,

waiting at my doorposts;

For he who finds me finds life,

and wins favor from the Lord;

But he who misses me harms himself…”

-Proverbs 8:32-36

Champion Prayers

Our son winning the Tae Kwon Do State Championship in Point Sparring in 2014.
Our son winning the Tae Kwon Do State Championship in Point Sparring in 2014.

Last Saturday, my oldest son competed for the fifth time in the Maryland District Tae Kwon Do Championships.

He does two events – Forms and Point Sparring. Forms is performed alone – with each athlete moving through a series of memorized fight movements while being judged against an ideal which prescribes precision and technique.

Point Sparring is a battle with an opponent. Points are scored by hitting your opponent’s body in a controlled way (points are deducted for hits that are too hard), and the number of points accrued for each hit depends on its location and the limbs used. For example, a foot strike to an opponent’s head is worth more points than a hand strike to the chest or back. If an athlete wins one fight, they fight again until a winner in the group is declared. If an athlete scores 12 points and the other scores 0, the fight ends immediately and is called a ‘slaughter.’

My husband was with our son at the tournament, since our routine is that he attends while I wrangle our other two kids and shuttle them to their weekend activities.

And so it was that I found myself – yet again – clutching my cell phone in anticipation of texts from my husband, while feeding our youngest son donuts and waiting for our daughter to finish dance class.

My nerves are always wracked. Despite all of the encouragement, coaching, and preparation we can give our children in advance, when “game day” comes, there is nothing for us to do but to stand back and let them go. They have to bring forth all they have learned and apply it. And wow, is it hard – for me.

Sometimes we’re disappointed. There are losses. Tears that we have to kiss away, and hurts and anger that require loving responses from us parents.

And then there are the wins, and lessons we must teach about how to show grace and kindness when it might be easier, but wrong, to gloat.

With my oldest, it’s been a long road. Five years of competition down, and he’s only 13. The biggest challenge for him has been handling his emotions in the thick of the fight and afterwards. Losses seemed to suck out our very lives.

So it was game day. Again. And I waited – knowing our son’s passion is Sparring, and Forms is not his forte.

I stared at the first text from my husband for a good long minute. I just couldn’t believe what it said.

Texts 1 - MD State Championships 2016

Our son had won gold in Sparring before, but had NEVER medaled in a big tournament in Forms.

‘Holy cow,’ I thought. ‘He’s always known his day in the sun would come. Is this it?’

A few minutes later, my daughter came out of her class and I was ready to drive home. I told the little brother and sister the news. There was rejoicing in the backseat!

But my stomach was still churning. Sparring is our son’s LOVE. ‘Lord,’ I thought, ‘Please be with him.’

I told the younger ones to pray. Then realized that No – this was a perfect moment for group prayer. I had to lead it. It didn’t matter that we were headed down a highway at 50 mph. You can pray anywhere. Yes – even with your eyes open.

“Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we ask for your blessing on this day. May you help A. to remember everything he has learned and to use it in his fight. Give him a clear mind and a courageous heart. Give him endurance and strength. Please help him to give this his all – to do his very, very best. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”

We rolled on home and the texts came. I responded at stoplights.

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With the second fight won, my youngest said, “Wow!! That prayer actually worked!!”

I paused for a second, and then said,

Prayer always works. We don’t always get the results we hope for. But prayer always works. And if you remember – I didn’t ask God to make A. win. I asked the Lord to help him. To help him make sure he uses all the stuff he’s learned. Winning is great, but knowing that God is with you – that’s what’s important.”

My kids nodded their assent while I prayed silently, ‘Lord, let these words be seeds in their souls.’

When I finally saw my fighter at the end of the day, I wanted to hear his story. He was thrilled with the silver in Forms and fine with his bronze. And I learned that the kid he lost to in his last sparring round was ultimately the gold medalist. What’s more – the best part of that loss was that my son knew right away that he could learn from it. Learn to use his hands more. Learn to be appropriately aggressive – to stop worrying about hurting his opponent. He was even jovial describing the day.

“You know what happened in that second fight, Mom?

“No, what?”

“The guy turned his back on me!! He got a point on me and the corner judge called it, but the center judge didn’t so it didn’t count. There was no stop in play. But the guy thought there was, and he turned his back on me!! I couldn’t believe it!! I just roundhouse kicked – right to his head for 3! Easiest points ever!”

“That poor kid,” I said laughing.

“I know! But it was perfect,” he smiled, delighted by the situation and the way he’d handled it.

I was amazed by his growth. Here was a kid who had finally seen clearly. He’d fought hard and controlled his emotions. He’d lost the gold but kept himself. He was joyful.

Praise God. My prayers were answered.

But prayers are always answered. In the way that is right. For us.

7 Gifts from My Facebook Fast

7 Gifts from My Facebook Fast

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This past Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, I fasted from Facebook and other media including newspapers, magazines, and TV in order to spend more time in prayer. I broke the fast only to watch a movie with my boys on Saturday night.

My primary motivation was to listen for divine guidance in my role as a voter, and to pray for our nation. This year’s primaries have jostled my nerves like never before, and I wanted to shut off the political loudspeakers and let what I’d already heard digest a bit. I figured that doing so would rid my head of static. I was right. But there were even more gifts from my fast than I’d expected.

Gift 1 – Freedom from the encumbrance of others’ views.
Democracy is based on the idea that every person’s voice matters. But it’s easy to forget that when we’re drowning in the latest sound bites, which fail to convey the totality of the political picture. To make reasonable decisions, we have to weigh facts and presentations against our own experiences and values. Doing that in an echo chamber is nearly impossible. Over the last three days, silence allowed me to hear the voice I should when I enter the voting booth – my own.

Gift 2 – Closeness to the people who really matter.
While being informed and voting is important in a democracy, I need to keep this civic responsibility in proper perspective.

If I’m trying to live in accordance with the plan I believe God has for me, I need to consider at all times my sphere of influence. Some people may connect with thousands. Me? So far in my life, I’m called to serve only a few. My position as a wife, mother, or community member may seem small on an average day, but what I do is critical and irreplaceable. It deserves my full attention.

So, liberated from distractions, I was free to love the people entrusted to my care better. I studied their eyes. Listened – to what they weren’t saying in words. Touched them. Gave and received hugs. Held hands.

Physical closeness matters – to them, and to me. When I think of who is really “there” for me – in the flesh with me, in good times and in bad – it’s these people. And they won’t be with me forever. Best to wrap my arms around them now.

Gift 3 – An increased sensitivity to my own emotions.
My daughter is an Irish dancer, and she and her school were invited to perform multiple times over the weekend at Irish Fests and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. I’m usually rushing to get her to these events, and then feeling a bit anxious when she heads out on stage, thinking about details such as whether her wig will stay put, shoes stay tied, and smile stay fixed if she slips on an unfamiliar floor. None of this has happened to her yet. But still – I worry.

On Sunday, I had a perfect seat to stage left and because of my fasting, noticed that I was able to focus on her dancing. I saw the muscles in her legs working in time to the Celtic beats, the sparkle in her eyes as she surveyed the room. Dancing gives my daughter joy. And without the extra noise in my head, I could share that joy with her. I could feel it in my gut.

Gift 4 – A deeper understanding of the value of time.
Truly, only God knows how much time I have. And how much I’ve wasted scrolling through photos of cute babies and puppies I’ll never meet in person. Or reading articles that just made me angry or sad. Countless hours. It’s silly, even stupid, when I consider that there’s no way of knowing if today is the last day of my life.

Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.

-Psalm 90:12

I learned to change this verse to a prayer.

Help me to live as if each day is numbered, so that I can gain wisdom as to how to spend my time.

A few hours into my fast, I knew that if I were given just a handful of days, I sure wouldn’t spend them on Facebook.

Gift 5 – More laughter.
I’m not an overly serious person, but no one would call me jocular. What I find funny often depends on my frame of mind. For example, when our family is eating out, I expect the kids to behave. Tableside antics need to be kept to a minimum. But Sunday night, we were sitting in Jack’s Fortune chinese restaurant when my 6-year old draped a napkin across his head and deadpanned, “Here comes the bride.”

I laughed right along with everyone else. He’s developing his own sense of humor, test driving punchlines to check our reactions. I might have missed out if my mind had been on its usual wander.

Gift 6 – A reawakening to my own interests.
In the quiet of the past few days, I finished a novel, worked on a couple sewing projects, and made a Norwegian dish that I’d never cooked before. With a clear mind, I was savoring each activity, appreciating it for the satisfaction it brings. Sweet moments like these give life color, and they filled my heart with a sense of gratitude.

Gift 7 – A reminder to ‘take the long view.’
My oldest is 13 – a challenging age. My husband and I are seeking ways to understand the pressures our son is facing, and also to help him identify his strengths and weaknesses.

The three of us had a couple rich discussions this weekend, talks that I know will affect the man he’s to become. What we do and say today changes tomorrow’s picture, for better and for worse. I don’t want to waste precious opportunities to give my son a faith foundation for this life, and guidance on how he’s to prepare for the next.

In the silence of media-free days, I can hear the whisper of the One who helps me lead my children and explore the abundant life intended for us. I gain confidence that my voice really does count – with Him who reigns supreme.

And as for the candidates I’ve been ignoring temporarily, I will pray they receive the same gifts given to me. Because a deep, strong understanding of our proper and humble size compared to Him, is valuable in a public servant.

The Lift

A Lift? Here?

You recognize this. A Starbucks. We’ve all been to one. Or 50.

And yet there’s more going on in this photo than you might think. In the far right corner of the coffeehouse is a young woman interviewing for a job, and I was there when she walked in.

I was at the counter going through my wallet to find the free drink card that I’d been working on over the holidays, when I realized I hadn’t even acknowledged the cashier. ‘Aw, man!’ I thought. ‘How often am I in such a rush that I fail to look people in the eye? He deserves at least that.’ 

I found the card, faced the young man straight on and made sure to finish the transaction – with eye contact – and a sincere, “Thank you. Have a good day!”

Then, I smiled at the barista and thanked her when my white chocolate mocha came up. She smiled back because I actually looked at her. Whoa. I was on a roll!

I was fishing for my car keys when I saw the woman in her late 20s come in. Gray and black wool skirt, black tights, sharp shoes, a moss green jacket, coordinating scarf, and her auburn hair trimmed neatly and tucked behind one ear. Fairly large portfolio under her left arm.

A man in his 60s sitting at the far table by the door looked up from the stack of papers he was reading.

“Hello!” She smiled. Made eye contact. “Are you Mr. Patterson?”

He smiled back.

To me, she seemed just the right combination of bubbly, warm, eager, and professional. I liked her immediately. I will probably never see her again, but in that moment, I could do one thing for her. I could lift her up.

“Lord,” I prayed silently, “I don’t know her story but You do. You know if this is the job she needs. Give her courage today. Give her confidence in her abilities. Please help her succeed with the gifts and talents You have given her. Give her wisdom to make good decisions. Please whisper to her that no matter what happens, You love her.”

That day, I heard a whisper just before I knew I was supposed to pray. And it was this: Who are you lifting up today? 

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about all week. I’ve heard it said, “Never ignore a generous impulse,” so this week I haven’t, and over the last 7 days, as the Lord has prompted me, it has been my privilege to encourage, and listen, and pray for, and be present to more people than I believe I usually am. It has undoubtedly been a great week.

Yes – there have been sacrifices made in terms of time. Today I have a mountain of laundry to do and the house is a bit of a wreck. But, as my mom once told me, “It’s not like someone’s going to knock on your door and give you the Good Housekeeping Award.” And what’s a house compared to the greater glory of a full life?

I’ve been called to other work this week. The quiet, often hidden, sometimes secret work – of lifting others up. The life in me has been bolstered and enlarged because of it and I am deeply satisfied. But then, why am I surprised? That’s what He promised all along. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

The life of the Lord, living in me, if only I believe in Him with my whole heart. What a promise. What a pool of hope. What a source of eternal joy!

When people are brought low and you say, ‘Lift them up!’ then he will save the downcast.

-Job 22:29 (NIV)

Holy Moments – Day 22 – Dawning Light

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“Mommy – What does ISIS stand for?”

Her blue eyes peeked out at me from behind her purple bedspread. It was time to turn out the light. Not the time to launch into a discussion like this. And what did she mean “stand for?” I took the literal route.

“ISIS is an acronym. The letters I-S-I-S are short for the longer name of a group calling itself the Islamic State.”

“Some boys on the playground were talking about it and what they did in Paris.”

“Hmm.” My mind reeled. What did she know? I didn’t want her to worry. We work so hard to keep her safe, happy, carefree…

I asked her what she’d heard and it was just vague details about attacks. She’d heard of Islam, so we discussed the fact that there are people in all religions who can become extreme and bend their views into hatred of others who have different faiths. I stressed that this is wrong, that God loves every person, that He created every single one.

“Will they come here?”

“There are people in our government and all over the world working very hard to protect us.”

“We’ll be warned, right? And we can run to our house and lock all the doors. Do we know what they look like?”

“Some of them. But it’s more like we’re watching their emails and telephone calls. Get some sleep, ok? I love you.”

Oh, Lord. I couldn’t tell her the whole truth….What do they look like?

They look like my friend from middle school – Mary – whose mother was Syrian and father was Lebanese. They look like guys I dated in high school and college – Italian. They look like the Greek guy at the deli around the corner from my office building in New York City. And they look like Zaidan – the Lebanese gentleman I worked with for years at a nonprofit civic education group in Washington, DC, where our mission was to encourage young people to participate in the democratic process.

What do they look like?  They look like us. And what’s on the outside has nothing to do with it. 

My daughter’s questions, posed on the first day of the week, led to 6 days of soul searching, long-bouts of reading articles on Facebook, and a general unease. I wanted to say something about this historical moment. But what?

On Saturday, as my daughter and I were listening to Christian radio and she was singing her little heart out, she gave me more to chew on…

“I want to sing a song for the talent show later this year, but if I choose one of these, I’m afraid everyone will laugh at me or think I’m weird.”

It wasn’t bedtime. It was time to dig deep. I’ll spare you the details of that discussion. But as I tried to bolster her spirit for a lifelong journey of faith, I was also coaching myself. In a time like this, when the world feels akimbo, maybe it’s appropriate to get out a wrench and tighten up the nuts and bolts.

All of the events of the last week have reminded me that choosing to walk through the narrow gate is never easy. It requires a daily commitment, a re-surrendering of my will to God’s will, because for me and for most of us, the natural instinct is to “run to our hous[es] and lock all the doors.” The world is quite frightening, and the Lord’s commands aren’t easy either. If we truly try to follow any one of Jesus Christ’s teachings we quickly find that he was, in every sense, radical.

But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who hurt you, pray for those who mistreat you.” – Luke 6:27-28

ISIS is no exception to this command. Each terrorist deserves God’s mercy as much as we do – which is not at all – and still God offers it, freely. Yet, how often do we hear prayers for our enemies from our altars? How often do we pray for them as we close our eyes and ask for protection?

Every time I publish a blog piece, I expose myself as a believer. I wonder sometimes how much of a risk I’m taking in proclaiming the Bible as Truth. I remember that Christ’s message was not one of perpetual comfort in this life, but of eternal peace in the next.

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more.”  – Luke 12:4

If anyone proved the veracity of this statement, it is Jesus himself, for if we do not believe in the truth of the Resurrection – the Son of Man literally brought back to life and walking the earth in his flesh and blood – we are not truly Christians. And the power Christ invoked is the same power promised to those who love Him.

I pray…that you will know what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead… – Ephesians 1:18-20

If I could say only one more thing to my daughter, it would be the one thing Jesus says most often: “Don’t be afraid.” And this is not some self-help advice meant to puff up her ego. NO. Why? Because God never meant us to face our fear alone. From the Old Testament to the New, scripture is consistent on this – there is no place we can go to escape God’s loving presence, and He wants us to call on Him. When we admit our need for Him, he is endlessly forgiving of our failures – of our desire be self-sufficient and to ‘go it alone,’ of our judgments and anger toward our enemies, of our hiding from His power, of our foregoing His assistance, and of our acting as if He doesn’t exist. He stands ready at all times, offering us the safety of His eternal love. We need only to surrender to Him again. 

Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea, Even there your right hand hold me fast. – Psalm 139: 7-10

I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, I ‘will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. – Psalm 32:5

Do not be afraid of them, For I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 1:8

As I have told my daughter, sometimes carrying this message of hope will make me unpopular. But I remember these words of Christ as well, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” (John 15:18). Knowing that He is with me always and experiencing His powerful love has created within me an unshakable joy and peace that is more than enough to get me through the tough moments. See, I can only serve one master, and I learned some time ago that serving myself is a dead end.

Holy Moments – Day 18 – Brooding

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This fall has been so filled with to-do lists that I feel like I’m living in a perpetual corn maze. There is no satisfaction in checking items off the list, because once an item is completed, another one is added. And the stuff on the list feels dead to me. Life-less and soul-sucking.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been many happy moments, like watching my daughter revel in the fellowship of her friends at her 10th birthday party. Like receiving more frequent hugs from my ‘tween’ son, who has seemed especially intuitive and sensitive lately. And like listening to my  kindergartener read his first words. “Mommy – It says, ‘I can go.’  See? ‘I can go!'”  Yes, indeed. Look at them go.

But so much of my time is wrapped up in doing for them that I often end up feeling depleted. I know that what helps more than anything else is to sit still and talk to the Lord. But sometimes, even then, I find myself offering up a litany of requests instead of praises. Praise and gratitude are the keys to re-turning my heart in the direction of all that’s Good and Pure and Loving…all that’s coming from Him Who is greater than everything in the world, and in me.

Yet, this is very hard when I just feel downtrodden, and put upon. Like I’m being pecked to death. If I’m not careful this kind of mood can really get away from me and I can become a fairly unlikeable wife and mother. Not that you’d know it, if you don’t live with me. But I have suffered bouts of depression and carried others down with me. It’s a brutal state, and a slippery slope. And it’s dangerous because it can be hidden. And for me, it starts with too many days passing like this.

Mind you, like most people, I can get myself dressed, fix my hair and makeup, and put on happy mask. I can smile at you in the supermarket so you’ll end up thinking, “She’s got it together today.”

But He who sees it all knows what’s really going on.

I cried out to him for the second time this morning, well after my regular prayers, and after I’d spent a couple hours at the computer and around the house, slogging through tasks as if a heavy bucket of woes was hanging from my neck.

I asked him to use my Bible. To please, speak to me.

I dropped it open and read where it fell, frantic for a message. As my heart raced and I scanned the page, I read over a section in Sirach Chapter 31 that just didn’t seem to apply at all. Growing frustrated, I heard that whisper. “Look again.”

Just one column over, in Chapter 30, under “Health of Soul and Body,” the Word came alive for me:

Do not give in to sadness, torment not yourself with brooding;

Gladness of heart is the very life of man, cheerfulness prolongs his days. 

Distract yourself, renew your courage, drive resentment far away from you;

For worry has brought death to many, nor is there aught to be gained from resentment.

Envy and anger shorten one’s life, worry bring’s on premature old age.

– Sirach 30:21-24

I realized, I was given this Sacred Scripture as my prayer for today. Perhaps you need to pray these words too.

Heavenly Father,

You are all powerful. You are All Mighty. There is literally nothing You cannot do.

You breathe Life into the dead and heal the afflicted.

Please save me from sadness and brooding.

Renew my heart with gladness and joy.

Strengthen me with Your Resurrection Power.

Drive my worries far away.

I trust in You.

I believe in You.

You are sovereign over everything – seen and unseen.

You are Lord. 

 

Holy Moments – Day 13 – Mac Cam

I lived in Manhattan from 1994 to 1996 – the two years just after college graduation. It was a paycheck to paycheck existence, and I was fairly creative with ramen noodles. But that’s not the point of this post.

One day, I was crossing Fifth Avenue at the foot of Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel, when I noticed a high fashion model doing a photo shoot on the island at the middle of the street. It was late summer, and she was dressed in a brown wool coat and coordinating hat, tights, and stiletto boots. Every glossy hair was in place, she stood in a way no average person ever would, and she held her chin up, as if she disdained the city while also trying to blend into it. Nothing about her ‘look’ said, “I’m comfortable.”

I have no idea, of course, but I’m guessing she was feeling a bit self-conscious. She had made herself the target of the camera’s eye, and she was doing everything she had been told was necessary to be worthy of its attention.

I thought about her when I came across these photos the other night.

Photo 4 MacCam2008CateGretchen Photo 104  Photo 63 MacCamAidanGretchen2007 Aidan_Me_MacCam2007

Taken more than 7 years ago with the tiny camera staring down at me from the top of our now-ancient Mac, they are “I can’t-believe we still have these” photos. Compared to most of our others, they are terrible. The lighting is awful, there is no composition to speak of, they are grainy, and the quality is poor. And those special effects the kids love? EEk. But, they also capture the essence of something the more “perfect” photos do not.

Me and my two oldest kids when they were really little.

This is us.

Unfiltered. Uncombed. Untidy. Silly. Happy.

But as I look at these pictures, I also know there is only one person who was feeling like that fashion model. Only one who was self-conscious because she was self-critical. Me.

How often, as I approach God in prayer, trying to understand how He could love me unconditionally as His child, do I only see myself with a reductive gaze? I pick myself apart. I hold back on talking to Him about certain things. I convince myself I have some kind of power in this way.

But God is like the camera. He sees what’s there. All of it. And He wants me to come to Him like children do.

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:1-4

Children are naturally trusting, tender-hearted, curious, humble, and free of skepticism and cynicism. Look at how my kids threw themselves at the camera with abandon. There’s not a trace of self-hatred in them.

“That’s all well and good,” I might say, “but they haven’t suffered…haven’t had to make the hard choices that I have… yet.”

Is this a reasonable response?

The following verse adds:

“And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” – Matthew 18:5

Can I look at myself – in a mirror, or in a camera – and see His image? Can I receive Him, in me?

The criticism we heap on ourselves can only be useful if we hold it up to the Light of the Lord’s love. If we allow Him to enter into the places we try to hide from Him, He will grant us the wisdom see what we can change with His help, and what is beautiful just as it is.

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.  – Philippians 3:12