Contemplating Home and the Passing of Days

Contemplating Home and the Passing of Days

Fall is turning to winter and we are, once again, considering Christmas preparations. But as we do, I think back on the events of my fall and they seem to coalesce around one concept: HOME.

What a loaded word that is.

HOME. My third-grader listed it as one of the places he most likes to go on his “All About Me” poster for school. This blessed me greatly. For him, home is close to what it should be – a refuge and stronghold of love.

And I fervently hope my children will always feel this way about the home they’ve grown up in.

HOME is where we live, where we once lived, and what will be our place of living at some point in the future. And yet despite our best efforts to make HOME stable, it is perpetually in flux.

From one year to the next, home changes.

Because the people are changing. Moving in and out. Closer and farther away.

This is my lesson from fall 2018.

Last month, I sat across from my 15-year old son at a wedding our family attended, and felt the years stretch out ahead and behind.

The bride was radiant (as all brides are) and the groom was dazzled by her. Family and friends wished them well and prayed for their happiness. I was especially hopeful, as the bride is a diamond of a person whom I’ve known for 15 years. Yes – ever since she started babysitting an infant boy – who grew into the teenage boy sitting across from me at her reception dinner. Back then, she herself was his exact age.

I see the way his increasingly broad shoulders fill out his blazer, how remarkably relaxed he is in a tie, joking with his teenage sister in a manner closely approximating adulthood. There are clear outlines of the man he will become; only the shading need be filled in.

And I returned again to my mind’s refrain – the one I’ve heard daily since September.

I miss him already.

He’s only a sophomore in high school. A couple years to go.

But you can see a bird is going to take flight when it raises its wings off its back, and that’s where we are now.

How do you sit with melancholy?

The instability of knowing the inevitability of an event that is both happy and sad? Desirable – even prayed for – and yet – not exactly what your heart craves.

He will be leaving his home.

I can stand back and watch time pass quickly – like sand through an hourglass – or I can break open the glass and examine each grain.

So I watch him eat. I listen to him laugh. I hear his stories and respond empathetically. Try not to react with alarm when surprised or concerned. I ask questions that I hope will bring us closer, and when he shares with me – I thank him. His life is his. I know this. And yet….and yet….

Home is where we want to be….together. But togetherness is fleeting. All homes are temporary shelters of love since the members come and go. They draw closer to us. And pull away. For days, months, years, or forever.

There is no real home here on earth.

I bear this in mind, and take my heart to the only One who can console, and who loves my son more than me. It’s his Creator, and mine, after all.

And while I pray for my son’s protection, I am reminded that this boy was given to me for a time, and no more.

Let’s live the days as if they are numbered, for indeed – they are.

So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom. – Psalm 90:12

A Good Spin On a Bad Day

A Good Spin On a Bad Day

It seemed to have been a bad day.

My teenage son sat at dinner and told me he’d walked to the bus that morning in the slush and rain, soaking his shoes right through. He felt just mediocre about how his classes had gone and then said,

“Coach was yelling at me a lot during practice.”

“What about?” I asked.

“Keeping my back straighter.”

My son is a novice rower, and learning the correct technique is what this year is all about.

“Was he disparaging or encouraging?”

“Mmm. Encouraging,” he admitted.

“He wants you to get better?”

My son nodded.

“And did he single you out, or was he yelling at others too?”

“He was yelling at others too.”

“Right. I see. You know, I heard on the radio today that the average American has 60 bad days a year. That’s slightly more than 1 per week.”

My son looked up from his plate and gave me a begrudging grin.

I left it at that.

Sometimes we need to hear a few well-placed questions and a relevant tidbit to help us turn our perspective slightly, from a jaded to a more positive point of view.

The same is true in the spiritual life. If I consider all my trials as personal attacks, I will become disheartened.

But if I recognize that in my human condition I am not alone in my suffering, I can take a step toward seeing things more clearly.

There is Someone Who is willing to carry my burdens for me and give me His strength in return for my trust in Him. I can draw new strength from Him to carry on, and someday He will show me the reasons for my trials.

Cast your care upon the Lord,
Who will give you support.
God will never allow
The righteous one to stumble.
(Psalm 55:23)

What’s Your Battery Size?

What’s Your Battery Size?

Ever heard my ‘battery theory’?

Well…notice how some people have lots more energy than most of us? I mean – TONS more??

I have a friend who has six kids. At one point, she was home-schooling several of them while working part-time, serving as president of a women’s organization, and volunteering at a children’s theater for which she sewed 40+ costumes every single season.

For real.

I don’t think she sleeps.

One time, I told her I believe she was born with ‘D’ batteries, while I was given the ‘AAAs.’

Now, I could belittle myself for not accomplishing as much as she does each day, but what good would that do me?

I’ve traveled down the “woe is me” road before, and it’s a bumpy ride.

It makes me anxious, actually.

Why?

Because when I compare myself to others, I am placing them (or their this or that) above me or below me. It’s as if I’m standing on a ladder, looking up or down.

So – let’s consider…

By definition – this situation is unstable.

A ladder is NOT a rock.

I need a big, flat ROCK to stand on.

And I’ve found – strangely enough – that my soul was built for this.

It’s called toward only One rock.

A verse from Psalms sums this up nicely:

Teach me to do your will,
For you are my God.
May your kind spirit guide me
On ground that is level.
-Psalm 143:10

I need to stand flat-footed in this world – keeping proper perspective. Humble before the God who looks on me as his beloved, beautiful one (Song of Songs 2:10). Shoulder to shoulder with my fellow humans. Focused with a grateful heart on the One who gave me Life, and acknowledging my talents as His gifts, for His love surpasses all human kindness, and His intentions are perpetually pure.

My gifts (and yours) are perfectly suited to their recipient, and when I seek the counsel of the Giver, I will be blessed with guidance on how to use those gifts, and when.

There is a quote hanging in my home office that I read every day to remind me that there is Hope and a Plan for my life, set forth by the One who created me to be uniquely myself:

Let us not be confused by the talents and missions of other saints.

Let us be the kind of saints we were created to be.

– Mother Angelica

So be it.

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.

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.

Brownie Points

Have you ever stood in the corner of your kitchen, hiding from your youngest child, and eating the very last brownie – just before you dash out the door to pick up the other two kids, while thinking two things?

1. Now the three of them won’t fight over it….

And,

2. Man, I deserve this.

Here’s the (partial) proof of my stolen moment.
I only thought to take a picture for you after my first bite. Sorry!

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Truth be told, I started writing this piece in June just before school let out for the summer, dropped in the photo, and never finished it. But some things don’t change. Here I am, mid-July, still feeling that I ‘deserve’ something along the lines of a brownie every day.

What is that ugliness inside me that argues for more despite all that I already have? And more significantly – why can’t I shake that rascal voice on my own?

I was thinking last night about the futility of my own thinking. About the fact that none of my lingering issues over the years – the ones that have plagued me and developed into worry, fear, anxiety and obsession – none of them have been solved by my intellect. So, mulling things over for any length of time – wondering why I might have been in a funk, wanting to withdraw from friends and the like  – won’t help me.

At the same time, talking these things through with well-meaning people won’t help either unless those people are the kind that point me in the direction I already know I need to go. Back to do the work that needs to be done.

Because over the years, I’ve learned that the most effective way to deal with ME is not to huddle in the corner of my kitchen eating the last brownie and justifying it with “good reasoning.” No. I need to turn myself over to the One who knows Me best.

But He is a gentleman. He doesn’t chase after the woman He loves. He waits patiently for me, and then loves with tender abandon so that I remember that my heart, in fact – my life, was made to glorify Him.

So this morning, I grab my tea and head to my desk with my Bible, book of verses, and journal. I tell the kids I’ll answer their questions – about re-wrapping an injured hand, and whether we can melt some crayons and coconut oil to make homemade lip-balm today – after I spend some time with God.

And this is Our time – me and The Lord. And hiding here with Him is the best place to find refreshment. So much better than a brownie.

The Lord is my strength and my shield,

in whom my heart trusted and found help,

So my heart rejoices;

with my song I praise my God.

Psalm 28:7

 

Gym Love

Two months ago, I joined a gym. It was time. It wasn’t about weight loss, and I won’t pretend it wasn’t at least a little bit about vanity. (I’m 42. At some point, you have to admit you’re going to have to work a bit harder to keep whatever it is you’ve got, right?). But mostly, it was for my heart –  I was panting after climbing two short flights of stairs (and we have six in our house, so that most definitely was not good). And, it was for my bones. By themselves, those chocolatey calcium supplements are simply not going to fight my genetic predisposition toward osteoporosis. No matter how much I wish they would. It was time to start pumping some iron.

I brought up my need to some friends, who told me where they go, and that’s where I joined. By grace, and yes, I’ve asked for His help in this, because I can’t tell you how I loathe to work out, I have faithfully made it to the gym 3x a week ever since joining. Just knowing that there are others in the same pursuit of health is what gets me there. I know I’ll never have the figure of a supermodel (and hello! I LOVE cake), but it has made me appreciate my body and its remarkable capabilities once again, too.

Today, I was reflecting on where my body has taken me in this incredible life so far:

It gets up every morning.

It has lived in 6 U.S. states and traveled to many, many more.

It has taken my soul to Western Europe, a bit of Northern Africa, and much of North America.

It has enjoyed and absorbed nutrients from thousands of meals.

It has loved – in all senses of the word – and, with my amazing husband, was given the privilege of carrying and birthing three people.

It has embraced and learned from others every single day, and miraculously, kept working with relatively few problems for just over 42 years. Indeed, through none of my own doing, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14).

It’s taken me a long time to say it boldly, but I LOVE my body. And I’ll keep on using those medieval-looking machines to show my gratitude – by taking care of it.

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What’s My Message?

I was making a left turn into the library, waiting for the long line of cars to pass, contentedly listening to the song on the radio, when my reverie was interrupted by something that caused my stomach to plummet into my abdomen. It was a vanity plate on a passing car.

“H8TNWRK”

Hating work. In a millisecond, my eyes shot up to the sulking man driving past. I pulled into the parking lot, just in time to watch a young mother joyfully kissing and smiling at her toddler as she snapped the child into her car seat. What opposites.

You might think I’m being overly sensitive here – that the man makes light of his life by putting it on a vanity plate, and hey – why shouldn’t he?  But I believe the mouth reveals what’s in our hearts, and I’m guessing this man’s discontent runs deep – that he’s very dissatisfied and probably doesn’t know why.  So I stopped right there in my car and thanked God for this man and the talents he’s been given, and asked that he be reminded that his gifts are meant to be avenues to joy. That somehow, he would see God in his life and through his work.

I went about my day but this man’s vanity plate has stayed with me. And I keep asking myself why it has. I think the answer is that like it or not, we all advertise something, and I’m concerned about my message.  I want it to be that I love God above all and am thankful to Him for all that I have. But I am flawed and I know it. I fail to remember my first love sometimes.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. 

– Psalm 19:15

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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