Assessing a Year – Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road – Part 1 of a Very Short Series

Assessing a Year –  Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road – Part 1 of a Very Short Series
Yosemite, 2019. View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point.

It was July of this year, and I was climbing California’s mountains in my rental car, just outside the town of Groveland, on my way to help lay 2 beautiful people to rest – the third memorial service I’d attended in almost as many months.

On the twists and turns of the switchbacks, I passed a puzzling, funny road sign. Its traditional yellow diamond shape held a message completely foreign to my East Coast sensibilities.

‘Turn off A/C’

I obeyed and rolled down the windows, deciding that the natural breeze actually felt quite nice after my cross-country flight.

Later, I asked my dad about the sign, and he said most modern cars can handle the hills, but these old notices warn drivers not to stress an engine’s radiator on the steep inclines. They are meant to be helpful.

That tiny piece of memory – me, the curvy road in terrain that varies by season, the weird sign – has come to encapsulate much of how I feel about my year.

It’s been a strange one, at least by my silly standards, as if I could ever plan or anticipate what might happen next.

Lots and lots of ups and downs. Joys and sorrows. Achievements and successes and births, and struggles and woundings and saying goodbye to people so dear to me that I choke when I picture their faces in my mind.

Amidst all of it….blessings….right?

Well, they say there’s always a blessing to be found when we look closely enough, but certain situations make us all wonder.

Sometimes blessings are very difficult to see. Or slow to emerge.

And that’s hard.

On balance, my year has been a good one, but I’ve seen people I care about suffer immensely.

I’ve seen people pass through pain so scarring and deep I know they’d much rather avoid, rationalize, or escape it – do anything other than live with it in real time.

And we’re all moving through territory we’ve never encountered before.

How about you? How has your year been? Too much? Just too darn much for a neat, quick summation?

I’ve done some thinking on this in 2019. In July, I wrote Doing OK? Reflect, and You May Find Out.

But thinking only gets a person so far, so more recently, I’ve been spending some time learning about Ignatian spirituality and doing ‘The Daily Examen,’ a process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola and used for centuries by the ministry he founded, the Jesuits, and anyone else interested in finding God in the midst of a day or other length of time. It has helped me see blessings when they are not readily apparent.

If we accept it as Truth that God is always with us, it’s not difficult to enter into His presence. We can find Him everywhere. God is closer than breath.

So for Day 1 of this brief series, here are 6 simple steps based on the Examen to help all of us see God in the last 24 hours. Try this over the next week, and consider broadening the exercise to a larger period of time, asking God to help you decipher your life’s events in 2019.

  1. Close your eyes. Imagine God smiling down on you, and you looking up at God.
  2. Ask yourself, “What am I thankful for?” Don’t leap ahead, just give thanks for whatever springs up.
  3. Before reviewing the past, ask for the grace to see yourself as God sees you.
  4. Walk through your day (or week, month, year) one moment at a time. Where did you feel joy? What troubled you? Challenged you? Where and when did you pause? Did you see or feel the presence of God at any particular point? Stay with that for a bit.
  5. What is your response? How is your spirit?
  6. Looking ahead, what comes to mind? With what spirit do you want to move forward?

Suffering and happiness are persistent lows and highs. They just vary in their intensity.

But when we ask for guidance to see our ups and downs in the light of God’s ever-present and eternal love for us, we can be nourished and calmed on the journey. We can find deeper joy regardless of our circumstances.

And we learn we are not riding solo. We are never left to handle life’s switchbacks and strange signs alone.

“Can I Take That Backpack For You?” – Words We Still Need to Hear

“Can I Take That Backpack For You?” – Words We Still Need to Hear
Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Unsplash.

Thank goodness I didn’t wreck the car when I saw them…I was staring so much.

They were three men walking in a line like ducks toward the school, one following another, on the sidewalk opposite me as I pulled out of a parking spot on a one-way street in historic downtown Annapolis.

They were slowed by the bumpy terrain – a place where bricks placed in a herringbone pattern are made uneven by centuries of wear and large roots of trees busting through at sporadic intervals.

Or maybe it was the men’s daughters who shortened their steps.

Tucked behind each dad, sheltered from passing cars and just barely in view, was a little girl holding her father’s left hand. In his right hand, each dad carried a tiny backpack.

And that last precious little girl? Oh – she was engulfed in story, her left arm waving around as she kept her face toward her dad’s, looking up for his responses. And he was nodding and smiling – fully focused, fully present to whatever it was she was telling him.

Three men. Three daughters. So beautiful.

I still remember being small and holding my dad’s big hand. It was warm and soft. And I knew I was safe when I was with him.

And I still remember what it was like to have help from others when I was vulnerable. Friends hauled my backpack for me in high school on more than one occasion when I sprained my ankles.

Perhaps your experiences are similar.

The truth is, we’re all still children at heart. We want two hands to be there for us. One to hold, and one to carry our stuff.

Hours after seeing the fathers and daughters, a dear friend of mine called and shared some concerns with me about one of her children.

In the beginning of our friendship, she used to apologize for taking up my time, but now we have an understanding. Our relationship has matured and we know – we are here to help carry one another’s burdens. We are here to hold each other’s hands.

I tell her my fears and she tells me hers. She admits her mistakes and I reassure her that I’ve made them, too.

We metaphorically link arms, and while one of us protects the other from the world’s traffic, the one who’s feeling vulnerable and small waves her other arm about and tells her story for as long as it takes.

We walk together over the uneven path.

As you’ve probably witnessed, the world consistently fails to appreciate the finer points of real, lasting, and genuine adult relationships. They are tender, sacred domains where vulnerability, weakness, and heart-to-heart sharing is not mocked and scorned, but cherished.

Only in admitting to one another that we are not perfect can we find communion.

Real love means letting down our guard with someone we trust, and offering to guard one another in return.

Our hearts are made for Love.

We crave it.

We want it in its purest form – born in perfection from the place where it is, was, and always will be – safe and eternally trustworthy, from beginning to end.

And to get more of it, we must give it away.

The next time you feel frail, weakened, or exposed – will you turn to a loyal friend – and better still, your Father in heaven – and say, ‘Show me where I can lay down this heavy load?’

And when someone comes to you with a backpack of worry, regret, or just fatigue from too much responsibility, will you help him or her carry it for awhile, while holding out your tender hands, offering your strength and protection?

Yes, we can do this. We can travel the jagged landscape of life, making one another’s burdens lighter with the love of God working through our hands.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

5 Warm & Fuzzy Things from October – The Monthly “Wholesome List”

5 Warm & Fuzzy Things from October – The Monthly “Wholesome List”

For much of the Northern Hemisphere, October marks the beginning of sweater season, a time when we seek out coziness. Warmth at this time of year might be a cute fall welcome mat or a mug of steaming cider. Or it could be something more enduring, like the loving arms and lilting laughter of family huddled together on a jolting hayride, memorable for decades to come.

All of us want the kind of joy that comes with feeling snug and secure, and the confidence that we are headed toward something good. And we like anecdotes, images, and items that point us toward that soulful desire.

Because I try every month to bring you 5 things I encountered which were in some way pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, honorable, just, or worthy of praise (per Philippians 4:8), this October I wanted to find a balance between the warm and fuzzy feeling we’re looking for, and the lessons we can learn in its presence. Here goes…

1) We are all lovely. And we all bear scars. Lions are my favorite animals so I will stop to look at just about any lion picture. But this one – this one took my breath away. It was posted on Instagram by African Animals with the caption “Fought for his kingdom.”

 
 

 

 
 
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Since Christ is called “the Lion of Judah,” you know what I thought of immediately and about what He does for those who love Him. But I also paused just to study this cat’s gorgeous face. His scarred eye. His tough, humble stature. God didn’t spare beauty in any single creature. Let’s think of this the next time we gaze into the face of another person long enough to see past their hurts.

2) We are working toward a bright but hidden future. I am not an insect aficionado, and probably neither are you, but who knew these guys could be so adorable? I was walking my dog Luna, saw this little caterpillar almost hidden in the grass, and scooped her up to investigate.

Moth photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Pyrrharctia isabella – Isabella Tiger Moth. Other photos are mine.

Her hair was not as soft as it looked – it was wiry – and being defenseless, she immediately curled into a ball. Google told me that she’s a pyrrharctia isabella – The Wooly Bear. She eats all kinds of common plants and hibernates under rocks and logs in the winter, so in all likelihood, she was having a fairly industrious day when I gave her a terrible fright. In the spring, she will become a very pretty but seldom-seen moth. We’re a lot like her, plugging away at our tasks, never sure if our efforts will pay off in the way we hope (perhaps not even really thinking about their long-term import). Yet we must trust in the promise of goodness to come. And it does come to those who wait and believe.

3) We can beautifully pass love on. I attended 3 funerals to support grieving friends this month, so I spent some time considering how we mourn and ways we can honor our loved ones who have gone on. During these days, a priest I greatly admire posted this poem on Facebook. From what I understand, it is often used as a meditation in Reform Jewish liturgy before Kaddish, a hymn of prayer praising God and ending with a plea for peace throughout the world. The poem is exquisite in its sensitivity and expresses the deepest wishes of so many of us.

“Epitaph”
By Merrit Malloy

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old me that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on in your eyes
And not your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

4) We can and should find practical ways to recycle things we are no longer using and make kids in need smile at the same time. This month, I learned about LEGO Replay, a pilot program sponsored by LEGO through which you can donate your old used bricks for less fortunate kids. Just box up your old pieces, visit the LEGO Replay website, print off a shipping label, and call UPS and tell them you have a box for pick-up. The pilot program will run through the spring of 2020, so jump in now to participate. For more information visit the LEGO site here.

5) We want to encourage one another. I was in a Starbucks when I saw this sign:

Curious as to what people had written, I pulled out a few of the notes. Here’s what they said:

You can tell from the handwriting that these message-bearers are of varying ages. What’s wonderful is…

Good will is ageless.

I pray these people will share their uplifting messages daily in the ways they speak and interact with others, because our voices, words, and body language matter. Very much.

If, however, we find ourselves struggling to be gentle and kind – there is hope for us. One thing I know that helps for sure – is prayer.

In October, I learned an acronym for a morning prayer routine while catching up on Emily P. Freeman’s podcast, The Next Right Thing. In Episode 90: Start with this Simple Rhythym, she shares a technique she calls PRWRP.

P is for prayer and it can be brief – like 15 seconds, just saying thank you for the day. R is for reading the Word of God, and I follow the Scriptures of the day that the Catholic Church is reading around the world, but you could use whichever biblical book(s) you are currently studying. W is for writing – a short time of journaling your thoughts. R is for reading again, a short segment of spiritual material. Currently, I’m reading 2-3 pages from Treatise on the Love of God by Francis de Sales. And finally, P is for prayer – a closing conversation with your Creator. The whole process could be long or quite brief, though I generally find, the more time I spend in prayer, the better my days go.

That’s it for October’s Wholesome List. However you are growing in your spiritual life, I wish you peace, love, joy beyond all human understanding, and lots and lots of warm fuzzies in your heart. May we all become ever more thankful in November!

Blessings,
Gretchen

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

This post was re-published in October 2019 to celebrate the 5th Anniversary of this blog, Like the Dewfall. For another post on lifelong love, please see this one about my dear grandparents Hazel and Allen Smith, who were married for 75 years before passing on within 5 weeks of one another: “What Makes A Couple Truly Beautiful?”

Original Post:

Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.

 

All the days of my life

In our first week of dating, attending an inaugural ball for President Clinton’s second inauguration. January 1997.

The first 7,304

It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice.  Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath.  I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again.  Breathing that is.  But you get the point.

We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done.  I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.”  It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.

I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel.  But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before.  It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life.  I recall thinking calmly to myself,

“So this is her. The love of my life.  I knew she’d be smart.  Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”

And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.

Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences.  To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment.  The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come.  Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.

The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy.  I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach.  Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.

I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards.  I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later.  After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.

When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened.  It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.

And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.

May 23, 1998.

An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate.  That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.

That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups.  These include:

  1. No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns.  No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
  2. No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy.  We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
  3. Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other.  Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
  4. No quinoa. Ever.  I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit.  Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.

Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals.  Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws.  I still bring me into every situation.

That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together.  We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to.  For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert.  Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy.  On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.

Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple.  Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times.   But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.

When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road.  I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.

The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles.  Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about.  Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.

I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life.  Gretchen is my greatest blessing.

When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead.  And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.

What If We Spoke The Way We Signed Yearbooks?

What If We Spoke The Way We Signed Yearbooks?

Sitting at the pool in the summer of 2017, I was seized with thought that the words we write are too often NOT the words we say. And this bad habit starts when we’re young; we hold back our gems of love and encouragement because we fear vulnerability. Yet we also know, vulnerability leads to real connection.

So I wrote this piece. It became a “reader favorite,” and was especially popular among the great people I knew in high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. (Yes, I am among the blessed few who still remember those days as golden, even if it was a turbulent time for me personally.) Philly has always been good to me, and I would encourage you to check out other popular posts that reference the City of Brotherly Love – especially “Philadelphia – My Other Hometown,” “Who Are Your Cheerleaders?,” and “Day 20 – Thunderbird Pizza.

Meanwhile – I re-post this piece about yearbooks (who doesn’t have one?) in celebration of my blog’s 5th Anniversary, and to help us reflect again on how we can lift one another up – today.

Two weeks ago I was reunited with a friend from high school I hadn’t seen in 27 years. We had reconnected through Facebook, but the second I saw her in person I knew I would have recognized her anywhere. She was the same engaging, intelligent, self-possessed, and kind woman I knew so long ago, and I felt privileged to hear about her life between then and now, and to meet two of her five children. Conversation was easy as we quickly found common ground. My only regret is that I can’t see more of her; I think we’d be good friends once again if given the chance. But she lives in Alabama and I’m in Maryland and that’s the way life goes.

Before our meeting, I pulled out my yearbook from senior year to see if she’d signed it. Tragically, she hadn’t. (Her daughters seemed especially disappointed when I mentioned this cosmic oversight.) As I searched for her non-existent words to me, I read through the others – scrawled across pages that hadn’t seen light in well over two decades. My spirit soared from the generosity bestowed by so many good, and young, souls. We were, after all, just 17 or 18 years old.

“Talking with you was always a high point of my days…”

“You are one of the nicest people I have ever met…”

“I have always been a distant admirer of yours…”

“I’m happy to have had you cheering for me…”

“I love this pen. It writes so smooth!”

“Cheering made you a leader and it shows…”

“Thanks so much for putting up with all my whining…”

“I’ve always been able to tell you just about anything and always felt safe in telling you…”

“You were a real inspiration to me…”

“I’ll always love you.”

Now – having read these excerpts from my friends’ notes to me, let’s consider…

Today, how often do we encourage one another in our everyday lives?

When did you last tell a colleague:

“You know, you really are brilliant at _____.”

“I’m impressed with your commitment.”

“Thanks for making my job easier and more pleasant, too.”

How about your children? When did they last hear you say:

“I like your observations. You are smart.”

“I love your enthusiasm. You will succeed.”

“You’re the best kid around. I am cheering for you.”

When was the last time you looked your spouse/significant other in the eye and said one of the following:

“Thank you for listening to me.”

“I respect you, appreciate you, and admire you. Thank you for being you.”

“I’m so happy with the life we’re making together.”

“I’ll always love you.”

If this seems silly or trite (and it is mushy, I’ll give you that) consider this simple idea we generally accept as truth … What we do becomes who we are. Therefore, think before you speak. Say nice words with good intentions, and become a nicer person with even better intentions.

Imagine if everything each of us said (and wrote) reflected the best parts of our spirits, rather than whatever’s gotten the best of us.

It’d be like graduation day – every day. Sunshine and rainbows, everywhere we looked.

Pleasing words are a honeycomb,
Sweet to the taste and healthful to the body.
-Proverbs 16:24

7 Gifts from My Facebook Fast

7 Gifts from My Facebook Fast

In 2016, when this post first appeared on my blog, we were in the thick of a presidential campaign year. I was looking for relief from the never-ending stream of information, or frantically trying to glean important facts from the banter. In the atmosphere, joy still found me. My youngest son’s observations and hugs (read “The Bucket” for this little story) could teach us all about how to handle difficult times a little better, but I needed a bigger break. So I took a brief fast from Facebook and found it quite refreshing. It showed me a few things my readers also appreciated, so I re-share this post again in October 2019 in celebration of Like the Dewfall’s 5th Anniversary.

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.

Bad Day in London Town

Bad Day in London Town

This post was first published in October 2015. It is making a new appearance in celebration of this blog’s 5-year anniversary. Click here to learn more about me and Like the Dewfall.

I disappointed my daughter today. There was no way I couldn’t have. But this was a very big day, and even when the head understands the facts, the heart sometimes doesn’t.

I had never been on one of her field trips because, as a stay-at-home mom, my full-time job required full-time care of her younger brother. But he just started Kindergarten. So my schedule had freed up. Finally.

Three weeks ago I sent in a form volunteering to be a 4th grade chaperone on today’s day-long class trip to the colonial port of London Town, and I was one of six parents chosen to attend. My daughter was as excited as I’ve ever seen her.

Every single day I heard: “Mom, I can’t wait until” “Mom, it’s going to be so much fun!” “Mom, you’re finally coming!” “Mom, I’m researching colonial hairstyles so I can do my hair.” 

But trouble began to rear its head yesterday when the Kindergartner came home with a stomach ache and a low fever. A fever one day means no school the next. I didn’t panic, but this was not good. Not good at all.

My husband had a huge presentation this morning, so even as I lined up a daytime sitter for my son (no small feat), I prepared my daughter for the possibility that I couldn’t go if her brother’s illness got worse.

She hid her face behind a pillow, giant tears rolling out of her big blue eyes, red blotches of grief creeping up her fair face, and she wailed, “Why?!!! Sick now? Tomorrow??!! Of ALL Days?!!”

Today came and my son woke up with a rash and a higher fever.

I called and told the sitter to come just for the morning – that I would make a cameo appearance at the field trip site for one hour. And then I made a strategic early-morning strike on the doctor’s office and pharmacy to confirm my own motherly diagnosis and then do battle via antibiotics on my son’s attacker: scarlet fever – a form of strep.

Despite the fact that I had told her the plan, my daughter was thrilled when I got to London Town, and crestfallen and angry when I left exactly one hour later. I made the most of it: I took photos of her role-playing a slave in colonial garb, watched her make corn cakes with her hands, and laughed with her when we both saw our first wild groundhog wandering the settlement.

But as I was driving home, I couldn’t get her embittered eyes out of my mind. She was still just so disappointed.

What could I tell her? What could I say to help her through this experience? After all, the day didn’t go the way I’d wanted it to, either.

I stopped at the supermarket and bought her some mums, then left them in her room with a long note in which I made the following points:

  • Today was tough for both of us, and like you, I am angry, sad and disappointed. But we both love your brother, and in an imperfect world, people get sick. It’s not anyone’s fault.
  • Even though I would have liked to stay with you all day, I am grateful for the time I did have with you, and for your inquisitiveness. You asked thoughtful questions about the role you were playing, and the house we were touring. I am grateful for the chance to watch your graceful hands learn to prepare food, and for hearing your laughter with your friends. Your teacher also said I can come on another trip.
  • Even though it didn’t go the way we’d planned, I had a good day, and I hope in time you’ll remember it fondly too.
  • I know there is an ache in your heart and I couldn’t fill it. But by thinking of the things that you are thankful to God for, you will find that the Lord can heal that ache with joy. When we are grateful, it’s hard to hold on to anger and disappointment.
  • I love you.

Like children, we have much to learn. And we grow in spiritual maturity a little bit at a time. Today, I was reminded that gratitude must be cultivated. It is a slow process but can yield rich rewards.

Thank you God for giving me an opportunity to re-learn this lesson today, and for showing me how to share a grateful heart with my daughter.

We Are Only As Thankful As….

We Are Only As Thankful As….

Generally, we are only as thankful as our feelings about the last thing that’s happened to us.

I think that’s true, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

It takes effort to make a gratitude list. Though we may talk about our blessings, few of us actually sit down on a daily basis and consider what they really are. It’s especially difficult to do so when times are sad or hard.

On a beautiful Thursday morning this past spring, a group of women met at my friend Laura’s farmhouse for food and fellowship. Among them was a fair lady named Lin who, though she had been suffering for about 5-6 years with Parkinson’s and cancer, was not giving up on life. She was serving at her church, attending Bible study, and reaching out to friends to encourage them in their struggles.

Two seasons and many months later, on another Thursday morning in October, Lin’s body reached the end of its usefulness to her, and the Lord took her home. The nurses on watch in her last hours reported that she went peacefully.

Thursdays are when I gather with my friends to study God’s Word; it seemed natural that we should be together – a group who had prayed for Lin for a long, long time – when we learned of her passing.

Our parish priest spoke to our grieving group and said, “The Lord always answers our prayers, though often not in the way we’d like,” and reminded us that God had answered our many prayers to restore Lin to fullness of health – in heaven.

Then, as we remembered together, Laura said,

“I thought she always had a little bit of an edge.”

I caught myself smiling, because I knew exactly what Laura meant.

“But in the last year,” she continued, “it was like she softened somehow. When we were all at my house, I asked her, ‘HOW are you doing this? Living with all this?’ She said she didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her, because she felt it had made her less self-centered. More compassionate. More caring towards other people.”

Did you get that?

A woman who had suffered for years – years! – was grateful for the experience.

She had found grace in her suffering.

God had transformed her pain by moving her heart.

We shook our heads. It was incredible to think that Lin had considered herself self-centered. A woman beside Laura said, “She called me to see how I was doing!”

But God knows our innermost being, and if there’s work to be done (hint: there always is), He wants to do it.

Lin’s willingness to allow God into her suffering is what changed her understanding of her life’s circumstances from terrible to acceptable.

Can we ask for the grace to be blessed by the ‘awful’ in our lives?

Can we see beyond it with the eyes of faith, acknowledging a greater purpose?

When life seems to go off-track, and we are threatened by financial trouble, rocky relationships, or health crises, it’s easy to lose trust in God and question His faithfulness to us. We might even blame Him for the things that seem grossly unfair, because we wonder – if He really cared, why would He allow this?

But perhaps we have a small-minded, limited view of happiness.

In His loving embrace, God can use even this – whatever this is – to shape us to be more like Himself – perfectly loving, always desiring the eternal good.

In seeking Him, we find joy and peace to share with others. It’s a path we must take to appreciate.

Psalm 16:10-11 says:

You will not abandon me to Sheol, nor let your faithful servant see the pit.
You will show me the path to life, abounding in joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.

God will not leave us forever in our pits of despair, nor will he let us lie in our misery today if we turn towards Him and say, “Help me, please.”

With Him there is hope for right now.

With Him there is hope for eternity.

May we learn to live like Lin, transformed by the love of God, expectant of the heavenly wonders to come.

September’s Wholesome List

September’s Wholesome List
An unusual approach for this month's list. I've got 5 questions for you about your life. Are you living it the way you say you want to?
Original photo by Anton Sukhinov on Unsplash. Words, mine.

September wasn’t a typical month. Yes, there was the back-to-school hoopla and a re-establishment of routines, but for me, two events also consumed a fair amount of my attention: a 5-day girls’ trip to Des Moines with my mom for the International Convention of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, and my oldest son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. (For a few more details, you can check out the highlighted links.) If you’re a parent, you know you can’t leave town or host an event without doing A LOT of prep work.

What this meant, in effect, was that I did a poor job of leaving myself a bread-crumb trail of observations for my monthly “wholesome” list. What I DID do, was contemplate what it means to: 1. try to live virtuously, and 2. belong to organizations that affirm and uphold values such as faith, trust, honor, kindness, justice, and thriftiness. Being part of a group holds us accountable to the values we profess.

Not all of us are “joiners,” as they say, but I would guess that most of us like to think of ourselves as “good people.”

Are we?

A friend of mine told me she once heard a priest ask the following in a homily:

“If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

That certainly would have gotten my attention.

For those of us who are Christians, it is a very pointed and appropriate question.

Rather than offer you 5 wholesome items to consider this month such as films, songs, or even yogurt, I have a few questions for reflection. See if you agree with me when I say that I think checking to see if our outer lives are truly aligned with our inner desire to be “good people” is a valuable and wholesome exercise.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do I have a personal creed that I (try to) live by?
  2. What are the components or virtues of this creed? Is it altruistic and centered on serving others, or not?
  3. How am I doing? Do my daily decisions (big and small) reflect my desires to live by my creed? If not, where do I need to make changes so that the virtues I want to develop further will manifest themselves in my life?
  4. Do those I love know which virtues matter most to me and why?
  5. Am I a good role model to the younger people in my life?

If we want to live with purpose and intention, we need to think about what we do and why we do it.

God didn’t create us to be automatons. He gave us reason and choice to promote His love in a world that needs to hear of it so very, very much.

To my Christian brothers and sisters – do not lose heart if you read these questions and realize you are coming up short. I know I am.

Remember that Jesus fills the gap between us and heaven, and He sent us the Advocate, “the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:17) Don’t give up when the battle is hard. The Holy Spirit fills our hearts and minds with wisdom, knowledge, and holy respect for the Father, and when we rely on Him – and not ourselves – He guides us to the Father’s will.

Think of a time when you offered up a faint prayer – a cry for help – and it was answered in a powerful, inexplicable whisper of peace that filled you from head to toe. You somehow knew the next step to take, the next words to say.

This is a small example of grace. Though we deny and forget God, He has never forgotten us. He’s loved us since before time began.

Perhaps we can take a step today to recommit ourselves to valuing and practicing the virtues He cares about most, leaning into His strength to carry us through.

The Great Scoutmaster’s Promise

The Great Scoutmaster’s Promise
Candles at my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor signifying the Scout Oath
and the 12 points of the Scout Law.

I was having a hard time finding words.

My son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor had been Saturday night, and I was sending an email to the entire Troop – Scouts, leaders, parents, etc. – to thank them.

To thank them for helping our family prepare for this great celebration. For attending it in such force. And then for disassembling every piece of it and putting items away into cartons, closets, and cars with orderly and cheerful precision – without bending cherished photographs or neglecting to sweep up the last crumbs of crushed Doritos on the carpeted floor.

The event was so much more than the sum of its material parts, of course. But I was unable to say precisely why.

Just hours before, I had let the ceremony’s prayers roll over me….

God, we thank you for the opportunity to come together ….  Today is a celebration of a journey…full of challenges, friendship, struggles…. Little by little, month by month, and year by year, he was faithful and we celebrate his faith, commitment, and hard work.

With everyone in attendance, my husband and I recognized our son’s perseverance and efforts, the many merit badges he earned, his final large-scale community service project, and especially the character traits and leadership skills he’d developed along the way.

For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America has been molding boys into young men, and our son is no exception. We are in awe of what he’s accomplished by the tender age of 16.

But my pride wasn’t the point, either.

What was bursting at my seams? Why had it been so difficult to keep conversations light and airy on Saturday night?

I wrote my email Monday morning, attaching some additional words of thanks from my son, my husband, and me that had appeared in the program that was handed out to guests.

From my son (in part):

…I am honored that you have elected to spend your time here at my Eagle Court of Honor. You have each influenced me for the better in one way or another, and for that I am forever grateful.

And from my husband and me, to the Troop leaders:

….The thousands of hours you volunteer for these kids can never be repaid, and we are so grateful for your devotion…

I hit ‘send’ and resumed my daily tasks.

Later, a dear friend and Troop chair wrote back to me:

“Through His people, He gives back to His extra special Matthews family!  We love you all so very much!”

I could barely see through my tears to respond.

I understood then – and not for the first time in my life – what had actually happened.

It was evidence of the timeless miracle of faith – that when we walk toward God believing in His goodness, the outpouring of His love will be more than our arms and hearts and minds can hold.

I live (and have for some time) in expectant hope that God’s promises to me, my children, and you are true now and forever. His love for us is perpetually strong and faithful (Psalm 117), even when we are unaware of His presence in our lives.

God’s grace was present throughout my son’s journey in Scouting. In every Board of Review, camping trip, merit badge assignment, Scoutmaster’s Minute wrap-up at the end of every Wednesday night meeting – God was there in all of it, working through His good people who day-by-day live out virtues that please His heart. Virtues including kindness, obedience, trustworthiness, helpfulness, thriftiness, and more.

When the Spirit of God is present and moving, there is indescribable joy.

The Boy Scouts welcome Scouts of many faiths. Scouts are encouraged to be reverent in their own faith tradition and to be respectful of the beliefs of others.

But the fact is – few organizations welcome the reverence of God at all anymore.

Few groups pray together.

Even fewer which shape the character of young people suggest that honoring God is important, much less provide regularly scheduled meeting time to do it.

Those that do are places of special strength and character.

And – I would submit – of peace. And love.

Praise the Lord, all you nations! Give glory, all you peoples!

The Lord’s love for us is strong; the Lord is faithful forever. Hallelujah! (Psalm 117)