Helping Our Kids See So-Called “Failure” in Another Light

Helping Our Kids See So-Called “Failure” in Another Light

‘Tis the season – for baccalaureates and graduations, end-of-the-year recitals, class parties, and team dinners. All kinds of awards are given out for the kids who exemplify the traits we all admire: hard work, good citizenship, perseverance, dedication, sportsmanship, and congeniality.

And we’ve all seen the important messages telling us to remember the kids who won’t get awards, since it’s true that oftentimes virtuous, good-hearted people are the least celebrated.

Yet what’s also happening under the surface at this time of year, is a certain degree of parental angst. A battle within of pride versus humility. The knowledge that as parents we are somewhat responsible for our kids’ success, yet wholly inadequate to account for most of it.

Try as we might to encourage our kids, point them in a good direction, and set them on a course for success, they are each working with a particular set of skills and abilities. And to a large degree, they must their provide their own initiative and fuel to go forward.

Then, we have to be there to help them when things don’t quite work out.

Sometimes the victories and the so-called ‘failures’ happen simultaneously. In the same season.

One kid receives an award and sets a personal record or is offered a spot on a team, while another falls short of a goal. Lessons will be learned from the lead-up to these events, but meanwhile, the tension between kids can threaten familial peace or the bonds of friendship.

What to do?

How do we, as parents and mentors, respond?

As in all things, let Love lead the way. Here are 4 small steps to consider:

1) Focus on what gives your child LIFE. Activities that diminish his or her spirit will not enhance growth toward the person God has created this child to be. Does the sport or subject bring out the child’s best qualities, allow her to develop her skills in useful ways, make her feel valued and appreciated, allow her to display her inborn talents? Think about the long-term objectives of the activity, not the short-term goals.

2) Remind the child of other occasions when he or she overcame setbacks. It’s practically a guarantee that this disappointment is not the first in this kid’s life, and it won’t be the last. Learning to handle adversity is a valuable life skill. Let’s make sure our kids know their own histories. They don’t have to feel perpetually defeated.

3) Ask if the child would rather be doing something else, and listen carefully to his or her interests. Our secret dreams reveal our desires, and while they may seem far-fetched once vocalized, they hold keys to the divine plans for our lives. You might ask, “Does this mean that if my child wants to be a singer I should drop everything and look for an agent?” No – but it might mean that he should learn more about music.

4) Remember the adage, “God never closes a door without opening a window.” It grows out of the faith St. Paul expressed in Romans 8:28, that “[W]e know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Made in His image, our lives are not meant for our own glory; we are here to serve Him in His infinite love, and nothing could be more important or more beautiful than working toward that particular goal. We can teach our children to see every hurdle, every roadblock, every detour they encounter with faith that He who has loved us all from before time began can and will make something wonderful of even this.

Planting small seeds with this attitude about personal growth pays off. I had a conversation with my 9-year old this week that surprised me. It wasn’t exactly about holiness, but it was about encouragement, something I was delighted to see him passing on.

God was there in the midst of two kids, one helping the other one out. At the end of a baseball game my son told me,

“Adam* was crying after he struck out. So, I gave him a pep talk.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Striking out is your next step to greatness.’”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

*Not his real name.

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in May

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in May

The title tells you what this monthly post is typically about: 5 Wholesome Things I’ve learned in the last 30 days. But this time, I’m going to broaden the scope just a bit and add in stuff you already knew but might not think about every day. Observations that make you feel better about life – because we all know our mood is elevated when we focus on what’s good and pure, instead of what’s demoralizing and evil. Right? Ok. Here goes.

  • The fierce, protective spirit of motherhood is alive and well. In May we celebrated Mother’s Day, so women who mother in all kinds of ways got much of the attention they so richly deserve. But even as they were lauded, women’s selfless instincts shone. Twice this month, I saw women display crazy mothering proclivity when they stopped traffic to save small animals. The first ran from her truck and held out her arm to halt three lanes of cars so a mama duck and her 8 ducklings could cross the road. The second sprang from her sedan and dashed in flip-flops about 20 feet behind her car to snatch a turtle from the center of the lane and lay it in the grass before the next car came up behind. On both occasions, I was driving past, and my teenage daughter – sitting in my passenger seat – declared, “I would do that, Mom.” Her comments made me smile, shake my head, and launch into lectures about how dangerous it is risk life and limb to save adorable, helpless animals from oncoming cars. But the desire, bravery, and inclination a woman has to do this? I get it. I really do.

  • Kind and decent men are everywhere. You’d think from the news that we have to beware of nefarious men lurking in every corner. But I can think of at least a dozen men this month – all of them strangers – who were gracious to me. They held open doors, gave me directions, offered to help load groceries into my car, politely answered questions about products I was buying, and simply wished me good day. It may seem strange to point this out, but when we are individually thankful for the good men in our families, yet buy into society’s lie that all men are predators, it’s time to reconsider our thinking. And many men are cheering women on in all kinds of endeavors – and our sons are noticing. A former Blue Angels pilot came to speak to my son’s 3rd grade class this month. It was a day my little boy will always remember, and he has since regaled me with many of the stories and facts the pilot shared. This gentleman made a point of telling the group, “There has never been a woman Blue Angels pilot [of the F/A-18s], but I have met many women I think would make good ones.” I wasn’t there and I can’t read minds, but I’m guessing when they heard that, a few girls sat up straighter in their seats. I know my son did, and he was happy to tell me all about it.
  • Decluttering is liberating. My husband and I ordered a dumpster this month and while it sat in our driveway for a week our family cleaned out our garage and backyard, tossing our trash into the green monster with glee. (Well, I felt gleeful; everyone else was less excited, but hey – the work got done!!) In the photo, you only see the topmost layer: branches from a tree we trimmed. But under that are huge rusted pieces of our dismantled shed, broken flower pots, random chunks of plywood, old hoses, two beleaguered dog houses, and much, much more. Without all this stuff, our entire property feels bigger and fresher. Getting rid of what’s broken and no longer useful is exhilarating. If you haven’t done any spring cleaning, go purge a junk drawer and live the dream!! You already know how good you’ll feel!
  • Spring weather and a walk with a friend is good medicine. I’m not going to point to any studies confirming this statement, but sunny weather lifts our spirits. We all know this is true. Don’t you just love to be outside on a 75 degree day when the sun is warm, a light breeze blows, and you’ve struck up a good conversation with someone you trust? I’ve been walking once a week with a friend this May, and while we haven’t cured cancer or solved global conflicts, we have found some measure of peace by discussing the topics that scare and delight us as we stroll along. As Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good [more satisfying] reward for their labor.” (The Amplified Bible) True friends are gifts from the best Giver of all. Spending time with such people are part of His plan for us – a way in which He wants to bless our days.
  • The people surrounding us – physically – matter the most, most of the time. For two 4-day weekends this month, I spent very, very little time (i.e. less than 10 minutes total) on social media, and for someone with multiple accounts this was unusual. I like Facebook and Instagram, and I try to limit my screen time in general, but this was different. Both weekends, I focused on being present – to my mother in Florida for Mother’s Day, and to my husband and kids for Memorial Day. And the truth is – no online ‘friends’ missed me, and if my faraway friends had important news to share, I heard about it later, directly from them. Why? Because the people who need me mostand who I need most – are living and breathing in the same spaces as me. I think you know it’s true in your life as well. Let’s not waste time living vicariously in curated feeds or mindlessly scrolling for memes to make us laugh. With God’s help, we can be wiser than that; we can learn to see our days for what they are: numbered, precious, and meant to be given in love to those with whom we actually share them.

Wishing you peace and joy in June and always!

Amidst Angels: A Short Post on Gratitude

Amidst Angels: A Short Post on Gratitude
U.S. Navy Blue Angels, 2015. Photo taken at Hospital Point, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis.

“It’s so beautiful,” I said as we watched the Blue Angels making the final pass of their 2019 flight demonstration over the Severn River.

“Mom, you think everything is beautiful,” replied my teenage daughter.

I looked over at her – sandy blonde hair – taking videos with my phone.

Yep. Beautiful.

Me and my daughter at the 2019 Blue Angels flight demonstration.

Practically all of Annapolis clamors to find a spot somewhere near the water to view the planes at 2 pm on the Wednesday of Commissioning Week – those 5 blissful days in May when the Academy sends off its newest batch of brilliant officers to represent our nation across the globe. I give that praise with no sarcasm whatsoever. They are – to a woman and man – among the very best and brightest our country has to offer.

So we’ve come to watch the flight demonstration honoring them every year for the past 12? I’ve lost count. Except when the Blue Angels were grounded because of weather or budget cuts (2013), we were there. With friends or by ourselves, we make this annual pilgrimage to appreciate the display of skill, training, courage, complete trust and raw nerve it takes to fly one combat airplane at 800 mph just inches from another. The show celebrates those who serve. It is about noble character, sacrifice, and working as a team for a cause greater than one’s self.

The elegance and energy of the moment will take your breath away.

And the glinting sun on the wings, the howling engines, and the cooling breeze make me wistful. In this week, more than any other in the year, I feel the passage of time.

My wedding anniversary…the near-end of another school year…the dying away of the spring flowers and the full-on growth of green shade for summer…all are happening right now in this week.

Is there a spot in your geography which makes you grateful? Where you see your days spread out before and behind you? You remember the good and the bad simultaneously? You hold the joy and the pain together as one?

2019. View across the Severn River.

The key to a full heart, I’ve found, is taking an inventory of the GOOD and raising it up high.

Even when there’s hurt. Even when there’s suffering. Even when concern is knocking on your door.

My days are not the same as they were just last year or two years ago, and I’m sure yours aren’t either. There has been success and sadness. There have been sound decisions and bad ones. And there are battles still being waged.

But in our favorite spots we are reminded that we are never independent of God’s grace. His presence – which continually blesses us despite all the ways we continually screw up – is just that – PRESENT. Always.

Every year, I stand on Hospital Point and I just feel so darn thankful to be alive. And this time, I knew why.

It’s all beautiful. All of it. Beautiful.

When You’re In a Hard Spot on Mother’s Day

When You’re In a Hard Spot on Mother’s Day
Is this going to be a tough Mother's Day? Take heart, friend. In all likelihood, you can honor your mother best in this one way.

Are you in a hard spot this Mother’s Day? Just not sure how to handle it?

Maybe you’ve recently lost your mom and the ache is raw and deep. Or she’s been gone a long while and you find yourself just a little bit resentful of people who’ve had their moms around for so much longer.

Or maybe your relationship with your mom is complex. You’re out of sync with her. Perhaps there’s a long, complicated history. Or nothing more than the fact that you’re separated by geography, personality, or matters of the heart; it’s hard to bridge the distances you feel between you.

We want love to be simple but it so rarely is.

We especially know this to be true when we try to express how we feel about our moms.

The necessary pulling away, the inexpressible desire to be close – it’s more than most of us can negotiate easily, and certainly beyond words.

We feel the tension even when we’re young.

Two nights ago, my teenage son entered the kitchen and told me that as part of an assignment, he needed to read me a letter he’d written to me during Spanish class. He was laughing as he explained, saying, “I told my friends, ‘My mom won’t understand a word of this. She studied French.’”

True. So he translated each line as he went, telling me, “I am proud to be your son,” and “You make the best food in the world,” which cracked us both up because we both know the latter is patently false.

The letter was equal parts humor and heart; a perfect reflection of how difficult it is to tell someone why you love them – much less in a language that challenges you.

I’m up against this now – struggling every day to tell my mom how much I love her – because I’m not taking any day for granted. An illness does that. It brings everything into proper perspective.

My mom has stage 3 mucosal melanoma. It’s a rare cancer that affects the body’s mucous membranes and does not respond to chemotherapy. She’s been battling it for 11 months now through surgeries, immunotherapy, and radiation, and there’s a reason why people say cancer sucks. It really, really, really does.

My heart is so heavy with the pain and suffering she’s enduring. And I tell her all the time, “I wish I could carry this burden for you.” But she wouldn’t wish it on anyone. If it were within her power, she would forever prevent my sister and me from ever experiencing this torment. She would take it all on herself.

A mother’s love is all about sacrifice.

From the moment the idea of you was born, your mother’s every breath was a silent prayer of hope for your well-being.

It’s exceedingly rare to hear of a mother who doesn’t love her children more than herself.

Every day, she shared her very soul with you.

And she gave all she could in the hope that you would grow fully into yourself – the most beautiful YOU she believed you could be – a person who would contribute goodness to the world.

To the best of her ability – however perfectly or imperfectly – she displayed the self-sacrificial love of God, the One who made her, and you, in His image.

Her sacrifice, written forever in your heart, was God’s sacrifice first.

We were divinely designed to love.

There have been many times when I felt indebted to my mom. Like when I was younger and she’d done too much for me at Christmas. It was then that I told her, “I can’t give you what you’ve given me.” She always said, “You’ll do the same for your kids, or for someone else.”

We come up short when we try to return our mothers’ affections. But in the end, that was never their intent.

How do we honor our moms?

We acknowledge and thank them for their love and all they’ve done for us – with fumbling words, our simple presence, and token gifts if our moms are alive, or with our grateful hearts if they have passed.

And just as importantly, we recollect and recount that she made daily sacrifices of love, in big and small ways, on our behalf.

And then?

Then we go. And we do the same.

Simple Lessons from Our Littlest Selves

Simple Lessons from Our Littlest Selves

Do you have a lifelong love? An interest or passion you’ve held since childhood?

Mine is flowers. I can’t remember not loving them. I look back through years of albums and there they are – random pics of lilies, roses, daisies, etc.

When we were little and living in Connecticut, my sister and I made chains out of dandelions and white clover (they looked like flowers to us!) and draped them around our heads and necks. We were princesses, ruling our tiny brick patio kingdom and its fuzzy caterpillars which we collected in Cool Whip bins lined with lush green leaves.

Flowers remind me that life – while fleeting – typically unfolds slowly. It should be colorful. Varied. Fragrant. Blooms and blossoms are part of a cycle which points to never-ending beauty.

Apparently, I was treasuring flowers even before I started making those dandelion chains. In the spring of 1975 when I was 2 and my dad (a Coast Guard officer) was out at sea, my mother and I rode the train down to Washington, DC, to see my dad’s parents who were living there for a short time while my grandfather took a work assignment from Boeing. We visited Mount Vernon, and I immersed myself in tulips.

Age two. Spring 1975. Mount Vernon.

For the next 40 years, that photo hung in my grandparents’ kitchen after they returned home to Seattle, WA, a treasured memory of a special day and a granddaughter they loved so much.

When I was 20, I visited the Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse, Netherlands, when the tulips were in full bloom. If you ever have the chance to go – go. The colors were extraordinary. And I thought of my grandparents’ photo and asked my friends to help me reenact it on the spot.

Age 20. Spring 1993. Keukenhof Gardens.

When I look at these two pictures – especially the first one – I realize that my childhood still has lessons to teach me. And here are three simple ones:

1) Rushing is learned. When I was following my whims and exploring those tulips – which were at eye-level when I was 2 – I felt no pressure. How often do we allow others to create stress in our lives? How much of our stress is self-induced? When we feel tension, we can ask ourselves – is this truly necessary? My pace is my pace. In so far as it is possible, we should embrace our personal speeds as the way we were made.


2) We have 5 senses. This may seem like a silly statement, but really – do you ever just stop – and sniff? Taste? Look? Listen to the natural world? My mind is a whirl of information and I can go days without appreciating the scent of my child’s hair, all the flavors in every meal, or the concert the doves, cardinals, and finches perform outside my windows every single morning. Are you reveling in the world’s delights like a child does? Like you did when you were very, very young?


3) Someone is looking out for us. Toddling among the tulips, I knew my mother and grandparents were close by and I was safe to explore. Small children are innately trusting because they can’t do anything for themselves. But along the way we develop skills to help us navigate, and then we become arrogant. We begin to think we’re actually in control. But that’s a lie. None of us is fully responsible for where we’ve ended up. Some individual somewhere along the way was kind to each of us, gave us a piece of advice, or opened a door of opportunity that enabled us to become the people we are. Today, let’s offer gratitude for that person (or people), and acknowledge the possibility that his or her involvement was not an accident or coincidence, but a movement of affection by a divine Source of Love that wants us all to enjoy a fuller, richer existence.

Our childhood selves – the purest, most untroubled versions – believed and hoped and loved boldly before we were ever told there were limits. We moved at our natural pace, opened ourselves to life’s wonders, and trusted that all would be well.

Though we learned that people – even ourselves – can let us down, God has promised us that He never will.

Our Father in heaven longs for us to follow Him with a childlike love – a faith and hope without constraint, made possible by a renewal of daily trust in His slow and steady work in this beautiful world.

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in April

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in April

So April has passed and we’re still buying 7 avocados a week. If you’re new around here, that’s a reference to my February Wholesome List, where I shared that my daughter has discovered the delights of avocado toast. Now 4 out of 5 of us are converts. Can you grow avocados in Maryland? Soon, we might need our own grove….

My Wholesome List is a just a collection of things I learned during the month that brightened my days. It’s in keeping with my faith that God wants us to enjoy the fullness of life, and my belief that we should do as St. Paul instructs us in Philippians 4:8, focusing on what is pure, good, and lovely. April’s list is light and breezy.

  • My youngest son and I are glued to Our Planet on Netflix. Rated G with breathtaking cinematography of wildlife and natural wonders from every part of the planet, it is a not-to-be-missed series. David Attenborough narrates each episode, highlighting a particular type of habitat and the urgent need to create environmental protections to reverse damage from human activities and prevent more damage from being done. My favorite segment so far is the High Seas, with close-up live footage of a blue whale and her calf, as well as an entire pod of humpbacks feasting on krill. The scenes are truly extraordinary and every time we watch a segment together, my son inevitably whispers, “So beautiful,” and “Oh my gosh, wow.” There are no better descriptors.
  • Speaking of caring for the environment, awhile back (and I mean about 2 years ago) I bought some E-cloths for cleaning that somehow ended up on the bottom of my rag pile. I found them this month and WOW – I’ll never buy any other kind of microfiber cloth. You don’t need soap or cleaners to scrub any surface! For my showers, I do spray some Method Antibac Bathroom Cleaner first and let it sit for 10 minutes to disinfect, and then wipe away the grime with the E-cloths. But still – WHY did I forget about them for all that time? Fantastic!
  • Did you learn to make something this month? I did! For the first time ever, I made genoise batter for sponge cakes and layered them into this Easter confection. Genoise is started with eggs and sugar, heated in a double boiler, and then whipped in a mixer until the two ingredients fuse into a thick ribbon-like batter. Flour is only added at the end. This process might not be news to you, but I was shocked and delighted when it actually worked in my kitchen and my family ate the results! I’m not quite ready to audition for Season 6 of The Great British Baking Show, but I must admit, it was “a good bake.” Cheers to small victories!
  • I haven’t been reading as much as I prefer this month (only one book halfway finished), because I’ve been busy with my husband planning our family’s summer trip – to Ireland! We’ll be there for 10 days in August. The Rick Steves, Frommer’s, and DK Eyewitness travel guides are all on our coffeetable so that all 5 of us can peruse and daydream to our hearts’ content. One wall of the family room is mapped as if we’re planning some sort of land invasion. This will be our first family trip abroad – and my husband and I are very excited. But what have we learned so far? Well, when I asked the kids what they were looking forward to seeing on the Emerald Isle, our youngest looked at me quizzically and said, “That’s too long from now.” Time is relative, people. When you’re 9 and it’s April – August is as far away as Christmas.
  • Finally, I noticed that lilacs bloom here in Maryland in April. I know, it’s silly to have never taken note of such a thing before, especially when I love flowers as much as I do. But as I’m getting older and earnestly trying to savor every day, I look around a bit more. The daffodils come up first. Then the forsythia and the pink magnolias burst into color. Then the cherry trees and tulips. Then the lilacs. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (NIV) We grow wiser when we understand we don’t have endless days. Each one is worthy of our attention. So let’s take time to reconsider the order of things – whether it be the flowers or what’s much more important – faith, family, friends, and time and how we use it.

That’s it for this month’s list! Wishing you a beautiful May with the ones you love.

Blessings always,

Gretchen

Can We Be Like Kids?

Can We Be Like Kids?
In one of our happy places.

Can we be like kids?

Maybe.

How are kids, exactly? Are they innocent? Carefree? Curious? Imaginative? Easily duped? Yes and no. It all depends on their ages and life experiences.

But one thing most of them can do – at least for a few moments at a time – is suspend whatever bothers them, relax, and PLAY.

This week, my younger two kids have been on Spring Break. Their school’s schedule is different from my older son’s and we’re not planning a family vacation until summer, so there were would be no “getting away” from our day-to-day. It was incumbent upon me to make plans to keep us from climbing the walls.

We did some closet cleaning and clothes shopping, but I also wanted to incorporate some fun, so we went to the aquarium, played mini-golf, and visited (brace yourself) IKEA!!

When a 9-year old drives.

I don’t know why IKEA has become a playground for our family over the years, but we can go there to buy a few organizer bins and spend hours. Yesterday was no exception.

Maybe it’s the bright, happy yellow and blue logo that sparks our endorphins, or the Swedish words we can’t pronounce – bjorksta, lustigt, or djungelskog, anyone? Better yet – the hundreds of inexpensive household trinkets. Or perhaps it’s the tasty food in the cafeteria, and the simple, functional furniture. Personally, I like the small designer showrooms – because I secretly dream of living in a tiny home with very few possessions. What’s funny is, on most trips, we don’t even buy very much (except the frozen meatballs, we always get lots of those). But whatever the allure…we all love it.

They’d like apartments in NYC with kitchens just like this…

And so my kids went into full IKEA mode. In the Showroom, they each claimed a perfectly-planned model apartment as ‘theirs,’ and pretended to serve one another in the mock kitchens. They sat at desks, opened and closed cabinets and closets, made themselves comfy on sofas, and spun round and round on bar stools.

Making himself at home.

And of course, in the kids’ section, they re-lived their “little” years, trying to fit into every playspace item that used to be a favorite.

She’s a good egg. Just not so little anymore.
What does it take to be like a kid? For most of us, it's fairly difficult. Here's why.
He spun her and spun her and spun her. It never gets old.

And what did I do? I took pictures.

Because for adults – watching kids be kids is easy. But being kid-like is hard.

I didn’t roll around on the couches or put my feet up on the coffee tables as if I were home watching TV. But maybe I should have.

And when my daughter yelled, “Mom, come try out this mattress,” I declined, thinking of all the people who had already done that. Ick.

The fact is, I was thinking about adult things – people I’m worried about, stuff on my to-do list – albeit with a smile on my face as I watched my kids.

As grown-ups, we carry burdens of concern, and we have a hard time setting them down. We offer up prayers and have to remind ourselves not to take them back again – to let the One above handle our issues.

Always trying to find resolutions on our own when we know that He is in charge is prideful. It shows we lack faith.

But we can start again. Every second of the day is a new opportunity to re-surrender.

When Jesus said, “Let the children come to me,” (Matthew 19:14) he wasn’t just talking about kids. He was also talking about a state of the heart. “[T]he kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” He said. When we become trusting and humble – when we open ourselves to the grace of this very moment – we will find Him there, and it will give our souls respite, a place to relax.

I need a place to go that’s far better than my own mind. Even better than a vacation or – need I say it, the make-believe spaces of IKEA. I need to be like a kid – finding joy at the feet of God.

I need to re-surrender and rest in Him. How about you?

Notre Dame de Paris and Legacies at Easter

Notre Dame de Paris and  Legacies at Easter

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

On Monday, April 15, when the very first sparks caught deep in the forest of Notre Dame Cathedral’s 800-year old oak beams, my husband and I were singing the closing hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” at the funeral of a beloved man. His name was Jim, and he was the father of one of our dearest friends.

The church was packed, full of people whose lives had been touched by this husband of 51 years, father of 4, grandfather of 11, friend to hundreds, and volunteer whose time and contributions touched the lives of thousands through a long list of organizations within his community.

During the homily, the priest told a story about visiting the grave of Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the first person entombed within it. Wren’s gravestone reads, in Latin: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”

Wren’s monument was the entire building. Spectacular, of course, but buildings do fall down.

Jim’s legacy is one of love and connection. It is a baton that has been passed on – and will be – for generations to come.

I was so grateful for the priest’s reminder as I drove home, thinking about people I love – people very close to me – who are currently suffering. Some have been fighting health battles for months with no end in sight. Others are dealing with very emotional issues – facing new realities, changed expectations, and daunting unknowns.

Like a devastating fire, suffering leaves marks on us and changes the way we move forward in our lives.

The temptation is to believe that a happy ending requires that we – like Notre Dame – be restored to some version of a former glory.

We think that with enough rest, medicine, good food, positive words, and advice from experts and well-meaning friends we can shore up our mental and physical strength and proceed as if nothing ever happened.

But what if we’re not supposed to? What if suffering – in all its forms – has a larger purpose?

What if it is supposed to change us forever?

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction….” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Our suffering is allowed so that we might be brought closer to God’s face and then, in turn, use our experience to boost others on their journeys.

We are to pass the baton of Love.

So Jim’s life becomes a message of hope to us, just as Jesus’s resurrection – which we celebrate this weekend on Easter – is the tangible sign that with God, even death is not an end but an entryway.

Perhaps the Cathedral of Notre Dame will be rebuilt, but it can never be the same. The story must go on and be fashioned anew.

On Monday, we sat with our grieving friends and remembered that Jim was a man who gave generously of himself. He was beloved, because humans are attracted to the image of God reflected in a kind person.

Easter is coming. Suffering will end.

May Love be our guide to build legacies that last.

The Day I Stopped Judging My Neighbor

The Day I Stopped Judging My Neighbor

I’m finally speaking to my neighbor. Many years ago, we had a sort of run-in that I chose not to overlook. And I recently passed her two times in the Whole Foods supermarket before I decided to say something.

No. That’s a lie. It didn’t exactly happen that way.

Here’s how it did.

I saw the white-haired woman twice – once in the produce section and once by meats – before I headed over to the bakery to get myself a loaf of Italian bread. I decided to try the new slicing machine and was just reaching in to retrieve my freshly cut loaf when I heard a voice say,

“Is that thing turned off? Are you sure you should stick your hand in there?”

I turned my head to see her standing next to me. My neighbor. The woman with whom I had only interacted once in all the years we’ve lived on the same block, her backyard kitty-corner to mine. She always seemed to have the same stern expression on face, as if she were assessing the world and finding it unsuitable to her taste.

It was years ago when we passed in the street while walking our dogs. She and her husband had their two Jack Russells and I had my Beagle and mutt. From the other curb she greeted me only with unsolicited advice, saying that the double harness I was using – which connected to one leash – was “a very bad idea.” “Those things are terrible,” she yelled without ever saying hello. “They never work. It’s better to walk them on two.”

We had just gotten the dogs and I would learn she was right. But I was taken aback by her comments because I was in a tender spot. Our last dog had passed very suddenly just weeks before, and I was determined to do absolutely everything in my power to be the best possible dog mom I could be to these two new rescues.

Soon enough, one of the dogs – our lemon Beagle – proved to be a real backyard nuisance, always barking at passersby, other dogs, and rogue squirrels seeking global domination. Or at the very least, to cross our yard.

And I began to feel a bit angry and ashamed. How could any neighbor not hate us for the ruckus our little girl canine makes?

I assumed the whole block was judging us.

Especially her.

Back at the bread slicer, I sighed to myself and quickly asked the One above for grace.

“You’re probably right,” I said to her, and pulled my hand out of the machine that might very well cut it off.

Instantly, a Whole Foods bakery worker appeared, assured me I was doing alright, and deftly slid the sliced loaf into a plastic bag. I thanked her and turned back to my neighbor, deciding in a split second to suck down what was left of my pride.

“I’m Gretchen. You don’t know me, but we’re neighbors.”

“I thought you looked familiar.”

“I’ve seen you out walking your Jacks with your husband.”

We exchanged pleasantries – about how long we’d lived in the area and how we ended up there. She’d also been a mother of three. Her husband also went to an all-boys Catholic high school and had done a long commute before he’d retired.

When we really listen to people, it’s always possible to find common ground.

A few minutes later, she said…

“We’ve had five Jacks total. Now just two. But John’s* been in a memory-care facility for two years.”

Her face softened all over and she looked away. She continued.

“They line them up 30 minutes before meals to go in to eat. Sometimes I don’t get there in time.”

Suddenly, I realized I’d read it all wrong. The face wasn’t stern; it was determined. Steadfast and purposeful in a difficult situation.

And she wasn’t the judgmental person. I was.

Then she asked, “Which ones are your dogs?”

I explained and she knew immediately, especially the Beagle.

“I’m so sorry about the barking,” I told her.

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me! I love that little dog! She runs along the fence line and talks to all the others. She wears an electric collar.”

“Yes,” I halfheartedly laughed. “She has to or she’d follow the scents right over our fence.”

“I understand! You can’t let a Jack run anywhere he’d like either. They don’t stay with you. An unleashed Jack is a dead Jack.”

We parted with ‘so glad to have met yous’ that I for one, certainly meant, because not only was she a pleasure, there was a real lesson for me in this encounter.

I am fatally flawed and need to consistently ask for the eyes to see as God does, for “man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Had I been more forgiving, had I decided to not judge this woman based on a faulty first impression or the look on her face, had I not unconsciously believed I was semi-omniscient and could read my neighbors’ minds – who knows what blessings of friendship we might have uncovered in all these years?

Grace happens when we put down our preconceived notions – when we surrender our assumptions and theories – and allow love to enter into in.

If we hold too tightly to what we think we know, we can’t see what’s still there for us to learn. And the picture is so much richer than we can imagine or see on our own.

*Not his real name.

God the “Father” – When Language Falls Short

God the “Father” – When Language Falls Short

Photo by Dylan Sosso on Unsplash

I call God my “Father.” But the word falls short in many ways.

Let me preface this by saying I have a gentle earthly father. One who spoke to me in childhood with kindness and patience, and talks to me now with respect and care. I always knew his intentions were good. I understood that he loved me, even when he disciplined me.

But many people don’t share this experience. The word “father” is a powerful trigger for deeply complex, old and painful wounds. It becomes very difficult to think of God in heaven as the Best Dad Ever when you perpetually wonder why you were paired with one here who left you aching.

I’d been ruminating on this subject for a few days when a long-forgotten memory sprang up while I was sitting in a streak of warm sunlight at my kitchen table, early one spring morning.

I’m four years old and it’s Christmastime 1976 in New London, CT. My parents are shepherding a Bible study group for cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where my father is an alum and is now working in the Admissions Office. This evening, some cadets are caroling at a retirement home, and my parents decide to take me along. I am the only child in the group.

I’m hiding from the tall, loud adults in my handwoven gray and ivory Icelandic sweater – each strand of it thick and soft – and distracting myself from the strange surroundings by playing with the round pewter buttons on my belly and twisting the thin belt between my fingers.

We walk through long corridors, passing room after room, singing “Jingle Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Through most of the doorways, I see only feet. Feet covered with blankets. On beds. In wheelchairs.

I stay by my mom’s side, listening to her lilting soprano and the swish-swish of her arms against her yellow parka.

We finally come to a community hall, where people sit in high-back chairs and more wheelchairs along the perimeter of a ring.

There is a small collective sigh.

My mother begins stroking my blond hair and saying my name, my age, and things about me.

A woman in the middle of the circle, hunched over in her wheelchair, fixes her deeply wrinkled face on me and smiles like a cherubim. With great effort, she raises her left hand and holds it, trembling, mid-air.

My mother runs her hand down my back and inches me forward until I take the last few steps to this woman on my own.

She sits above me on metal wheels, but I look into her peaceful eyes and feel the radiance of my rosy cheeks, the warmth of my tiny body in my woolen sweater, and without thinking, hold out my small hands to hers.

We clasp our hands together on the armrest and I notice how hers are bluish and ropy with veins, but soft, tender, and pulsing with life.

Looking up again, I see that we share this: life. And a desire to love.

I don’t know her, but I like being with her.

Her presence takes away my fear.

She sees beauty in me. And I see it in her.

That was more than 40 years ago.

I’m back in my kitchen now, remembering that we are all made in God’s image. We bear an imprint of Him.

In that moment, I saw peace, goodness, stability, kindness, hope, trust, and love.

I wonder how many days passed before that gentle lady went to meet her Maker, and how many other people saw God in her eyes?

When we recognize that God is present in all situations, we begin to understand His character and heart.

We begin to see that every life experience carries a whisper of His grace.

I call God my “Father” in the language of my faith tradition, and I always understood Him to be the origin of everything and the transcendent authority. I prayed to the Father alone before I ever became comfortable with His son Jesus Christ – whom I viewed as a divisive figure bent on punishing me forever. By asking God the Father to help me trust Him and by spending time in Scripture, my understanding of Jesus changed, and now He is my dearest friend whom I often visualize sitting with me when I pray. I’m comfortable when I read the words, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

But God’s qualities transcend the bodily distinction between the sexes. And God is continually drawing us to Himself.

God is neither masculine nor feminine, but both and all, and the more that I understand God as Creator, Friend, and Lover of my soul, the more I yearn to remember how this One Source of Life and Love met me in my past and beckoned me to Himself.

Do you want to remember, too?

I stretch out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.

Teach me to do your will,
For you are my God.
-Psalm 143: 6,10