Holy Moments – Day 28 – P.J.’s Bell

“Do you want a hat?”

His little face lit up with excitement and I thought he knew what I meant.

“A Santa hat?” he asked.

Nope. His idea was even more delightful. Better than me giving him one of the paper Krispy Kreme hats that surrounded us on this, his very first visit to the place. I laughed and looked at my watch. We had one hour until we picked his sister up from dance. Thus began our giggle-filled hunt for a Santa hat. But the festive day actually began 10 hours earlier….

Matthews Santa Hat

It was impossible not to notice them. A row of fist-sized brass sleigh bells, each one sitting atop a ziploc bag full of Christmas cookies. I saw them lining the windowsill of a classroom as I rushed into my childrens’ school, five minutes late to my kindergartener’s Gingerbread Party.

“Every time you hear a bell an Angel gets his wings.”

The words rang in my head again.

I think of them as just a sweet phrase, but Sunday night I had been reminded that no – they actually comprise a line from It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic I stumbled upon while flipping channels. It wasn’t technically ‘new’ to me, as I’d seen it before. But not in at least 12 years. Certainly not since our family lost P.J.

P.J.  – my husband’s cousin. Just a month after his 22nd birthday, in February 2003, he was diagnosed with leukemia. By the end of April, he had entered heaven’s gates.

It was one of those WHY? situations. A fit young man. You’d have thought his whole life was ahead of him. The severity and brevity of his illness was staggering. Simply put, the loss of him has touched us all, and for me, it has been in a surprising way.

Two nights before the family gathered in Philadelphia to say goodbye, I was home alone with a job to do. In between the time we’d received the phone call informing us of P.J.’s passing and the day of the funeral, my husband had had to travel to Oregon for business. So I found myself sitting up late at the kitchen table, trying to stay awake with a cup of tea so that I’d be alert to feed our 4-month old son when he woke for his midnight feeding.

Sitting there, in the quiet darkness, I pictured P.J.’s winsome smile. I thought of his parents. And before I knew it, I was hunched over the table, my head in my hands, sobbing. Sobbing.

I was a first-time mother and finally grasping it – what it means to truly love a child. And I felt my heart just couldn’t bear both the pain and the blessing.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotional about answering a child’s cry as I was that night.

For the first Christmas after P.J.’s passing, his parents – gracious and generous people – gave everyone in the family a bell as part of a gift they made in his memory. The words, “Every time you hear a bell…” were written on the attached card. The bell we received always hangs on the front of our tree, toward the top. And the feeling I have when I look at it has subtly shifted over the years.Pj Bell

Initially, the bell was a symbol of tremendous loss. Loss too deep for words. But yesterday, when I saw those bells in the window at school, and was on my way to help my third child make candy cane ornaments, food for Santa’s reindeer, and gingerbread men, I realized that for me, P.J.’s bell had a new significance. What once symbolized sadness, has increasingly, slowly, become a sign of pending joy. It has challenged me to look at each day with fresh eyes and ask, “Am I holding tightly to the things of eternal value, while letting go of what’s not?”

Seldom do I have epiphanies. Or rather, God doesn’t reveal things to me in ‘lightning bolt’ ways. And so this new understanding about the bell came to me as the day unfolded, as I walked through it with my youngest son. But also as I pondered the big message of It’s a Wonderful Life, asking myself, “What difference does one life really make?”

The answer is clear – Our lives are not our own. We are connected to one another. We are all one flesh. We share sorrow and happiness. We were not created, nor are we meant, to live alone.

And so, the burdens we bear and the joys we celebrate are always the ties that bind us. They draw us close to one another and into that which is sacred and holy – the space set apart from words and time – God Himself. To show us His heart, He came down in the form of a baby, the Son, to grow and live fully with us, connected to us, experiencing the fullness of life just as we do, fully for us, for better and for worse, within a family, in a community who for a time grieved the loss of Him but later saw that His life was about showing the path to everlasting, eternal joy.

And shouldn’t that be the point of ours as well? To seek everlasting joy? Even as we carry our sorrows?

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And the miracle of this Son Jesus was, and is, that He is with us still. He is closer than breath. We need only acknowledge Him and ask Him to show us the way Home. Praise be to God from Whom all blessings flow.

And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. 

-Matthew 28:20 

Holy Moments – Day 26 – Come Clean

I love my dishwasher. No really. I LOVE my dishwasher. You can have all of my other appliances. I’ll even go to the laundry mat. I’m keeping this one. Forever.

We’d had so much trouble with the last dishwasher that I took a very long time picking this one out. I did tons of research and finally settled on – a Bosch. Not the fanciest model, but a basic Bosch – which still costs more than most other dishwashers, so I wanted to be very sure of this purchase when we made it 7 years ago. So sure that I carted my dishes into Sears and loaded them into the floor model to make sure they would fit the way I wanted them to. You should have seen the sales guy’s face.

Anyway – imagine my dismay today when last night’s gravy had become a gelatinous adhesive on the pots & pans, and the racks were decorated with spinach-leaf polka dots. Huh? This never happens. My machine does NOT let me down. Never in seven years had I seen such…such…ick when I expected sparkles!

I investigated. The culprit? A wooden chopstick jammed at just the right angle to block the lower wash arm. A little hold-up, and the mess remained.

Dishwasher

This got me thinking about what it takes for me to feel clean. To truly feel washed clean before God.

I know that I am a child of God, and that when I turned my heart toward Christ, the power of His love and mercy washed me clean of all my impurities and I stood before Him as if I had never done anything wrong. With my life, I want to show Him that I love Him. I want to thank Him for creating me, sustaining me, and saving me. But I still sin. And though I know He always loves me, in order to stay close to Him, in order to see His will for me most clearly, I have to clear away the debris that clouds my vision of Him – and that’s the stuff that I allow to get in the way of my relationship with Him. It’s my arrogance, my selfishness, my pride, my ego, my gluttony, etc. My sin. My sin might look slightly different from someone else’s, but it’s all dirty. And there’s no way to live a life of holiness when you’re sitting in muck.

So – what to do about that?

I was raised in mostly non-denominational Protestant churches. I’d heard about Confession. One of those things Catholics did. It sounded scary. And weird. Sit in a tiny dark box and talk to a priest about all the bad things you’d done? Hmm.

But then after a long spiritual journey, God led me to RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults from 2006-2007. It’s the process by which adults join the Catholic Church. In the course, I learned the Church’s views on Confession, also known as Reconciliation. And I came to believe that there could be grace bestowed in this sacrament. And so, near the end of the course, on a Wednesday night, I made my first confession.

I wish I could say it was easy – that I was cool as a cucumber. Nope. I was 35, I wanted to be as thorough as possible, and had made a very long list. So by the time I walked out of the confessional (which was actually quite spacious and bright), my mascara was smeared all over my face and my hair was a total wreck. I vaguely resembled a raccoon riding a motorcycle.

I was totally, utterly exhausted. I drove home and went right to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that something had fundamentally changed. An enormous burden had been lifted. I literally felt lighter. And miraculously – somehow – healed. 

What I didn’t know about Reconciliation – or rather, what I’d been told, but didn’t believe – had actually happened. It was mind-blowing. Powerful. For the first time ever, I felt CLEAN. 

The chopstick of doubt (so to speak) had been removed, and not only did I feel clean, I felt closer to God than ever before.

God will forgive me when I tell Him my sins – whether in this sacrament or on my own. But it is altogether different to vocalize my sins to a priest who helps me determine my culpability, and gives me guidance and hope. The sacrament also confers grace which strengthens me to resist the temptations that have mired me and led me away from the Lord. Most importantly, I know that yet again I have drawn close to the heart of God, and that this is what He wants most.

I can’t say that every Reconciliation experience is a powerful as that first one. But each one has enough amazing grace to keep me coming back.

Holy Moments – Day 25 – Meg Turns 40

Holy Moments – Day 25 – Meg Turns 40

From my vantage point – about 36 inches above the ground – I could see a mass of blankets preceding Mom through the back door and into the kitchen of our little Cape Cod home in Gales Ferry, Connecticut. I was two weeks shy of 3-years old, and I knew there was a treasure inside those warm white fuzzy folds. Her name was Meghan. And she was my baby sister.

I pawed at Mom’s arms, trying to see, but was gently led into the family room and seated far back on the olive green sofa with my right arm supported by a pillow so that…. I could meet her.

I wish I could remember her face on that day. But I do remember holding her. Holding her. Feeling for the first time that emotion that is privilege to older siblings (and the bane of youngers!) – ‘I will look out for you.’

She was my only sibling, and my protective instincts were sometimes appreciated – like when Meg was falsely accused of slashing mattresses at Girl Scout camp and I knew this wasn’t possible. She didn’t even own a pocket knife, for goodness sake. I was more than happy to go to the troop leaders and tell them what was what.

But more often than not – my compulsion to force on her my 3 years’ worth of advanced wisdom was met with resistance or outright rejection. Go figure.

To her credit, at a young age she understood how to use my bossiness to her advantage. For example, Mom asked me to help Meg learn to make her own bed. I got so frustrated by Meg’s ‘inability’ to straighten her green Sears ripcord bedspread, that I pushed her out of the way and declared that I would “just do it myself.” I ended up making lots of beds.

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Meghan and me, 1983.

Like so many sisters, we’re perhaps more different than alike. But it’s funny how every time Meg’s birthday rolls around, I feel our kinship reconnected in a special way, and in the last day or so, perhaps I’ve found the reason.

Meg and I were both born during Advent – a word which means “coming.” It is, by its’ very definition, a season of anticipation in which we keep a look out for the greatest gift – Christ, the Light of the World.

So many of my fondest memories with Meg are centered around moments of waiting for something.

Sitting on packed boxes in various houses, waiting for the moving van to arrive for our military move to another state.

Holding our bags in our laps (before the stewardess told us to put them down), waiting for the plane to land in Seattle, home of our beloved grandparents.

And my favorite – waiting side by side at the foot of the tree on Christmas morning for our parents to wake up. My sister and I never dared proceed with opening (or shaking!) gifts before ‘it was time.’ We didn’t even run into Mom and Dad’s room to jostle them awake. Why? I don’t know. I’m just so thankful now that, for whatever reason, Meg and I had this quiet special time together every Christmas.

In my childhood mind, the month of December – marked by her birthday, then mine, and ending in Christmas – was magical because for most of it, we were looking forward together to the largest celebration still ahead. Intuitively, we recognized this month for what it is – The season of Hope. The season of anticipation which rejoices in the fact that the best is still to come. And to think – that this is when we were blessed to be born.

My beautiful sister is a searcher. She digs deep and asks thoughtful questions. She looks for the Light.

So, today I celebrate Meg on her 40th birthday. As much as I’d like to think I could still ‘look out’ for her, I know she’s in the very best of hands and loved beyond measure. And though she’s doing well in life, I still believe her best season is up ahead. I’m eagerly waiting to see what’s in store for her.

Holy Moments – Day 24 – Thunder Road

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How do you know when everything is right with the world? For right now. Not the big world – out there. I mean the little world. The one that matters most to you. The one within the walls of your home?

One of the ways I know it is when the people I love express themselves with music.

We were driving home from Philadelphia on Friday night, having spent a relaxing and very happy Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, and then relishing an afternoon of catching up with a close friend whose camaraderie with my husband spans nearly three decades.

We had been fed – in every sense of the word – and I could feel that all was well when the conversation started to wind down and we turned to music. The shuffled iPhone selections weren’t quite as satisfying as they had been, probably because they weren’t being ignored any longer. My husband grabbed the phone and tried out the voice command ‘Siri.’

“Play ‘Thunder Road.'”

‘Thunder Road.’ I couldn’t help but break out into a huge grin as the opening notes hit the speakers.

I pictured the very first Bruce Springsteen concert I’d been to – in 1999 – with my husband and the friend we’d just visited that afternoon. We’d reveled in a 3-hour concert during which Springsteen took NO breaks while still insisting that his band did. I’d never seen a performer so committed and passionate, never realized the depth of his lyrics. We were leaving the stadium when our friend declared, “That was a religious experience.”

An appreciation for beauty can do that to you.

‘Thunder Road’ finished playing.

“Play ‘Jungleland,'” my husband said, and he told our daughter to take off her headphones.

She plays piano, and she liked hearing the piano in this song so much that we played it again. There were other songs, too, a panoply of lovely and lively sound that stirred the minds and hearts of the five people in our car, carrying us home and bringing us together.

Beauty and love will do that – bring people together. And right there, all is well, and we can see the Something Greater than ourselves.

 

Holy Moments – Day 23 – Thanks for the Bounce

He was intent on taking his Spider-Man wallet to the mall. It wouldn’t even fit in the tiny back pocket of his jeans, so I assured him I’d keep his money safe in my purse. All $.75 of it.

What he thought he’d buy with those five nickels, three dimes and twenty pennies, I have no idea. But he wanted to find something.

My husband and oldest son were camping for the weekend, so I had taken my little guy and his older sister to the mall on Saturday to get some early Christmas shopping done. And wow – were we productive! We spent 2 1/2 hours moving from store to store, searching and finding – it was one of the best days shopping with kids I’ve ever had! The best part was, I didn’t hear a single complaint. Not a one. We were  in the Christmas spirit and the second to last week of November hadn’t even started. Miracles are everywhere….

Our last stop was in the Marbles Brain Store, where the kids were looking for a gift for their older brother. While trying out every gadget in the place, my sweet little guy emerged from a corner with one of those magical, classic toys. A blue rubber bouncy ball.

His eyes were aglow with delight.

“Mom – I want to buy this.”

“Well, it costs $1.99 and you only have $.75 in your wallet. That isn’t enough.”

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His face fell, and it about broke my heart.

“I tell you what. I’ll buy it for you, and when we get home, you can pay me back from your piggy bank.”

“Really?!!”

He was SO surprised. This kind of thing had never been done before. Mom buying a toy – for me! – spontaneously?!? Unheard of.

“Yes.”

“OK!!!! Thanks, Mom!”

When we got home and I took the ball out of the bag for him, he ran off giggling. I had no intention of making him pay me back. At this point, he’s 5, and not earning the coins that are in his bank; they are just pieces he’s picked up here and there. We can discuss larger lessons about hard work and sacrifice when he’s older. For the moment, I was content to just to see him enjoy this gift.

But what surprised me, was what happened next. Hardly a minute had passed when he came running back into the room and threw his arms around my waist and squeezed. Just squeezed. A good, loooooong, hug-squeeze.

“Thank you SO much, Mommy,” he said.

Hearing those five words was absolutely the very best part of my day. And therein was my lesson.

If I want to warm the heart of The Giver, all I really need to do is to run to Him with arms outstretched and a deeply grateful heart. I couldn’t pay Him back for all the blessings He’s given me if I had all the riches in the world.

I wish you and yours a joy-filled and blessed Thanksgiving.

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.

Day 2 – Thinking About Bats

Day 2 – Thinking About Bats

It’s nearly dusk and I’m navigating an unfamiliar and winding rural road with the help of my GPS when my youngest inquires, “When will the bats come out?” For a split second I marvel at how his new mind and my older one are in such different places as we look at the same stretch of road.

I answer – “I don’t know. Soon.”

Will this answer suffice?  It doesn’t satisfy me….

He and I have not discussed bats since a summer evening several weeks back, when we watched them flit among the trees behind our home.  Come to think of it, the sky looked much like this one. Perhaps that’s why he thought of this subject?  But who knows with 4-year olds?

Our conversation is short and covers the few basic facts we both know about bats.  They like to eat bugs. This is helpful to us humans. They sleep during the day and come out at night. Together he and I practice the big word – “nocturnal.” When I try to explain echolocation, even in simple, simple terms, I just stop. Eleven years of motherhood down so far, and I know that his ears are turning deaf as he spots horses in a pasture rolling by.

The road is getting darker. I need to concentrate. And besides, now I can reflect on the good things that even darkness can offer.

In this fallen world of ours, where suffering of all kinds is around us every day, it can be so easy to become discouraged.  As I wrote yesterday, it’s been a sad month. It has included the deaths of three women, two in my family.  And each one has left behind people I want to support through encouragement, prayer, and whatever else I can give.

My faith keeps me from despair, because I don’t worry about what God is doing or why these things happen.  I love the tapestry analogy so many have used: this life is like the bottom of a tapestry – a jumbled, tangle of knots and string, but when we can look at the other side, we’ll understand and see it was a small section of His masterpiece.

Nevertheless, I’m still asking the worldly question, “What can I do?” Emphasis on me.  I still feel like somehow I need to do more. I want a directive – a clear plan on how to help.  And I’ve been surprised by the depth of my fatigue because, geographically, none of the family and friends I have been concerned about supporting live close to me.

Maybe you have this same problem?  Self-centeredness?  The feeling that although you trust God, you should still DO something?

So, in my current darkness, God sent me a question about bats to contemplate. Bats are His creatures, too, of course. Ugly-beautiful things that help keep the ecosystem in balance by doing what they were designed by God to do. They find their nourishment to sustain them by listening to echoes….which may be loud to them….but are hardly above whispers to us.

I too am an ugly-beautiful thing.  A sinner washed clean and made new by the blood of the Lamb. I can best do my part for His kingdom by doing what he has designed me to do. Follow Him. This requires listening.

And listening again.

And again and again to whispers and echoes of whispers, repeated again and again, in scripture and in the depths of my heart, when I am still enough to hear His mighty voice.