Where is Grace in Isolation?

Where is Grace in Isolation?
Photo by Whitney Wright on Unsplash

The daughter was three, sitting crisscrossed in a slim rectangle of sunlight on a patch of hardwood floor next to her parents’ bed. She didn’t know what Mommy had experienced, only that she hadn’t been up for many, many days.

“Mommy?” the child asked, “Do you want bread and butter?”

It was all she knew how to make, the only thing she could give someone who might be hungry.

The mound of covers murmured an assent, a barely audible, “Mmm hmm…nice.”

In the kitchen, the girl placed a slice of wheat bread on a paper towel and smeared margarine on it, tearing gaping holes in the piece with the knife as she committed herself to her work. Chunks of ‘butter’ were everywhere, but she was proud, so proud of her effort, and confident that Mommy would eat it.

In the bedroom, Mommy’s long white, shaking fingers emerged from under the blankets.

“Thank you, honey,” came the nearly inaudible voice. And a few minutes later, “That was delicious.”

The girl returned to her spot on the floor and remained there. For how long, I’m not sure. It happened more than once.

It was 1976 and my mother had just had back surgery to remove a disc she’d ruptured while falling down a flight of stairs, pregnant with my sister. Eight months later, friends cared for my healthy baby sis at their house for awhile and I stayed home with my parents. We had some other help, but there were times when my dad was at work and since I was a quiet, easygoing child, my mom and I were left alone for a couple hours at a time.

I did my part. I kept Mommy company. I made her bread and butter.

Fast forward 44 years to a global pandemic and we’re all like kids making ‘bread and butter’ daily, sitting in one place, tending to the needs of those right next to us, sensing that perhaps something slow and important – like healing – is happening within, while also acknowledging the reality of clashing tensions between an urgency to proceed with life and paralysis to make that happen on acceptable terms.

While healing is usually hidden, there are options with pain. It can be put on display, or concealed until secrecy simply isn’t an option anymore.

Is this time of quarantine highlighting the wounds of your loved ones?

Is it shedding new light on the places where hurt is carried in your home?

How about some harder questions….

In what ways is the past influencing present anxieties?

And your deficiencies? Are your own imperfections and worries glaring too? If you are not a channel of peace to those you love, why not?

Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine,’ said in his Precepts, Part 1, “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”

The Truth is, opportunity presents itself perfectly. As King Solomon wrote 500 years earlier, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens….A time to kill, and a time to heal…” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1,3).

A time has been opened to us for serious reflection.

We can turn the hurt over to the only One who can truly heal.

Now is an occasion to see grace right where it’s being offered.

But how do we do that?

We allow ourselves to soften.

We wonder.

We watch.

We open our hands and look up.

We sit and listen so we’ll know how to serve and to recognize grace as it appears.

Where was grace in 1976 when a mom was in bed, suffering at her literal core, her 3-year old on the floor by her side?

It was everywhere, saturating the room with sunlight, forming a bond between a daughter and her mom, and expressing love in small hands carrying simple gifts.

We can find it again today as we spread butter on bread in a million different ways, again and again.

Study Birds and Turtles – Or How to Love in Life’s Mundane Moments

Study Birds and Turtles – Or  How to Love in Life’s Mundane Moments
Me and my first-born at the National Zoo many years ago.

How do you love those closest to you in life’s mundane moments? Those times when all you see are the remains of everyday life and the residue bugs you…Toothpaste stuck to the sides of the sink. Towels in crumpled heaps on the floor. Crumbs all over the countertop.

When our first child – a boy – was still an ‘only’, my husband and I took him on regular visits to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. We had high hopes that our son would embrace our love of animals – all the same majestic beasts of power I admired (like the great cats), and the intelligence and antics of the creatures my husband favored (such as the primates and the otters). Instead, we often found ourselves wandering around the Bird House or lingering beside a pond of lily pads as eternal minutes dragged on. But these locales were positively scintillating for our son. He was mesmerized by the tiniest of brown birds, the plainest of turtles sitting motionless on its mini-island rock in the center of a lagoon.

I couldn’t understand it until my husband made the wise observation, “These animals are small. Closer to his size. They’re easier for him to study and appreciate.”

It was true. While we may be attracted by the bright, colorful, and bold, it’s more often the case that passionate love for a creature, person, place, or anything else develops in a slower, more nuanced way. We connect with what seems within reach – with what we understand – starting from the outside and exploring within. Once there, we bridge the gap, allowing our hearts to grow stronger in affection for that which we have come to esteem.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” but even she knew her sonnet would inadequately describe love of a person – the greatest experience known to man this side of heaven.

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace….
and, if God choose, I shall love thee better after death.”

-Sonnet 43

It takes a lifetime and beyond to fully value an individual, doesn’t it?

When we truly stretch ourselves to love the entirety of another person, accepting him or her as a unique and irreplaceable gift, we experience a taste of the vastness of God.

But most days, we are blind to the divine glory of our loved ones.

We get tired. We fuss and fidget over our to-dos. We become automatons in the stress and hustle of our world. And in the modern age, we stare blankly and numbly at our screens, scrolling past the myriad faces of people who don’t play significant roles in our lives.

Why? Why are we wasting this precious time?

God’s grace – as evidenced by the immense creativity across the depth of the people we love – is there for the knowing, if only we would look up and SEE.

Post-Valentine’s Day, I would encourage us all to recommit ourselves to the study and appreciation of the people closest to us. The ones who really matter.

Memorize the feel of your child’s hair under your palm. Fix your beloved’s smile in your mind’s eye. Etch the echoes of voices you treasure on your heart.

Listen. Not to just the words, but to the yearning to be understood that lies behind the words.

Love never ends, but opportunities to see it shimmering like dewfall in life’s most mundane moments – do.

Let’s not rely on a holiday to savor the beauty of our valentines. Today is as perfect a day as any.

A New Use for Holiday Cards

A New Use for Holiday Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Typically, we say the traditional Catholic blessing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering people and holding them up….

We can start anytime.

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

Fold your hands and lift up a friend. Today.

Creating New Memories of Dad

Creating New Memories of Dad

Ashe Gold

Have you ever revisited a memory only to discover that your recollection was, in some way, skewed?

This happened to me recently.

I was thinking back to when I was 12 or 13, spending a day with my dad. We were in Morocco. Epcot’s Morocco.

My folks had recently divorced. At the time, my sister and I were living in Jacksonville, Florida, with my mom but for reasons I can’t remember, this day-trip to Orlando was just for Dad and me.

We were having a blast – “hoofing it” as Dad always said – walking quickly all over the park to take in as much as we possibly could in 12 or so hours. Just before dinner, we stopped at Morocco, and as we admired the leather goods in the shops, I told Dad I needed to visit the ladies’ room.

There, I discovered what every adolescent girl dreads.

And dear God. I was not prepared. No purse. No supplies. Nothing.

Feeling slightly nauseous, with butterflies in my stomach, I marched outside. Dad was standing by a dim streetlamp, basking in the sunset over the man-made lake.

“Dad, I need a quarter.”

He looked down at me with his calm, bright blue eyes, smiled and asked, “Why do you need a quarter?”

“Uhmmm. For the machine in the ladies’ room.”

His forehead wrinkled and lips puckered in perplexity.

Time stood still for me.

Perhaps a millisecond later, he began to fumble ferociously for a quarter, patting his shirt pocket and the pockets on the front and back of his shorts without feeling anything. Finally, he found the handful of change, opened his palm, and fished out one shiny 25 cent piece.

I took it from him without a word.

When I returned, he was fidgety. There was a crisp air of uncertainty about him.

“So,” he tried to sound casual, “Where would you like to eat? We can go anywhere in the world!”

So Dad. So typical of Dad to attempt humor just then. And I showed my gratitude with a grudging smile.

We settled on Japan, where, over my first-ever bowl of udon I also felt for the first time that necessary parting of ways – the separation that comes between the child and the parent, and in this case, between a girl and her father. Things would be unsaid. Experiences would be unshared. Life would be lived separately.

But there is more.

I used to think this story was about me and the time my monthly cycle began at Epcot Center. And it is – in a very small way. What’s more important however, is that Grace showed up that day, and taught me a lesson for life about men.

My dad is a gentleman through and through. That doesn’t mean he always responds with composure or perfect words the first moment of a challenging situation; it means that he will respond correctly when given the fullness of an opportunity. The distinction is important.

This little incident was a building block planted by Grace in my life. How do I know? Because my father’s response to me – initially awkward, but full of love and tenderness – was a foreshadowing of interactions I would later have with my husband. By looking back on this memory, I can see that I was being taught that today I am to give my husband room and time to respond with the love and compassion I know he has for me, even if the circumstances of any given situation take him by surprise.

Men get a lot of bad press these days, and yes – there are more than a few out there who are behaving poorly and thus becoming fodder for headlines, memes, and tabloids. But I’ve been blessed to know many good men – righteous men who through their actions, big and small, show their love and concern for the women and children in their lives. Fathers especially, who shepherd their families with perseverance and thoughtfulness. They aren’t showy or prideful about their contributions; they do it out of the purity of their hearts, and we would do well to honor them appropriately and regularly for it.

The love these men express is a reflection of the bigger Love – the eternal Love. The One that brought all of us into being through the free gift of Grace and uses individuals to do work in the world. Love is an unparalleled force that we cannot escape, and we desire it above everything else.

Relationships with parents can be complicated. Holidays like Father’s Day can stir up a whole host of emotions. But deep within, many of us want to feel or say something more than, “Have a beer on me, Dad!” “Play some golf!” “Take a load off!” or the generic, “Enjoy your day!” Even if our dads have passed on and our interactions were troubled, we want to have hearts of gratitude for these men who touched our lives so deeply.

The not-so-secret secret that Grace teaches is that gratitude is a practice that can be learned. So here’s an exercise for building gratitude for your dad (and indeed any man in your life) that you can try – today.

1) Think of time when he was tender to you. An isolated incident.

2) Visualize yourself through his eyes. Remember that you were his child. Consider how he must have felt as he looked at your face. However imperfectly he expressed his emotions for you, try to imagine the stirrings of his heart.

3) Add the emotion you feel from this “imaginative view” to your databank of knowledge about your dad. Assume his best intentions. Grant him a bit more grace in your heart and you will want to act toward him accordingly.

Can the past teach us about the present?

Does Grace always show up in our life’s story if we look closely enough?

I believe the answer to these questions is ‘Yes.’ And we can respond with gratitude today if we can gradually come to believe that there’s a God who was walking with us then, and who walks with us still.

Help Needed in Aisle 4!

Help Needed in Aisle 4!

Photo by Marian Trinidad. www.creationswap.com.
Photo by Marian Trinidad. www.creationswap.com.

“Help! Help on Aisle 4!”

I heard the voice from a few aisles over. It was a woman, sounding slightly annoyed but not exasperated. Like an employee on a walkie-talkie.

“Help, please.”

My, the bows and decorations I was looking at were pretty. And how pleasant it was to be strolling along with my cart, all by lonesome on this last weekday morning before school let out for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Hello?!” she called. Urgency had been summoned into her voice.

I took another sip of my tea. ‘It’s that time of year,’ I thought. ‘We’re all going to start getting uptight.’

But then – I was suddenly shocked by a heavy, greater awareness that no one was coming. In fact, this woman and I might be the only people in this quadrant of the huge store.

My hands let go of the cart and my feet started moving in her direction just as her strongest cry yet rang out.

Help! Help me, please! Someone help!”

My legs were moving quickly now, and my head felt light. My thoughts jumbled.

‘Am I floating? Is this my body? What’s going on here?’

Many aisles over I saw her, an elderly woman with two enormous storage bins placed on end in her cart, and her finger wedged between them and the metal bars of the collapsible child seat. She couldn’t reach around the bins to relieve their weight, and might not have been strong enough even if she could have. I pulled the bins off and she stared at me with a pale, relieved face.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you.”

“Is it broken? Can you move it?”

She wiggled her finger and massaged the long acrylic nail, which looked a bit twisted.

“Oh, goodness. I don’t know what I would have done if you didn’t come.”

For a moment, I said nothing.

“Are you going to be ok? You can get help loading these into your car.”

“Yes. I’m ok. Happy Easter.”

Then I just smiled.

“Oh! Oh! Gosh,” she laughed faintly, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“You, too. Happy Thanksgiving.”

I walked away from her with the firm knowledge that I had – just then – been an instrument, and that I could not in any way take credit for what I had done.

Left to my own devices, I would have ignored her call, would have kept on putting decorations for my own future celebrations into my cart.

That’s just how self-absorbed I was. Am. Can be at any time.

But I wasn’t given a choice. I was given a gift of being made ready to serve in His way at His time. And He stepped in and moved me right to the place He wanted me to go.

In this time of Advent, as I await with expectant hope for the joys of Christmas, I want to remember that true gifts are not things – they are found in the giving away of grace that has been given to us. A humble, servant’s heart is what made Christmas possible in the first place, and it’s still the greatest part of this season. 

Lord, make me a channel of Your peace. Use me this Advent in the ways You see fit. Use me to give away Your relentless grace.

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 15 – Secret Dream

IMG_7550

Hearing encouragement from the right person can make all the difference.

I have a friend who spoke the secret of my heart out loud.

She had no idea that’s what she’d done at the time she said it. But with her words, she gave a dream wings.

“You should be a writer.”

In the very early days of writing my blog, it was her voice that gave me the confidence to click the ‘Publish’ button.

And to write again.

I quickly realized I needed to thank her.

So I did.

And then, well, grace came back to find her, too.

Because in big and small ways, that’s what He does.

Our emails mark the trail….

From: Gretchen  
Sent: Sun 10/05/14      4:20 PM
To: Laura 

Laura,

So, I’m sharing this with you because I keep feeling prompted to do so…probably because on more than one occasion now you’ve told me I should be a writer. Whether you were serious or not, I don’t know, but you couldn’t have known you were speaking truth to a private dream.

So – after years of thinking about it, I’m finally taking the leap and trying a little bit….[I] created a blog…It isn’t perfect…I’ve posted for 3 days and hope to be faithful to it….I hope you’ll pray for me. 🙂

Here’s the link….

Blessings,

Gretchen

 

From: Laura
Sent: Mon 10/06/14      10:07 AM
To: Gretchen

Wow Wow Wow…

I had just arrived home from taking the kids to school. I was still sitting in the garage waiting for Joel Osteen to come to a break in his talk so that I could run the XM radio inside to finish listening there. I was debating whether this particular episode was even worthy of my time as I had to get on with my “daily duties” and it wasn’t particularly striking a chord with me. I decided to ease my guilt by multi-tasking – I began to check the emails on my phone.

He kept stressing the point about how even a passing statement to someone that seems like nothing, could mean the world to them. We have no idea about how we can affect the course of someone’s life. We should never underestimate ourselves and the power of our words. I thought, “Ok. Makes sense. Still, no big aha moment.” …and then I opened your email…I may not have given any propulsion to your dream, but I feel like God was telling me, “Yes, even YOU, Laura.” My fists were clenched and waving as I audibly got the willies- in a joyful way. God is fun sometimes!

I went to your blog and read every last bit. You are amazing! 3 People?!

I hope you shout it from the rooftops so that everyone can experience your talent and inspiration! (add to favorites-click!)

In the meantime, I WILL pray for you and I will remember today’s message for a long time.

L

 

From: Gretchen
Sent: Tue 10/07/14       7:53 PM
To: Laura

Laura,

What an awesome experience to have all of those “promptings” for me to tell you then come together so that Monday morning you would get your God moment. He really is amazing. :).

Thank you again for the encouragement. I think the three followers are all friends…. My confidence goes up and down.

I’m certainly not ready to post it to FB or anything.… Facing that fear is hard.

But anyway – every bit of support is awesome, and helps me feel like maybe I’m on the right track.

Blessings,
Gretchen

 

I did eventually post to FaceBook and over time, in infinitesimally small ways, living a secret dream started to feel less scary. More like taking flight.