31 Days of Seeing Beyond

31 Days of Seeing Beyond

This was my very first post. It appeared on October 3, 2014. I’m reposting it in celebration of my blog’s 5th Anniversary. Thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey.

Three deaths over the last month have left me tired…..and sad. My beloved great aunt……a dear friend’s niece who took her own life… and my stepsister –  who passed after nearly 4 weeks in the ICU fighting to recover from extremely rare childbirth complications.  It’s my stepsister’s passing that brings me most often to my knees. I cry out to the Lord on behalf of her third child, a now 1-month old baby boy who will never know his mother.

They say there is a cycle of grief.  It has various stages. And I’m watching devastated people go through it now.  But in the midst of all this anguish, I  have been blessed to remain thankful and aware of God’s infinite goodness. I have also been given new opportunities to serve Him, and follow Him more closely – sometimes in ways that push me beyond old boundaries. I posted a prayer for my stepsister on Facebook. And soon, the family requested more.  It seemed the Lord wanted to use me.  It made me both nervous and strangely excited – not because people appreciated my writing, but because I had stumbled upon a way to really serve. And I learned – when there are people hurting, perhaps then more than ever, the Lord wants me step out of my safety zone and walk in new terrain, keeping my eyes on Him.

About 10 days ago, I saw the invitation from Myquillin Smith to take the 31-Day Challenge and write in October. I could hear the whisper that always leads me to good places — “Try this” — and felt that tinge – of joy.  And as I sat down to write tonight, I remembered a verse I taped to the front page of one of my journals four years ago when I first intended to write in earnest – but never really did.

A bruised reed he will not break,

a smoldering wick he will not quench….

             —  Matthew 12:20

The Word is full, so full, of promises. And for myself and so many people I love, I am holding on to this one right now.  Whether we are writing or just trying to get on with living day by day, the terrain in my world seems new and tough.  We are bruised and bent over, trampled and beaten down, hardly like flames alight. But when I fix my gaze on Him, when I ready myself through surrendering prayer, I am given all the strength I need.

Lord, help us. Thank you for the confidence you’ve given me – the knowledge that you alone are fully trustworthy, and that you are my only true help – my Savior.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

Adoption: What a Gift!

Adoption: What a Gift!

I was overjoyed to learn this weekend that a friend of mine and her husband were able to finalize the adoption of their daughter on Friday. The photo says it all – one child smiling ear to ear, surrounded by two loving parents and a large extended family who have embraced her with a forever welcome.

This isn’t the only adoption story I’ve heard this year. Other friends have adopted children internationally, or are waiting to do so. And every time I hear about this complete and unconditional acceptance of a child into a family – whether it’s happening now or occurred long ago – I have the same recurrent thought.

Adopting a child is one of the most generous and least selfish decisions a person can make.

Today it occurred to me: Jesus was adopted too.

Yes, he was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, but he had an earthly father who took Jesus in as his own, regardless of what it would cost him.

Think about it: Joseph’s decision contradicted every ‘reason.’

The child was not biologically his. Choosing to love a woman who had conceived under circumstances the world would fail to understand would threaten his reputation and of course, require every resource he had.

Yet he heard God’s calling on his life and obeyed.

It wasn’t easy.

His decision to raise the Son as his own meant that while he gave everything a parent could, his child still suffered a humiliating death.

It was an ending no parent would want.

At least on the face of it.

But then – Joseph’s sacrifices were transformed through the Son’s ultimate success.

The child would return his father’s goodness – more times over than Joseph (or we) could ever count – and for all eternity, by adopting us.

Through His mercy and infinite Love, the Lord counts us as His own.

That’s the amazing gift of adoption we celebrate this Christmas.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Romans 8:14, NIV)

Did You Ever Get a Thank-You Like This?

Did You Ever Get a Thank-You Like This?

image

We attended a wedding and got a thank-you note. But I wasn’t expecting one. The bride and groom had already sent us a note for the gift we’d given them. ‘Hmm,’ I wondered as I opened it, ‘maybe they were worried they had overlooked us, so they’re sending another one.’

Nope.

“Thank you both so much for joining us as we celebrated our big day. We hope you both had a great time as well!!”

Who does this?

Who spends postage to thank guests for their presence, instead of their presents?

Almost no one. And that’s why it’s so remarkable. And sweet.

The truth is, we are grateful to have special people with us, in good times, bad times, and in-between times. The trouble is, we neglect to tell them we are thankful that they are there.

Jesus said, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Something to think about.

Easter Sonrise

1997, Washington, DC, USA --- Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument --- Image by © Joseph Sohm; Visions of America/CORBIS
1997, Washington, DC, USA — Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument — Image by © Joseph Sohm; Visions of America/CORBIS

I’ve only attended one Easter sunrise service in my life, but looking back I can see how very blessed and privileged I was, for it took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Reflecting Pool, in Washington D.C. I was with my dad and I think I was about 13 or 14 years old. The sunrise looked something like the one pictured here. Pretty. Spectacular. Pretty spectacular.

And there is one memory that stands out for me the most, aside from the triumphant Easter music and the rousing sermon.

During one especially moving song, I glanced up at my father’s face. Tears streaming from his eyes reflected the morning light. I was caught off guard and mystified.

‘Why is Dad crying? Is he ok?’

The questions boomed in my mind like thunder, but I was paralyzed. It  seemed completely wrong to ask him – to interrupt what was clearly an important moment – so I didn’t. I held my tongue. But I never forgot.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my own 13-year old son after school. He and I have been having pow-wows to go over his assignments as a way of staying on top of the demands of middle school. At the end of our discussion, I found there was something on my heart that I needed to say.

“You know,” I began, “You’ll be leaving my house in 5 years, and there are things I want you to understand before you go. What do you think is the ONE thing I really want you to know?”

“That you love me,” he said, rolling his eyes while giving me a charming half-smile.

I laughed.

“Yes, yes. Ok, that. But what else.”

“That I should get a job.”

“Ha! Ok. That too. What else?”

“I should go to church.”

“Well, sort of….I mean, yes that’s good and all, but what’s more important is that you have a relationship with God. That you KNOW Him. That you understand our God – Jesus – is FOR you. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think so.”

“Ok, we’ll discuss this again. Because this, this is the most important thing I want you to know. In this life, you are going to encounter stuff that Dad and I can’t help you with, and your friends can’t help you with, and whoever you marry can’t help you with. Only God can help you. He is the One who can meet all your needs because he created you. This is why I tell you about Him, and why He’s so important.”

The conversation kind of ended from there, and that’s ok; I’ve found that faith is best fed to kids in small bites.

What my dad knew that Easter morning so long ago is exactly what I wanted to explain to my son: Faith in Jesus is a personal experience. It’s a one-to-one encounter with a risen Savior. It isn’t a community deal. It isn’t a cultural tradition. It’s SO MUCH BETTER than that.

Jesus rose from the dead to prove to us His absolute authority over the powers of this world. We can totally rely on Him. He is our Protector, Provider, Defender, Champion, Friend, Redeemer…the list goes on and on. And all we have to do to know Him is turn our hearts to Him and ask Him to enter in.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

-John 3:16-18

I railed against this Truth for a long, long time. I understood it to mean that God would condemn me to an eternal torment if I did not follow his Son, and I just couldn’t square this with a loving God. I couldn’t even see that I could ‘perish’ in the here and now – that life today could be far less than was envisioned for me.

But I finally came to a point where anger, depression, and fear burdened me so much that I fell to my knees and cried out to God – and guess what? He answered. I found I could trust in his name. His name has a rock solid reputation of Love. Every single time I turned to Him, He was there. And the condemnation I had been suspicious of in Him, was actually in me. With my lack of faith in Him, I had condemned myself to life without Him, and it was bleak indeed. 

I went back and re-read John 3:18, and then I understood.

“For every cross, there is a resurrection,” the saying goes, meaning that  with Christ, all burdens, no matter how impossible they may seem, can be mitigated or overcome. A man who can defeat death can do anything. Don’t ever underestimate Him.

This Easter, let’s surrender our hearts, minds, souls, and strength to Our Risen Lord – Jesus Christ – in full trust that He is worthy, because He is absolutely FOR us. 

Concerns for My Daughter

I’m catching a mid-morning flight and trying to leave the house quietly. But my daughter is up to say goodbye.

She’s always been an early riser, but I’m still surprised to see her standing there in her pajamas, her blond hair a tousled mess.

“Honey, you should be asleep.”

She turns her head ‘No’ and whispers while moving in to hug me tightly.

“Did you leave Daddy a schedule?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. But who’s driving me to dance?…What is the plan for tomorrow?…Did you remember to tell Dad about…?”

She has a list in her head.

Just like me.

Maybe that’s not a good thing.

image

See – the list making – the idea that we can finalize plans, has become for me an extension of my perfectionism – something I do not want to pass on to her. Having a few ideas about what I’d like to do is one thing. Expecting them to happen just as I’d like, is another.

I want to tell her to relax. Enjoy. Don’t anticipate.

But it’s hard to convey these things effectively. And there are even bigger things that I must teach her. Things I believe are essential for her to understand.

If all of Scripture could be boiled down to two central messages, they’d be: 1) Be not afraid. 2) You are loved.

More than anything else, these are the things I want my daughter to know. And sometimes I worry she isn’t getting these messages.

‘But maybe she’ll see,’ I think. How can I help her see?

These were my thoughts in Bible study Thursday night, where we were discussing Jesus’s mother, Mary – the one person in history other than Christ himself who best exemplifies a person exercising full trust in God’s providential care.

To the root of her being, Mary was humble and put her faith in God. She had no silly notions that she was in charge of her life. As the angel told her that she would bear God’s son, she declared herself “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). Her ‘yes’ – given despite the questions she had – showed she accepted the full weight of His authority, love, and protection. From within that sacred space, she then assumed her role in God’s plan and prayed from her deepest depths, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Luke 1:46)

Mary’s life was anything but easy, and it’s impossible to overstate how agonizing it must have been for her to watch her son die on a cross. But everything we know about Mary leads us to this conclusion: in the role that God chose for her, Mary was fully cooperative, and God used her as His instrument to point others to Christ – to Himself.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Mary’s last words in the Bible, concerning Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana, are to the servants – and all of us – “Whatever He says to you, do it.” (John 2:5)

We too can magnify God – make He who is invisible, visible – by fully leaning into Him and asking Him to fill us with His love. Then, His love flows into our words. And into our actions.

Lord, I thank you for your mother, Mary. I ask that you make me more like her, and that Your Will be done in me. Make me a vessel that magnifies your Love, projecting Your radiance to my beloved daughter.

The Lift

The Lift

A Lift? Here?

You recognize this. A Starbucks. We’ve all been to one. Or 50.

And yet there’s more going on in this photo than you might think. In the far right corner of the coffeehouse is a young woman interviewing for a job, and I was there when she walked in.

I was at the counter going through my wallet to find the free drink card that I’d been working on over the holidays, when I realized I hadn’t even acknowledged the cashier. ‘Aw, man!’ I thought. ‘How often am I in such a rush that I fail to look people in the eye? He deserves at least that.’ 

I found the card, faced the young man straight on and made sure to finish the transaction – with eye contact – and a sincere, “Thank you. Have a good day!”

Then, I smiled at the barista and thanked her when my white chocolate mocha came up. She smiled back because I actually looked at her. Whoa. I was on a roll!

I was fishing for my car keys when I saw the woman in her late 20s come in. Gray and black wool skirt, black tights, sharp shoes, a moss green jacket, coordinating scarf, and her auburn hair trimmed neatly and tucked behind one ear. Fairly large portfolio under her left arm.

A man in his 60s sitting at the far table by the door looked up from the stack of papers he was reading.

“Hello!” She smiled. Made eye contact. “Are you Mr. Patterson?”

He smiled back.

To me, she seemed just the right combination of bubbly, warm, eager, and professional. I liked her immediately. I will probably never see her again, but in that moment, I could do one thing for her. I could lift her up.

“Lord,” I prayed silently, “I don’t know her story but You do. You know if this is the job she needs. Give her courage today. Give her confidence in her abilities. Please help her succeed with the gifts and talents You have given her. Give her wisdom to make good decisions. Please whisper to her that no matter what happens, You love her.”

That day, I heard a whisper just before I knew I was supposed to pray. And it was this: Who are you lifting up today? 

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about all week. I’ve heard it said, “Never ignore a generous impulse,” so this week I haven’t, and over the last 7 days, as the Lord has prompted me, it has been my privilege to encourage, and listen, and pray for, and be present to more people than I believe I usually am. It has undoubtedly been a great week.

Yes – there have been sacrifices made in terms of time. Today I have a mountain of laundry to do and the house is a bit of a wreck. But, as my mom once told me, “It’s not like someone’s going to knock on your door and give you the Good Housekeeping Award.” And what’s a house compared to the greater glory of a full life?

I’ve been called to other work this week. The quiet, often hidden, sometimes secret work – of lifting others up. The life in me has been bolstered and enlarged because of it and I am deeply satisfied. But then, why am I surprised? That’s what He promised all along. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

The life of the Lord, living in me, if only I believe in Him with my whole heart. What a promise. What a pool of hope. What a source of eternal joy!

When people are brought low and you say, ‘Lift them up!’ then he will save the downcast.

-Job 22:29 (NIV)

My Own Glimpse of Heaven

Do you know you are seen?

Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that God is watching over you?

Do you believe God hears your cries of weariness, your frustration, and your desperation of silent dreams unfulfilled? The whispers of your soul?

I didn’t. Not really. I mean, I was trying….to believe. But I’d been through enough of life to know that true faith is a leap off a ledge. And God only knew what would happen if I actually took that step, instead of inching along the crumbling path of so-called certainty.

My mother-in-law was just trying to make happy plans when she said, “Then there will be Gretchen’s confirmation. We’ll have to celebrate that.”

It was sometime in the fall of 2006 and she was looking ahead to Easter. I was going through RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – the process by which adults enter the Catholic Church.

“No,” I said, perhaps too forcefully, and looked at my husband.

“No,” he affirmed, “We’re not going to have a party for that.”

Because I didn’t want one. I wasn’t ready. The journey to get to this point in my life had already been so difficult that I sort of wanted the day to be just about…. me. And God.

As I’ve explained to many, many women in my Bible study groups over the years, I truly believe that discord and division among Christians must break the Lord’s heart. And my feelings on this subject stem from having been raised in a variety of churches, combined with the fact that my parents divorced when I was eleven, and subsequently pursued divergent paths in Christian denominations. Because we had also moved around frequently, we had never had a ‘church home’ to help guide me, and as my parents’ marriage deteriorated, my ability to understand God’s unfailing love, did as well.

As a child, the only message I retained from many homilies I heard was the “hellfire and brimstone” picture of life without Christ. My fear of God was deep and real. And it wasn’t  the “fear” mentioned in Scripture, which is respectful – the kind one should have for a loving father whom you don’t want to disappoint. No – this was abject fear. How could I love this God?

For years, I couldn’t sit through any church service, of any denomination, without crying. In a way I couldn’t explain, my soul seemed drawn to be there, but hearing the Word brought tears my eyes and terror to my heart. My family was torn apart and it seemed that God was at the center of it all. I just couldn’t make sense of how I felt, of how my story was being written. So much healing was needed.

So when I began RCIA, I truly embarked upon it as a period of discernment. Bless the heart of Deacon Moore, who led our program, because a tiny part of him probably wanted to get rid of me by the end. Every time we met, I asked more questions than a six-year old boy watching his father work on a car.

As I’ve written in other blog pieces, RCIA was one of the greatest experiences of my life. By Holy Week, we had reached the end, and I was to be confirmed at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

Holy Week was full of exciting opportunities to prepare our hearts for the sacrament we would soon receive. Sunday – The last time our RCIA group would leave Mass together before the Eucharist to discuss the day’s Scripture readings. Monday – Mass at the Basilica in Baltimore, when the parish’s Chrism oil for the year would be blessed and brought back to our church. Thursday – The Maundy Thursday service – where priests would wash the feet of RCIA candidates, as Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper. Friday – The Good Friday Service – where the deacon would carry a full-size cross to the front of the church for us to touch….and remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of pure, selfless love.

I missed every single event.

During stressful times I get migraine headaches, and that week I had one of the worst migraines of my entire life. I spent every day in bed, silently crying about what I knew I was missing. On Saturday afternoon, my husband came into our darkened room. He said, “Try to tell me what it is.”

“I feel like I’m turning my back on my upbringing and my family. And I’m still not ready to tell them,” (It would be awhile before I did.)

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I know. But I want to. I really want to.”

That’s when he gave me a beautiful cross necklace – St. Brigid’s cross – and I was so surprised. It never occurred to me he might give me a gift for this occasion.

I got myself dressed, put on my new necklace, and popped one more of the useless precription pills I’d been taking all week. The sitter came. And my husband (who was also my sponsor for the sacrament) and I left for the church.

Brigid's Cross

In the narthex to the large sanctuary, the deacon approached me. “I’m glad to see you here,” he said gently. “I was worried about you.” I told him I just hadn’t been well, and I smiled through the incessant pounding in my head. Our group processed in and took our seats.

At a special point in the ceremony, I was asked to stand and profess my faith. I stared with glassy eyes at the altar as the priest spoke these words to me and the others.

Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried,
rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Candidate: I do.

In the millisecond after I said the last “I do” the splitting pain in my head vanished.

Vanished.

I felt as good as I’d ever felt on an absolutely perfect day. No worries. No concerns. Nothing but an absence of pain and a clear, refreshed mind.

A few moments later, I moved to the front of the church and stood, with my husband behind me, his hand on my shoulder, as our pastor, Father Kingsbury, stretched out his hand and prayed for me and the others:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.

Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide.

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

In my hand was an index card with my confirmation name: Gretchen Elaine. Some people take a saint’s name. I hadn’t settled on one and figured my own was sufficient.

I handed the card to Father Kingsbury when he stopped directly in front of me, with Deacon Moore on his left, and another of my teachers, Father Harrison, on his right.

“Gretchen Elaine,”I heard Father Kingsbury say as I closed my eyes and he anointed my forehead with the Chrism oil, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

I opened my eyes.

It is very difficult to explain what I saw – but it just may be my first glimpse of heaven.

Brilliant, white, and golden light surrounded the three men. The space seemed positively filled with it. And I was filled with, and surrounded, and bathed, in this radiant light. All my fear was gone. Head to toe, I was flush in a spirit of wonder and awe, and I knew I was smiling broadly into the glowing faces before me. I was warm and comfortable all over. It was pure bliss.

I didn’t want to leave that spot before the altar, but it was time to return to our seats.

As we settled in, I said to my husband, “Did you see that light?”

“What light?”

“Up on the altar. All around them.”

He looked in the direction where my eyes were searching – the spot where the second miracle of my night had occurred.

“The lights are on,” he said quizzically.

And then I knew – the light had been for me. And the healing had been for me. Me alone. Because He sees me. He knows my story. He knows every last bit of it, and no matter what has happened or just might happen yet, He is in control. And He loves me. 

In time, I would tell my parents about my faith journey, and their responses would be more grace-filled than I ever could have dreamed. Both of them are fellow travelers on the road to eternal life with the Lord, and we have wonderful discussions about how He works in our lives. Christian unity is at the heart of my relationships with them.

If you seek Him with your whole heart, you will find Him. He sees you. And He loves you. Regardless of whether you know Him, feel Him….whether you doubt His existence or not. He’s real. He is listening to the whispers of your soul.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom

a light has shone.” 

-Isaiah 9:1

Liturgical Text for the Easter Vigil Service was copied from this document, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro.

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 17 – Findings

Why do we keep stuff? Have you ever been unsure about why you’ve kept an item from your early life, and yet, the idea of parting with it has always seemed wrong?

I have this book….

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I think it was my parents’. Copyright 1972. According to Amazon, there are two million copies in print, but I think mine is a first edition. There are no other printings listed on the inside cover.

This morning, I read it again for the first time in decades. It was in a dilapidated box we keep in our storage room labeled “Gretchen – Childhood,” as if the sum total of those formative years can be held within crumbling walls of cardboard.

The things we choose to save reveal something about us. Or about where we were at a moment in time.

I was totally captivated by this book as a child, even though I knew I truly did not understand it.

I remember reading it at age 7 or 8 – thinking it was a pleasant story about how two caterpillars become butterflies.

At age 11 or 12, I was perplexed. See, in the beginning, two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, are in love. But after awhile, they stop gazing only at one another and spend some time in a pile of caterpillars climbing over one another to reach something high in the sky. Sometimes caterpillars fall to the ground, and once, a caterpillar who briefly survives the fall whispers a mysterious message about “the top.” This feeds Stripe’s compulsion to climb. So he heads back into the pile, leaving Yellow behind.

By age 16, this book disturbed me. I distinctly remember trying to read it and then putting it aside. Partially because Yellow seemed insecure and too timid. I didn’t like her.

[S]he just couldn’t believe that the top was worth it all asks to get there…. 

She also felt stupid and embarrassed since she could never put her reasons into words that his kind of logic would accept. 

Yet somehow, waiting and not being sure was better than action she couldn’t believe in. 

At the same time, in the pile, on dark gray and green pages, Stripe is “determined to get to the top. He especially avoided meeting the eyes of other crawlers. He knew how fatal such contact could be….He disciplined himself neither to feel nor to be distracted.”  I didn’t like this guy either. He seemed insensitive. Eventually, he realizes his pile is just one of many and asks, “Something is really wrong but…what else is there?”

I was left confused. What did this all mean? Yellow was floundering and yet the pile was such a dark and dreary place.

Truth be told, I mostly avoided the book in my college years. My earlier experiences had made it subtly threatening. And then there were passages like this one, when Yellow meets another caterpillar who has opted to build a cocoon rather than climb. She has this troubling conversation with him:

How does one become a butterfly?” she asked pensively. 

 “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

“You mean to die?” asked Yellow, remembering the three who fell out of the sky.

“Yes and No,” he answered. “What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away. Isn’t that different from those who die without ever becoming butterflies?”

In my late twenties, when I was newly married and my life happily consisted only of my husband and my work, I could see that Yellow’s decision to become a butterfly was a courageous leap into the unknown. But I was reaching…for something. That’s probably why, when Yellow (as a butterfly) meets Stripe at the top of pile, my heart was not moved like Stripe’s.

Looking into the creature’s eyes he could hardly bear the love he saw there. He felt unworthy. He wanted to change, to make up for all the times he had refused to look at the other. 

He tried to tell her what he felt. 

He stopped struggling. 

The others stared at him as though he were mad.

It can be read as a sweet exchange between lovers. And I think that’s what I thought. But I also had enough maturity to see this book as a metaphor for many of life’s experiences. Good enough, right? I was settled in that knowledge. I figured there was no need for me to think any more about it.

However, deep inside, I kept this book knowing it was not for sentimental reasons. The story had taken me on an emotional ride for my entire life. Nevertheless, it went (in its box) into storage.

That was about fifteen years ago, when I was blind to this story’s application to my life. But as the years passed, both of Stripe’s and Yellow’s feelings described me.

Feelings of unworthiness? Check.

Desire to change? Check.

Shame that holds you back from the tender gaze of Love? Check.

Inability to describe the inner struggle? Check.

In my thirties, I did what Stripe ultimately does. I ignored the voices who told me I was ‘mad’ – some of them internal, some of them not – and climbed down from the pile to build a cocoon. And in the space of submission and quiet, I allowed myself to be led on a process of growth that included letting go of my preconceived notions about success, a confession of all the ways I had done wrong in my life, and a surrender to Perfect Love. Real Love. The Grace from above, freely given. Sacrificial. To the point of death. On a cross.

And somehow, in becoming less, I became more of who I really am. The person I was always meant to be.

So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.

– 2 Corinthians 5:17

Hope for the Flowers has a new home: on my shelves of old treasures.