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 

Transition

Two weeks ago, I was shopping in Whole Foods when I saw my friend. She was standing by the olive bar with a downcast face, spooning a mixture of fruits into one of the plastic cups provided for purchases. We’ve known one another for more than a decade and met through a playgroup when our oldest kids were babies. She’s always smiling – one those people whose eyes twinkle joyfully most of the time. But her sadness hung on her like a heavy robe. And I understood. Completely.

Our “babies” – two vivacious boys – had started Kindergarten that day, and though we knew the boys were fine and wholly ready for this stage of their young lives, the transition was going to be hard – for us. We’d both been ‘at home’ with at least one child every day for the last 12 years. And while the separation from them would be brief (7 hours can go very quickly), the days suddenly seemed quiet. Too quiet.

I told her, “I lost it while driving yesterday. Started crying. Not good! And he didn’t know what to do. Poor guy. I told him through tearful smiles, ‘I’m so excited for you! But I’m going to miss you!'”

Apparently, my friend had had exactly the same experience. While driving. And then there we were, hugging in the produce section of Whole Foods.

What is it about following routines that can trigger the deepest of emotions? When something in our lives changes, routines suddenly seem anything but routine. They become more focused, more deliberate, somehow. We start to think more about where we’re going, what we’re doing, and why.

So how have I spent my last two weeks? Doing some of the same stuff I always have, but I’ve also gone full bore into a long list of projects that I’ve been waiting to tackle…

Sewing.  FullSizeRender copy 2

Shopping for artwork for the barren walls of my office.  IMG_2441

RedoingIMG_2452 our daughter’s room…I cleared the knick-knacks out of the way, and my husband painted the color our daughter chose. (Can I just say what an awesome dad he is?)

 

FullSizeRender copy 5Thinking about taming our overgrown  yard. (Whoever sits on our porch is risking their life.)

 

 

Tackling years’ worth of albums and scrapbooks that haven’t been updated (or in some cases, even started!).

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FullSizeRender copy 3And, deciding it was time to relinquish a few safeguards that are only required when parenting the very young.

 

 

So, I have my work cut out for me.  Rather, I’ve put some work on myself.

See, it’s easy for me to throw myself into these tasks, thinking that by going through the motions of improving the external, I can become ‘settled’ on the inside.

And over the last two weeks, I have certainly focused on the “shoulds” that have been pestering me for a long time.

I should beautify this house. I should get rid of the clutter. I should follow-through on projects I never finished. I should…I should

What an awful word. Should. It always makes me feel like I’ve fallen short. Of my capabilities. Of my responsibilities. Of my dreams. Of my expectations, however unrealistic, which are so often not exactly mine, but what I presume others’ expectations to be – of me. At the core, should makes me believe I’ve missed the mark – of ‘goodness.’

Separating what’s truly important from the ego in me that wants to just “get it all under control” takes effort, discernment, and quiet. The kind of quiet I can fill up with projects that aren’t intrinsically bad, but that might not align with what I know to be my calling in this life – to love and serve others according to God’s plans, not mine.

In my recent study of Galatians, I came across this verse:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of the promise. But just as then the child of the flesh persecuted the child of the spirit, it is the same now.  (Galatians 4: 28-29)

Every day, I have a choice. I can be an Isaac, and live fully freed by the grace of God through the covenant he established with me when I recognized that Jesus Christ  came to set me free from the traps of my own making that separate me from God. Or, I can be Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother, who was pushed into the wilderness, cut off from any of his father’s inheritance. Worse yet, I can live in a transitional spot, teetering between knowing and embracing the gifts of a Spirit-led life, while also entertaining the shoulds of my flesh, which followed outright will drive me to ruin and despair. Basically, my flesh can persecute my spirit. Where will I lean in this transition?

As a child of the Promise, I’ve experienced the priceless fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). But to enjoy them in this earthly life, I need to stay close to Him.

My oldest son was poking fun at me the other day, prodding me about those albums.

“Mom, are you gonna cry over the photos of us?  Boohoo! My babies! Boohoo!”

As he curled his fingers into loose fists and rubbed his jolly eyes like an infant would, I returned his smile, but with a smug, knowing grin. It’ll be decades before he understands how much I love him and his brother and sister, that I would cut out my heart to save each of theirs. And then I think…

Yes exactly. You’d die for this child of yours. But the Way of eternal love is felt most acutely by fully embracing the present as the gift that it is. So don’t cry over the past. This is the start of a different era. Embrace your new freedom. Live within peace and gentleness. Focus on what has eternal value. Look ahead. Joyfully. 

There is an appointed time for everything.

And there is a time for every event under heaven—

Ecclesiates 3:1

Knowing Hope

I was flabbergasted by the conversation and didn’t want to forget a word. So I grabbed the closest piece of paper, my gym’s class schedule, and intermittently scribbled down what he’d said as we stopped at red lights, making our way to vacation Bible camp.

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We’d been talking about how we’d be giving some money to a family with a sick child. To help them afford medical care. If a large sum was raised by tomorrow, the child’s father would shave his head at the closing ceremony.

Even though my son is only five, he understands illness. I just didn’t know what else he knew.

As we’re driving along at 9 a.m., suddenly he says:

“The medicine is not what works. God is actually the one.”

My heart starts pounding.

“Why is that?” I manage to ask.

“Because God heals.”

“How do you know that? Did you learn it somewhere? Or do you just know it?”

In a small but confident and reverent voice that takes my breath away, he says,

“I just know it.”

And there is nothing more to say.

Because Amen. It is certain.

Not Prepared, But Not Alone

imageThe words on the brand-new patch seem ironic this morning.

“Be Prepared.”

As if my son could have been ready for the emotional roller coaster he rode yesterday. It was his alone – not really a journey for the rest of us.

He’s been a Boy Scout for just one year, and last night he completed his Board of Review for the fourth rank, and was awarded it – First Class. He was thrilled. It was a goal he’d been working toward for months; he’d wanted to be First Class by the time he leaves for Scout camp this summer, and we were so proud of him for following through.

But sometimes highs are just a little tainted, and so this one was.  Before he left for the meeting, he realized that his beloved fish, “jerk fish,” – the same one I wrote about here a few months back – had died. This little fish had lived for 6 years and was my son’s personal, first pet. It was bad news.

When we got home from the meeting, we buried him in the garden. My poor son was so upset. It broke my heart. I know how he hurt – how he’d cared for this animal, put effort into its life. But I reminded him of all the things he had done well for this fish, and of the fact that God designs his creatures with finite life spans, for reasons only He understands.

My son’s eyes never left my face as I told him these things. Then he hugged me for a long, long time.

In victories and loss, we have one another, and the knowledge that others can empathize. This too, is a gift from the One who promises to never leave us alone.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed,

yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken

nor my covenant of peace be removed,”

says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

– Isaiah 54:10

I Can’t Hear Him

“I can’t hear Him.”

My young son is whispering, and I’m annoyed. It’s Mother’s Day, we’re in church (one of my favorite places), and I’m kneeling down for this sacred moment – the highest point of the Mass. The priest is consecrating the Host and my little boy is insistently chattering in hushed tones in my left ear.  Grrr. I just want quiet. I am not feeling holy.

“I CAN’T hear Him. I’ll NEVER hear His voice. Never!”

‘Uh-oh,’ I think. This is my fault. Try to do a good thing and…oh, well…

See, I was in Target on Saturday and in the $1 bins they had these cute little notebooks. I immediately remembered a suggestion I’d heard recently from Matthew Kelly, founder of Dynamic Catholic and acclaimed speaker and author.  He explains:

Our lives change when our habits change. Get yourself a Mass Journal and bring it to church with you each Sunday. Write down the one thing that God whispers into your soul.  This one habit will change your whole experience of the Mass, your relationship with God, and your appreciation of the Church. This one habit will help you become a-better-version-of-yourself, will make you a more engaged and contributing member of your parish community, and will invigorate your relationships.*

His straightforward idea was brilliant – a perfect way to focus my attention during the service, and on God’s will for me in the week Mass  Journalsahead. One thing. I can do that. And so can my sidekicks.

So, on the way to church I gave each of my kids a notebook and explained the idea.

“Write down the 1 thing God says to you,” I advised. “Not 2, or 5, or 8. Just one.”

My older kids (12 and 9) understood right away and didn’t object because the idea was very simple.  I could tell they were listening in church, and they were writing in their notebooks after the Gospel was read. But my little guy…Hmm.

I knew at the outset I was asking a lot. The kid starts Kindergarten in the fall. He writes his letters, but he can’t read. So, I told him I would write God’s message in his notebook for him. I mean, I couldn’t very well give the other kids a booklet and not him, right? That wouldn’t be fair. And now he says he can’t hear God. I didn’t quite foresee that difficulty, because this is the child who thinks of other people to pray for all the time. Every night during prayers, he asks God to surround everyone in the world with angels and help them have sweet dreams. He likes to read Bible stories and lights up when we talk about Jesus – who is, in his words, “the most, most powerful.” How do you tell a young child that the goodness in his heart is exactly the thing I want him to pay attention to right now?

His angst returned when we did our bedtime routine. I sensed there was more to this, so I pushed a little harder.

“What’s really wrong, buddy? We can put aside the journal until you’re bigger. That’s fine. You’re good boy. Why does this bother you so much?”

“I wanted to hear His voice FIRST!!!” he blurted out.

OH! There’s the rub. He wanted to know what God was saying before his siblings.

I knew we had to move away from the topic; he was just too worked up. So we read a book about spiders and called it a night. But his feelings struck me as universal.

When we’re listening for God, don’t we all want the satisfaction of hearing from him RIGHT NOW? Before anyone else? We love to be ‘in-the-know.’ And yet, sitting in faith can be like sitting in fog. What’s required of us is obedience and submission – the suspension of ourselves and our expectations as we wait for Him. He always fulfills His promises. He loves hearts that are turned to Him. But He’s sovereign. And good things come to those who wait.

“Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord.”

– Psalm 27:14

*(Rediscover Catholicism: A Spiritual Guide to Living With Passion and Purpose, p. 205) – request your copy of this book and a Mass Journal at Dynamic Catholic.

Anything to Get to My Son’s Heart

I went into my son’s room just now to get this picture. My focus was really going to be on those two albums to the right – by TobyMac and Skillet. But one of our dogs followed me in and the picture turned out this way, which I think is kind of cute.

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See how her right ear is flipped out?  She’s a dog in motion, about to leave the frame to go sniff the pile of dirty clothes behind her and then settle in on that pillowy blue chair on the left side of the photo – all because these things are comfortable smells that remind her of my son. She likes to be around him. So do I.

And that’s a great thing. I’m savoring it because he’s 12 and I’m not sure what the teen years will bring. But I can tell you what he and I share right now. Music.

I was taking him to Tae Kwon Do practice last week, when “We Won’t Be Shaken” by Building 429 came on the radio. My son absentmindedly began singing. Strangely, the car was quiet. His siblings were both lost in their own thoughts. My son didn’t realize I was listening to him. Singing. Every. Word. Right. To. The. End.

When you finish reading here, click on the YouTube link below and listen. Perhaps you’ll understand why I was hiding my eyes, filled with tears of joy, when he hopped out of the car a minute or so later.

When my kids are in the car, I listen to either Christian or classical music, with few exceptions. Yes, I enjoy other genres of music and need my daily dose of news (when young ears aren’t listening), but I like the atmosphere that this music creates as we go about our activities together. And I also believe that the media we consume has an effect on what we feel, think, and become.

Scripture confirms this.

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.” (Matthew 6:22)

The things we look at, read, and examine closely make their way into the fabric of our being and either work for good, or not. The books we read, shows we watch, music we hear, people we spend time with, matter. We need to choose wisely.

When I was about my son’s age, my dad gave me some Christian music that I listened to frequently. He had taken some time to figure out what was popular with young people in the 80s, and made selections that he thought I might like. He did a good job. The words of those songs made their way into my heart. I didn’t stay with the faith through my tumultuous teen and college years, but the lyrics I had learned and the Truth they spoke of, never left me. And when I was finally ready to turn toward the loving whisper that was gently beckoning me, I knew those songs had played an important role in my faith formation. To this day, “El Shaddai” by Amy Grant is still one of my favorites.

So, I’m listening to the radio, and to my kids, paying attention to which artists, both secular and Christian, they are responding to. And I’ve gone out on a limb and bought my son, and my daughter, CDs I think they’d enjoy with messages I’d like them to hear. I’ve been blessed for my efforts, because they are playing those CDs, singing along, engraving Truth on their hearts without even realizing it. Some of this music isn’t exactly my taste, but it’s definitely grace in action.

Day 21 – The Cost of Humor

It’s been 6 days since my last post…..more than I wanted, but I will eventually get to my first goal of 31 days!

In my mind, I keep returning to a little scuffle between my two older kids from last week that I think illustrates something that happens all too often, and leaves us with a question.

Things had gotten silly on the car ride home from school Thursday.  For one part of the ride, we were talking about pug dogs bred with beagles – “puggles.” And then later, after we stopped for my daughter’s half-hour piano lesson, the conversation was still animated but had taken an edgier turn.  I had placated everyone with snacks but all three kids were ready to be home, and there was nothing to do but to wait out the 8 long minutes until we got there.

The atmosphere was different, and it’s hard to tell how or why exactly.  These things just happen when kids are itching to release pent-up energy, and there was a lot of noise in the car. One kid was singing and the other two were taunting each another with verbal barbs.  Things sounded fun but I sensed it might be going too far and wasn’t sure so…I called out, “Quiet Game!”.

No one was to say a word or make a sound until we got home (real coughs and sneezes are allowed).  I looked in the rearview mirror when we pulled into the driveway and saw my daughter’s face turned toward the window, tears rolling down her cheeks. We all got out except her. When the other two kids went inside she told me, “He hurt my feelings.”  I knew he hadn’t meant to, but words have power. We have to remember that.

My oldest son, as usual, had gone up to his room to study.  I came in to talk.

“But, I was kidding!  She takes everything so personally!”

“Yes, and when you know that, you need to be sensitive.  You love your sister, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well.  Is it more important to be right here, or to have a good relationship with her?”

“Have a good relationship.”

Then, of course, because he’s 11 he went on to cite all the ways he wants me to stand up for him more when she bothers him, but that’s for another day….

What this situation made me remember is this question:

Is it more important to be right, or to be rightly related?

 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

– Matthew 5:9

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