The 12 Stories of Christmas

Dear Jesus,

It’s almost your birthday again.
The day we celebrate that God got dressed in mortal flesh.
Humbly, controversially, miraculously, you entered the scene of the human story as one of us.
In the most vulnerable way.
Without regard for social rank or convention.
Under the most unlikely circumstances.
You are the protagonist in an epic story that changed everyone everywhere for all time.

Each year, I try to decipher your unorthodox redemptive plan.
But it never gets more sensible or logical.
I find no satisfactory explanation except for unfathomable love and underserved mercy.
Thank you!

Here, in my little world, this year’s festivities look different and I miss our dog-eared traditions…. every single beautiful one.
So much has changed on the home front.
The cookie ingredients are stocked but nothing’s baked.
The felt tree waits for the ornaments to be attached on its Velcro tabs.
The nativity puzzles sit stacked in their boxes.
And the Christmas book bin’s gone out of circulation.

None of my little girls is thumbing through the holdings, piling up their favorites and beckoning me to the oversized chair with “Mommy, read to me” anymore.
It’s quiet here. Too quiet.

Magnetized to the book bin, I sort through the collection and make a small pile of our besties. What I wouldn’t give right this nano-second to be a time traveler, to pile my 4 little princesses on top of and around me delighting in the simple pleasure of sharing stories together.DSCF7085

Then, I have an idea!
How about if I read the stories again? Aloud.
And send them out through the internet to all the places each of my girls call home.
That way, they’ve got them when they need them.
And, we both know, some gray-blue day, they’re going to need them.

So in honor of your birthday, Jesus,
And dedicated to the girls you entrusted into my care,
Here’s my present, given sincerely with gratitude.

Happy Birthday dear Jesus. Happy Birthday to you!
 
The 12 Stories of Christmas
#1 The Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey

#2 My Birthday, Jesus Birthday

#3 The King of the Stable

Enough.

Our Thanksgiving festivities survived the pandemic and this year’s celebration of gratitude, it was a grand adventure.

From chopping, stirring and peeling together around the table on Thanksgiving eve,
To crafting cookie cutter cinnamon ornaments,
And potting amaryllis bulbs for all four households,
Brennan squeaked out a victory in the finals of the whipped cream game.
And thanks to Meredith, Lily’s roomie, my photo memories are now archived onto iCloud.4DA4E08F-2C70-4759-A8EF-C920BBCE960D

The best of all traditions is our gratitude walk. The inaugural year that I enthusiastically unveiled this idea almost a decade ago, it met with strong opposition. We’re talking weeping, scowling, foot stomping dissent. But, we’ve persevered, and that meandering walk along the White Pine trail where we recounted the blessings uniquely attached to each of our stories last Thursday, it was nothing less than worship.
Then came the annual family video reveal.
And our banquet, it was perfect right down to the non-lumpy mashed potatoes.

The fall decorations, they’re tucked away in Rubbermaid bins.
The puzzle isn’t quite finished yet but we’ve polished off the Thanksgiving left overs.
We cut down the perfect Frasier fir Christmas tree according to Starla’s specifications. “It must be majestic.” It’s accessorized for the occasion and tucked cozy in the corner right next to the fireplace.

We did it. Boxes all ticked.
2020—it hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to but after a turbulent year, God brought us together on that day postured for gratitude, recounting our blessings with and for each other.
Another year of mercies, fresh and new each morning.
Abundant.
Generous.
Enough.

The Next Right Thing

Our family add-on, the resident plant expert, he’s got a greenhouse tucked behind our garage, a secret little incubator for growing bonsai trees, succulents and other arborist specialties. One year, on my birthday, he walked through the front door with a baby wisteria tucked tenderly into its cozy, little pot. For me. That’s when I knew he was a kindred spirit.IMG_0167

Come winter, I tucked my wisteria on a corner shelf in the garage because he told me to. After a while, the leaves made a puddle around the planter exposing a bare-naked twig in pebbly soil.

I took a picture and texted him with a sad faced emoji. “Did I kill it?” I queried.
“If the leaves fall, it doesn’t mean the plant is dying,” he responded confidently. “It’s just part of the life cycle.” Truly Profound.

Fast forward to 2020–a year of Shedding. Uncovering. Stripping down to a stick in a pot. And sometimes, I wonder if it belongs in the bin.
The pandemic.
The relational disconnection.
The change.
The losses.
The quiet.
It’s Jarring. Discordant. Like looking at the world without my reading glasses and everything’s fuzzy.

Last year, Christmas Eve morning, I cuddled into a heated recliner seat watching Frozen 2 at the theater with my tribe. Who would have guessed Disney could be prophetic? Depressed, Anna sings,

I’ve seen dark before but not like this.
This is cold. This is empty. This is numb.
The life I knew is over. The lights are out.
Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb.
I follow you around, I always have, but you’ve gone to a place I cannot find.
This grief has a gravity that pulls me down.
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind.
You are lost. Hope is gone but you must go on.  And do the next right thing.

Like Anna, I wake up these days feeling uncertain too. And I’ll be honest, I generally don’t really want to rise and shine. But I kick the covers off my night-sweaty body, sometimes as early as 5:00 and ask myself the same question every morning–the one I learned from an animated princess. Go figure. God works in mysterious ways.
“God, what is the next right thing?”
He replies gently.

Take care of your body.
OK.
So I jog, not because I love it. I don’t. It feels like death climbing the hill up the street but afterwards I’m grounded and energized.
I try to drink more water and eat less sugar.
And I hike when and where I can.

Take care of your mind.
OK.
So, I read more books and I enroll in a graduate degree program because after 26 years of educating my children, maybe it’s time to interweave my own life learning with a formal plan of study.

Take care of your emotions.
OK.
So, I get a job because I need to find an identity that gives my contributions to the world a monetary value too.
I keep writing in my locked journal document, catharsis at the keyboard.
From time to time, I unload on faithful friends who listen long and give me a safe space to feel what I feel.
And I grow things in my garden that are beautiful and make me happy.

Take care of your spirit.
OK.
So, I go on long prayer walks and give everyone and everything to God.
I read His words to me and other people’s words about living their stories yoked to His greater one.
And I add meditation, posturing my body to receive what God gives– quietly, breathing deeply.

Love and serve your family.
OK.
So I plod along with all the dailies—the dishes, the laundry, the housekeeping, the transportation, the grocery shopping.
And I keep stepping into opportunities to fortify each one to walk their own unique journeys.

Love and serve other people.
OK.
So, I volunteer because I can and I want to contribute to ministries that salve the wounds of hurting people.
And I mentor, because even though I’m a piece of work, my compassion is sincere.

Then, at the end of each day, I pamper my arthritic shoulder with an ice pack, shape my pillow around my neck for just the right amount of support and go to sleep in peace because God’s got me. I’m safe in His hands.
And every day, one day at a time, I just keep breaking it down to this next breath, this next step, this next choice, to do the next right thing.

And about now, gearing up for a long, gloomy Michigan winter after a lingeringly bleak pandemic year I tell myself what my kid said– “If the leaves fall, it doesn’t mean the plant is dying.”

And Thanksgiving, it’s a big, bold, brazen megaphone pronouncing this reality;

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is His faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23
.

I carry a lot of hopes into this holiday. Every year.
I want the food to be amazing.
The conversation animated and engaging.
I’d like to finish the puzzle without the dog eating any of the pieces.
I wouldn’t mind winning the whipped cream game.
And Lord knows, I want a good family picture wearing our gratitude shirts.
But when I dig a little deeper, what I’m really hoping is that we’ll come together postured for gratitude, attuned to God’s mercies, counting our blessings. Naming them one by one. Thankful we get to share them with each other. All day long.
And, really, that’s more than enough.

Election Day Mercies

I gotta admit, I was a lot more excited to find that Meijer re-opened the express self-checkout lanes for cash paying customers today than I was to vote. No more ugly orange signs announcing a coin shortage at my favorite store. It’s the little things really.

And, if that wasn’t mercy enough, and it was, Indian summer weighed in all sunshine and 62 in early November. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

I’m grateful for my 1 vote. Really I am. I just wish that the 2 primary contenders better represented the dignity of this great land that I love. But here’s the thing, at the end of the day, or maybe tomorrow, Biden or Trump will be elected President for 4 years. Biden’s already got 8 under his belt as White House sidekick and Trump’s been in the driver’s seat for 4. Nobody says it like it is better than the Teacher.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Here’s the thing. We’ve survived the leadership of both of these political hacks before and we’ll survive again.  So I’m going to sleep in peace because this election, it’s momentary. I know who the real King is and He’s got my vote forever. 

Good night.

Round 2: Donald Trump and My First Teenage Boyfriend

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Alexander. He woke up one morning and everything went wrong! Gum in his hair, didn’t get a window seat on the way to school, fights with his friends, no desert in his lunch, had to get a cavity filled and his mom served lima beans for dinner. Remember that story? By the end of the book, you’d like to gently pat him on the back, telling him it might have been better to pull the covers over his head and stayed in bed all day. But it’s too late. I’d be inclined to slap the same title on this political season—actually maybe the whole year—on steroids. We’re down to single digits for the upcoming election and early voters are proudly donning their “I Voted” sticker for selfies on social media. Ughhh…. I’ll be glad when it’s over. But then we’ll have to endure the morning after and it doesn’t take an Enneagram Six to be able to threat forecast the rhetoric. Like a couple of kids playing Candy Land after somebody wins, the loser candidate will accuse, “You’re a cheater!” while the other retorts “I am not.” Until mom breaks up the kafuffle. And the sad thing is, both sides have their own posse of toddler-like tantrum throwers in the ready to pitch a full-blown fit. On the bright side, at least my mailbox won’t be cluttered with political propaganda anymore. My recycling bin won’t have to be emptied as often and I can quit blocking the callers blowing up my phone with automated messages incessantly mining for voting data.   

I’m not very political. I’m disillusioned with the way it brings out the worst in people. But I have friends who are immigrants. One more year and they’ll be card carrying naturalized citizens. I sat in their backyard six feet apart awhile back. “We’re so excited to vote!” they declared, a broad smile spreading across their faces. “We’ve never been able to do that before.” Wow! I can’t even wrap my brain around that reality. I guess it’s easy to take my rights for granted when I haven’t had to flee for my life under dictatorial rule. This privilege to participate in the process, it’s a mercy and my vote, it matters.  

4 years ago pre-election, I wrote a blog post entitled Donald Trump and my first Teenage Boyfriend. Honestly, I kind of forgot what I said in it until I pulled it up on my phone this week and reread it aloud to the cute kid in the picture, now my 16 year-old daughter, who found it hilariously entertaining. Here’s the thing, I need to make a retraction. In the post, I asserted that Trump was sweet-talking republicans, specifically evangelicals, wooing them with their litmus test issue to get their votes, intending a mean break up after he got what he wanted. That’s not what happened and I humbly recant on that point. You could legitimately make him poster boy for the pro-life agenda. You could paint a 30-story high mural with the headshot of President DT on one of his casino towers and say “Thank You, President Trump for being pro-life.”  I’ve seen murals like that on Trump Tower in Atlantic City. It’s just that rather than a headshot of Trump, a half-nude woman with a sad smile and creepy eyes, you know, the kind you see on I-94 billboards going into Chicago, the ones advertising a “gentleman’s” club or a cheap XXX rated shop, that’s what adorned Trump’s entrepreneurial empire instead.  

1 term into the presidency, Donald Trump has a rah-rah cheering section amongst many prominent evangelical Christians for championing the lives of the unborn. Problem is, that the unborn are not the only people who should be treated with human dignity. I can feel the gasps as I type. Before writing me off as a liberal who’s about to denounce my faith in Jesus and go over to the dark side, hear me out. I’m a pro-lifer. I was one of those sign toting, perimeter praying abortion clinic protesters in my 20’s. I’ve never voted for any presidential candidate who does not claim to value the life of the unborn. You can read more about that here: Politics and Bad Hair.  

God cares about ALL human dignity. Created by His design, his love extends to every demographic which includes but is not limited to people whose skin color is pigmented differently than our majority culture, seasoned citizens who are infirmed and vulnerable, human beings who are immigrants—either legal or illegal, children who were born rather than aborted into poverty, instability and danger, males and females who feel confused about their gender and disoriented about their sexuality, and girls turned women victimized by sexual perversion, harassment and assault.   

While Trump has championed the pro-life agenda, he’s decimated the dignity of many other image bearing creations before and after his election to the office of President. Just scroll back through his twitter feed over time or watch his TV appearances on Youtube. He’s regularly crass, careless and compassionless with his words and he takes verbal shots at anyone who crosses him faster than a semi-automatic weapon can unload a round of ammunition. His mouth is a like a cesspool and if that’s not repugnant enough, he’s a sexual predator too. Reports of fondling, grabbing, gawking, forcing his mouth and his penis in places that they aren’t invited are as copious as his real estate holdings. His first wife even accused him of rape. To bottom feeder Howard Stern, Trump boasts about his voyeuristic strategy of using his position of power as a pageant owner to intentionally walk in on and take advantage of naked contestants in their dressing room. And on Access Hollywood tape, he gloats about behaviors that are blatantly sexual harassment at the very least. Meanwhile, in a Business Insider article dated September 17, 2020, 26 women made accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump that substantiate his own admissions and he both denies the allegations and threatens to sue the victims for crimes he publicly boasted about committing. What kind of psychopathology is that? Narcissism maybe? 

With the nature of predatory people and the way they tend toward excessive narcissism, anything that challenges the perpetrator’s grandiose opinion of him or herself is an invitation to a fight. Some perpetrators launch public character assassination campaigns against their victims, while other are litigious, threatening legal and economic ruin to any who would come forward.

We Too: How the Church can respond Redemptively to the Sexual abuse Crisis, Mary De Muth

I’ve heard people defend Trump claiming his victimization of women is in the past. Let bygones be bygones, they assert. Maybe even slap some cheap and easy forgiveness into the mix for good measure. Others take a boys will be boys approach. Some choose to overlook his character flaws because they support his policies. To those individuals, I say, it’s a free country and we all get our own vote. 

My blog represents just me. And I can not stand before God, before my daughters or before my gender with a vote that disregards the human dignity of women. I will not make excuses for a perpetrators behavior. I will not disregard sexual trauma. I will not multiply disgrace on victims who’ve already endured the shame of exploitation. I will not communicate a double standard to the world that makes exceptions for perversions of God’s design for sexual integrity in order to achieve political expediency.

The lives of the unborn, they matter. And I won’t vote for someone who isn’t committed to protecting them. The dignity of girls and women matters too. God says it does. And I won’t vote for a sexual predator. That is my political manifesto.  

In this land of milk and honey where we enjoy Wisconsin dairy frozen custard, Colorado 14ers, all things Apple, Pure Michigan freshwater lakes and Chicago Pizza, surely, we can do better than this. Neither of these candidates represents the great nation that we actually are. With my 1 vote, I get a choice and it’s not just a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I can choose whoever I consider a worthy candidate for the office of President of the United States of America. 1 vote. No more. No less. Fair enough.         

Starting and Ending

IMG_0882Labor Day was all different in the days when I packed my lunch, loading up my new Holly Hobbie thermos with warm Campbells’ chicken noodle soup, eager and anxious to see the list of teachers and students posted on the big picture window at school the next morning.
And in high school, somehow, I managed to spend the bulk of my holiday stressing over which outfit I should wear on the first day of class. All of my new school clothes were too warm for an Indian summer day but I had an image to present and if that required sweating, so be it.

My recollections are all fuzzy after that until the infamous Labor Day of 2002. On that afternoon, five of us and a 75-pound pooch parked out front of our new house in Dallas, Texas just before noon. The day was a scorcher–a few degrees cooler than my perception of hell. We unloaded our road weary bodies from our black Chevy Venture van, the dog especially eager for some exercise. The yard wasn’t much coming from a couple of country acres but enough to take care of her business. The house smelled like some sort of obnoxious aromatherapy blend of mildew and cat urine. I hadn’t remembered that from the showing…. Our moving truck wouldn’t arrive until the next day and already, the kids looked like somebody popped their imaginary pink Texas balloons.

“Hey, I have an idea!” Those could be the 4 words they write on my tombstone someday.
“How about if we make tonight a super fun camp out in our new house?”
“I’ll run out to the store to get a few supplies.”

Privately, the tears dripped like a leaky faucet through all eight traffic lights, and I parked in front of the nearest Target, feeling like I’d entered some sort of alter-reality. I meandered through the store like a lost puppy looking for a familiar scent. My cart half full, I checked out and headed home. We all laid down on the carpeted floor that night confirming the cat pee. The AC wouldn’t switch on and we might as well have been detoxing in a sauna. I tossed and turned uncomfortably wondering what we had done, sirens blaring in the distance. My final waking thought was straight out of The Wizard of Oz—“You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”

Most of my memories of the next 13 Labor Days are connected with the return to our Dallas life. Memorial Day kicked off our summers in Michigan. Labor Day launched another school year in Dallas. Mostly, I’d scramble around our house organizing schedules and gathering up textbooks to start homeschooling, except for the year we spent Labor Day weekend dodging a hurricane along the Atlantic coast instead. But, the summer of 2015, our Toyota Sienna minivan got a new license plate that read Pure Michigan and that Labor Day, we adopted an inaugural tradition. Summer starts and ends at the beach.
It was Robyn’s idea.
“That, I can do,” I told her.
And we did.
And we have.

But this year, it was just me. Closing down the summer. On the beach.
Gratefully melancholy-musing over the memories.
Like the picture perfect Spring day our beautiful girl wore a white dress and made lifelong promises to her handsome man in the blue suit.
And the sunset walk up to Maranatha’s prayer tower with Angela when we were quarantining together for 2 weeks.
Dune climbing with Lily at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.
Kayaking with the fam at the Mackinaw bridge.
Hiking the shoreline ridge together then swimming in our clothes in Lake Superior.
Watching the windsurfers catch air from the Grand Haven pier with the hubs.
Birthday camping at the beach with my tribe.
Dune walking to the Big Sable lighthouse with one of my besties.

Today, a red flag with a crude white graphic of a swimmer, a diagonal line across the image, blew in the breeze from the park deck. Not an invitation to swim safely.
I watched little bitties digging holes to China with their shovels,
Mamas and kiddos bouncing around on the white caps in floaties,
Daddies and children constructing magnificent castles,
Doggies paddling out into the water to get sticks.
I saw grandmas and grandpas wave jumping with their grandkids,
Insecure teenagers trying to impress each other with their bodies instead of their character,
Mature friends perched up on the dune reading novels and drinking sweet tea.

Me? I arrived heavy-eyed and like some sort of magical spell, the waves lulled me to sleep. When I woke up, the sun sparkled all diamond-like on the water. I lingered long watching seagulls soaring and diving, dodging waves as they feasted on a decomposing fish floating in the water. I found myself reluctant to leave. To check the box. Another summer complete.CCG5O+fLSwyFFP5PAj48iA

On my way home, I pulled into the Starbucks drive thru, the same one Robyn and I happily ordered our drinks from at a few years back. Hers was a peppermint mocha. Mine a double chocolaty chip frappucinno. Always. We drank to a summer full of everyday graces and anticipated fall mercies.
Honestly, I don’t feel very celebratory this year.
Maybe I need to re-frame my thinking. To repurpose a timeless truth.
The teacher in Ecclesiastes talks about an ebb and flow, like the waves crashing onto the shore then backpedaling their way into deep waters.
Starting and Ending.
Ending and Starting.
The seasons.
Life.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes says it’s all part of God’s plan for this broken-beautiful world He made and loves.
So, I guess I need to embrace it too, cause if I don’t, I’ll miss the mercies.
That first Monday of September it’s not just the end of summer. It’s the beginning of Fall.
And To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)IMG_4161

Sandy Pony, Mama Robin and the Velveteen Rabbit

“Due to a national coin shortage, self-check out aisles are limited to credit and debit card transactions only.” That’s what the orange signs posted near the registers said. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I mumbled under my breath. Sigh. Frown. At least nobody can see my pouty expression under the mask. I begrudgingly made my way to aisle 16, the shortest line in the store. Still, a couple of customers with overflowing carts stood in front of me.

Call me a grazer. I go to Meijer almost daily for my supply of items to sustain us through the next 24+ hours and I almost always pay with cash right out of my envelope marked “Living Expenses”.

I love Meijer! I grew up walking a mile each way with my mama for groceries. Coming home was the workout, a bag in each hand. And when the weather was cold or rainy, we’d take the bus. When I turned into a mama, we drove to Meijer instead. I buckled my littles in the cart seat and we made a bee line directly for the donuts. They munched and chattered while I shopped. Right in front of our favorite cashier, Selma’s lane, Sandy the pony was plugged into the electrical outlet waiting to be fed a penny and give little boys and girls a bouncy ride. We were religious about riding on Sandy. No Meijer trip was legit without Sandy’s bumpy blessing.let them be little 112 copy

As I impatiently waited for my turn to buy groceries, I spotted another sign, straight ahead of my lane. “Sandy is resting in her stable. She can’t wait until she can see you again.”
“Wait, not Sandy too. If you have to take away self check, fine, but don’t take away Sandy!” I conversed silently with myself. And, at that moment, I wished my mask covered my eyes too because they both started swelling like a dam about to break. You see, Sandy isn’t just a mechanical penny eater, when I walk past Sandy, somehow, for just a split second, my girls become little again. I hear their carefree giggles and watch their innocent delight. Sandy represents a time when “I Love you Mommy” cards with wobbly handwriting and stick figure artistry were as regular as the daily mail. When long cuddles in an oversized chair reading a pile of picture books together was routine. When a “bed-night” drink of cold water was always set on my night stand to make sure I didn’t ever get thirsty. When love was simply given and received without barriers.
And now, Sandy is gone.
_______________________

Just before my very own Robyn donned her white dress and spoke her forever vows, I  noticed mama Robin noisily hovering near the deck as I watered my baby annuals. I walked down the hill to the porch swing to peer up into the underside of the rafters looking for a nest. Every year, she’s built one. And sure enough, like me, she’d been busy about her work. I peeked through the deck boards right near the pot of zinnias and saw 3 blue eggs safely tucked inside mama’s carefully crafted home. After that, I kind of forgot about mama Robin until I spotted her nest, lying disheveled in a pile of stones, dislodged from its shelter after a blustery storm. There were no blue eggs and I hoped, by some miracle, her babies had hatched and fledged prematurely. Then, I found one of those eggs lying a few hundred yards away in my sunflower garden.
My sad-o-meter registered high. That mama, she did her best to provide a safe, healthy environment for her babies to thrive but failed. I’ve been there and done that too.

IMG_0314Thankfully, both robin and human mamas possess resiliency by design. And a few weeks later when I peeked up into her nesting corner, I saw a brand-spanking-new nest. And when I squinted down through the deck boards, I saw 3 new blue eggs. Inspired by her determination, I’ve followed the progress of her nurturing every day since. A little over a week ago, I saw 2 baby robins, their tiny featherless chests rapidly rising and falling like they’d just run a marathon. Most of the time, though, they sleep peacefully, laying belly up, in the most vulnerable position possible, beaks wide open waiting for mama to provide everything they need to survive, trusting her to take care of them. And she does.

They’re getting close to fledging now, their swelling bodies squeezing over the edges of the nest. So I googled what’s to be expected next in their rite of passage. Apparently, when a young robin first jumps out of its family home, it can’t actually fly so it tumbles to the ground where mama hovers close for a few more weeks helping it to stay out of harm’s way, teaching it about the dangers of life outside the nest and showing it how to forage for itself. But even with a nurturing mother, only about 25% of hatched robins make it through their first November. And once they fly off on their own, mama can’t watch over them anymore. Not that one or this one either.
They might break a wing, mastering their technique.
Fly to close to a car or a cat or straight into a closed window.
They could inadvertently ingest pesticides or chemical pollution.
Or just end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But if the young bird survives, she might be next year’s nest builder, next year’s resilient caregiver. Next year, she might even come back to the very same deck to make a home for her babies, just like her mama.
__________________________

DSCN2797DSCN0118Our family stuffed animal collection numbers in the hundreds. All the second tier friends live in the gigantic bean bag chair I sewed for them at least a decade ago, but the girls besties are Choco and Oreo, Ethan, the blue owl, and Mr. Bear and Mrs. Bear. When our biggest little girl was three, she left Mr. Bear in the dugouts at a park one summer evening while we were taking a family walk. That night, bedtime felt like a life altering catastrophe on par with COVID 19. Daddy drove back to the park with a flashlight and retrieved Mr. Bear, brought him home, and tucked him under his baby girl’s tear soaked pajama arm. Mr. Bear’s been through it all. He’s known every place she’s called home. Heard each of her bedtime stories, songs and conversations. He’s watched her smile and felt her tears. His clothes are thread bare so we dressed him in a new outfit to keep the stuffing inside, but honestly, he’s a lot like the Rabbit in Margery William’s famous children’s story. Worn down by love. And so am I.

Maybe that’s why I resonate with Christa Wells song, Velveteen. It tells my story too.
Love spoke my name and I felt life run through me.
Reborn in the flame. Nothing can undo me.

Shadow and light, I learned to let them find me.
Coming alive, feels a lot like dying.

 
So if my beauty starts to fade, well, I’ve been held in a thousand ways.
And if my heart looks broken in, then I’ve been brave enough to live.
If perfect turns to perfect mess and all Your love is all that’s left.
I’m as real as real can be.
Call me Velveteen.
________________________

Chapter 53’s had a lot of plot twists.
Transition. It’s hard.
And confusing. I don’t know if I fit or where I fit or how I fit. Into anything.
And I’m grieving what isn’t anymore. And disillusioned by what is.
It’s been a quarter of a century that the primary work experience on my resume reads mothering. I’m not even sure what else I’m good at and depending on the day, my kids’ gold star rating would rank pretty low for that.

Going into Chapter 54, feels like a plot hole. I can’t see the path to what’s next. Not yet. I don’t know if I’ve already lived through the climax of my story but I do know that where I’m at now feels a lot more like a reversal than resolution.

I read through an old journal the other night, and glimpsed another time when self-doubt derailed me. In it, I confessed to my mentor, “I don’t feel like I have what it takes.” And she responded matter-a-factly,  “You don’t.”
Then she paused, placed her hand over mine, looked at me with incredible compassion and continued, “But God does and He will help you.”
And that timeless blessing applies to every chapter.
Including each page written in 53, all of the ones still blank for 54 and right straight through to the end of my story.DSCF4955

PS: Tonight, when I got down on all fours, peered through the deck boards, derriere pointed toward heaven, mama robin’s nest was empty. The young birds are one step closer to their own great adventure and mama’s “cheerio”-ing them on.

Lots of Questions, Precious Few Answers

IMG_9931It felt like a scene out of the Twilight Zone, approaching the TSA checkpoint at the Grand Rapids airport. I literally walked right up to the desk, pulled out my license and boarding pass and leisurely removed my shoes for screening, not a single flier waiting in line behind me.

Flying and I, we’re frienemies. That’s why I dug up my years expired bottle of Alprazoam the night before. I’m not sure it’d even be safe to take anymore, but I appreciate the placebo affect of having it tucked into my purse in case we hit some Michigan potholes in the sky.

I felt especially anxious that particular morning. It wouldn’t be my first choice to die in a plane crash and leave my baby without a mama, especially now, when we’ve just kicked off a 3 year plan to Seize the Days.

Nobody takes a middle seat right now. I boarded, got comfy next to the window in row 5 and started to pray. “God, I’m either going to Dallas or Heaven today. Ultimately, you’re going to be the one to decide. Either way, we’re doing it together and I’m going to be fine.”

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The next few hours, at 36,000 feet, my mind played pinball. Thoughts bouncing off each other faster than my hand-eye coordination.
Lots of questions, precious few answers.
What a year! And it’s not even half over.
On every level, there’s chaos, grief, loss and uncertainty.
Internationally.
In our country.
Statewide.
As communities.
And in my own tiny world.

If I were one of those people who speculates about end times prophecy, I’d be making some wagers. But, I’m not. God’s the only one who knows how and when He’s going to turn the page on this chapter, bringing ultimate justice, absolute righteousness and perfect resolution to the mayhem of this cosmic story.

And, truth is, this year’s troubles aren’t necessarily worse than other year’s troubles.
Somewhere in the world there’s always War.
Famine.
Violence.
Disease.
Natural Disasters.
Hatred. Corruption. Tyranny.
It just doesn’t usually invade my personal space. Lucky me.

Starting with the infamous COVID-19—
I wonder how the brightest minds will analyze the impact of months of shut downs and sheltering in place through the lens of retrospect?
Is being required to wear a mask in a grocery store really a slippery slope to having our fundamental individual liberties undermined?
Is it necessary for Governors to enact cookie cutter orders for entire states like mine where hot and cold zones comingle?
And how about those brave business owners trying to avoid going bust after a lifetime of growing up their babies?
The astronomical unemployment rates represent individuals and families who hold mortgages and need groceries, how will they pay for them? And who’s going to foot the bill for all of the government assistance now that our pool of taxpaying income earners is significantly reduced? What about all the children and adults who have been stuck at home for months being physically, emotionally and sexually abused?
Who’s going to serve the mental health needs of those who’ve fallen into debilitating anxiety and depression due to fear over this virus?
And how do you reconcile the tragedy of a fatality count that mostly represents individuals who died alone with nobody to hold their hand? And what about the loved ones left behind devoid of the opportunity to participate in normal communal grief rituals?
And when the data’s all in, who knows whether or not this virus will actually end up being statistically significantly more dangerous than a bad flu season?

Enter—Flooding.
Ask anybody the source of our Pure Michigan pride. It’s the freshwater lakes surrounding our pleasant Penninsula. And so I wonder how can our Lake which has been our solace, turn into a threat as property owners build rock retaining walls and concrete barriers to battle erosion swallowing up their homes? River inlets and bayous burst at the seams too and right in the peak of the spring rains, dams break and empty out whole inland lakes into cities full of people just trying to shelter in place. Is there any act of human ingenuity or skill that can ultimately stop the forces of nature? I wonder, who will calm the waters and keep them where they’re meant to be?

Racial Injustice goes Viral.
And then, just like Murphy’s law, the tragic, senseless, repeated loss of life to black skinned people at the hands of police officers, ex-police officers and self-appointed neighborhood association vigilantes, like a horror movie, goes viral, resulting in nationwide grief and widespread revolt. And George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are just the tip of the iceberg.

George Floyd
I wonder what compels a trained law enforcement agent to administer brute force on a non-resistant, unarmed person? And over a potentially counterfeit $20 bill? And how could that officer miss the cues of severe physical distress when a grown man calls out for his mother?

Breonna Taylor
And, I wonder who, being awoken in the middle of the night wouldn’t potentially shoot at a mob breaking and entering their residence without identifying themselves? Don’t we generally honor a person’s courage when they protect their home and people from intruders? And with the available technology, why wouldn’t police officers on mission carry body cameras for no-knock warrants? And are no-knock warrants worth the risk in drug raid searches? And where did the communication break down that the warrant officers weren’t aware that the criminal they were seeking had already been apprehended at another location?

Ahmaud Arbery
And, I wonder how do neighborhood association home owners justify the right to stalk, ambush and shoot a person they assume committed non-violent criminal activity in their neighborhood? And who wouldn’t potentially have an adrenaline surge of self-protective energy under threat of violence while taking a leisurely jog on a residential street?

Our police force
And what must it be like for all of the justice loving civil servants of every race who are the whipping boys for the rage against the minority of sloppy, corrupt police officers?
What about the risks law enforcement agents take every day to protect our homes? Families? Communities?
Do we have any grasp of a cop’s quandary as he or she makes instantaneous life and death judgment calls in crisis?
And how is dismantling our local law enforcement agencies a reasonable solution to our racial injustice problems? Every vocation has some bad apples. Business men embezel. Doctors malpractice. Priests and pastors sexually abuse parishioners. We don’t write off their designated role in society because some of them misuse their position. So why the disparity with cops?

Rioting
And, how do we make sense of widespread rioting? Looting? Vandalizing? Arson? If its goal is to repay white people for hurting black people, what about all those minority business owners who barely stayed afloat during months of COVID closures only to have their angry “brothers and sisters” put a nail in the coffin of their life’s investment?
And what about all of the lives of people of every skin tone that have been lost during the violent protests? Do they matter too?
Are we supposed to turn a blind eye to crimes committed during riots because they are retributive?

Trauma
And what are we going to do about all of this cumulative trauma?
Given our country’s black history, is the personal and collective chaos really surprising?
While trauma sometimes sits quiet, almost dormant, inside a person for a long, long time, when triggered, the sympathetic nervous system goes into fight, flight or freeze, by design. “Fight” really gets our attention because people power up in order to feel a sense of control over their pain. Do we notice their distress without an extreme response?  How can victims of trauma communicate the depth of their suffering in non-destructive ways?

JESUS
I ask Jesus, how do you feel about this relational mess between the image-bearers you created all across the color palette?
And his answer: John 11:35.
The shortest verse in the Bible.
Jesus Wept.
In the movie, Selma, Martin Luther King Jr. comforts a grandpa after his grandson was killed by a state trooper in a peaceful march for civil rights, saying, “There are no words. But I will tell you that God was the first to cry.

And I wonder why it’s so hard for white people to just plain grieve the hurts, injustices and losses that black people experience?
Why do we feel compelled to Justify? Explain?  And be defensive?
If Jesus cries, why don’t we?
Why are we so hesitant, resistant even, to enter the shared grief of black Amercians?
If every life is designed by the Creator and loved as long and high and wide and deep as Jesus loves me, then shouldn’t I be compelled as an image bearing sister to mourn every tragic loss of life, to call for justice for perpetrators of crimes, to advocate for fair consequences to be meted out through our justice system?

There’s a lot I don’t know, a whole bunch of questions…
But here’s what I’m sure about:
1) There isn’t any quick fix– no patch, no do-it yourself repair kit and no refurbishing solution- to the brokenness between whites and blacks. But as God’s kid, I am obliged to be soft-hearted and listen attentively to my black fellow citizens, neighbors, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

2) The most effective weapon in the war against racism is prayer. Jesus says to cast all our cares on Him for He cares for us. Posturing myself in the presence of Jesus with all my questions and concerns, inviting Him to lift the burdens off my small rounded shoulders onto into his strong Herculean arms, gives me the attunement to hear His voice and feel His heart. In His presence is where I find clarity about the next step.

3) I can and should hope for change, and work for it too, but my only actual guarantee about anything is that my hope for all to be made right in eternity is certain.

Back to my trip to Dallas. I went to visit someone I love. Soon, she will take her first breath of eternal life.
Every Wednesday night in room 301 for more than a decade, we were a bunch of Chatty Cathies. And we closed our favorite restaurant, who knows how many times, before moving our conversation out to one of our cars for the finish.
Not anymore. She’s quiet now. And tires easily when I talk.
For a few days, I could sit with her–offering my physical presence.
Emotional attunement.
Spiritual sensitivity.
Really, isn’t that a universal longing in all of our hardest struggles, our most crushing griefs, and our greatest hardships?

I read The Psalms aloud because they so perfectly express both lament and confidence. Yes, we’re brokenhearted and yes, God is a very present help in time of trouble.  Our gentle shepherd prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. And there are so many enemies….
Cancer.
Coronavirus.
Death.
Flooding.
Racism.
……

We live between the Now and the Not Yet.
And right here, there’s a lot of visceral groaning, “How long, O Lord?”
Satan, our supreme enemy, he seeks to steal, kill and destroy.
And he’s doing a pretty, darn, good job of it!
And it’s been like this for a very long time. At least that’s how it feels to us.
But our Not Yet is a verified, 100% guaranteed promise from God. And He assures us that ultimate healing is coming.
Perfect peace will prevail.
And complete justice too.
And that is a Hope that does not disappoint.

So many questions…..
Ultimately, only One answer.
Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Amen.

On Sandwiches, Paper Cranes and Floatation Devices

Always start and end with gratitude.
That’s the bread in life’s best sandwich.

So, I’m grateful because
None of my kids live overseas this spring, stuck halfway around the world with second rate medical care.
Six weeks ago, I was double dosing on Naproxen to manage shoulder pain and now I’m raking my yard.
Most of my tribe is still getting their paychecks.
An early spring’s given me some elbow room outdoors during Michigan’s extended stay-at-home orders.
There’s an abundance of left over Russell Stover Easter candy available at Walgreens 50% off.
And, we have plenty of toilet paper!

But, truth is, I’m not loving this sandwich.
The stuff in the middle, it doesn’t taste very good!
And so far, this year gets a failing grade on my favorites list.
Not because of a single catastrophic event.
It’s aches and pains,
Conflict,
Disappointments,
Transitions,
And so many losses…

Which brings me to this very moment.
She’s stripped most of the decorations off the wall—the pressed leaves and calligraphy quotes, the string of Christmas lights that drapes around her window, the banner with her name on the door. The bed’s moving over to her new home tomorrow.
This space, it’s been a safe haven for my girl.
A sanctuary.

I was the one who told her, “You’re ready to fly.” And she is.
But her room feels naked with just the paper cranes, wing spans spread, hanging off fishing line from her ceiling.
And my grief’s exposed.
I’m crouched in the corner ugly-crying, wondering what happened to all that Kleenex my husband stockpiled for the pandemic.

2014 was my first launch.
And nothing prepared me for that kind of hard!
I dropped my kid off at college and drove 900 miles due South.
It felt like death though somehow, I survived.
We figured out how to live as 5 instead of 6.
And now, we’re transitioning to 4.
And in a couple of weeks, we’ll be 3.

For almost 22 years I’ve called this one to dinner every single night.
And I’m wearing at least 15 pounds worth of her famous chocolate chip cookies on my derriere.
Over these two plus decades, I’ve been a student of her expressions and moods.
I know all her favorite treats and what’s likely to bring a smile on a bad day.
I’ve prayed with her over every test.
I’ve watched her performances, applauded her accomplishments.
We’ve worked alongside each other and we’ve played together too.
I’ve hugged her and disciplined her.
Lectured and challenged her.
It’s been a long time since I laid next to her telling bedtime stories and singing lullabies as she drifted off to dreamland but it’s been comforting to know we’re sleeping under the safe roof anyway.

So, I told her today, “Try to remember the beautiful stuff most.”
I wish it was all beautiful!
Every moment of these approximately 8000 days.
But, it’s not.

I’m not a perfect parent. And her dad isn’t either.
She’s not a perfect kid. And neither are her sisters.

That reality tends to spiral me  into would-a, should-a, could-a…real fast.
To give myself a few hard swats with a 5 gallon paint stick.
And that’s the messy middle of my unappetizing sandwich.

But the bread of gratitude sustains me.
And so I intentionally recount the faithfulness of God in this kid’s story.
Last year about now, she had 50 bucks in the bank and her trusty Honda CRV named Winston. She graduated with her BSN a year early.
Then, she passed her NCLEX on her first try and God provided a full-time hospital nursing position.
She continued to live at home opting for free room and board, bedtime hugs included, so she could stockpile her savings.
And now, she bought her first home—a condo- just 11 minutes from the mama who’s crying on her bedroom floor tonight.fullsizeoutput_baab

The same loving Heavenly Father who’s written this chapter of her story, can He not be entrusted with the next one too?
And how about mine?

It sounds cliché but it’s not.
In this sink or swim world, the rhythm of gratitude, rehearsing His fresh mercies, acknowledging His faithfulness, that’s the floatation device that keeps me from drowning.

I pick up my hardcover copy of the Book, the one my Mama and Daddy gave me before I packed up my things and left an empty pink upstairs bedroom behind.
Here’s what it says:
He’s counting my tears and putting them in his bottle.
And my bottle, it matters to him.
He considers it tenderly.
It represents the love and investment I’ve made in my daughter’s life and He delights in the broken beautiful mama I’ve been to her.
He chose me for the task and celebrates that I’ve been faithful.
And he sympathizes with the loss I feel as she leaves our humble abode.
Those tears, He’ll use them to water the seeds of change and growth that are yet to be written into both of our stories.

Right outside the window where the paper cranes hang off the fishing wire, I planted a bunch of lily bulbs last Indian summer when mama’s intuition whispered the secret.
In time, they’ll bloom into an intoxicating mixture of fragrance and beauty.
I can’t see them yet.
They’re buried under the weight of the dirt. But what I have sown, He will make grow.
And with that confidence, I hope and wait with anticipation.IMG_9382

All is Well and All Will be Well

IMG_8544I hiked solo around Bell Rock on the last clear, blue-sky winter day of this vacation adventure.
God and I needed some connect time before re-entry into my real life. You know, the one with the nagging daily grind. The chronic relational struggles. The never-ending chores. And so much drama…
I miss the rest of my family and appreciate my home but it’s been pretty sweet not to wash a single dish over the last 5 days.
I haven’t picked up after anybody either.
And absolutely no cooking. None. Whole Foods Market deli, baby. We’ve been eating fine.

Thankfully, my challenges are pretty ordinary. Minor trials. First world problems, for sure.
I’m happy to report that none of my kids is held hostage by crazy terrorists,
We’re not fleeing from our lives with only the possessions we can carry on our backs,
Not a single family member is fighting stage 4 cancer, or any cancer for that matter,
None of have been washed out into Lake Michigan by a riptide or a 12 foot wave,
And as a bonus, neither Lily or I fell off any cliffs on this vacation either.

I spent 4 blissful days willing my fears and concerns out of sight, out of mind. Until this hike. And then, I knew they had to be faced again.
8.5 miles later, God and I finished our 3 hour conversation.
I used words. He spoke through creation.
At one point, I sat on a rock along a dry creek bed for a break and a couple of old codgers passed me, asking if I was doing mindful meditation.
“I’m eating a tangerine,” I replied, but what I should have told them, instead, is that I’m praying. Because that’s what I was doing. Casting all my cares on Him–my cares about Brian and Angela and Lily and Robyn and Brennan and Starla–because He cares about us. He cares deeply about our fears, our pain, our struggles, our disappointments, our questions, our doubts, our challenges and our confusion. He cares about the barriers in our relationships too.
He counts our tears and puts them in His bottle.
He knows just how many hairs are on our head even after we’ve just brushed it.
He is slow to anger and abounding in love.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve.
He never has and never will leave or forsake us.
And nothing can separate us from His love.
His plans are to give us a future and a hope.
And His mercies are new every morning, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
We are Chosen. Rescued. Adopted. Beloved.

After Bell Rock, I had one more place to visit, the final check mark on my bucket list for this trip. All the locals said, “You can’t miss seeing Chapel of the Holy Cross.” So, I drove to the base of the hill that the church was constructed into, then walked up to its back entrance. You can see through it before you even open the doors because its designed with floor to ceiling windows on both ends. There’s an imposing 33-foot crucifix sculpture of Jesus, bronze glistening off the sun’s rays, its backdrop, the red rocks of Sedona. I knelt at the bench in the front row, right behind the 3 day candles you can light for $5 and whispered the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus looked compassionately down from the cross, right at me.

On the first hike of my vacation, I worshipped baby Jesus celebrating the mystery of the incarnation.
And on my last hike, I’m gazing at Jesus body broken for me and wondering at the miracle of redemption.
And both realities remind me anew that All is Well and All will be Well.
Breathe it in. All is Well.
Exhale. All will be Well.
Repeat. Over and over.
Maybe I am doing mindful meditation after all…IMG_8408

It’s time. I’m packing my carry on. I’ll board my plane and, Lord willing, get back to the real life God’s called me to, with the people he’s privileged me to take my journey with, in about 9 hours. Ready to serve and desiring to love a bit more like the Jesus I’ve encountered in Arizona.