Prince of Peace:  The Third Week of Advent

Prince of Peace: The Third Week of Advent

Emmanuel…God with us….

Are you? Where?

The sweet baby across the street….the one with the dark wisps of hair that curl at the ends; the one who can light up the entire room with one enthusiastic grin; the one who just took his first steps a couple months ago; the one with whom our whole church has fallen head-over-heels in love….he’s flown in a life-support airplane to a hospital three hours away.  The specialists talk of his weak heart, the layers of scar tissue, that his pace maker is just pacing way too frequently for anyone’s comfort.  His poor momma buried her first baby five years ago in October.  She sits in his pediatric hospital room, the same hospital where she painfully survived the dying breaths of her first child, holding his hand, reeling from blow after blow, holding her shattered heart in her other hand.

Emmanuel…God with us….

Where…..are you?

We ache.  We scream. We write lists of questions for you, and we have excruciatingly few answers.

We come back, as the calendar reminds us, to the Holy time, the sacred time, and we expect a vision, a touch, or maybe just a brush from you.  We would settle for an inkling of your presence.  Just a slight nod from the Creator of the universe to know that we aren’t abandoned on the careening ball of grief, chaos, and disaster.

The lights twinkle in the windows of their house, as if they are awaiting the sounds of a toddler’s squeals.  Our lights twinkle back in salute to the pain and emptiness of the fallow emblem of Christmas celebration.

The wind whistles through the unused fireplace as we all camp out on the couch watching our favorite Christmas movies. Our family hunkers down for another sick Saturday at Christmastime.  The stomach flu has entered our house, and we brace ourselves for a wave of illness to sweep us off our feet for the week leading into Christmas.  I scour over an almost-complete knitting project and unravel an entire skein of yarn to find a mistake that I made 24 rows ago, and I shudder with defeat.  My life feels like the unraveling blanket in my lap, as I search desperately, trying to locate the source of my malfunction.  Where in the world did I go wrong?  How in heaven’s name can we fix it?

The kid with the stomach bug perks up enough to slap her brother on the head, and our cozy movie-watching morning turns into germ-infested wrestling match on the living room floor.  I helplessly watch the violence, raise my voice to a pitch that matches the chaos of the moment, and throw up my hands at a loss for how to remedy any of these broken situations….

I glance out the window, and my brain keeps bumping into the reminder of that fragile life that hangs in the balance. That sweet baby should be cuddling on his couch with his mommy but instead is trying to keep his little heart in rhythm in a hospital room three hours away.   Turns out he is throwing up today too.

I glance in my lap at this blanket that I have been working on for months that seems to manifest all of my brokenness and inadequacies in the pattern of knits and purls that feels entirely out of rhythm with my ultimate goal of a seersucker pattern made of perfect diamonds of royal blue, cranberry red and charcoal grey. This is not turning out like I had hoped it would. 

I glance over at my children smacking each other on the couch next to me. They just can’t seem to be friends no matter how many strategies I use to bring peace to our home. 

My poor brain, trying to balance life and illness, working endlessly to cope with chronic pain and lack of blood flow, trying to bounce back from the destructive rhythm of anaphylaxis and epinephrine shock, mixed with the constant passing out as my heart rate doubles when I stand up. Doubles.  I just can’t stay conscious, no matter how many pills I choke down morning, noon, and night.  My doctor says that I am the sickest, most treatment-resistant patient she has ever treated. 

And peace teases us, like a distant concept on the horizon, maybe present in the houses down the road,  but not in our two little houses, blinking SOS signals out for someone to decipher, for anyone to give us answers, solutions, peace.  We need it now.

Our desperate situations feel like painful juxtapositions to the week of peace that presents itself before us.  Peace?  As we try to balance life and death, malfunctioning brains, dislocated joints, broken hearts, faulty lungs, heaving stomachs, and faltering knitting projects, we shudder at the foreign concept of peace.

If only we were residing in ordinary time, one that doesn’t tease us so painfully as we hang in the balance, dangling willy-nilly between life and death, hope and despair.  If only the lights didn’t twinkle so brightly, offending us with what feels like machine-gun fire of tiny slaps in the face as we cling to sanity in the midst of critically insane situations.

Emmanuel….God with us….Prince of peace?

Where

are

you?

We try to create a Neiman Marcuesque Christmas, with a perfectly vertical tree, the star at the top twinkling with pristine clarity and color coordinated ornaments. We decorate the piano, the mantle, and the ridges of our roof, and we convey to the rest of the world that we “have it all together.”  Full disclosure?  We are missing Joseph in our nativity.  Joseph–the adopted father of Jesus; the one who also spoke with the angel Gabriel; who sacrificially allowed his name and identity to be slandered for the sake of obedience to the call of God. He’s GONE. Our Christmas tree has crashed to the floor three times in the past week, assaulted by disorderly, brawling preschoolers.  My head feels like it is going to explode with all of the pressure of Christmas activities and the over-stimulation of seizure-inducting blinking lights.  Peace?  Where?

Maybe we are looking in the wrong places.  This Spirit of the Lord whispers, look inside.

Then I see a peace that doesn’t depend on what is happening to me.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.    John 14:26

The world is broken and shattered, and some lives manifest the dissonance more convincingly than others.  We see the chaos more clearly in mental illness, physical illness, senseless tragedy, financial hardship, abuse, and broken families.  Here we are, in this world of chaos, uncertainty, unraveling lives, infant and child death, debilitation chronic illness, divorce, sex slavery, injustice, and poverty.  And yet there is this truth imprinted on our hearts:  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you:  and it is true.  John’s not just trying to appeal to our warm, fuzzy emotions at Christmas.  He is telling us a vital fact regarding the presence of the Spirit, which is the direct result of Christ’s Advent, sacrifice on the cross, and defeat of death.

There is peace.  There is this deposit given to us:  The deposit of the Spirit.  This Spirit of God wraps us in indestructible peace as we go through the most brutal, deepest, darkest valleys of the shadow of death.  This is the peace that rules our hearts as we navigate a world that aches, yearns, and screams for the second coming of Jesus.  This is the peace that keeps our hearts pumping as they feel like they are being ripped out of our chests by betrayal, loss, abuse, or confusion.  This is the peace that allows us to laugh after a night of weeping.

I glance out the window again, and my heart resonates with the longing and pain as our lights twinkle with our neighbor’s, boldly shining in defiance against chaos.  I imagine a twinkle of the secret that is housed in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit of peace resides.  Whatever happens, however chaotic our lives, we will rest in the peace that rules our hearts and long for total restored order where there is no death, no pain, no suffering, and complete world peace.

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On parenting, negotiations with terrorists, and overwhelming grace 

On parenting, negotiations with terrorists, and overwhelming grace 

This parenting gig is kicking my butt. These kids of mine are barbarians (in the most endearing sense of the word). Here I am, during nap-time, gulping down the sage wisdom of Siegel and Bryson in The Whole- Brained Child and rehearsing using my hand to model the upstairs brain and downstairs brain to my children so that they might get a better grasp on their flimsy emotions. An hour ago, I was yanking my almost three year old into the shower to clean up his poop-smeared body, dumping his poop-drenched sheets into the washer, and wiping off his poop-painted wall for the fourth time this week. The kid’s supposed to be potty trained. 

Yesterday, my sweet neighbor observed my daughter’s thirty minute melt-down in our yard and said, “I think we need to work with her on these fits.” 

Yes. Yes, we absolutely do. And we need to quit having our walls painted with poop.  But I’m wondering how? Where is my dang handbook?  How in the world do I raise these volatile little maniacs into kind, loving, Godly members of society who are not going to get kicked out of school or arrested? Will they ever keep their clothes on? Will they ever eat a full meal? Will they ever actually pet the cat rather than yank her tail? Will they  ever learn to listen? Will they ever respond to direction? Will they ever sleep through the night? Will I ever parent well enough to feel like a competent human being?

I believe that my experience is not unique in this crazy venture called parenting, though it feels incredibly unnerving and isolating.  When we moms get gut-honest with each other and share our darkest, slimiest, most downstairs-brained moments with one another, we breathe a collective sigh of solidarity and recognize that we can march on in our journey of raising little humans. 

I have never in my life encountered a responsibility so humbling, so exhausting, so disgusting, and so life-giving. 

When these little barbarians that I birthed take off their monster masks for a few moments, look up into my eyes and say, “mom, you’re the best,” I’m reminded that God’s grace is filling in the gaps where I am falling short. 

When the three of us huddle in our blanket fort on my daughter’s bed as we draw out bedtime, I can’t imagine a single place that I would rather be.  

When we are cuddled together, belly-laughing to our favorite books, I believe that I tap into the laughter of God.

When I feeling like I am completely done with fighting this battle for my life, wanting to yield to the pain and illness and throw in this proverbial, worn-out, thread-bare towel, those tiny, sweet feet thud-thud-thud on the carpet into my dark room, and in an instant, I remember why I fight this battle. I don’t want to miss a second with them. Those wild, crazy terrorists are my beloved children, and no matter how many poop-smeared, hissy-fit filled days we encounter, I am better with them than I was before they came along. 

Thank God for grace as we climb this steep mountain of parenthood. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is for the full-of-heart, and it fills my heart to overflowing. I march on in this journey wielding as many tools as I can carry, but knowing that grace is really what carries us. 

The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

In late November of 2016, we bought our first house.  It was, in my eyes, idyllic.  Murals were painted on the walls of each of the children’s rooms, a blue ocean with a tiny boat sailing on the horizon for Elijah, and a willow tree with a picket fence covered with flowering vines for Lily.  Our walk-in closet and spacious bedroom had me pinching myself twice a day.  The sunrise cascaded over our kitchen table through the bay kitchen window.  We could peer out Elijah’s window to say goodnight to the moon each night.  The carpets were lush, the walls were painted rich, welcoming colors, and we even had our own fire place.  The basement, though unfinished, could house the play room where the kids could play freely whenever they felt so inclined.

The most attractive feature of our new haven, however, was its sprawling yard.  The previous owners clearly had green thumbs in addition to their artistic flair, and they took better care of this yard than any other yard in the entire neighborhood.  In Kansas, the land of sparse trees, we have eight trees around our house.  One is a massive willow, whimsical in every sense of the word.  One is a luscious bradford pear, another an apple tree.  The grass is the richest shade of green that I could imagine, with a built-in sprinkler system, to keep it velvety-soft and fresh.

When we moved in late November, as fall was descending into winter, and colors were fading into grey, white, and black, we had no idea what the garden would look like: if any flowers were perennials, returning in the spring, or if we would have to start from scratch.  All we had were dead stalks, skeletons of flowers, and I am no expert on gardening.  Thus,  I couldn’t even guess what the landscape would look like in the spring. I had no idea the beauty that could rise out of this garden, now my own, that I never planted.

Spring is blossoming into summer, and this garden that I inherited has been a highlight of my year.  As the months of April and May have passed,  I have inhaled the glory of tiger lilies, dark red lilies, marigolds, roses, and hostas.  Each plant blooms on its own time table, and each day is like unwrapping a gift from someone I never knew.  When we toured the house initially before we made our offer,  I whispered to my husband, “I could be friends with these people.  I love them already.”  Amazing how you can feel a kindred spirit in a home, even when those who made it the home are not even present.  It is also amazing the impact a person can have on the life of another person whom they may never meet.  I met the husband briefly.  He brought the extra garage door opener over the day that we first moved in.  I greeted him at our door (his door), our eyes locked, and I gave him the biggest, most appreciative smile that I could muster, and he left, to drive about five hours, to his new house.  This one encounter was the extent of the overlap of our lives.

I am too sick to garden.  Even being outside is a strain.  I could never do to our yard what the previous owners of our house did.  I am so thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the fruit of a crop that I did not sow.  They planted a little vegetable garden in the back yard. My in-laws are keeping it bursting with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.  My life is grace upon grace, blessing upon blessing.  I get to tuck my babies in at night and admire another person’s artwork on their walls.  In God’s special way, He met our needs before we even knew that we had needs through someone that we would never really know.

The lives of those who went before us sing from the walls of this house and burst forth from the soil surrounding it.  Their love, their innovation, their unique giftings and personalities paint shades of color that extend into the life of my little family.  They will never know their impact.  They were just doing what they loved, and it colored the world.

We have a ripple effect that can heal and bring hope.  God has used our home as a picture of His provision and hope.  He knows that I love flowers, murals, and beauty, and He knows that I cannot produce these elements of life that I love at this point in my life.  He used someone else to plant the seeds that would blossom in my life as symbols of providence, hope, and His own Shekinah glory.

Our God is great enough to show up in the little things, like orange crimson carnations and a wistful sail boat painted on a toddler’s wall.   Our Father God gives good, sweet, thoughtful gifts to His children, even, or maybe even especially, in their suffering.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.   James 1:17

Turning Our Eyes Upon Jesus

Turning Our Eyes Upon Jesus

The last few weeks have been difficult.  Last October was a bad-health-month (like a bad-hair-day, only like 1000 times worse), and it seems that this October followed suit.  Maybe my illnesses have least favorite seasons.  Being sick feels manageable some fraction of the time, but over the past month, it has NOT felt do-able.  Yesterday was particularly bad, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I felt poured out, wrung out, and blown-dry with a hair dryer.  I had what felt like nothing left.  My husband was shivering in bed with 102-degree fever, sputtering, “Is this what chills feel like?” My children were acting like the three-year-old and two-year-old that they are, and I was dancing on the impatient side of parenting.  I was not savoring each moment with them, that’s for sure.

Bed time is sacred time at our house.  We read, rock, and sing about Jesus. The kids have special song requests, each one gets his and her own time in the rocking chair with mom, and I get to sniff their sweet little babyish heads before bed (I think that baby head-sniffing works better at calming my adrenaline rushes than any medication that I have found).  In between Jesus songs, my daughter usually comes up with deep questions that I am not prepared for, like, “Mommy, what is death?”, or like, “How is Jesus going to come out of my heart so that I can sit on His lap and rub His beard like I rub daddy’s beard?”. I stutter and stammer for a few minutes, and then God in His wisdom usually helps me communicate some little nugget of truth that hopefully her three-year-old mind can comprehend.  She deems my response acceptable, closes her eyes, and settles her fair curly head into the bend of my arm, safe and comforted, trusting that she knows enough now to rest for the night.

Bedtime last night did not feel sacred. I was an unholy terror, and I hurried and scolded my kids, stretched too thin in all angles.  I just wanted to go to bed and have the day over. I was hurting physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and I was done fighting.  Rocking a child, however, seems to be the antithesis of hurry.  The act of sitting in glider with my son and singing a JJ Heller lullaby was enough to snap me out of my impatient self-centered focus. I pleaded with God to help me to be present with my children, at least for the final few minutes of their day. I sniffed his freshly washed hair for a couple seconds longer, and laid him in his crib with his blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”.

My daughter met me at the chair, and asked for the Jesus song. Which Jesus song?  You know, mom, the one where Jesus is REALLY BIG.  Where His face shines.  I sing the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, and she sings the chorus with me word-for-word.  After the song, my big-hearted prophetess child says with the concern and agony of a 25-year-old, “Mom, why does it feel like Jesus isn’t here?  If it is so dark in this world, and Jesus is light, He can’t be here, can He?  And Jesus is too big to be in my heart.  He’s not in my heart.  He’s too big.  He would break my heart.  Is Jesus not here?”

On this night, October 31st, a night of darkness, when barely three-year-old daughter questions the existence of her Savior, my throat swelled, and my eyes filled, and I said, “Baby, I know how you feel. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like Jesus is here, but He is.  I promise. He promises.  And it is dark, but His light is here.”  I said a few more things.  I felt a lot more things. She asked a few more despairing questions, and she finally settled into the tension of not seeing yet believing.  She was okay.  Jesus was with Her.  She could rest.

I laid her down, tucked her princess comforter around her tiny body, blessed her, prayed over her and her brother, closed the door, and sobbed.  OH, I know how she feels, but I never imagined that she would feel this so soon.  But God met me in her questioning.  In this dark night, full of pain in all forms, God met me through the need of my darling daughter. He answered my despairing questions through my own mouth as  I answered her despairing questions.  We will keep trusting.  He is present. He is good. He loves us.  He is sovereign.  My sweet dreamers will learn to trust and hope, as I am learning to trust and hope, in the One who is present, gentle, and faithful. We can’t always see, but we know because we have seen undeniable manifestations of His goodness.  We therefore

Turn our eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.  (Helen H. Limmel, 1922).

When the Kingdom Breaks Through

There are moments in life that create buoyancy for me. They keep me afloat. Tonight held one of those life-saving moments. My two-year-old daughter needed cuddle time. She’s sick at the moment. And I was beyond happy to curl up in her tiny toddler bed with her and her Chaucer Teddy bear and listen to her sweet little voice tell me all about her day. We sang, we prayed, and we shared stories. My heart is swollen with pure bliss of connectedness.

 Even though my arms are black and blue from blown veins and I’ve battled the fainting all day and my fever is constantly over 100 by three pm, I can say with conviction that my life is truly wonderful. Oh, it could certainly be easier. Couldn’t every life be easier? But ease isn’t what makes it valuable. Convenience, comfort, luxury, even health….those amenities don’t by any stretch of the imagination equal joy.  I have been wealthier in the past and been utterly miserable, haunted, and desperate for death. I have been healthier in the past and have sought to find ways to express my unspeakable soul-sickness. I have been better rested yet harbored such a deep weariness that I felt the weight of a thousand mountains upon my chest. 

I am tired, sick, and suffering, but my life is so beautifully wrought with meaning. This is a hard dichotomy to grasp, and I suppose that it is not ideal,  but God is so palpable during this season of my life. He is so gracious in providing these moments that bouy me up to the surface again when I begin to sink under the suffering. It never fails that when the suffering is at its worst, if I tarry, the joy is on its heels. Sometimes, the agony carries the joy right on its back, and they somehow present themselves intermingled together. 

I spent so much of my life desperately running from suffering, unwittingly diving into deeper pits than I was running from. I am learning that suffering is not the monster that I once imagined it to be, and I am much more resilient than I knew was possible. The fear of suffering was the real enemy.

God is there in the trenches, in the tender touch of a two year old when she places her tiny fingers on the purple skin over my blown veins and says, “Mommy, I so sorry that you are hurt. Let me kiss your arm.” We are so blessed. So beyond blessed. The kingdom is carried in the cuddle of a two-year-old at bedtime.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Matthew 5:3-4

The “Break-Up”

Can there be a “call” to break up with your parents?  Yes, I am an adult woman living many hundreds of miles away from my parents, but they run my life.  I have a sense of indebtedness towards them.  They are my parents, for crying out loud, and what if I am totally wrong and off base about my entire childhood?  Do I just cut them off?  

But relationship with them is killing me.  It is draining me of my lifeblood, just as they did when I was little.  Somehow, they still are in control.  That phone call.  The name that pops up on my phone and sends my world spinning.  That first birthday of our baby that they just have to fly out for, and I have to feign excitement.  Why would I let them ruin a time of joyous celebration?  MY child. Not theirs.  They already ruined their own child. 

But how?  How do you cut it off?  How in this great big world can I possibly say to my parents that my relationship with them is harming me and my family and that I need more space?  Not just a little breathing room, but I don’t want to ever hear from you again. 

My entire life has revolved around caring for my parents.  My sole purpose was to make sure that they were always emotionally stable.  I protected them from everything, especially from myself.  Now, once again,  I am the greatest threat to them.  I hold this time bomb, and one day soon, I am going to have to bite the bullet and call it quits.  I will hurl the bomb at them and watch them explode into a million pieces.  And my world will shatter.  As they crumble, so will I.  Because, we all know, that they hold the key to my demise. 

What is the “godly” thing to do?  I am either all about my present family or all about my parents.  I either protect my husband and children or protect my parents. Can I do both?  Can I protect everyone?  Can I guard everyone’s feelings and make a decision that will not hurt anyone?  My primary role is to protect and care for my children.  Their safety and well-being is paramount in the hierarchy of important things in my life.  Honoring and loving my husband is my other primary role.  I am a “daughter” of sorts, but that is not my primary role anymore.  I am no longer a secret-guarder.  I am no longer the one who has to keep my mother from committing suicide or my father from attacking my mother.  I am no longer the one who has to endure the consequences of my parents’ choices.  Thus, it seems to me that the “godly” thing is to cut my parents off. 

But here is the other rub: Can I emotionally handle the consequences of this break up?  Will I unravel?  Will I splinter into the thousand pieces that I constantly labor to hold together? Will the stress of all of this release crazy amounts of cortisol into my unborn child?  Or is it the opposite?  Will the trauma that comes up with every conversation with my parents drive me to complete madness?  Will the long term stress of trying to live a double life wreak havoc on the well-being of my family?  What is more damaging? 

So here I stand, in limbo, in the in-between, in this half-in, half-out, undecided, cowardly place.  I will probably remain here for a while.