A Blue Rosary

I have a beautiful blue glass rosary hanging from my bed. If you know me, you might find this odd, since my Catholic background consists of some dearly loved relatives, several years of Christmas mass, and numerous viewings of Sister Act (1 and 2). I’ve never actually prayed the rosary, although for someone with a chronically scattered mind, the idea of something to give structure and direction to my prayer time is very appealing. The rosary is there not for my daily prayers, but as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. When I see it, it reminds me that every unexpected twist in my life is part of His plan and is leading me closer to Him.

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You see, this particular rosary belonged to my grandma. It was a gift I found for her on a visit to the Vatican while backpacking through Europe after college. At the time, it symbolized everything that was beautiful about our relationship. It was a reminder of travel, a love of which she had encouraged in me all my life. It was a symbol of the faith that is universal in all those who love and seek the Lord, that her protestant granddaughter would give her something so meaningful to her own way of worship. It represented the endless discussions we’d had over the years about who God is and how we relate to Him. We didn’t always agree, but we always spoke with love and respect. Now it means even more to me.

This week marks the second anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. A grandmother who taught me so much: how to knit and quilt, how to play cards, how to shop like a pro, how to love unconditionally, how to find humor and joy in everything, and how to be strong when life is crushing you. One of the last things she said to me when I visited her in the final weeks of her life was, “Don’t forget me.” How could I? Not a week goes by that I don’t miss her, that I don’t wish I could call and tell her some exciting news or ask her advice about something. I wish I could hear her tell me her stories again. I think she would be proud of me, raising my sons to love God, people, and learning; working to improve health and community care, especially for moms and children; and keeping up with my writing. There are 1,001 things that make me think of her nearly every day. The Murano glass rosary by my bed is just one of them. She is far from forgotten.

One of the things I remember best about my grandma is her love of storytelling. She loved a good story, whether it was a book, a movie, or her own history. I was privileged to hear her relate the joys and struggles of her life many times, so richly that at times I felt like I had  been with her in New York City in the 1950’s as she completed nurses’ training, or smelling spring tulips in Holland on her trip of a lifetime to Europe. As I look back on her story, I see the theme of God’s faithfulness. I see the countless ways He provided for her, prepared her for the storms, and showered her with blessings.

My grandmother was certainly not perfect, but she was blessed with a number of excellent character traits. Among them were courage, compassion, and common sense, all of which served her well in her life: in a career of over 30 years as an ER nurse, as she faced the loss of her beloved husband after just a few years of marriage, in her walk for several years as a single mother to three small children, and in her final battle with cancer. She loved fiercely, and she fought tirelessly for those she loved.

God also blessed her with an outstanding network of friends and family that surrounded and supported her throughout her life. She had parents that encouraged and inspired her, and helped her get back on her feet after becoming a young widow. Her eight younger siblings loved and respected her all her days. She remained close friends with several women who had gone to nursing school with her to the very end of her life. She found love and partnership again with the man I always loved as my grandfather. Her children and grandchildren loved and admired her. Many others were there at key points in her life to care for her, encourage her, and walk with her. At her memorial service, everyone who was able brought or sent in the Christmas stockings she had knitted for generations of family and friends. They were hung on the wall, and stretched the full length of the ballroom. It was a visual testimony to how many lives she touched and was touched by.

Not only was my grandmother blessed with a strong character and support network, she was blessed with many moments of God’s goodness and joy. She experienced success in her own career as an RN, and saw all of her children graduate from college and become successful in their own fields. She saw plays and musicals on Broadway. Her travels took her across the country and across the world. She glowed at the wedding of her eldest grandchild, and several years later she bounced her first great-grandchild on her knee and sang the same songs and rhymes to him that she had sung to his mother 30 years before. For a woman who valued family above all, it was a sweet gift. In the final month of her life, she was able to visit the ocean one last time with many of her siblings, where she laid in the sunshine, reading a book and listening to the waves. It was a little preview of heaven for her. Even in her last conscious day, she was blessed with the knowledge that when her life on earth ceased, her eternal life with her Heavenly Father would begin, and she would be reunited with loved ones who had made the journey before her.

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Grandma and me on my wedding day

Grandma didn’t have financial wealth to pass down to her children and grandchildren, but we each inherited great treasure from her legacy. And me, I was given back the rosary that had come from Italy 10 years before and been beside her bed ever since. Now it is beside my bed to remind me not only of the exceptional woman who had loved me all my life, but also of the God who had loved her all her life. No matter where her journey took her, no matter how close or distant she felt to the Lord, He was there. I take great comfort in knowing that I have the same God shepherding me as I encounter the trials of my own life.

Whose legacy inspires you? 

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Woven with Thanks

Last night, somewhere between midnight and 4am, I spent a good portion of an hour lying awake for no good reason. This is par for my course as a pregnant mom of a toddler (who still wakes up at least once a night because he needs a graham cracker/there’s a moose in his room/he got lonely). I don’t think I’ve actually slept a whole night through since sometime in 2012. But that’s not the point.

During these midnight musings, I have learned that our parents lied to us as children. If you just close your eyes and lie there quietly, well, it will be quiet and dark. It will not help you fall asleep, and you mind will not suddenly think to itself, Oh, she’s trying to sleep; I’ll quit bothering her with the task list for next week and the panic about whether potty training is damaging her child’s psyche. Since I’m too lazy to be one of those people who say, “Well, I guess I’m not sleeping, I should probably clean out the garage,” and I’m too pregnant to take large doses of sleeping pills, I knew there had to be another way to quiet my mind. So I turned to prayer.

Not prayer that I would fall asleep quickly. I’ve tried that once or twice in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that God’s not really in the Ambien business. No, I start praying through the needs of my friends and loved ones. (That’s where Facebook really comes in handy. You know exactly what kind of prayer your friends need, even when they haven’t asked for it, if you know what I mean.) I usually get through several before I start to drift off.  

I haven’t found anything that calms my spirit in the middle of the night like bringing the people I love before God. Not only does it bring peace, but in my intercessions for others, I find God speaking to me. Take last night, for example.

I was starting to run through my list of people and their needs, when that nagging voice of some Sunday school teacher from childhood piped up, “Always begin your prayers with thanksgiving,” (presumably so God doesn’t think you’re taking Him for granted and ignore you). For a moment, I thought, Well how am I supposed to thank Him for divorce or mental illness, Mrs. Holypants? Hmm? But then He showed me a picture of how we can thank Him in even the most joyless situations.

I suddenly imagined our prayers as a basket or cloth being woven. We go in and out, up and down as our lives and circumstances change. We weave the threads of supplication and intercession all through a framework of joy and thanksgiving. Lord, give strength and wisdom to my single-mom friend. Thank you for the ways you have provided for her and the people you have surrounded her with to support her. The struggles I am praying for on her behalf lead me to recall how faithfully God has upheld her even in the midst of a life-storm. Father, bring peace and healing to the one struggling with depression. Thank you that she is bringing awareness to her condition and that she is encouraging others. I want to see her mind and spirit healed, but in the meantime I rejoice in the courage and boldness she has found and in knowing that her transparency is going to bless others.

Thanksgiving is an absolutely integral part of our prayer life. It’s not a magic password to the throne (Thank you, God, that all of the past seasons of NCIS are on Netflix. Ok, I’m listening. Did you see Season 10, Epsiode 5? I mean, yes, go ahead with your request. Um, yeah, could you heal my friend’s sister’s cousin’s dog? I think he’s got mange or something yucky.) Prayer is about change. The more I pray, and the more I find ways to thank Him, the more I am changed, which I believe is the true purpose of prayer.

Prayer, in my personal opinion, is not meant by God as a means for us to manipulate the divine providence and sovereignty. If it were, no one would die from cancer, parents wouldn’t bury their children, and the innocent wouldn’t suffer. So Mrs. Holypants from 4th grade is right, we do need thanksgiving if we are going to have a meaningful prayer life.

Not because it gives us points towards answered prayers, but because as we thank God, we see where He has already answered our prayers and provided for us in ways we never thought to ask. In light of His faithfulness revealed by our thankfulness, we see how pain and tragedy really are part of God’s merciful plan to draw us into a deeper knowledge of Him. Our sufferings become less about how we feel or how we are affected in the immediate, and more about how God’s grace is weaving through a story that began long before us and will continue long after us.

Thanksgiving fills us with hope. It reframes our perspective. It reminds us of God’s promises and His faithfulness that never fails. It reassures us that His mercies are new each day, just as we need them.

 

How are you thankful?

Selfish Faith

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There it was, right between posts selling old lawn furniture and telling me how I wouldn’t believe what happened next: a mind-bomb that I didn’t see coming. Right next to each other in my Facebook newsfeed were two posts. The first was one of those inspirational quotes showing a healthy, happy, financially secure woman with words to the effect of “my God can do anything” in fancy script. The second was a sobering reminder of the plight of thousands of Syrian refugees. It featured a picture of a mother and child in rags walking through the desert past a vast tent city. I might have given them both little thought, if that hadn’t been so perfectly juxtaposed.

The absurdity of the contrast hit me right between the eyes. When I say, “My God can do anything,” I’m thinking about how He can help me get through a busy week without getting angry at my husband and son (especially since my next spa day is a month away, seriously!), or how He can provide a million dollars to build our church a new building with enough classrooms and bathrooms. At the very top of my faith game, I’m believing that He can sustain us when there’s an unexpected job loss, or that He can heal a loved one. My God can give me anything. 

But what about the mother who lives in a refugee camp, or a migrant worker camp, or in a city of shacks built from trash scrounged from the dump 100 yards away? She’s not trusting that God will help her get her next college degree, or that He will help her husband get a raise so that they can take their family on a Disney cruise. She’s trusting Him to help her find enough food to keep her baby from starving. If God is really feeling like blessing her, there will be enough food for her child to eat and not cry from hunger afterwards, and a real miracle would be if she had something to eat as well. She’s trusting Him to protect her family from those who would take advantage of them by stealing from, raping, or enslaving them. If her God can do anything, maybe one of these days He will make a way for her family to live in a real home, with no more fear of hunger or of what their fellow men might do to them. But for right now, she’ll be satisfied with daily bread. Her God must do everything, because she can do nothing. 

A part of me wants to rail against our selfishness as comfortable American Christians. How dare we even pray for a pay raise when others are praying to survive? How selfish is it to ask God to bless us with tropical vacations and newer cars? Certainly, we should be more thoughtful about why we are asking for what we are asking God for. We can ask Him for things we don’t necesarily need, but we should be very cautious about gauging God’s blessing in our life by nonessentials. 

This is not to say that we, who mostly live in (or at least come from) the “first world” and the middle and upper class, do not have real problems or need real faith. I’ve been blessed to see friends cling to God in incredibly difficult and painful situations, and He has surely carried them through. Nor is it to say that one of the posts I saw this morning was more true than the other. I happen to know that both posters have great love for the Lord and for people, and they both trust Him to use them to express His love for others.

What those posts were was a much needed reminder for me of two things. First, that I am already blessed with so much, and should be so much more thankful for mundane things like leftovers, a car that runs, and 24/7 access to medical care. Second, that my problems need to be put in perspective. Even if my husband were to lose his job and we had to leave our little town that we love for him to find work, there is almost no chance that we would end up living in a tent or starving to death. Even if I worry about my children, there is virtually no chance that they are going to be trafficked or kidnapped for use in global terrorism. Even if my worst fears came true, my God would be able to make something beautiful from my ashes, to be glorified in my sorrow, and to restore my joy.

So it seems to me that much of our faith in God’s abilities is selfish, whether we are a displaced refugee trusting Him for our most basic needs, or a happy homemaker trusting Him for a little bit extra. We believe that God can do anything for us. And that’s okay, because God is personal with us, and so our personal fears, needs, and desires are important to Him. But if we have this great faith that God can really, truly do anything, shouldn’t we be a lot more generous with our prayers? This is where I was convicted this morning. I pray for myself and my family a lot. I pray for my church family and other friends whenever they ask. I occasionally pray for something I see on the news or on social media. If I’m honest, though, I don’t spend all that much time praying for people like the Syrian refugees, the victims of the Nepal earthquake, or the riots that seem to be regularly breaking out across the US. If I really believe that God can make something beautiful out of these situations, shouldn’t I be fervently asking Him to do so? Of course I should. You should too.

Let’s do it, because our God can do anything. 

Out of Control

Hello again. I know it’s been a long time since you’ve heard from me. Just about five months, to be exact.  The last time I posted, I was bemoaning the impossible length of the last weeks of a pregnancy. Well, just days after that post, my pregnancy journey ended and the great adventure of being a mother began. These past four months have been nothing short of amazing. They have also been exhausting, exciting, terrifying, and thrilling, sometimes all in the same moment. Time has flown by, and I cannot believe my tiny little baby is now a chubby, cheerful 4-month-old whose life goal is to sit up alone. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time that he wasn’t a part of our lives. Every day is full of new discoveries, new challenges, and new ways to fall in love with a short, fat, bald guy.

 

Being a parent, especially a new parent, is a major learning experience. Learning how to care for your child, learning what each cry or expression means, learning how to function normally on 2 hours of sleep. For me, it has been more than that though. While I have learned a great deal about my son, I may have learned even more about myself. God has been using my daily (and nightly) experiences as a mother to teach me about my own shortcomings and strengths.

 

While I’m learning and growing in many areas (patience, planning, time management, multitasking), the central issue that God is working on with me is control. While I can’t say that I am always in control of things, I certainly like to feel that I am. I am a planner, a list maker, a spreadsheet-thought-organizer. I like to sort, label, and rearrange. When I found out that I was pregnant, I started planning. Planning the nursery, planning how I would feed my son, what kinds of diapers he would wear, how I would get him to sleep through the night, how I would discipline him once he got older. I researched online, read every book I could get my hands on, spent hours sipping tea with my mommy friends picking their brains. I was ready to have control of the parenting situation.

 

And then I started noticing that I had no control. Actually, I noticed that from the moment my husband and I decided that it was time to start our family. I had absolutely no control over if or when I would get pregnant (even though I had two specific dates in mind that I wanted to have my baby – haha!) I remember those few days testing to see if I was pregnant and feeling panic as I waited for the lines to show up – panic if I was pregnant, and panic if I wasn’t. Then I found out I was indeed pregnant, and I went to the doctor to confirm. I really like my doc, but I didn’t like what she said. I was 5 weeks pregnant at the time, and she wanted me to come back at 10 weeks to “see if it’s actually a viable pregnancy.”

 

That planted the seed in my mind that I could lose my baby at any time. I knew so many women who had suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects, and my worrying mind started running wild. I asked my sweet husband to reassure me multiple times a day that there was no logical reason to worry. I filled my head with statistics to prove that there was very little chance of anything going wrong with my baby. But it didn’t shake the fear. Every symptom that I had or didn’t have sent me off to the internet to have my doom sealed. I was banned (by my wise husband) from searching those things anymore. And still the anxiety circled me. I knew it was unlikely that something would go wrong, but things do go wrong, and what was there to assure me that I wasn’t one of the 2% of this or 10% of that?

 

Finally I did some positive web-searching and looked for affirming words for pregnancy. What I found was something even better, something I should have been looking for from the beginning. I found a blog (Grace for Moms) that listed 10 Bible verses specifically addressing fear and worry. I clung to those verses, pulled out my fancy colored markers, and wrote those verses out. I taped them to mirrors, my closet door, and the head of my bed. I said them over and over as I brushed my teeth, changed my clothes, and fell asleep at night. And miracle of miracles, my fears didn’t have control over me anymore. Did they sometimes pop up? I’m embarrassed to say, yes they did, especially the really idiotic ones (such as, will a body part that clearly showed up on the first ultrasound somehow be missing on the second one? Not too proud of that thought process – I’ll blame the hormones!)

 

As predicted by my husband and statistics, nothing did go wrong with my pregnancy, and I delivered my beautiful, healthy, all-body-parts-accounted-for little boy on one of the two days I had been crossing my fingers for (though I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do with that). But again, in that process, God was teaching me that I have no control. During my pregnancy, I had spent hours studying and practicing the techniques needed to enable a drug-free birth. For me the idea of the natural-ness of a drug-free birth, combined with the safety net of delivering at the hospital seemed ideal. I would labor at home as long as possible, and then go to the hospital only when I felt that I was getting near the actual birth bit of this process. I have a pretty high pain tolerance, and a good ability to use my mind to control pain, and so I thought it would be a piece of cake. Okay, I thought that I could make it, anyway.

 

The short version of my very long labor and delivery is that after over 48 hours of contractions, I was still untold hours away from being ready to deliver. My doctor suggested, and I agreed, that I should get the epidural anesthesia and a bit of something called Pitocin to help my labor move along a little faster. If I hadn’t received the drugs, I don’t know if I would have had the energy to push the baby out when the time came. It was not the “natural” birth I had hoped for, but I could no longer control the pain. Nor could I control the progress of my labor or the timing of my son’s birth. Almost exactly 24 hours after we arrived at the hospital, I first saw and held my little boy, and the world around me ceased to exist for a moment. I could try, I could use all kinds of descriptive language, but I still could never explain to you what that moment was like. If you’ve had a child, I think you can probably imagine it pretty well.

 

The next day they sent us home, and God decided that it was time to teach me even more about how little I really could (or needed to) control. Before my son was born, I had pretty clear ideas of how I was going to train him to eat and play and sleep with a careful routine that would minimize any negative impact on my own schedule and productivity. I wasn’t going to be a schedule freak, but I was going to be very regimented, and my baby was going to be very textbook. Yes, yes, I hear all of you who already have children snickering behind your hands at me. Okay, now I hear you laughing out loud the more you think about the ridiculousness of it all.

 

Sure, I can try to keep a general pattern of activities throughout the day, I can encourage him to nap when he seems tired, I can give him cues about when it’s time to go to sleep or time to play, but I cannot control my child at this point, because I cannot control his needs, and at this point in his life, everything is driven by needs, not by behavioral training.  Not to start any arguments about parenting styles, but based on my experience so far, parents who are able to “control” their babies at this age are either being fooled by a baby who naturally does what the parents are wanting (i.e. sleeping through the night), or they have controlled their child’s behavior at the expense of some facet of the child’s emotional well-being. When my son “decides” that he is hungry earlier than I was expecting, then I feed him. When he wakes up in the middle of the night because he is hungry, because he had a scary dream, or because his tummy is bothering him, I do my best to meet his need. I learned very quickly that we are both happier when I focus more on bonding with my son, learning how he communicates and meeting his needs, rather than trying to make him meet mine.

 

Not that there aren’t times that I get a little frustrated that nothing is getting accomplished because my whole day was spent feeding or soothing a little boy, or that I don’t feel exhausted when I’ve been up three times in the middle of the night feeding or burping or changing him. Not having control is inconvenient. In some circles, being a parent without total control (even of an infant) is not popular. But I’m less stressed when I embrace the fact that I don’t have control.

 

Not having control is also scary at times. Every parent struggles with fears about the health and safety of their children. I suppose it is even worse for first time moms. One example of this for me has been the fear of SIDS. If you have had a baby in the last couple decades, you know that there is an entire litany of rules for reducing the risk of your baby dying suddenly and inexplicably in their sleep. The rules may change a bit over the years, but every mom pays close attention and does her best to avoid the myriad dangers that apparently lurk during sleep. We must not have crib bumpers or blankets or stuffed animals in the crib. We should have our baby close to us and have a fan running to move the air around. The baby should always, always sleep flat on their back (if you let them sleep on their tummy or side, you are just asking for trouble, apparently). With all these warnings, which do indeed have merit, the new mother brings home a baby and, if she’s anything like me, becomes a basket case the first time she sets her precious newborn in his bassinet or crib for the first night.

 

It’s not so bad during the day when you walk by and check on them constantly, but at night, when you should supposedly be asleep, you worry that if you sleep for even a moment, your baby will stop breathing and you’ll wake up in the morning to your worst nightmare. But the fact is, you can’t really control something like SIDS. Now sure, you can follow the precautions that make it much less likely that something would happen to your child in his sleep, but there is a reason that SIDS exists as a cause of death for infants  – it is sudden and not explained by any other cause. You can’t prevent what can’t be diagnosed or determined.

 

While I still find myself peeking over the edge of the cradle and look for that rise and fall of his little chest when I happen to wake up at night, I’ve come to realize that there are some things I can’t protect my son from, and so no amount of staying awake at night or never leaving his side can ensure his health and safety. In fact, I know that at some points in his life, bad things are going to happen to him, things I cannot prevent. I wish I could, but life doesn’t allow me to completely control what does or does not happen to my child. The best I can do is use common sense to prevent the “bad stuff” that I can, and trust God for the rest.

 

And there we come to my biggest area of fear and lack of control. Ah, that trusting God with “the rest”. Like I said earlier a couple of times, bad things are going to happen. To all of us. Some things may seem worse than others, but none of us are immune. The risks for those really disastrous things may be statistically small, but if you’re the person they happen to, the statistics mean nothing. And that is where fear continues to try to get a new grip on me: something terrible is not likely to happen to me, but I cannot guarantee that it won’t. I can’t use the Christian/spiritual cop-out of “It will be okay; God is in control,” because while God is in control, I might still suffer tragedy. The real answer is that bad things are going to happen to all of us, but because God is in control, we can survive the tragedies and struggles of life, and we have the promise that something good will come out of our suffering. I don’t know what lies ahead for me or for my son, and I cannot control much of it, but I can trust and have a relationship with the one who does know and control the future.

 

Anticipation

You probably all recognize these lyrics from the Carly Simon song, “Anticipation”:

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

That has been my mental theme song for the last few days as I count down to the uncertain birth-day. I’ve been physically and mentally ready for about 3 weeks now. In fact, today could be the day. I’m definitely feeling different things, new things, much less comfortable things, and it is his due date. But then again, he could be tenacious (or lazy) and hang out on the inside for another week or two. I can’t really be sure.

 

And that’s driving me crazy. I don’t like that I can’t really make any specific plans, because I never know when I’ll end up in the hospital. I don’t want to start any big projects, because they may get interrupted indefinitely. And my energy seems to decrease a little every day. (If he does stay in another week or two, they may accidentally admit me to the hospital for experimental zombie-reversal treatments instead of labor and delivery.) To add to the crazy, my hormones (oh, wondrous things, those) have decided to rebalance again, and so I find myself on the verge of a mental breakdown at least once a day. Yesterday I broke down in tears over a cell phone.

 

Yes, I admit it. I ordered a new, shiny, hopefully-not-demon-possessed cell phone, and was so excited about getting free overnight shipping. Then I woke up and realized that my beautiful new technological umbilical cord was being overnighted to my mom’s house, not mine. I would have to wait a whole day longer to get my phone. Cue the irrational, inconsolable pregnant lady waterworks. I was kind of embarrassed to be with myself, it was that silly.

 

I quickly realized that I wasn’t really crying about the phone though. I mean yes, there was the chance that my old one would go up in a puff of smoke before I got the new one, leaving me virtually cut off from the whole world (!), but it wasn’t really a big deal. No, what I was crying about was having to wait. The stress of waiting for my little guy to come had found a way through my usually calm outer shell, and I had to admit that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I was just so tired of waiting.

 

I bet you’ve been there too. We all have to accept waiting as a part of life. God often asks us to wait for things. Sometimes it’s to build our patience and perseverance. Sometimes it’s because His perfect timing says, “Not yet.” The longer we live, the more we wait. And yet, it doesn’t necessarily get easier, does it? All we can do is what I did yesterday – cry out to God and ask for His grace, His strength in the waiting. It’s okay to tell Him that you don’t feel like you can do it much longer. It’s okay to tell Him that your patience feels like it’s about to run out. He already knows, and He very much cares. If He’s asking you to wait for something, He is also offering to sustain you in your waiting.

 

I don’t know if my little guy is going to come tomorrow, or if he’s going to wait until next week. But I do know that I can make it, however long the wait is, because I’m not relying on my own strength to get through. You’re waiting on something right now, I just don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s for that soulmate you so long for, or maybe for your own child, whether just a hope, or a wiggling, kicking reality. You might be waiting anxiously for the results of your lab exam, or your final exam. You might be waiting for a cure. You might be waiting for that job to call back, or just for something to change.

 

I know it’s hard. My waiting has a time limit, a known, happy outcome, and it’s still hard to wait, so I know that it is even harder for those of you whose times and outcomes are more uncertain. Please know that for the Father, the outcome is not uncertain, and the time is in His hands. He loves you and cares for you, and He will not make you wait forever, nor wait without a purpose. Trust Him, take heart, and look forward. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” Have faith, my friends, have faith.

Tuesday’s Truth – If You Can Only Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All

Hello everyone! Just a short bit of a public service announcement this week. In this latest season of my life, I have become so aware of the trials and sufferings of those around me. I’m not talking about starving children in Africa or politically oppressed people in Asia, or impoverished South Americans. I’m talking about the people in our families, churches, and neighborhoods who are dealing with pain and difficulty right now. The middle-aged man who is suddenly and unexpectedly a widower,  the couple struggling with debt and unemployment, the parents caring for a chronically, critically ill child, the small-business owner wondering how many months they can stay open or afford to employ others, or the parents who lose a child to an illness or an unexpected accident.

 

I’ve addressed the issues of trials, suffering, God’s plans and the like in past posts. I’m not here to go over all of that again. What I want to address today is how we respond to those in our lives who are experiencing pain and struggle. So many times our first reaction when someone shares a trial or tragedy with us is to try to make them feel better. We say things like, “God is in control,” “Everything will work out,” “God’s going to do a miracle,” “They’re in a better place,” “There’s a purpose in this,” “Just lean on Him,” or many similar things. Many times, these things are completely true. God is in control, He does have a plan, and there is a purpose in our pain. But stop and really think about it. Does saying any of those things really make someone feel better? Is it even really possible to make someone feel better when they’re really going through something life-alteringly painful? I don’t think it is. The only one who can truly comfort someone in those types of situations is God, and He works directly on the heart and spirit of the sufferer, not through their ears.

 

It is possible for us to do something, however. We can offer support in many ways that opens the door to God’s comfort and healing. Sometimes there are practical things that we can do to care for those who are hurting. The old saying is very true: “Actions speak louder than words.” In fact, one of the best things we can do for our suffering friends and loved ones is just keep our mouths shut. I can’t say I’m always good at that. I mean, I write this blog every week because I like communicating and expressing the things I’m learning and discovering about God. I never got in trouble in school for my papers being too short, but for them being too long. I can over-communicate very easily. Once in a while, though, I get it right. I remember one situation where I took my own advice, and I can look back and see how much more effective it was than if I had tried to pull out all my “great wisdom”.

 

A friend had suffered an incredibly tragic loss. I’m pretty sure one of the first things I said on the phone was, “I don’t have any words.” Just things like “I’m so sorry,” and “I’ll be there as soon as I can”. And when I did get there to support her, I ended up (not by my own brilliance, I confess) just letting her tell me the whole story, with all the good memories, and all the painful details. We laughed a few times, cried a lot, and actually had a very beautiful time together. Did I make her suffering go away? No, there was nothing I could do to fix it. Did I say something profound that put everything in perspective? No, there’s not a lot of perspective when you suffer an immense loss. I would have loved to have taken a measure of her pain away, but all I could do was help her carry it for a few days. Over the next several months I followed the same course and spent time listening on the phone when she would get overwhelmed with the grief. Again, there was nothing I could do to make it better, but I could still offer support. Probably the most surprising thing to me was how I was changed and affected throughout the process. I saw God’s faithfulness, my friend’s trust in Him and her growth, and the miracle of God’s healing in spite of overwhelming emotional injury. If I had tried to spout wisdom, make things better, and run my own mouth, I would have missed the opportunity to be blessed and learn from God’s work in someone else’s life.

 

So as you come across the pained and hurting in your own life, shut down the urge to try to fix things with your words, go against your natural instincts, and just keep quiet. Support, care for, and uphold the sufferer, but do it through caring actions and loving listening. You may be surprised at what God will do in your life too.

Tuesday’s Truth – The Gift of No

Welcome back, friends! Today I’m writing you from the unbearably hot and humid state of Kansas. Every time I see The Wizard of Oz, I wonder why Dorothy doesn’t do a little happy dance when she says, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” It alternates between blast furnace and Roman steam bath. But I digress.

 

What I really want to talk to you about today is an important parenting principle. Before you dismiss me based on the fact that the only parenting I’ve done so far is poking my belly to keep my little guy kicking, let me tell you that I’m not going to actually give you advice on how to parent your children (although if you pick something up from this, that’s great). What’s really going on here is that I was inspired recently by a parallel between parenting and God’s ways with us.

 

Like any first-born, first time mother who is paranoid and certain that she will completely ruin her child, I’ve been furiously reading every parenting book I can get my hands on. (Note: this is not actually a good idea.) There are many rules, schedules, tips, and tricks that you are apparently supposed to follow to ensure a healthy, well-adjusted child. Some will probably prove useful, others to be a useless burden, but there is one that has really stuck out to me even before I’ve had the opportunity to try it out. It just makes sense to me. I call it “The Gift of No”.

 

The basic principle is that it is important for you to tell your child no (although not necessarily to use the word itself) on a regular basis. Your child will develop better emotional and psychological health if they do not get everything they ask for. It’s good for them to be denied once in a while. It’s okay if they don’t get every experience, toy, or opportunity. It’s healthy for them to be allowed to fail because you don’t solve all their problems for them. From my time teaching young children, I can see that this is a true principle.

 

But as I thought about it more, I wondered why it was true. What is it about being judiciously denied certain things that helps a child become emotionally strong and healthy? It seems to me that there are four main things that the Gift of No teaches children. First, it teaches them that they are not the central, most important thing in the world. They learn that their desires do not outweigh the needs and desires of others. This kind of humility makes for a thoughtful, caring person. Second, it teaches patience and self-discipline. When a child does not immediately get everything he or she wants, it develops the ability to deny self. This helps a child learn to either wait for a better time, or to choose not to indulge themselves. Third, it teaches contentment. Through experience, the child learns that he or she can still be happy and fulfilled even without many of the things that he or she may initially desire. Fourth, it teaches the child to prioritize. When you can’t have or do everything you desire, you learn how to choose what is most important to you.

 

Now, you may be thinking, this is interesting parenting advice, but what does it have to do with issues of spirituality and Christian life? Well, as I was thinking through they why’s and wherefore’s of the Gift of No, it suddenly dawned upon me that this isn’t a new principle at all, but something that God instituted from the beginning of Creation, and that it is not just true in raising children, it is true in God’s development of us as well. Those four character qualities that we find important in the emotional health of our children are equally, if not even more  important in our spiritual health. God wants to develop in us others-centeredness, self-discipline, contentment, and right priorities. Those four are cornerstones of a healthy spiritual life. The Bible is full of examples of God giving the Gift of No to His children. Think through them with me:

  • God told Adam and Eve, “No,” when it came to the forbidden fruit in order to develop discipline.
  • God told Moses, “No,” when it came to entering the Promised Land because Moses had not prioritized obedience over expedience.
  • God told David, “No,” when it came to building the temple not only because of David’s prior actions, but also to teach both David and Solomon discipline and others-centeredness.
  • God told John and James (and their mother), “No,” when it came to promising them positions of honor in His kingdom to remind them that they were not more important that His other followers.
  • God told Paul, “No,” when he asked for the ‘thorn in his flesh’ to be removed to teach him contentment.

 

There are many more examples throughout the Bible, and in the lives of Christians throughout history. You’ve probably heard someone say that God answers our prayers three different ways: Yes, No, and Wait. We like the Yeses. We’re okay with the Waits. But we like to try to make all of the No’s into Waits, don’t we? We need to come to terms with the fact that sometimes God is flat-out telling us, “No.” Not because He doesn’t love us. Not because He wants us to be unhappy. Not because He is being arbitrary. He tells us, “No,” precisely because He does love us, and wants us to be emotionally and spiritually healthy. When we accept that a “No” from God is just as loving and gracious as a “Yes,” then we are one step closer to being the healthy and whole person that He made each of us to be.

 

May you grow in grace!