Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas to Remember

Photo by SuperL
All through the years, Mary collected her memories of Jesus...and pondered them in her heart...

"I had ridden the donkey into Bethlehem," Mary recalls. "I was so tired, so thirsty. Oh, Joseph, how you struggled to settle me into that stable before the baby came. You were so gentle, so full of love." 

Joseph laughs. "I was so young, you mean. And nervous and scared."

Mary shakes her head, remembering it all. She laughs and adds, "That crazy hungry donkey braying, drowning out my cries of pain. And the star so very bright, as if it were the sun shining at midnight." 

Joseph nods, remembering with her and adds, "I was so concerned about getting the manure brushed off the manger. I couldn't lay Jesus down anywhere and I needed to help you clean yourself. And we were trying so hard to do everything just right."

Mary smiles and whispers, "The dawn of redeeming grace, the long expected Messiah."

"Immanuel," Joseph says tenderly. "God on earth in our little baby boy. And you kissed His face and counted His toes and fingers. And you sang. I remember how you sang."

"We both sang. And then you cried. Remember, Joseph? I can still see the tears streaming down your dusty cheeks." She reaches over and takes his hand. 

And he swallows the lump forming in his throat as he remembers the joy, the complete joy, of holding the Messiah, his little Jesus, in awkward, calloused hands. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Messy Day Blues

Photo by Kate Ware
My merry maids, Miss Crock Pot and Miss Bread Machine, are fed and at work by 7:00. The house cleaning is done by 8:00. I am dancing to Christmas music as I pull a steaming gingerbread from the oven.

I start sorting extra laundry from my house guests until several piles lay across my laundry room floor. As Miss Washer begins sloshing dirty clothes, I scoop up my stack of study notes and spread them across the desk.

The computer is frozen. I need to get my lesson prepared to teach at the prison Christmas Eve. The phone beeps with texts, some important. I read them as I grab note pad and pen to study the old fashioned way. The washer stops and I go to the laundry room to process loads of clothes.  The clothes dryer will not work. I begin hanging soggy clothes around the room and start another load in the washer.

The to-do list is extra long today because of chores neglected while making chicken soup and sick calls during the last week. I know when to say "no" quite easily, but sometimes, life gets busy anyway.

A glance at the clock on the piano reminds me that my piano students will start arriving early afternoon. I probably shouldn't still smell like Lysol. The phone rings and I take a deep breath. A friend needs some encouragement.

My flesh woman (I call her Mabel) begins to wilt with fatigue, starts playing around with pride.  It's been only a few hours since I enjoyed reading Philippians and got my day started with a run that cleared my head and centered me on prayerful purpose. My life is good. But prideful, selfish Mabel rises again and has to be denied. The truth is, I don't like messy. I hate messy.  Messy makes me cranky.

I pour a cup of French  Roast, pick up my Bible and sit down by the fire. I think about Jesus and how He loves me. Away from the fray, I immediately calm and begin to refresh.  Messy makes me cranky, but loving messy people who live messy lives brings contentment.

In her blog post, "Her Row Was the Messiest", Lindsey McGuire writes, "When we love people, their mess becomes our mess. Their broken heart becomes our broken heart...Jesus loved like that.  He was often interrupted for healing, stopped on His way with questions, kept overnight with unexpected dinner invitations, and criticized for spending time with messy people like us."

I can't wash the clothes and bedding for Jesus so He begins the day refreshed.  I can't make Him chicken soup and rolls when He is sick. I can't encourage Jesus on Christmas Eve, but when I do it for the least of those in the prison, I do it for Him.  I do it with Him.

I am smiling again as I finish my coffee. Gratitude trumps discontentment every time. I am called to love people to Jesus, to love people with Jesus. As I head back to the laundry room, I hear a knock on the door.

Katherynn, a little girl I love more than life itself, bangs the door open and calls, "Good Morning! Can I help you work? And can we read some books first?"

I laugh when I look at her, little face smeared with apple butter, pants on backwards, shoes on the wrong feet and tangled hair in her eyes.

"Let's clean you up a bit first. You're a mess," I tell her. "I love that about you."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Spread Hope

Mommy put the dirty clothes in the oven instead of the washing machine. Mommy said it didn't matter that the clothes burned up. Mommy said she never cooked anyway.

Connie wore her pajamas to the first grade Christmas party. Mommy said the other kids wouldn't laugh at her, not if she wore eye make up and lipstick. Mommy said they would be jealous.

"I can still feel the tears burning in my eyes because of the mascara smearing," a grown up Connie confides. "Having a mother with mental illness that bad changes you. I still fight bitterness. I want my life to be healthy. I want Christmas to be happy. Will you teach me how to make a Christmas?"

How have happy Christmas memories changed you?  Who taught you how to make a Christmas?

I sat silently drinking my tea, pondering on life without Christmas. Trusting people is hard if you have known betrayal. Loving people is hard if you have known ridicule.

Connie laughed. "You don't know where to even start with the likes of me, do you?"

I stood up and smiled. "First we're going to toss together soup in the crock pot and put the bread machine to work making rolls. Then we are going to decorate cookies, make some ornaments and talk about traditions you can start today."

She jumped up and pulled me into a hug. Like a child, I realized, full of hope and excitement.

A child... A child who just wanted a Christmas.

Who do you know that is mentally unstable? Who do you know that is sick, angry, confused, hurting?

Change your world. Notice people. Spread hope.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Just Around the Corner

I greeted a stranger on my jog this morning. She had been walking her dog, Samuel Louise.

Focusing on my speed rather than location, I had made a mistake and turned the wrong corner. The stranger was standing in her yard, simply staring up at the blue sky. When I got closer I could see she was heartbroken, crying, talking to God...yelling at God.

Her kitchen was a cheerful place with sun streaming through yellow checked curtains.  Samuel Louise rested quietly in his big green bed the size of an inner tube. The woman's face was exhausted, ravished with emotion. Her Bible and a devotional guide were laying on the table.  She served chocolate-hazelnut tea and homemade cinnamon bread with trembling hands while I waited to listen, to love. 

"I think I've made a mistake," she explained. "My marriage. And becoming a mother and my career. My whole life feels like one giant mistake. It's not like I didn't pray about my decisions. I did. I do. But God seems to have disappeared on the scene, you know? And I am mad at Him. He could have stopped me, you see.  He could have stopped me from making the mistakes. I asked Him for wisdom."

Isn't it easy when things are going badly to conclude you've made a mistake? You buy a car that has to have more work done on it than expected. You marry someone who doesn't keep the promise to become their best self. Your child is the worst kid in the class and has no friends. And on and on it goes. A mistake. But is it?

"I don't know what I did wrong," my neighbor said. "What did I do wrong? And where do I go from here if I can't trust God to answer my prayers?"

It is right to make prayerful decisions, to know the Word of God, to acknowledge Him so He will direct our paths. But, through no fault of your own, you can find yourself in a big fat pit of a mess. 

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He spent a whole night in prayer before He chose His followers...and then He chose Judas. Things could not have turned out worse for him or for Jesus. Did Jesus make a mistake? No. Judas was a man and he was free to sin. But the end result was a change of epic proportion, the opportunity for Jesus to offer redemption.

Behind every door is a mystery. Behind every face is a story. Behind every mistake is an opportunity.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Motherhood and Messy Moments

"I have spent years trying to study and grow and change.  It's hard to keep going.  I'm just so tired," Maggie said.

I sat down beside her and she took my hand. "Please pray for me. Sometimes I don't think I can keep going another day. It's not just being in prison. It's being a mother and a grandmother and knowing my family is not okay. No matter how much I know about God it's too late to change the past."

"She's depressed," added Rachel, her life partner. "I don't know how to encourage her. And we sure don't know what to do to help the kids."

I prayed with these women, so very dear to me. I was proud of the changes I had seen in each of them. Out of the ashes of two completely shattered lives had come healing and deep repentance. I had seen treasured photographs of their 3 adult children and 2 teenagers. Their grand-daughter was only 2 and would be 7 by the time either of them was out of prison and able to meet her. Their family was devastated by the past, broken in dozens of ways in the present.

Motherhood isn't something that just happens to you. It's a choice you make every day to put someone else's happiness and well being ahead of your own, to teach the hard lessons, trying to do the right thing even when you're not sure what the right thing is. Motherhood is forgiving yourself, over and over again for not having everything figured out.

But what if your mother sold you into prostitution and drugs before you were 8 years old?  What if your mother had never known any other life besides cruelty? What if every man you had ever known had violently hurt you? Where do you go to learn motherhood?

Maggie sighed so deeply that we all three laughed. She shook her head as if to shake away her discouragement, then sighed again. "You always say God will meet us exactly where we are in a messy moment and love us toward truth," she repeated back to me. "When you said that I wrote it down."

Rachel grinned at me. "It's on her mirror and on my lamp."

Maggie continued, "All we can do is meet the kids exactly where they are in a messy moment and love them every day until things get figured out and cleaned up."

I smiled and squeezed her hand. "It's what all the best mothers and grand-mothers do. The rest of it can be washed clean by grace."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Anneliese Meets The King

Photo by Thom Watson,
Anneliese considers the brightly colored ornaments on the Christmas tree with wide-eyed amazement. Her heart is filled with hope and joy. Her eyes long to hold this treasure in her hands, to explore it. She reaches out to touch, causing a single ornament to tremble, but the little tree in the corner stands silent, waiting.

Long ago in Bethlehem, a King was born. He was called Immanuel, the with-us-God. He came to earth to seek and save the lost. He came to find His beloved Annaliese.

An old rugged tree stood on a hill, waiting. The King went silently to the tree to die so He could one day rescue His beloved Anneliese.

She smiles at me. And I smile back. Oh, how I smile because I have a secret to share with her. I make a decision and in an instant the Christmas tree in the corner lights up from the inside out.

Someday Anneliese will consider the old rugged tree that stood on a hill.  She will listen to the true story of The King who was born and died so He could save her. She will be wide-eyed with amazement. Her heart will be filled with hope and joy.  Her eyes will long to grasp such a treasure in her hands, to explore it.  Her hands will reach out to touch, causing her soul to tremble.

Anneliese will smile at The King.  And He will smile back. Oh, how He will smile because He has a secret to share with her. He is alive! She will make a decision to love Him and in an instant the King will light her up from the inside out.

And they will live happily ever after, Anneliese and her King, Immanuel, the with-Anneliese-God.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The God of Stillness

Photo by Michael W May (
Anger wells up inside me then subsides to an empty place where it wallows, waits. It ebbs high again, washes over me strong.

I fill the sink with hot soapy water and put away the toaster.  I try to sing anger away, but my voice trembles weak. Anger rises again with sharp pelting stings.

Morning routine comforts me. Folded quilts on made beds. Water sloshing over dirty laundry. I pick up the broom to sweep clean my kitchen, my heavy spirit.

Curtains open and day spills into my home, into my heart. I smile as The Creator reveals His sunrise. His sun flashes, makes even greater light, ruling the day. A good morning.

But the world outside my window is cold, icy, barren. And I remember. The Christian who is not generously bearing fruit.  The broken woman who hides away bitterness toward her abuser. The child who shivers, hungry in the darkness. Injustices in my world. In your world. In Father's world.

My anger has nowhere to go. I open my heart, my hands, so Father can lift it away.  Tears flow from frustrated eyes because He is the God who is able, but the God who sometimes says no. And my heart pounds grief.

Be still, He whispers. He means it.

I try. Swallow hard. But I speak out of disappointment. Confusion. Rebellion.

Great is My faithfulness, He reminds. I am the God who sees. My ways are not your ways. I am loving toward all that I have made. Trust Me.

My soul stills. I can not force my heart to understand His. I cannot will myself strong and wise. He alone is God. He alone is good. He alone is faithful.

Grace washes over me. Always more grace to soothe the wounds, heal the confusion, soften the harshness. Gratitude replaces discontentment. I watch quietly, awestruck with wonder, as a wellspring of joy splashes up where anger left me dry and thirsty.

And I smile. Oh, how I smile! I am fully awake now to life pulsing around me. To my world where I can make a difference. To my God who is there and is not silent.

He smiles back. He knows I do not understand. Still, I love Him. Still, I trust Him.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hup for the Drinky Soul

Photo by Nicholas Vigier
Maisy pushes at my knee to get my attention.  "Hup," she says. "Hup." I set my Bible and coffee cup aside and help her up. She settles peacefully into my love to rest. She needs an escape from the frustration and confusion of older children who think they know what is best for her. For a toddler learning to speak, "hup" is a handy word. It means either "help" or "up".

Ben snuggles his tired little body into his mother. Playing with the older children has worn him out and he needs a refuge. He has come to the center of his universe for the help that he trusts most. "I'm drinky," he says in a small, pitiful voice. Someone hands Elizabeth a glass of water for her son and Ben drains it dry, quenching his thirst.

Don't you sometimes feel small, too? Tired. Vulnerable. Overwhelmed.

When Nathanael was small he would leave the noise and fray of his little boy world to silently stand beside my chair.  He would take my hand in his and hold it. Not a word, just stand quietly, holding my hand before returning to his play.

Most of the time we can live joy and courage even in tough moments.  But, sometimes, we need a  hand to hold or a refuge. We need the Center of the universe to help us out of our frustration and confusion. We need to take a break and quench our thirst in a dry weary day.

Eli gave his daddy a hug as Steve left for work. "Bye, Daddy! You're my strongest!" he yelled.

That's the kind of hup we need for our drinky souls, a God who is able, a God who is our Strongest.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Miss Mildred and the President

Photo by Courtney Chintermeyer
"I'm not smart enough to understand politics much," Miss Mildred commented, "But it's a right dandy thing we be havin' a black president for a time, sweet potata girl."

I picked up my tea cup and grinned.  "I'm not sure I'm smart enough to understand politics much either, but I sure would like for you to tell me what you know."

"My roots go all the way back to slave trade, sweet potata girl. I heard stories from my Granny that was told to her when she was a little snip of a girl. Slave days was awful dark times for the blacks.  Folks could come take your babies right outa your arms and sell 'em off.  Might never knowed what happen to 'em."  

As she sipped her tea, her dark eyes went far away in thought. She laughed suddenly, "Oh, sweet potato girl. I 'bout forgot what I was sayin', didn't I?  All people's gotta have rights and that's what politics is to me. Givin' folks they rights."  

I nodded in agreement, thinking it was a pretty good definition. "And you think having a black president for a time will help make that happen, Miss Mildred?"

"I do indeed, sweet potata girl.  It's gotta be a good thing to one day be a country where little black children get ripped from they granny's arms and another day a little black child grows up to be president!"

"I absolutely agree," I said. 

"And a country where not only that, but where instead of ripping away little children from they Granny, we give food stamps to help a granny get by.  Now I know people go different in how that oughta happen.  I've seen many a people who aren't glad I have food stamps and think I oughta not even have all these children to raise. But sometimes life is just how it is and you gotta do the best you can with what God gives you for your portion. But having a black president for a time is a hopeful thing whether you agree with him or not. It says we're a country that's a gonna keep tryin' til we get ever'thing figured out. We set to changin' bad ways as best we know. And that's an awful good thing, ain't it?"

"It's a wonderful thing.  And I like him. A lot. And I really respect him and his family."

"Me too, sweet potata girl. Me too." And the wise old woman took a bite of her cookie, toasted me with it and whispered, "And he's kindy cute, ain't he?" 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sweet Potata Girl

Photo by Wally Hartshorn

"My roots go back all the way to slave trade," she said softly. "I don't be knowin' all 'bout what that was like, but I knowed 'bout hard times in my days. I learned 'bout makin' it through 'gainst all odds."

Swollen crippled feet had propelled her through the market. Her arthritic hands dropped a 2 page shopping list as she struggled to move a box of produce.

I picked her list up from the floor and moved the box.  "Could I fill your list for you? I'd be glad to do that," I offered.

"Oh, my, no, sweet potata girl," she laughed. "The good Lord gave me 8 kids and more grandkids than I can be countin' any more so I guess He'll just keep me spinnin' on forward. It's a long line of hungry folks I need to be feedin' and you got your own work. God will get me through."

She was collapsed with exhaustion on a bench, her cart piled high with food bags when I left the store. Rubbing stiffness from her hands, eyes closed, her silent tears trailed down wrinkled brown cheeks.

"I care about you," I told her, sitting down on the bench beside her. I handed her a handkerchief.

"Oh my, sweet potata girl! That's a lovely old hanky! Now I'm just fine. I'm too tuckered out today is all."

As she wiped her eyes she shared her life. Divorces, custody battles, drug addictions, prison heartbreak and little children with no place to go but to their old broken-down granny. She told me how grateful she was for a country that helped with food stamps, prisons that helped folks get straight, teachers that hugged learnin' right into kids and for all the blessings found in loving people.

I helped her into my car, loaded the piles of groceries into my back seat and phoned her neighbor who had not yet shown up to give her a ride home.

"Why do you call me sweet potata girl?" I asked, once she was settled into her house.  She rested at the table taking some medicine while I put away the groceries in her kitchen and created an impromptu tea party.

"Been a lot of times with nothin' to eat but a sweet potata. It was a blessin' from the Lord on them days. You can live a right long spell on a sweet potata.  Lotta people don't see the blessin' in hard times. I learned from my own granny that hard times is blessin' just like good times. You been a blessin' to me, sweet potata girl. I was plumb done in and set to frettin', but God sends help ever' time to me. Ever' time. Ever' time. Ever' time. Ever' time. Now you be rememberin' that from an old woman, sweet potata girl. Ever' time."

Monday, December 3, 2012

State of the Union

Katherynn, with hands on her hips, marches regally to the top of my stairs and turns to face her royal subjects, John and Ben.  "I'm the girl so I'm the queen," she explains. "And I'm the boss."

John puzzles thoughtfully over this ruling before he speaks.  "Okay. You're the queen." He moves down a few steps, then adds, "I'm not as high up as the queen, but I can tell the queen what to do."

Katherynn adjusts her invisible crown and smooths her ruffled feathers.  "Hmmm, " she considers.  "Okay.  That will work! Now, what should we tell Prince Ben to do?"

In my office some of the children are playing "Lord of the Rings".  Jesse is explaining to younger Liam, Ethan and Eli the importance of choosing a strong army and using strategy in battle. "We are going to fight hard but we aren't going to really be mean."

In my bedroom, Nathanael and Caleb are doubled over, laughing about their game, "Stratego". A secret plot has been devised to fight to the finish.  I'm not sure who won, but I'm sure that they're playing peacefully.

I smile. Partly because having a house filled with a dozen children is so much fun and partly because the grownups in my living room are discussing peace, wisdom and being brave...and concerns over parenting.

"The children are doing okay, don't you think, Father?" I pray silently. "Make them peacemakers who are wise and strong and brave."

As I wind my way downstairs through the land of five year olds, I hear Ben announce, "I am Prince Ben and I am in charge."

Katherynn and John agree that this is a sensible solution and John tells me, "Katherynn and me are the bosses but Ben is in charge of everything."

The State of the Union is in pretty good shape.

The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."   ~James 3:17