The Path this Christmas Morning

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IMG_1800.jpgWhen so much is expected of me (by the world, by others, but most of all, by myself), guide me in the greatest journey there is to take – the path I walk when I turn from self-sufficiency and gift-giving to God-dependency and the-gift-receiving.

This is the true path on Christmas morning where, in the bleak midwinter of the soul, I realize my smallness before the glory of God revealed all around me.  I remember that “servant of the Lord” is a far better life than “master of my universe.”  I choose to believe that the greatest gift does not need my preparation but is already here from a God who became flesh to live among us.

This Christmas morning, I preach to myself again the sermon I preached to others on Sunday morning.  Before I ever give a gift, I must receive the gift – the good news that God, creator of the heavens and the earth – loves me and is on the way to me to redeem what I thought was lost, to restore what I thought was too tattered within me to be of use anymore, to resurrect what I thought was forever gone.  Even more, this God is equally on the way to my neighbor in dramatic and powerful ways.

I remember that this gift never grows old, cannot be earned, and cannot be lost.  It cannot be repaid.  It will not evaporate when I get frustrated.  It is as real the day I was born as it is today and as it will be on the day when I breathe my last

Every time I encounter this news and lean into it with more depth, I taste this truth as if it is new and I find myself surprised that it is even sweeter than I remembered.  It is news so good that just the beginning of it is enough to rejoice at the fulfillment of it.

And just like that the angels sing, my soul is at peace, and it is time to start to live again this mystery.  Children will stir any minute now, it is time to get ready.

Morning “stories” from my Advent Instagram practice with the daily lectionary…

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TWO: “Up!”

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“Up!” he cries, eyes fixed upon my face and hands full of toys. “Where do you want to go?” I ask as if his request is transactional – as if I am a tool to achieve his desires. He and I both know that it is more than that, but in the chaos of dinner-prep, I can’t help but turn everything into actions with purpose.

“Up,” he repeats, each time with more tears and all the urgency he can muster. I bend down, careful with my back.  I have the back of a working mother whose third child prefers to be held for much of the evening routine (an impossible request while making dinner as cooking inevitably requires two hands and sharp knives).  Then there are the two older children like to play in such a way that can quickly knock the wind out of me (when did they get so big?).

Lifting him up, I rest his two-year-old frame on my left hip, and I wonder if my hips have gotten weaker or if they are just getting to the place of protest.  After 8 years of mothering, they would like a rest from toting little ones around. They don’t hold the way they used to.  Now, my back has to accommodate with an uncomfortable lean that I always regret later in the day.

Just as I lift him up and my hips, back, arms, and tasks protest, his eyes lock with mine. Only inches away from my eyes, his face lights up with an infectious smile. He moves expertly so that his shoulders square with mine and he gains my full attention.  He has done this for the past 6 months, and I am always amazed at its brilliance. He manages to look at me in such a way that I forget everything else.  I mirror his smile, just the way he once learned to smile by watching me.

“Who is the cutest?” I ask.  His smile grows ever bigger as he replies, “Walt” and then quickly “Mommy.”

Ever since he learned to say his name, he usually follows it with his name for me – “Mommy.”  Even while the older two have matured to “Mom” (usually uttered like a shout or a demand), Walt still draws out “Mommy” slowly and his eyes twinkle.

I know these are temporary times.  His journey to independence began the day he was born and it continues to this day.  While parents of children who are grown might advise me to always pick him up and carry him for however long he wants, we all know that life is not that easy.  I cannot bottle up his youth as if I can soak it up enough for a lifetime.  Besides, my hips and my back won’t let me.  And dinner does actually have to get on the table at some point (often the source of why he wants to be picked up in the first place).

Lately, I practice my new line while I mince onions and gather ingredients from the pantry.  “You can be with me, but I can’t pick you up right now.”  After a few times of repeating it, he will walk away for a moment with shoulders slumped to find a toy.  The sight of it ignites some mother-guilt to flare up, but it quickly dissipates.  Even as I type this, I know I will later read this and regret every time I have uttered it.

But he is growing up, and that is not bad news. It’s not news at all.  This is the task before us – to relearn how to be connected even when it is not at the (aching) hip as much anymore.

The day we came home from the hospital, I managed to steal a few moments in solitude and I wrote out gratitude on that Thanksgiving day.  The list is scribbled out on a half-filled page.  For bodies fragile and yet strong. For children who know that they are loved. For parents who are capable of reflecting love and receiving it because they know what it means to be loved. For the way gratitude can comfort weakness.

I speak all the words again this morning and I whisper quietly in the dark, “Amen.”

This year as we celebrate Thanksgiving and the second birthday of our youngest, may I not begrudge nor idolize my hands that are full or my list that is long.  Instead, may I be tender enough with my own self that I hear my own cries, pause the chaos to pick my self up, and joyfully look my self in the face enough to hear my name again.  In so doing, may I find that it is the Divine Mother herself letting me know that life is more beautiful than I could ever grasp while living it.

In the arms of the One who is still birthing me even today, I pause and give thanks.  I remember again that gratitude can comfort weakness.  I am seen and I am free.

Etch Into Me Something Permanent

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It became a practice for me earlier this year – writing a word or phrase from my morning prayer onto my left wrist, right above my watchband.  I notice it during the day as my fingers type out plans to be made.  I notice it during the moments when I check for the time, only to realize how quickly it has passed.  I notice it during the moments when I wring my hands on behalf of all that I do not understand and all that I cannot fix.

It comes with the simple yearning: Etch into me something permanent. Write upon me a Word that soaks into my soul and brands my bones. Continue reading

Let it be more than I can carry

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When there is too much to carry, the world gets too big, the news gets too terrifying, and the sky gets too dark, help me to get small again. Not to feel small but to get small again – to get close again to what I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears.  Dry hands as winter approaches. Voices of little ones talking to one another over cinnamon toast, expertly making sense of the smallest one’s babbles in his attempt to keep up with the conversation with his older brothers.

As I get small and get close, I call upon God for what I need.  Around this radius of three feet or so, grant the light to shine like a warm light on a dark morning.  Let peace be.  Soon, the world no longer rushes and there is stillness.  And I remember that the world’s troubles are too much for one person to absorb, process, and address at one time, in one hour, in one day, in one lifetime.

And yet it is here in this one small human life that God comes and transforms everything.  Jesus Christ is the testament that there is no human life too small to change everything.

On these days, I pray the simple prayer:

Let the change be with me this day.
Let the change be in me this hour.
Let the change be through me this whole life long.

Not to my glory or my paycheck or my status.
Not to the glory of a political party or human institution or society’s approval.

Let the change be to the glory of God.  Let peace pour forth from the throne of grace where God calls us to approach with open arms ready to receive mercy and grace – more than I can carry.

Let it all be more than I can carry.

Grace Will Lead Us Home

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Her labored breathing keeps time for me this final morning of her life. Her skinny stomach reveals the contours of her ribs, making it cruel whenever I lift her bed from the office in the mad dash to get the boys to school, encouraging her to the mudroom where she spends her days while I am at the office.  The fervor with which she used to scour the floors for crumbs has slowed to a patient but still persistent walk past the kitchen chairs where the boys have generously left their breakfast crumbs.

There is so much living that we do without any awareness of what we leave behind.  The number of crumbs and floor debris will be revealed as soon as this evening when bedtime snack comes around and her nose is not in search of its spoils.

Late this afternoon, we will scoop up her fragile frame with its rectal protrusion, cancerous mass, and still beating heart into the car. She will anxiously await our destination as she always has, though this time without as much physical ability and nervous energy as once propelled her to climb seats and pant excessively at the driver’s right elbow. We will pass the place on I-64 East where she once climbed into the car seat that held our oldest. Around 15 months at the time, he bore a few scratches on his arms and legs by the time we got off the interstate and I was able to retrieve her from his lap.

We are not in danger of that today.  Instead, our own hearts will be doing their own version of nervous energy as we willfully bring her to the vet for her life to gracefully come to an end.  The human agency within it all is so crippling.  I have found myself wanting her physical condition to dramatically worsen so that we are assured that our decision is merciful. I have waited expectantly to see the pain her in her face so that I can be pain-free in the decision.  But that has not come, even as the condition of her mass has progressed.  What of this impulse to free my own self of guilt by needing the clear suffering of the other to justify a hard decision?  Is this not grace that she has not?

Is it not grace that we have made it thus far – 11 years in our stewardship?  They say she was 2 years old when we adopted her from the humane society… though the white on her face suggests that she might have been older than that.  4 houses along the way.  3 young boys who pulled and poked and prodded.  Countless times when we feared it was the end – escaping out an open door where she would be found by a neighbor or we would hear her collar jingle only to discover her casually following her nose (once on a steep mountainside – eek!).  Or there are the times when she would retrieve a full loaf of bread from the table and consume it in its entirety, leaving the plastic wrapping to send me into a tail-spin with google predicting the worst (thanks, internet forums).

Is it not grace that we have made it thus far – her and me?

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By my side when I came home with newborns. She adored maternity leave and our sabbatical year.  She has been my constant companion in these later years – waiting patiently in my closet as I prepared for the day, curled up in her bed when I would read and write in the morning, following me up the stairs for bedtime routines with boys.

As my companion, she helped me to know myself.  Over these final years, she became a living reminder of the limits of my time and of my caring labor.  I once gave her all of my maternal energy, but it lessened over the years as that maternal energy was distributed for a growing family.  She helped me to see, feel, and name my limits.

But for all the ways I beat myself up for those limits, how can I miss the grace of it all?  She lies here by my side even now. 13+ years old and a cancerous mass.  Breathing in and out, resting in my presence.

Grace lives and breathes.  It outlives our expectations.  It does not quit, even at the limits.  Grace has a surviving quality.

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Last night we celebrated our lasts.  The last supper where she could be found at our feet, catching the scraps and inspecting the youngest’s high-chair.  We took a final walk, but she only made it a third of the way.  The oldest pulled her for part of the way in the red wagon, much to the youngest’s surprise.

img_9847The sky was ablaze as the sun set. Puffy clouds highlights creation’s glory. “Look at the sky,” Drew said. “It reminds me of our walk in Paducah.” Two years ago, we walked along the Pepper’s Mill neighborhood on my grandfather’s 90th birthday, just hours after his funeral service.  The sky that night was remarkable – the glorious handiwork of the Divine, beautifying the world for those with eyes to see.  We returned to Durham the next morning and after a 12-hour drive, we picked Deacon up from the vet and we settled into our new home with her living patiently by our side – a manifestation of the steadfast love that I had preached at my grandfather’s service.

When the door swings wide at the vet this evening and we emerge into the world without our dear companion, may grace abound and may the sky sing…

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
we have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far,
and grace will lead us home.”

My Cup Overflows

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photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/val-er-ie/14343350693

These days are full.  My desk holds more piles of tasks and needs than I can tackle in a lifetime, nevertheless in 30 hours each week.  My children hold more needs for their own flourishing than I could ever provide them, even if I quit my job and gave each hour to the labor of mothering.  My grandfather lies in a hospice bed an hour away.  His sons wait upon him as he approaches his final hours.  They watch his fragile frame and listen to his breathing.  He holds more needs than his body can fulfill any longer, even if the drugs and the care continued.

There are limits to who we are and what we can do.  Continue reading