Friday, April 03, 2015

Because He is Good: Thoughts on a Crippled Lent

Every Lent, for almost seven years, we've laid out the wreath.  And then nightly during the forty days we've lit the candle, read the Word, sung repentance, and prayed forgiveness.

{image and wreath found here}

This Lent, though, it seemed grief was too near.

I laid out the wreath; fit the pieces together, set a candle in the first hole, and placed the carved wooden figure of Jesus carrying His cross right next to it.

But truthfully, I only lit the candle once, and that was just to take it from clean wick to burnt... you know, so it wouldn't look like it had never been lit.  Every few days, in walking by, I remember.  And I count, move the candle, slide Jesus a few steps closer to Golgotha, my heart a swirling storm of grief.  And silence.

Like Zechariah, who didn't believe the promise that foretold God With Us, my mouth was closed, and I, who always seem to have the words (if not the time to write them...) was suddenly struck wordless.

Because she slipped into our home in December, and flew away to His in January.

My husband's sister, fifteen years his senior, was put on hospice in November for gastroparesis, a complication from chemotherapy treatments she received for breast cancer almost ten years ago; in short, her stomach was paralyzed, and gradually, while in our home, her small intestine failed as well.

She starved to death.

Four breathtaking weeks.  That's how long she was with us- and yet it seemed like months.  From the relentless heights of her need to the howling depths of her pain time moved as if anchored, the sea drag of suffering slowing the minutes to an agonizing crawl.

One morning she forgot reality altogether and nearly crawled up her bedroom wall to escape the police who were coming to arrest her for trying to "break in"; they would not be stopped, and she could not be convinced otherwise.  It began at 4:30 on a morning my husband had wakened with a fever.  For hours, he lay weakly on the floor and prayed as I gently pressed her shoulders back to the pillow every time she gathered her five-foot-eight, sixty pound frame to leap from the bed.  We wept with her, reassured her, sang hymns and quoted scripture, but it wasn't until I told her that her baby brother was right then talking to the Authorities that she quieted.  And when he stood and braced himself on the bed rails and leaned to whisper, Someone has taken your place.  You don't have to be afraid anymore!  And you don't have to break in... just walk. He'll meet you there, she asked, Are you sure? How do you know?  And we told her we were sure, and because He said so, and then she fell asleep.

A week and a half later, she slipped into a coma and at 3:30 the next morning, she walked with Jesus into her rest.

The only part of this story that I've felt freed to speak of has been in the sharing of God's goodness to us in that time.  How I'd never completely understood that our portion is lovingly given to us by Him, not merely allowed, until this sister came to live and die with us.  Through her time with us she came to know this fellow sufferer, Jesus, in a way she never had, and the pain of a lifetime of illness, abuse, loneliness and fear melted away to reveal a beautiful, hopeful smile that rejoiced in His goodness to her in bringing her Home.  It is a beautiful, cyclical reminder, this, that He is good; so although this portion is ugly, and trying, and I am tested beyond what I think I can bear, I will open my hands to take it, because He is good.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:26)
I find it perfectly fitting that today of all days, His Good Friday, He's opened my mouth to finally let the words flow and tell the rest of the story.

And although I've only had the strength this Lent to move the candle another few spaces and slide the figurine of our suffering Savior closer to His death, I am reminded through even these spare actions that the glorious announcement of His birth and the ultimate good news of His resurrection were still tempered with the sobering event of His death.

In the aftermath of Janet's passing, I had thought perhaps I shouldn't be mourning so, when He has conquered death and we have a promise of New Life.

But death is still, and always will be, tragic. Because it just wasn't meant to be.

So I've let the tears fall.  When I come across one of her belongings that was left behind, I am grieved, for I know how much she loved life. I allow the sadness of being witness to her final days of agonizing struggle to wash over me more often, because her death was tragic and painful and I know it grieves Him, too.

But there is Hope.

And as I kneaded the dough for Hot Cross Buns this morning with Eliana nearby, her hands plunged deep in soapy dishwater, she said, I mean really, Mama, Good Friday?  Why do we call it that, when it's the day that Jesus died?

And I felt a breaking in my heart as I answered, Because, if He hadn't...

So on this Good Friday I bear witness to the goodness of the Lord in my life, and now I will bear witness for Janet's life, as well.  The grief is near, but He is nearer.

And limping to the finish line of Lent? It's kind of the point.

May the blessing of a sorrowful Lent that breaks against a victorious Easter be upon you, kind friends!

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Last Night {Treasuring}

I thought last night was The Night.

The Last Night.

Evangeline and I settled into the pillows; she clutched her lovey and whispered, Dark! as I adjusted my shirt.  Yes, it's dark, isn't it? I joined the nightly ritual and we touched foreheads and giggled before she settled back to nurse.

And one minute later, she pulled away and said, Nigh-nigh.

I jumped, startled.  And then I repeated it back to her, Do you want to go nigh-nigh? and she nodded and pulled away further to sit up and so I began to sing.

Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask thee to stay,
Close by me and guide me,
All through the day...

I walked to her crib, a mere two feet away from our bed and she, back-lit from the nearby nightlight, smiled and lunged for her cozy blankets and I kissed her and tucked her in and rubbed her back a moment longer.

Love you, Vangielou, I whispered, and walked out of the room.

And as I tidied the living room, a sense of loss made me think, This.  This is one of the reasons it can be so hard when a baby begins to wean herself- you never know when it's the last time!

The night before, I'd settled into those same pillows and Evangeline had latched on, and I'd picked up my Kindle and read a few chapters while she nursed.  I'm sure I stroked her soft hair and touched her constantly-moving hand as she playfully tugged on my chin and shirt, but I'm not sure I looked at her.  I looked at the words on the Kindle page and not her.

Since she was born, I've spent many middle-of-the-night nursings in prayer.  It has been a precious gift; sometimes I slept, but more often than not the Lord brought to mind so much that needed covering, and I am grateful for the blessing of those dark, sweet hours.

But now we're down to morning and evening feedings, and they're really not feedings anymore, are they?  Her nutrition comes from the food she eats all day, but as for me, well, I'm Comfort, and she needs that, too, but in a different way.

But now the evening nursings are over,  I sighed as I placed the last toy in a bin and turned out the dining room light, wishing I wasn't home alone with the two youngest, longing for the company of my wise husband and his listening ear.  If I'd known last night was the last, I'd have treasured it more.

And then I heard it over the baby monitor.

Crying.  And the soft word repeated over and over, Nurse?  Nurse.... nurse.

So, it wasn't the last night.  And I slipped in and pulled back the curtain and held out my arms, and we settled in and she nursed till she was fully comforted, and woke me early this morning to nurse again.

But you can bet that I'm going to begin treating these two nursings a day as though they could be her last... we're locking eyes, I'm kissing fingers, I'm praying over her and my other children and my husband and our home...

Grateful for every moment.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.  ~John Donne

We finish this week with heavy hearts brought low with news of death from around this world.  And the enemy of our souls would have us despair, thinking the end of laughter or even a religious presence in a country means the Beginning of the End of Everything.

Oh, it is not so.  Sin birthed in the garden and died on the cross and He lives and moves and breathes today as always and ever to bring us all to Him.

So laugh.  Seek it and find it and let it bubble up from your belly.  Worship, if only in your heart, and silent.  Hope beckons and Peace fills and Psalm 27:13, for goodness' sake.

And to set on repeat this weekend?  Audrey Assad's exquisite rendering of Donne's sonnet...

God be with you, friends.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Children's Book Monday

by Linda Ravin Lodding
illustrated by Alison Jay

Every once in awhile (all too rarely, it seems) a new children's book comes along that has the feel of a classic, and this is one of them.  Not only do the beautifully colored illustrations have an old feel to them (due to the artist's method of using alkyd paint covered with crackle varnish), but the story itself, with the author's use of famous artists, musicians, writers and nobility as side characters, appeals to the senses of a child even as it brings a smile to their faces with the sweetness of a little boy, on a mission to get the perfect gift for his mama's birthday.

As morning bells ring out over Vienna, Oskar sets out with only a single coin.  He sees beauty everywhere, but decides rather quickly to purchase a beautiful yellow rose, only he is not the only one captured by its' beauty; the artist, Gustav Klimt (although we do not find out who exactly he is until a note from the author at the end of the book), decides he must include it in his next painting, and so Oskar trades the rose for a beautiful horsehair paintbrush.  

As Oskar attempts over and over to make his way home with a gift for Mama, he is continually stopped by people with need, or who are simply captured by his traded gifts.  We encounter Felix Salten (Bambi), Johann Strauss II, and the Empress Sisi, all who are touched in some way by Oskar's willingness to share his gifts.  And when he finally reaches his mama at the door, what he has ended up with as a gift for her is really the perfect one anyway.

*Funny aside: I have to tell you, at one point Oskar has traded for a book (from Felix Salten), but when a carriage carrying the Empress Sisi is trapped in some mud, the coachman grabs the book from Oskar and tosses it under the wheel to give it some traction.  This action elicited an audible gasp of dismay from the three of us reading along, and Gideon said, "Use your own book!", and Eliana countered with, "No!  Never throw a book on the ground!"  ~smile~

The author has actually lived in Vienna, and her love for the beautiful city is evident as she ponders her own memories of strolling under the arches of the Hofburg Palace, passing the Opera house, and lingering in front of Demel's coffeehouse, all of which contributed to this story that brings to life a little boy, "darting through the old town, encountering the famous nineteenth-century artists, musicians, writers and nobility."

The work of Alison Jay has been long-adored by the Hooper family; a favorite that she both wrote and illustrated is a wordless story about the sea titled Out of the Blue.  Her signature use of crackle varnishing is a pleasant accompaniment to the comical story, and the border pictures are always a favorite around here.

I hope your library has this new (but old-feeling) favorite!  Happy reading!

Friday, July 11, 2014

{this moment}

Linking this week's (first ice cream cone) moment to Soulemama.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Every Second Counts {Yielding}

My early morning quiet time has been... not so quiet lately. There's a sweet toddler with a beautiful smile that wakens with me and interrupts my reading and prayer time with piles of books plopped into my lap. And when I reach for her and we pull the afghan around our shoulders, she leans back and sighs contentedly.

I've given up feeling like I've a right to alone time because, you see, just today we finished our tenth year of home schooling. And that little boy who first toddled to me with books and then I taught to read and do his sums? He's entering the tenth grade. And there's also a seventh grader, and a third grader, and a first grader, and it all just moves so very, very quickly.

So if I've learned anything at all these past ten years, it's that Evangeline won't always be an early riser. And some day, I'll have taught her to read by herself, too. And then she'll out-sum me and out-sleep me and probably outrun me and I can have all the quiet time I want.

But for now? I read a paragraph to myself and a book to her. I read another line to myself and then head up the search for a favorite baby doll. And when Quiet Time is over and the hour has come to waken the rest of my children, I help her fold her hands and we pray over the day together. Because every. second. counts.

See how loved she is? Gideon and Eliana are even better at cherishing every second.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Children's Book Monday

by Barbara Shook Hazen
illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

I know I'm not the only one.  We've all, young and old, made a reckless wish at some point in our lives.  But do you remember if your wish, whispered in haste and sometimes anger, seemed to come true?  Perhaps you can recall the agony of wondering if what followed was all your fault...

In Ireland, a little girl named Katie is tired of plain-boiled potatoes.  They weren't the way Mam made them- lashed with milk, onion bits, and knobs of butter.  But her mam is dead and her da has left to make a way for them in America and she always seems to say the wrong thing.  When she mutters, "I wish they'd go away,"after Grand Da asks the blessing for the meal, she can't take those words back.  

We know how it happened overnight.  

One day the potatoes were firm and fine.  The next they were mushy and covered with black spots.

As the rot spreads quickly through the countryside, Katie tries to be extra good, gathering berries and grass to help their meals stretch further. She accompanies Grand Da to sell the pig, and in town, they see children begging.  Grannie becomes ill, and even though the Americans send shiploads of corn, Grand Da declares, "It's like spitting on a house to put out the fire!"

Woven with traditional Irish phrases and painted in soft, dusky watercolors, the story of how Katie makes her way to America carrying her terrible secret is a moving and sometimes difficult tale to read.  My mama heart longed for Katie's mam to be with her, to coax the pain out of her, to speak truth.  My children and I solemnly gazed at the pictures of the crowded ship, filled with sick and crying children and their weary parents.

But when at last, at a warm table in America covered by a mountain of mashed potatoes with onion bits, lashings of milk, and a knob of butter, in a tumble of tears, Katie confesses her reckless wish...

"Nay," Katie's da said, holding her heart-close.  "Believe me, your words weren't wicked.  Nor can words make bad things happen.  None of it was your doing.
Eat, Katie lass, and know how big you are loved."

Happy reading!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Children's Book Monday {Baby Book Edition}

Well, it's no surprise that Evangeline loves books.

(Favorite corner of the living room.)

Books really began to capture her when she was about six months old; we would pull her onto our laps and open up a story and she would lean forward and look, top to bottom, left to right, taking in everything on the pages.  Sometimes, she would begin to turn a page and then suddenly stop and look again, as if she'd missed something the first time.  (Or if we began to turn before she was ready, look out!  Slap!  Her little hand came down on the page to keep us from turning.)

And I think one of my favorite things to see is Gideon, if his sister gets hurt or is sad, sitting down with a book and patting his lap; Evangeline smiles big through her tears and crawls or walks right over to him, snuggling contentedly into his folded legs.  He "reads" it to her (almost perfectly, for he knows almost all of these stories by heart!), and all is well for a few more minutes.  :)  

Truthfully, the foundation of Evangeline's book basket is made up of favorites that have been tried and tested with each of our children- some are even the original copies; chewed-up corners, scribbled pages and all. Some Dr. Seuss, Stan and Jan Berenstain, Helen Oxenbury, Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown, etc. Familiar, yes?

Well, this time around Evangeline has fallen in love with some new (to me!) books, and I'd love to share them with you here.

Gyo Fujikawa.  Anything by Gyo Fujikawa.  If this author is old news to you, I apologize, but perhaps my recent discovery has to do with the way these sweet books evoke a fuzzy warmth and quiet that Evangeline especially responds to.

She also adores this little four-book set, and I adore their size; perfect for tucking into the diaper bag and holding in a highchair or car seat.

Fujikawa's artwork is so precious; full of babies and animals, children climbing trees and reenacting nursery rhymes, loving each other and sometimes being naughty... so much on every page to enjoy!  And reading Sleepy Time, Evangeline's favorite bedtime book, helped her learn what sound an owl makes: Ooo, ooo! she earnestly hoots with each sighting.


So, of course when the gently lilting rhyme of the incomparable Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, etc.) is matched with the colorful line drawings of Felicia Bond (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie), the book immediately becomes a treasure.  If the amount of times Evangeline chooses this book to be read backtobacktoback is any indication, toddlers love it.  It has the perfect mix of descriptive prose with matching illustrations, and it comes to a conclusion so softly that I find myself whispering the last four pages or so.  Another excellent bedtime story.


My Good Morning Book and My Goodnight Book are two precious (out-of-print but still easy to find!) stories to begin your day, fill your day, and end it.  Eloise Wilkin, another author/illustrator I'm sure you are familiar with, described the simplicity of children's days beautifully in her prose, and displayed it perfectly in her art.  Again, so much to see on every page; here Evangeline signs "bird" for a robin in the garden; and there she laughs as mama bathes the baby (baths are her favorite!).  

Oh, mamas (and daddies!), are you reading aloud to your children?  Never underestimate the powerful influence reading aloud holds; your voice, combined with excellent storytelling, will not only create matchless memories for your children but it will work wonders for their language and grammar skills.  

And don't be too caught up in matching their ages to the reading level of a book- the previous reviews are for Evangeline's favorite books in her basket, but she sits happily with us at the dinner table while I read aloud from Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers (free for Kindle and such an excellent story!), and crawls around playing quietly while Kevin reads to Eliana and Gideon from The Hobbit.  The beloved voice of a parent is soothing to every child.  (For an excellent podcast that has ministered to my mama's heart so much this past year on this very subject, listen here: an absolutely wonderful use of an hour of your time while you fix supper or fold laundry.)

Happy reading!

(No affiliate links- just sharing what we love!)

Friday, May 23, 2014

{this moment}

Linking this week's (Eliana says it isn't *work* when we do it together) moment to Soulemama.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Braving the Ticks (or, For Love of a Little Boy)

There's no one home but Gideon, the baby, and me.  And we're deliciously close to bedtime so I'd planned to read stories on the comfy couch with my two little ones nestled close to me, smoothly coasting through the next hour with minimal effort; the only sort of ending to this kind of day that I even have the energy for.

But his pale blue eyes look so earnestly into mine as he leans into the baby on my hip and tugs her toes. Can we go to the woods, Mama?

And I feel that toe-tug all the way to my heart-strings and because I've been listening more for Him of late I hear the Holy Spirit's gentle whisper of Go.  Say yes, and so I do.

But it isn't until I've slipped shoes on my feet and a jacket on the baby and tucked her into the backpack, and we head out the back door and over the dike and into the woods that I remember.

It's tick season.  It's yucky tick season.  

Every year, when mid-spring arrives, so do the ticks.  Our dog brings them into our yard, our boys bring them back from their romps in the woods, and so my skin positively crawls when I step out to hang laundry on the line. We check and double check before we step in the house and we STILL find them from time to time, behind an ear or on a scalp.

And I stop in my tracks and wonder how we will make our way to the river through bushes and branches that are surely teeming with ticks, me without a visual of the defenseless baby on my back, Gideon with naught but a staff and a smile to ward off the nasty little creatures, and why, oh why did I say yes to this?

But he beckons me with his blue and I take one step towards The Next Good Thing, whispering a prayer to that (lovingly) pesky Holy Spirit that he will honor my Yes and protect us, and help me to Be Here Now with my boy and soon, we're through the woods and at the water's edge.

He hands me rocks (one can't expect a thirty-six year old mama with a baby on her back to be able to bend over much, you know?) and I throw them into the water for our silly puppy to chase.  The baby shrieks and Gideon tells stories and I deeply breathe the fresh air and I know.  I could have missed this.  How could I have missed this?

And it's not a precious or dreamy statement in the slightest, but I'd brave a million ticks for him.  

Any time.  Any place.

p.s. We did not bring home any ticks that day.

But p.p.s. We have a Cup of Ticks by the back door.  Filled with rubbing alcohol and dead ticks pulled from our dog and a child or two who carried one home over the last week .  I walk right past that Cup of Ticks numerous times a day and stand in my bare feet to swing the baby and hang the laundry.  

I am rocking tick season.  Because, what else can I do?  It's all for love.

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